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.

So You’re Thinking About Seminary . . . our ACTUAL advice to you

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Dear prospective UU seminarians,

We’re back!  We had so much fun writing our last advice post that we now bring you another.  And this one contains [dun dun DUN] our actual, legitimate advice to you as you walk the heady, sometimes scary path toward seminary.

In writing this, we realized that we also wish we’d had a First Year Survival Guide, so that’s in the works.  In the meantime, though, here are the tips we wish we’d received–or in some cases, the best advice that we blessedly DID receive–in our own months of initial discernment.

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1.  Build and care for your support network

Make your friendships a priority, even when you’re busy.  Not every friendship is built to last, but trust us that the relationships that sustain you now will continue to be important as you deal with the coming changes in your life.  The demands of graduate school and the emotional upheaval of the formation process are significant, and you are going to need all the support you can get.

Maintain your ties with the friends and family who are not connected to your church community.  As you enter the formation process, your relationship with your home congregation—and most or all of its members—will change irrevocably.  It’s normal to become very deeply connected with congregational life as you explore a call to ministry, but do not let go of your connections with the larger world.

If you are a parent of small children, the admonition to “keep track of your friends” counts double.  The family with whom you can drop your child off on an hour’s notice?  The ones you can call if there’s a middle-of-the-night emergency?  Those people are on your team in a major way, and they are worth their weight in gold.  (And, pro tip? Be as available to your friends as they are to you–so you may want to start now, while you still have some free time.  Real friends don’t keep score . . . but they also don’t continually take without expecting to give.)

Take care of your primary relationships.  Your partner (and other family members) are in for a wild ride in the formation process—one they didn’t ask for and may not even fully understand or support.  Further, seminary, and the changes you will experience as a result, will affect the dynamics of even the healthiest relationships.

When you’ve had all the New Testament you can take, or you have to pay your tuition bill, or miss another weekend at home, or find a shoulder to cry on, you’re going to want the support of those closest to you.  Feed those relationships now, particularly if you have some work to do around healthy communication patterns.   And remember, going forward, to include those people in your seminary world; discuss texts, ask their opinions, get their feedback.  There is much internal work in this process that gets lost in translation or is hard to share; where possible, let those who support you be part of it.

j

Unity Temple in Oak Park

2. Become familiar with how UU works on the ground—in your local congregation

Attend regularly.  Our world, and our churches, are changing–but for most of us, shared public worship remains a centerpiece of what we do together.  Get to know our rituals, our hymns, and our theology, and find encouragement to connect with what moves your own soul.  There are more than 1600 Unitarian Universalist congregations, and if you don’t happen to live near one, our largest congregation of all is available to you at the click of a button.

Get to know your minister.  In addition to being (we hope) a fount of information about UU and a starting place for your deeper theological investigations, your home congregation minister can facilitate your seminary journey in many ways.  S/he can introduce you to potential teaching pastors, help you find leadership opportunities that will develop your ministerial capacities, and write the letters of reference that you need for seminary and beyond.  Our movement’s ministers are also very motivated to help in the discernment process of potential seminarians, so when you’re ready, find a time to talk with yours.

Serve. To effectively prepare to lead our movement, it’s necessary to have a solid understanding of congregational life.  From worship to religious education to food prep, there are lessons to be learned in all we do together.  There is no substitute for practicing faith and fortitude through a season of conflict, helping to lead a change that you care about through a process that happens on “church time,” or committing, generally, to live within the bonds of covenant–even when you would like nothing more than to leave the table, and the building, and not look back.

Even if you ultimately opt for community ministry, you will be deeply involved in parish life through seminary and preliminary fellowship (and hopefully beyond); give yourself this opportunity to discover whether it is something, for all its flaws and frustrations, that you can love.

Lead. You will never be finished “serving” in congregational life, but sooner or later (and in your case, probably sooner!) you can expect to be asked to step up and lead.  This may mean joining the worship team or a governance task force or stepping into elected leadership.  You will be getting a crash course in congregational polity, honing your own leadership skills, and helping your congregation at the same time.

