what we're about

Attempts to illuminate our brief mortal existence

Sunday, December 29, 2013

James Benedict

I have another son.  

James Benedict was born on December 13 at 6:37PM.  He weighed in at 5lb. 12oz., and was 19 1/2" long.  

I am grateful for this little life, and for the life of my growing family, in ways that I find almost impossible to express.  I don't want to make it sound too pretty; things have been rough the past two weeks.  I'm recovering from a C-section.  Christopher, at 22 months, is adjusting to a profoundly different family life. I've been sick, Landon has been sick, and Christopher has been sick.  I can't wait for things to smooth out a little.  But there are moments in the midst of this chaos, as many other parents know, I'm sure, that I wouldn't trade for anything.   

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Introducing some future ideas

I've been thinking a lot recently about coherence, and reunion, and integration, in two seperate but related realms.  

First, I think about these things in regards to the Church.  The reasons for this should be pretty clear: I am Catholic.  None of my family and few of my wider circle of friends are, although many of them are Christians who live out of and often grapple bravely and honestly with a deep and alive faith.  In light of this, prayers at mass for the unity of the church always come as a tiny electric shock of sadness and hope for me.  I wonder often what a truly, visibly, united Church would look like, and I long for a day when we, or our descendants, discover that vision.

Second, I think about these things in regards to myself.  As I look at my relatively short life, I can pick out various people that I have been, but the transitions between versions of myself, and the relationship of one version of Marina to another, are not always clear to me.  In the past I've found this difficult to effectively unravel, and a project that hovers dangerously close to pure self-indulgence anyway, so I've let it lay, figuring that at some point I would gain the necessary perspective and distance.  In the past months, several factors have come together to bring this project of integration to the forefront of my mind.  My entrance into the Church is one of them; I find myself having made a formal move at odds with the community and communion in which I was raised.  It has been more difficult than I anticipated.  I have rarely been as acutely aware as in the past few months of the DNA of Anabaptists in my blood and bones.  The kind of code switching that was possible as a quasi-anabaptist searching Christian becomes next to impossible as a confirmed Catholic.  This is made more disorienting by the sense of continuity within myself - I'm the same person that I was as a conservative Mennonite.  How did I get here without my community?  

My formal change of identification has also, however, given me a new point of view on the rather fragmented versions of myself that lay in my past.  When I visited my home community for a wedding about a month ago, I found myself mulling over who I was in this place with much more clarity and calmness than usual.  Several weeks ago, I got an email from a good friend expressing gently but clearly their concern over my recent decisions, and inquiring about my relationship with scripture through all of this.  They had seen in my public writing a pattern that moved from an engagement with scripture to an engagement with mostly Catholic authors, and wondered if the Bible had fallen from it's place of due primacy in my personal life.   That email not only struck me with a renewed urgency to be purposeful about renewing the place of scripture in my life, but also led me to consider my past relationship with scripture, the reasons for my near-inability to read the Bible for several years, and - just now - the way that my journey into the Catholic Church really grew out of my efforts to approach the Bible with fresh understanding and perspective.  

In light of these thoughts, I hope (between toddler care, gestating the second baby Lehman, fall cleaning, and sysiphean housekeeping) to take simultaneous but different tracks with these two subjects.  First, I want to do some reading on church unity by way of church history and current thought on the subject.  This may or may not show up here, or in other venues.  Second, I want to do some thinking-out-loud in this space about how my past selves - who I was at ten, at fourteen, at nineteen - integrate with who I have become at the ripe old age of 25.  I'm a little afraid that this is an excuse for extended navel gazing, but I suppose that's what a blog about myself will do.  I hope, however, that in addition to clarifying my relationship with the past for myself, this will also be helpful for those friends and family who are confused, hurt, and otherwise negatively impacted by my decision to throw my lot in with the Catholic Church.  I know that many of you don't understand how or why this happened, and maybe this will shed some light on that for all of us.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

I struggle

Way back in the day, I chose "struggle" as my word for the year.  At the time I wasn't quite certain of what all that entailed, although I had a pretty good idea that it had something to do with housework and generally bringing some order into my life.  Now, almost ten months into that year, the focus has shifted a little bit from that, to struggling with making an effort in somewhat less survival oriented areas.

