Tag: Grace

14Mar

Proof, Revisited

I had planned a special post for this week—a blog entry about my daughter Natalie that I originally wrote in 2009 and then reworked for submission to a potential writing gig the following year. (Yes, “potential writing gig” is just a dignity-preserving way to admit that the story was rejected, but perhaps you could indulge me by pretending it means something more glamorous, say, a prestigious job offer that I was forced to turn down because it interfered with my sparkling social life.) The document has been languishing in the Looking For New Homes folder on my hard drive ever since, so I decided to give it a home here in honor of Natalie’s eighth birthday last week.

However, every day that I’ve tried to publish it so far, my fingers have frozen on me much like a throat clamping down to stop painful words in their tracks. I couldn’t understand why at first. The story is about my honest struggle with new motherhood and the love that eventually bound me to my daughter. It’s authentic and ultimately positive, two of my highest aims in writing, so I couldn’t fathom why the post-production crew in my heart kept stalling.

Another read-through today though, and I understand. I wrote the post when Natalie was four and we had been in Italy just one and a half years. Dan grew up in Italy, so he had settled back into the culture like a man coming home, but everything from the pace of life to the words on our grocery receipt was new for Natalie and I. We were one and a half years into total cultural upheaval, I was one and a half years into severe postpartum depression, and our mother-daughter relationship was at an all-time low. She was an energetic preschooler; I was struggling just to get out of bed in the morning. We clashed constantly, and I had no reserves of patience or perspective left from which to draw.

Reading back through the entry sends me traveling to a time that I would eagerly erase from our memory if I could, a time that left barbed wire imprints around my rib cage and temples. Revisiting it is painful in a way I wasn’t prepared for. We’ve spent this last week celebrating eight years of Natalie, my sweet, creative girl whose enthusiasm for books and curiosity about life fill an endless well of shared interest. Our souls have discovered their kinship, so it pains me all the more to look back on a time when I was not enough myself to appreciate all of her self. I regret the mother-I-once-was more fiercely than anything else in my experience.

However, camping out in regret is no way to live and certainly no way to move on. Grace nudges me to look back with softer eyes and recognize that at each stage of my rocky road to motherhood, I did the best I could. Even on those gray, gray days when I felt like I could not possibly go on living until the next, I still got out of bed, still made breakfast, still snuggled up for storytime, and it was for her. My love was feeble, but it was very real. It is very real. The same elemental strain pulses through my veins today, and it’s why revisiting the darkness of four years ago causes me to flinch. It’s also why I’m finally sharing the post, because proof of love is not in perfection, not defined by the glossy, Instagramable moments when the sun is shining and birthday cake on the table; it’s in the whole story, the mess and the grace, the regrets acknowledged and then gently ushered to the back row.

Here it is, home now:

Read More »

4Mar

Tracking Heat

 FB Status

The flu is unconcerned with timing, with the fact that you are in an all-out race against a translating deadline or that your husband’s schedule is triple-booked or that your daughter has been looking forward to celebrating her eighth birthday since the day she turned seven. The flu cares not that you are desperate to write again, so desperate that innocuous phrases snag on barbed wire somewhere in your throat and you lash out at loved ones for inching too close to your restlessness. The flu doesn’t mind that you will worry to the point of dizziness over your husband’s blanked-out face and your children’s griddle-hot skin or that you will lose yourself entirely in the tides of disinfectant and chicken soup and acetaminophen rising through the house.

At some point around the two-week mark, you will feel your own head start to close in heavy around you, and you will say Enough. You win. You will stare sickness right in the face, unblinking, as you cancel your classes for the day; though the flu doesn’t care any more than it did before, you do. You will put on your favorite flare-leg jeans with the tattered hems and the superglue splotches and sit down on your daughters’ floor to build a LEGO village with them. You will take their temperature 537 times over the course of the morning and administer Gatorade with a straw and read aloud about dragons and forget to do your makeup. You will not succumb, even though you said you would.