And prepare to let it go.  Congregational leadership is important work, so give it the best you have.  And then, when the time comes, prepare to step back.  When your ministry begins, your lay leadership must end, and eventually your time with your home congregation will, too.  Leaving is a tough, but necessary, reality of the formation process.  [Yep, it’s really true.  Need a tissue?  We’ll wait.]

j

3. Connect with the broader UU movement

Attend General Assembly (“GA”)and your regional/district conferences. An interesting and fast way to take stock of the larger UU landscape is to attend one of the annual gatherings.  They feature workshops for personal faith development, tools for congregational life, powerful worship experiences, and amazing networking opportunities.

Keep track of what’s being talked about.  By following along online and in the UU World, you will get a sneak peek of (and can even take part in)  some of the conversations likely to shape your ministry. On Facebook, there are many groups set up to discuss a variety of topics; you might consider the UU Growth Lab or the Congregations and Beyond group. To learn about other Facebook groups that may be of interest, see this list from UU Planet.

Once you’ve been accepted to seminary, you can also join the UU Seminarians’ Salon, as well as facebook groups to connect you with future classmates at your chosen seminary.  Elsewhere on the net, the online talk show the VUU, run by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, provides UU content in a format we find engaging and relevant.  UUpdates is an aggregator of blog content by and about UUs, and the Interdependent Web is a column, edited by Rev. Heather Christensen, highlighting some of the week’s offerings. Also, consider connecting with seminarians and ministries in the larger (read: beyond UU) religious context.  Twitter is a particularly great resource for this purpose.

Bring your faith with you when you travel.  It’s difficult to see the larger landscape from only one vantage point.   The breadth and depth of UU theology and the particularities of congregational life are more easily understood if you’ve seen them in a variety of contexts—so do some exploring when you travel.  And, bonus: in our experience, the congregations you visit will be excited to meet U(U)—and they are great sources of insider info on things to do and places to eat.o and places tj

balance

4. Take stock–is your life in balance?

Make mental health a priority. If you know that you struggle with depression, anxiety, procrastination, low self worth, relationship problems, etc (–“Yes” to one or two of the above? Us, too–), begin addressing that before you step into seminary.

You will need to be in a relatively stable place simply to deal with the demands of a rigorous graduate program, and the personal, social, and psychological challenge involved in the formation process adds to the intensity of the experience.   You will be asked to evaluate yourself many times, and you must be able to look yourself in the eye and appreciate what you see.

Consider beginning work now with a therapist and/or a spiritual director, especially if you have never been in therapy before.  In our experience, this is simply an expected part of the formation process–and if the idea of delving into your own psyche makes you deeply uncomfortable, it’s probably helpful to ask yourself why.

If you are preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and are in seminary full-time, you can expect to spend much of your first year answering questions like “describe your childhood” and “give a reasonably full account of your life.”  You will also spend two days undergoing a psychological assessment.  All of this self-reflection can feel exhausting and overwhelming; trust us when we say that beginning your work on the big stuff is an investment of time now that will pay dividends later.

Evaluate your financial situation – Graduate school can be a drain on resources–mental, emotional, physical, and, not least, financial.  It’s a downer, but do not underestimate the impact this may have on you and on your family, both as you make your way through seminary and afterward.

The reality is that preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry is very expensive, with costs including seminary tuition ($56,000 before financial aid for an M.Div. at one of our two denominational schools), credentialing hurdles such as the career assessment, and books, materials, webinar fees, CPE tuition, and the list goes on. The travel involved in the formation process presents further financial challenges, and is an expense often overlooked in initial planning.

The enormity of the cost of ministerial formation is something we’d like to see addressed at a denominational level.  In the meantime, our best advice to you: find a budget you can live with during seminary and after, be frugal where you can, pay close attention to deadlines as you apply for seminary (particularly where financial aid is concerned), prepare to take out loans, and gratefully accept help where it is offered.

j

5. Attend to your own spiritual needs.

Cultivate a regular spiritual practice. Spiritual practice can take many forms; the important thing is to find something that both feeds your soul and fits into your life. If you could use some help getting started, we suggest Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander–it includes a variety of creative suggestions.