Recently, I've been trying to focus more intentionally on three things: writing, knitting/crafting, and parenting (not necessarily in that order).  And it is hard.  Although these things have been a part of my life for varying degrees of "a while" now, I've been fairly laid back about them, partly because trying is more difficult than just letting things happen and working with what you get, and also because sometimes you fail.  These things freak me out.  I'm scared of getting so wrapped up in perfectionism that I take another extended blogging hiatus.  I'm afraid of ruining my wrists and coming to hate knitting.  And I am terrified of regretting overly ambitious and stringent parenting 20 years from now.  Combine this fear with the normal resistance that I'm running into as I try to be more purposeful about goals and methods in these areas, and it is making my head spin.  And that is where the real struggle comes in.

It's normal for me to think, when I am tired, discombobulated, internally dizzy, that there must be something wrong.  Surely there is something that I have to change in order to feel again the security and peace of internal equilibrium.  Maybe, I think, I'm not focusing my priorities correctly; maybe I'm getting my relationships wrong; maybe there's some undiscovered sin in all of this.  In a lot of previous battles this is where I would have pulled back, certain that something this uncomfortable couldn't be right.  I'm slowly learning, however, that sometimes - like now - I feel tired, discombobulated, and internally dizzy not because something's wrong, but because I am growing.  I'm being stretched, and pushed.  I'm entering a new mini-phase in my life, and I'm not yet quite certain how to handle the attendant successes, failures, and tensions.  As tempting as it is, then, to retreat a little bit, to surrender even my ever-so-slightly elevated expectations, I'm going to try living with some tension, a little bit of mess.  Instead of bowing out, I'll take a break, ice up some sprains, and keep moving struggling.  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Destined for Himself

"There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."
- Thomas Merton

I have a hard time seeing the reality of other people.  I'm self-centered, partly by temperament, partly by sin, and partly by circumstance, and other people occur to me mainly as the effect that they have on myself.  And since I live so much in my head, and the truth of other people is so difficult for me to see, God is starting me small, with one person, maybe three, and the realization of a simple truth about them: God intends my little family for Himself.  It's an astonishingly beautiful thought to have about a person, and one that I can barely look at straight on for my husband or my children, much less every other person in the world, for whom it is also certainly true.  I'm not strong enough yet to live with a heart broken wide open.  Instead, for now, I find myself called insistently to know this truth with my whole heart for one person, maybe three.  

I wonder if part of the path to knowing this truth for every person with whom I interact is to be able to see the beauty of it for them as I do for Landon, or for Christopher.  For them, it is easy for me to see the wonder of this destiny, and especially the way that all that I cannot give them will be found in an eternal moment with the Father.  This optimism gives way, however, in the face of the mass interactions of faceless crowds.  When I consider extending this thought to the whole world I think of Syria, Egypt, and wounded Kenya, of war-torn regions of the world that are not currently in the news, and of the mess of inner cities much closer to home.  I see the pain that we give and receive, and the pain that comes on us from the tragedies inflicted by no one.  It's hard enough as it is to hear and see this, but when I think of looking at all this pain through the lens of an ideal so far beyond it, I can't bear to actually entertain the thought.  I let it slide off sideways without looking too closely.  And I imagine that this must be what it's like for God to see all of us.  To look at it that way, however, is once again to limit other people to their impact on myself.  The tell is in a phrase like "faceless crowds."  There is no faceless crowd that God created for Himself, there are only billions of individual people, each uniquely desired by God.  

And it is too much.  Once again, I find myself in the place of submitting to this lesson about one person, then three (or however large my family grows), and if I happen to finish that lesson in this lifetime, maybe I'll be able to truly learn how to love everybody that I wish that I could.  