Later, as your children sweat through fevered naptime dreams, you will fling open windows to the afternoon light. You will leave clean socks to await rescue on the laundry line and bread crumbs to be fruitful and multiply on the kitchen floor. You will sit down to reclaim yourself, though at first, the restlessness will act as saboteur. The tea is too hot, the deadline too pressing, that Alicia Keys’ video still making you cry with the satin and the toddlers and the late night bills. The flu doesn’t care about artist-souls on fire, only about blazing skin and resignation. After two weeks of ‘round-the-clock work, it’s hard to imagine anything more.

But you are more. You are more than your actions—the swish of a toilet bowl brush, the clack of foreign keys—and more than your worries. You are more than your body, its molecules spread too thin over a swath of too many days. You are more than this stage of mama-life or its million smaller stages, the illnesses and growing pains that keep you on your toes in every sense of the phrase. You are more than what you do to pay the bills.

So you put on your reading glasses and follow the tremulous glow in your veins that indicates that somewhere, somehow, some part of you is still on fire. You won’t find the flame instantly; your children are due to wake up soon, and you may have to sniff the trail back out by moonlight. Or perhaps the flu will finally catch up with you, and the only heat you’ll comprehend is the viral surge in your belly. There is sure to be something, some inconsiderate upset of life that will leave you doubting again if you are anything more than the on-duty vomit scooper.

But at least until the afternoon light dwindles and responsibility calls, you will focus on the truth that you are more, that losing yourself implies having a self to re-find… and it will be grace enough for the night shift.

18Jan

Grace as: Winter’s Skin

The air sinks its teeth into my cheeks the moment I step outside. Clouds are skating across a slick white sky, and the mud still smells faintly of snow. I don’t want to be out of doors. To be honest, I barely want to be out of bed. Some ancestral instinct in me beats to the tune of hibernating bears, and I would sleep the winter away if I weren’t wrapped in skin instead of fur, if these lungs didn’t ache to be filled to capacity.

I’m only human though, and that’s why I find myself out in the live of winter, my feet shivering in a pair of RealFlexes. I need to remember how to breathe.

In the past, I’ve pounded my feet against the trail visualizing inches of my waistline trampled underneath. Other times, I’ve trained for shock factor, imagining how those who really know me would react if I could complete a 5K. (For reference.) I’ve chased endorphins and given up when life has crowded too close. I’ve run to blow off steam and run to spite myself and run to prove something and run to change everything, and only today am I running simply to feel alive.

Winter skin

There is no agenda except for this, the ice-tipped air driving dust out of my bronchioles and startling my circulatory system awake. My face tingles in its own personal sleet storm and then, as my feet find their rhythm and my heart shakes away the last vestiges of hibernation, begins to warm. I remember what I’ve learned about myself over the months on this very trail—how my natural reaction to exercise is panic, how I have to unclench my fingers one at a time and coax my lungs into exhaling with promise of unlimited refills. I remember how to let it all go every other step and trust that there will be enough for the one after.

I run until my lungs and my heart and my winter-flamed skin understand this as grace.

“and she’s glowing with her light
she’s glowing with her light
embracing her strength with her final bite
winter is winter is winter is
here.”

 ~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via Twitter, RSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

Grace as: Role Call

15Jan

Life, with Style

We’ve been an exclusively freelancing family for a year now—not a drop of guaranteed income since December 2011—and just to write that requires a deep breath and several pinches on the arm to verify that I’m still here, that we’re still here. It doesn’t seem possible. We’ve had nothing more substantial to stand on than the prismed airstreams of faith and hope and inspiration, and I’ll be honest, the hardest part of our year came after my post on accrued miracles.

We landed on the doorstep of 2013 as shaky and windswept as if we had been flung off a roller coaster, but just as exhilarated too. For all the instability of this lifestyle and the havoc it wreaks on my imagination, we feel like we’re en route to our best selves, and that’s been enough to overrule surges of panic and impulses to snatch up ill-fitting jobs. We pray like schizophrenics, listen to heart-nudges, eat lots of soup, and try to keep our forward momentum into new realms of possibility. It’s a morale-saver, that possibility.