Connect with others on your spiritual journey

Consider joining your congregation’s small group ministry (or help to form one); some of us have found the Wellspring Spiritual Deepening course particularly helpful.

Consider what feeds you.  

Is it time with your children?  Reading mysteries?  French cooking?  Yoga?  Know what replenishes your energy and renews your spirit, and make time for those things.  Start today–we know you’re busy, but we can also assure you that finding time is NOT going to get easier as you move into formation.  Treat your spiritual life like the priority that it needs to be from the beginning, and you’ll have a good start in the self-care and boundary-setting that accompany a healthy ministry.

Seek broadly, if necessary, for congregational community

Finally, if congregational life is a significant part of what nurtures your spirit, prepare to relate to it in a new way, and soon.  As odd as it sounds, now might be a good time for a bit of church shopping.  Keep your current congregational membership active, but know that as your role in your congregation changes, you may find it necessary to seek a new or additional spiritual home.  Many UU ministers and ministers-in-formation nurture their spirits through a local Zen center, UCC church, or other community or small group ministry outside of the congregations they serve.

We realize this is a lot to take in, so congratulations if you’ve made it this far.  (You should see what we took out–post coming soon on surviving the first year of seminary.)  For now, know that it’s a work in progress for all of us, but that in our experience, some things are more easily attended to in these months before you begin seminary.

Blessings on your journey!  And now, get back to those applications!

Jordinn, Kimberley, Alix, Shane, and Lynda

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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

Dear prospective UU seminarians (helpful advice. freshly squeezed.)

So.  Something’s calling your name.  And you wonder if that something might be Spirit, and if the way to appease it might be seminary.

If this describes you, your potential future classmates* have put together a list of steps that we feel might be helpful.  And, if they’re not helpful** . . . well, in that case, we mostly thought that they might be humorous.

advice from Religion Man

We recommend (in no particular order) that you:

1. Gather all of the financial resources you have available; if you can liquidate some assets, even better. Place them in the center of a large circle. Light them on fire. Dance around it, singing “We are the flow, we are the ebb,” or other Pagan chant of your choice, while filling out form RSCC-6 detailing financial plans for your future ministry.

2. If you identify as Christian, find a helpful disguise. Wear it each time you visit a church to receive communion.

3. If you identify as non-Christian, find bread of your choice. Next, bring wine. Place them together on an empty table (bonus points: use the scarf you got at GA last year as an altar cloth). Breathe deeply. Practice rolling your eyes in a way that looks worshipful.

4. Tell the story of your life. Tell it again. Now again. When the person listening has either literally perished from boredom, or attempted to slap you senseless, proceed to the next step.

5. Have a breakdown. Or two. Analyse them with friends, family, and fellow seminarians. Extra credit: involve others in your breakdown as it is actually happening. This is best done in public.

6. Return to Step 4. Write it all down. Produce a 1 page summary, a two page extended summary, a four page reflection, an eight page essay, and a 24 page bio with references.

7. Program the number of your minister, therapist, spiritual director, advisor, and every UU clergyperson and seminarian you have ever met into your cell phone. Build safeguards to ensure that you neither butt-dial nor drunk text any of the above.

8. Purchase a graven image of your choice. Options: Large chalice, small chalice, gold chalice, silver chalice, and, new for 2013, a bling-inspired cross/chalice combination.

9. Wear your chalice everywhere you go. If you lose it once, consider it an invitation to question your call to ministry. If you lose it twice, it is an indication that you need to get a chalice tattoo.

10. Buy 2 new bookcases. And a reading chair and a stand-up desk. Make that 4 bookcases. Or 8. And a smart phone. And a kindle. And a macbook. And an ipad.

11. Join weight watchers in anticipation of the 10-20 or more extra pounds you’ll gain from stress eating and lack of exercise.

12. If partnered, begin preparing him/her for the transition to ministry. Spend Saturday evenings wandering around muttering to yourself. Spend Sundays hiding at an undisclosed location. Find random people to call, e-mail, and/or text you at all hours of the day. Move date nights to Tuesday afternoons.