It can also be a soul-snuffer, at least where my manic work philosophy comes into play. Without a clearly defined workday or bite-sized goals, I view all that possibility as my direct and urgent responsibility. Must! accomplish! All The Things! NOW! Inevitably, after three or four days of frenzied work and no play, Jack isn’t simply a dull boy; he’s a burned-out, scary-eyed, hormonal mess of a zombie housewife.

(This is what happens when a lover of hyperbole is allowed to freelance.)

I’ve always been quick to prioritize the life out of my time, though I know well how it leads to a cycle of dissatisfaction and burnout and despair and snooze button abuse, followed by a reluctant admission that my brain belongs in rehab and a resolve to do better (which I add to my to-do list because I’m also a lover of irony). Really, though, that is my mission for this year: to put the life back into my lifestyle. To recondition my sense of accomplishment and let myself feel happy dammit!, even if the only thing I’ve managed to do in the day is love well. To choose margins for my time instead of wallowing helplessly in too-much-to-do. To care for my physical, spiritual, relational, and creative self, you know, on purpose.

This is probably the hardest resolution I could make for myself right now. I’m more comfortable with sacrifice than I am with solace, and I’ve adopted versions of this goal in the past without it sticking any better than my resolve to give up sugar (I tried that once in high school for a whole day; I know better now). I have to figure this out though if I plan to enjoy our second year of freelancing adventures.

Which I most absolutely do.

10Jan

Anti-Anxiety Meditation

This is what we opened our front door to when we arrived home after a family Christmas in Milan.

Our Christmas tree shoved to the floor, the window frame behind it ragged with crowbar marks, and every top drawer in the house pulled open. Our house, along with several others in the neighborhood, had been targeted by burglars while we were away.

After a panicky inventory, we were dumbfounded to discover that the thieves hadn’t taken a single thing from our home, not even Dan’s expensive work computer. (Let me tell you about gratefulness…) However, the post-home-invasion experience isn’t as much about what the intruders take as it is about what they leave: their invisible fingerprints on our underwear, their shadow-selves around each corner when the lights go out, and their harmful intentions toward us lingering in the air.

This is the first house that I’ve felt safe in, ever. I’ve lived in fifteen different homes to date, and this one—this gated, shuttered, dog-guarded, and triple-locked third story refuge—is the only one that never pricked at my fearful imagination. Until we got home from Christmas break, that is. Now, I am noticing the odd creaks and squeaks of our house as I have never noticed them before; the groan of a radiator is an intruder, the rattle of wind against the shutters is an intruder, even the spin cycle of our washing machine is an intruder (brandishing a weed whacker, perhaps?). Everything from our coat rack to my rocking chair catches my peripheral vision at night with an icy splash of fear, and even as I’m checking the locks for the fifth time before bed, I know they offer no assurances. Our safe place no longer promises safety.

My mother-in-law, who’s been through this herself, shared the comforting perspective that the burglars now know we don’t have what they’re after (gold, jewels, cash, anything that would look right on the set of Downton Abbey) and won’t be back. From a rational standpoint, we really don’t have anything to worry about. Yet anxiety doesn’t always see things from a rational standpoint. It sees things more from the standpoint of Oh God it’s dark outside and bad guys could be hiding below our balcony preparing their grappling hooks right now and we’ll probably all die in our beds tonight.

Anxiety is clearly not helping the situation. It offers no constructive advice, only helplessness and an unfocused panic, and I know that my task is not to indulge the anxiety by barricading our house or stocking up on defense weapons or living in suspicion but to counteract it—to refuse to hold onto the shadows and harmful intentions left by our intruders.