13. Assist your partner in locating a therapist or spiritual director of their own. Keep the professional’s number posted in a prominent location. Signs you may need to contact that person: your partner suggests you leave ministry; your partner hums “Enter, Rejoice and Come In” for three days straight; your partner indicates that they are discerning their own call to ministry. (This last scenario should be considered an emergency.)

14. Be sure to be responsive to your partner’s needs. This is a stressful and demanding time for them, too. Consider adding “It sounds like you’re feeling” to the beginning of each and every sentence. For serious household disagreements, “That’s not how polity works” should be sufficient to end the argument.

15. Be as vague as possible with your loved ones when talking about the formation process. CPE is best explained to a concerned spouse or partner in the midst of your first 24-hour on-call shift.

16. Sprinkle your speech and writing with acronyms. Be cagey about their referents. When asked to explain one you’re not sure about, simply substitute words that sound good. (The Regional Sub-Committee on Commissioning? The Regional Standing Commission on Credentialing? No one else knows, either.)

17. Attend a gathering of robed clergy. Covet their vestments: the gravitas-granting robes, the hand-painted silk stoles, the chalice medallions large enough to be made out from the back of the sanctuary… Now open a new savings account and add another line to your household budget. (You can replace the Retirement Savings line with the Clerical Accoutrements line — you won’t be saving any more for retirement in the foreseeable future anyway.)

18. Prepare a response to the questions, “You’re in seminary? (be alert for possible alternate phrasing: “You’re in cemetery?”) What denomination? What is THAT?” Keep answers as short as possible. Under no circumstances may your response begin with, “How long have you got?”

19. “Borrow” a hymnal. Mentally pledge to return it. Should you actually follow up on that pledge, remove all post-it notes, dust, and coffee stains. (On second thought, plan to gift a hymnal or two to your home congregation upon your ordination.)

20. Begin writing sermons. With over 600 to deliver in an average-length ministerial career, you’re going to need them.

Best wishes!

j and friends

*Thanks to Alix Klingenberg and Sara LaWall for sharing their wit and wisdom.  If the other contributors to this lovely list would like to be (dis)credited outright, message me.

**your potential classmates, also potential future colleagues, are wonderful and warm-hearted, and many of them have offered legitimately helpful suggestions as well.  That list comes next.  But first, we laugh.   And perhaps that’s the best tip of all: humility and humor are prerequisites.

when the time comes to let it go

butterfly in child hands

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post.  I wrote it last December, contemplating a time (an as yet undefined, hopefully very “future” time) when my congregation’s minister will leave our church.

That reflection was about living in peace with what you know will leave you, and about figuring out how to do the work required to live into a personal commitment to stay.  And it was about realizing that building relationships with my fellow congregants, and then expanding the circle to make room for the stranger, was what mattered in both of these contexts.

Friends, all of that may be true.  It probably is.  It sounds good, anyway.

And yet, the joke’s on me.  Note: when worrying about anticipated grief, consider also “denial”– it’s a treasonous thing, and its reversal packs a stunning wallop.

I hoped, last winter, that I was working on identifying and hanging onto what stays, and gracefully accepting the impending departure of what does not.  Looking back at my collected work, what I think I’ve actually written is “How to lose a lot of what you thought you needed, including your money and possibly your mind, in 11 short months.”

These days my blog is showing up in Google searches from potential UU seminarians (halloo, there!), and in helpful response, I have considered writing an actual “how to” post, as a step-by-step list.  (Step one: Tell the story of your life.  Tell it again.  Now again.  When the person listening has either literally perished from boredom, or attempted to slap you senseless, proceed to the next step.  Step two: Gather all of the financial resources you have available.  Seriously, all of them; if you can liquidate some assets, even better.  Place them in the center of a large circle.  Light them on fire.  Dance around them, singing “We are the flow, we are the ebb,” or another Pagan chant of your choice, while filling out form RSCC-6 detailing your financial plans for your future ministry.  . . . )

I could go on from there, and I’m sure my fellow seminarians could, too . . . the thing is, it probably doesn’t matter.  There is so much I didn’t know, consent I wasn’t informed enough to give, losses I wasn’t prepared to incur.  Maybe a step-by-step list, even a silly one, would be a move in the right direction . . . but for many of us, I suspect it would change nothing.  If the number one value were doing something that clearly made sense from the ouside, “rational” perspective, who in this time and place would prepare for a life of religious leadership?