In light of this, the girls’ perspective is pretty awesome. I was worried how Natalie and Sophie would react to seeing evidence of thieves in their own bedroom. I’d braced myself for tearful bedtimes and nightmares and wondered how in the world I could assuage their fears when my own were so pronounced. However, I’d underestimated their generous little hearts. “If the thieves come back,” announced Natalie, “we’ll just invite them to stay for breakfast.” “And then give them two euros!” piped up Sophie. Not a trace of fear. In fact, I think they’re sort of hoping the thieves come back.

While I do not share that particular hope, my girls’ idea of repaying harm with kindness is straight out of Jesus’s teaching. I told them that yesterday, and Sophie grinned. “I love Jesus,” she said. “Me too,” I grinned back, getting the first hint of an inkling how perfect love really might be able to cast out fear.

7Dec

The Gift of Inclusion

My word was “read.” I’d dipped my hand into a whole bag of self-care verbs, and this was the one drawn by chance or metaphysical mischief to kick off my personal Advent experience. Read. I almost scrapped the whole concept right then and there.

Not that I’d been sure what to expect in the first place.

Advent has never meant much more to me than a religious term for the countdown to Christmas. I tried to absorb its significance even as a child, pressing my little-girl fingerprints into purple wax and burying my nose into poinsettias on the church altar, attempting to infiltrate myself with the sacred significance of these long December days. I never felt it though, the holy hush of expectation that draws so many people to the heart of the Nativity. My skeptic-mind never made that mystic-connection, and I’ve spent many holiday seasons standing outside this brightly lit soul-window wondering why I can’t just escort myself in.

With my daughters, I’ve held onto the countdown aspect of Advent without trying to force it to mean more. They open calendar windows to find chocolates or Legos, and it’s a fun component of our family tradition. Still, there’s the wistfulness of finding myself a stranger to my own religion and the longing to feel more, to explore the mysterious nuances of Christmas spirit and rediscover wonder.

That’s why I joined Mandy Steward’s #adventwindows experience this December, albeit one week late and more wishful than hopeful that it would be my missing link between Advent-as-a-countdown and Advent-as-a-spiritual-journey. Mandy created this series of self-care prompts as a way to be “intentional about discovering wonder,” which, yes please. If anything could draw me into deeper appreciation for the season, it would be this guided dance between the practical and the intuitive. And then, as if years of seasonal loneliness weren’t hinging on its significance, the first word I drew was “read.”

Let me just tell you what “read” means to me:
It means guilt for how I lose myself in the pages of a good book and crackle with resentment if responsibilities pull me away before I can finish.
It means overwhelm when I look at my want-to-read list, the many, many, many inspiring books that hold pow-wow in my friends’ hearts while I slip further behind.
It means jealousy for those with access to well-stocked libraries and unhurried hours.
It means the heartsickness of looking back on an old love.

I didn’t realize any of that until I drew the word though, and I was caught off balance by my reaction—the sudden punch of tears, the impulse to throw away my little Advent experiment and forget I’d ever tried. That reaction more than anything is what told me Wait. This is important. One innocent verb meant to nudge me in the direction of wonder and self-care had triggered a sister strain of loneliness, and my goodness. When “read” affects you like a weapon? You stop, you take off your shoes, and you pay attention.

And here is the truth hiding under all my defensive reactions: I fail miserably at self-care. I don’t treat myself to books—even those old favorites growing dust-beards on our shelves—because I don’t feel like I deserve to. I don’t feel like I’ve done whatever arbitrary and impossible feat would earn me the pleasure of curling up for an hour and immersing myself in story. I haven’t once checked out the English shelf of our local library to see if they have anything of interest because there are so many other books to which my interest already feels indebted… and even if I did check something out, I would run straight up against the problem of merit again.

This isn’t limited to books, of course. You may be familiar with this quote by Anne Lamott: “Every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.” This quote has always given me truth-hives. On the one hand, doesn’t St. Anne know that my Self needs to earn a reprieve from busyness by acting extra busy?  But on the other, don’t I know that’s rubbish? Self-care is not something to be earned or quantified or stolen or withheld. It can only be received, and only once we recognize our own deep worth. 

This is part of the intentional discovery of wonder, isn’t it? Facing hidden loneliness head-on and extending the gift of inclusion to ourselves? For me, today, that is going to mean pouring myself a hot tea, wrapping myself up in a far-too-large blanket, and getting lost in the pages of a good book. Tomorrow, it might mean ignoring the dishes and sitting down to build Lego cities with Dan and the girls. It will mean going to bed when weariness first tugs at the corners of my thoughts and then tiptoeing to the kitchen before dawn with my Gorey journal on the contrail of dreams. It will mean painting my toenails even though they rarely leave the refuge of fuzzy socks these days. It will mean cooking one-serving gourmet when my husband’s away on business. It will mean standing a long moment outside at night to drink in the ice-studded sky. It will mean making room in my day-to-day life for amazement and joy… room for the true heart of Advent to invite mine in.

~~~

What does self-care look like for you? What do you wish it involved?

6Dec

The Love Language of Yuck

One of my girls (and I will leave it to your imagination as to which) has invented a sign of affection known as Pee Kisses. They involve looking deeply into the eyes of a loved one—say, your mother—then tenderly trickling your fingertips all the way down her cheeks. Let me just tell it to you straight: Pee Kisses make me want to throw up and then exfoliate my face in bleach and then throw up again. They are that gross. They are, however, preferable to the facial squishing involved in Poop Kisses, and they don’t give me premonitions of family counseling mandates the way that Anonymous Daughter’s Full Moon Nightly Salute does.

I’d thought that by birthing two daughters, I was avoiding a wide swath of parenting unpleasantness. Burping contests at dinner, bodily-fluid-themed goodnights, spiders on my toothbrush… the kind of horrors I’d always assumed mothers of little boys had to face alone. As it turns out though, children are children, and burping contests are universally hilarious, and mildly arachnophobic mothers are never safe. Never.

Toothbrush of doom

Not once in the earliest days of motherhood did I expect that my sweet little girls would one day take some of their greatest delight and personal satisfaction in freaking me out… but on the other hand, I never expected that I would one day take some of my greatest delight and personal satisfaction in egging them on. I have the trauma routine down pat: groan, wring my hands, gag, and then run away to increasing shrieks of laughter. The girls are at their happiest when I act my most horrified because for us, yuck is a love language.

Here’s what I mean—The girls know it’s terribly improper to make fart jokes at the table, which is exactly why they do it… and by picking up the thread of humor they’ve spun, I’m validating their sense of humor and their funny creative minds. I’m showing I genuinely like to be with them. I’m playing with them in a way that comes far more naturally to me than sitting down with a dollhouse does, and my message comes clearly through all the gagging: I love you.

I didn’t know I was going to be this kind of mom. I’d always imagined myself raising children with impeccable manners, to prove I knew what I was doing if nothing else. The mother-self I used to envision was stricter, quieter, and far more on top of everything than this real-self who so often feels like a parenting imposter. I holler at my children, bristle with impatience at times, and forbid them from asking me anything before I’ve had my coffee. I sometimes ask them for help solving their own behavioral challenges because they know as much as I do about navigating our specific parent-child relationship. It’s a learning process, all the time, and the thing I’m learning the most about is myself.

I’m learning that manners are not as important to me as seeing my children’s true personalities in action. I’m learning that very few aspects of our life need to be “non-negotiable” (a word my girls associated with naptime by age 2) and that my opinions do not automatically trump theirs just because I gestated them. I’m learning that I absolutely do not in any way, shape, or form know what I’m doing but that relationships are living things, fluid and adaptable with ample room for grace, and that I would rather be in a position to grow alongside my children than in one to rule over them. I’m learning to see my capacity to show love as a living and adaptable thing as well, a creative force that can rise to any occasion…

…including, but not limited to, Pee Kisses.

~~~

What has parenting been teaching you about yourself lately?

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