No, this is a path for people who are drawn by something else, something so compelling that we’re willing to grope in the dark where needed or stretch a foot out toward a path that does not yet exist.

It takes much trust—so much trust—to keep moving forward when you can’t see where you’re going to put your feet next; in doing this, you will feel quite acutely the weight of what is riding on your every move.  Because it’s not just about you.  It never is.  It’s lifelong friendship and the tiny fingerprints that have been born of it.  It’s the ridges and contours of this place where we grew into a family.

And, of course, this doesn’t stop with my family.  Part of the path that is missing, or at least missing significant signage and guideposts, is in the saying goodbye to my home congregation.

There are a few recommendations here and some vague admonitions there, but really, we’re all just feeling our way through.  Sometimes, I’m leading that feeling-out process; that can be more of an adventure than a person who hates awkwardness—hates it more even than raisins—can gracefully handle.

And I’m starting to wish, in this weird, in-between time, that I had a sign.

It should read:

I can’t be your friend

(and soon I can’t be your “friend,” either)

The time is coming when we will let all these things go.

But that time is not now.  Not yet.  So for now, I just grit my teeth through the awkwardness.  For now, I just imagine saying goodbye.  And the moment seems unthinkable.  Huge.  Unbelievably sad.

But then I realize: “huge” is not how goodbyes like this happen.  I sit, lately, in the spaces that used to feel like home, the ones that for years have been comfortable like a favorite pair of jeans.  And I notice that it doesn’t feel the same anymore, in subtle but definite ways.  There is a gradual slipping away of some things, and, at the same time, a slow dawn of others.

There is truth here: this is how it will happen.  This is how it will be.  As an icicle melts, as a pathway is etched, as a child grows.  Each new day is a goodbye, and a new arrival, as I gradually become someone else.

The one who will go.

And, then, someday . . . the one who lets go for a living.

-j

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raisins are of the devil, and other things I didn’t learn at #CGUUS

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Last weekend I attended a conference for Unitarian Universalist seminarians, at which our theologian in residence was the Rev. Thandeka.

Thandeka is, quite honestly, something of a legend within my denomination.  Thus, I was surprised when I learned that she was willing to spend an entire weekend with us—but she felt that there were things that we as seminarians needed to hear, and things that someone needed to offer us.

And so we came together, seminarians and theologian, and I stood ready, palms out and eyes closed, to accept those things.  Hard truths, where needed.  Challenge.

Those came, at times.  So did encouragement, and grounding, and connection with one another and with our sense of the sacred.  And also, halfway through a Saturday morning workshop, there came something more tangible.

Something small.  Something wrinkly.

Thandeka gave me—gave each of us—a raisin.

And then, commanding us to empty our mouths of anything else, she instructed us to eat that raisin.  More specifically, to chew it.  Sixty times.

Friends, I detest raisins.  Truly.  From early childhood, I have gone to great lengths to avoid ever having one in my mouth.  This has become such a habit that it’s extremely rare that I even come into contact with one–so rare, in fact, that a mere encounter might occasion a story.  A pause.  A chance for theological reflection.

Take, for example, last November.  It happened at church.  We did a cornbread and cranberry juice communion the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and members of the congregation were invited to bring homemade cornbread.  The baskets were passed down the aisles . . . and it turned out that the one that our section of the church received was a raisin cornbread.  (Yep, that’s a thing.  It’s probably lovely . . . if you don’t happen to hate raisins.)

My kids do not hate raisins, but they don’t like things-in-things, and were thus immediately, and vocally, suspicious of this offering.  Which put me in the odd, but oh-so-adult, position of reminding them both that we receive graciously and eat politely–and then modeling this myself.  Raisins and all.

Boy, was I impressed with myself in biting that cornbread.  Goodness, was I mature about eating it.  I even swallowed it.  I discovered that it was crumbly enough that if I took small bites, I didn’t really have to chew–no teeth-to-raisin contact needed to occur.  And I reflected on how simply accepting what is given and expecting that it will be enough is itself a spiritual practice.

I took what was there.  I let it feed me.  I managed not to engage the raisins.

And I think this is how we get through those first awkward, maybe even distasteful or painful, experiences of true community.  Of communion.  On that Sunday last November, my largely atheistic humanist “fellowship” served up a Communion with a hearty side of communion, and I, Look-at-me-I’m-Christian girl, did what I could to choke it down.  With as much generosity and grace as I had available in that moment, I partook in the ritual by merely getting through it.  And I was proud of myself.  (And you know what?  That’s ok.  You gotta start somewhere.)

Elsewhere in the church, or even right there in my same row, there were probably others mustering their grace and grit and getting through it, too.  Others who hate raisins, or more likely, who love raisins, but hate communion.  We did it, though.  Individually, and also together.  Yay, us.

That was a moment, believe it or not, of increasing spiritual maturity.  It was a conscious decision to step away from the what-I-want-when-I-want-it consumer culture in which I live most of my life, and to take and be thankful for exactly what I didn’t want.

And then I forgot about that chewy little object lesson, at least consciously, as I moved through the months since then—11 months that have tracked exactly with my discernment and beginning formation process.  Until last weekend.  Until I discovered that the Raisin Test has a part II.

I have a child with sensory processing disorder, and mainly I’m simply aware that I do not know what it is to experience life as he does.  To feel sensations so strongly or acutely that they trigger a shut-down reaction.  Except, when I held that fat dark raisin in the palm of my hand last weekend, and considered what I had just been asked to do, I thought I sort of might.  I thought this because my beef with raisins isn’t the same as with, say, beets, of which I hate the flavor, or items labeled “processed cheese food,” to which I am opposed on nutritional principle.

When it comes to raisins, I simply hate the texture.

Not only do I not want to eat them—I do not, above all else, want to chew them.  I do not wish to hold one in my mouth, to mash it with my teeth, to experience its fundamental raisin-ness and to do all of the above with no distractions and with a chewing end-point farther away than for any food that has touched my lips in recent memory.

I do not want to. 

And this—the instruction, the expectation, the experience—is so fundamentally perfect, so very this process, that I actually smile as I hold that raisin before me.  Well played, life.

Isn’t this the way?  Isn’t this precisely what we must each do?

Take this thing that you recoil from the mere thought of, and engage with it.  Don’t eat around it, or pretend it’s not there, or swallow it whole.  Take it on.  Do precisely that which makes you uncomfortable, and continue to do it until the feared object disintegrates.

And so, I do it.

It goes like this:

2 chews: OMG, I’m eating a raisin.

4: I hate raisins. I –eek—hate. Raisins.

7: Raisins stick to my teeth.

10: Raisins are objectionably chewy.  Raisins taste raisiny. 

15: It feels different now. 

20: It tastes interesting. 

25: I actually sort of like the taste of this raisin.

35: Raisin flavor is surprisingly complex

45: Maybe I don’t hate raisins?

55: I’m chewing on nothing.  I’m engaging with the memory of raisin.

The point of this exercise was not overcoming sensory aversion, but labeling sensate experiences, and we went on with the workshop.  In the week since then I have kept reflecting, though, and what I think so far is: maybe I don’t hate raisins.  Maybe I just dislike being uncomfortable, including that claustrophobic feeling when things get too close to me.  Raisin, don’t touch my teeth!  And thus, I wonder if I’ve been so worried about having to feel discomfort that I’m missing things.  Important things. Non-raisin things.  If I’ve been aiming to avoid, or to eat around, all of those experiences which are initially uncomfortable but ultimately necessary.

What if “lean in” actually looks more like “bite off”? 

Bite off, in fact, and then chew.  60 times.

Until all that is left is air, and memory . . . and myself.  Oh, my silly, beautiful self: we meet again.

I may just learn patience—and presence–one chewy lesson at a time.

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.