Monday, September 9, 2013

The child and the cross

I'm teaching Christopher to make the sign of the cross these days, and it has me reflecting on my role as a parent in not only teaching our children our religion, but also bringing them into participation in it.  There's something startling in taking a toddler's little hand and tracing the shape of the cross over his little body.  This is, after all, not only a trinitarian prayer but also an acknowledgement of our own participation in the cross of Christ.  That means that it is both the best thing that I can think of and also something that scares for my own sake, much less for my child.  I wonder sometimes if this is really a decision that I can, or should, make for him.    

In one sense, it is imperative that I do choose for him, because the choice has already been made.  There are many things that we do not get to choose when we are born, such as parentage, and family.  Just as Christopher has earthly parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, he has a Heavenly Father, and just as it is our responsibility to bring him early into relationship with his earthly parents and other family members, it is our responsibility to enable his relationship with God.  And this relationship with God, we believe as Christians, comes through Jesus.  It is therefore essential that we not only encourage an amorphous relationship with God, but teach him the specific ways in which this relationship is maintained and deepened through Christ - by his teaching, and by belonging to his Body, the Church.  So through baptism he is born into the body of Christ, through prayer he learns the words to begin a conversation with Christ, and through the sign of the cross he learns the shape of the way to God.  

In another sense, however, it's clear that I cannot choose anything for Christopher.  No matter what I teach him, he has his own free will to exercise, and he can choose to accept or reject the relationship with God into which he has been born, just as he will someday choose his own response to other relationships into which he was born.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

On belief

In the course of a wide ranging conversation with a friend the other day, the issue of belief came up.  In spite of this friend's love of discussing God, theology, and their commitment to their Christian religion, they confessed to a rather weak belief.  It was easy for them to see the point of view of agnostics.  They believed that God was, but wondered at the necessity of this belief.

This struck a chord with me.  Belief, specifically belief in God, has always come easily for me on one level, and with difficulty on another.  A base level belief in God is impossible for me to dispense with, just because it's there.  When I look within myself, I find belief.  Having found this, I find all the other reasons that one might believe in the existence of God quite convincing.  They line up well with what I already believe about the world.  This, of course, leads to the difficulty with my belief, that is, that it's based on inclination more than reason, and therefore I find it difficult to trust.  I am vulnerable to persuasions of unbelief, specifically of the dismissal of the God of Abrahamic religions, with his personhood and self-revelation.  I flinch away especially from critiques of the existence of God which are based on an appeal to emotion or intuition; after all, that's more or less where my belief begins.  I read an account once of a person who lost their belief in God when they went on medication for their bipolar disorder.  It became apparent that the moments that they previously counted as contact with God turned out to be the results of emotional manic episodes.  How do I know that this could not happen to me, that the right medication wouldn't balance out my emotional life and suddenly my deepest beliefs would just evaporate?

All that to say that if anyone else out there both strives to live a life pleasing to God, while simultaneously doubting his existence, you have some company.  It's amazing to me how much doubt and faith co-exist in my life, similar to the simultaneous irritation and love that sometimes co-exist in my marriage.  I go about life as a brand-new Catholic, learning more about this tradition, relearning the basics that my parents and my church taught me as a child, and at the exact same time pondering whether any of this has any basis in reality, or, really, is the basis of reality.  I wonder at what point you could call both my friend and I optimistic agnostics - people who aren't certain that our reasons can carry us to our belief, but who choose, nevertheless, to live as though God does exist, and the vision of the world that we find so beautiful truly is the basis of reality.  Believers without certainty, who nevertheless continue to believe.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A bit of a ramble

I've been Catholic for a little over a week now.  Life as a Catholic has been a lot like life a few weeks ago, only different.  I struggle to pray, I battle doubt, I succumb to temptation.  In short, as the saying goes, I brought myself with me - my humanity, my inconsistency, and, especially my fear.  That's the part that's the same; the different part is that it's all much more vague and terrifying.

In all areas of my life, I handle clearly defined projects with definite termination points much better than diffuse, open-ended goals with no clear termination point.  For example, it's much easier for me to discipline myself to wash the breakfast dishes every morning than to use my time wisely on the multindinous projects that could fill the rest of the day.  In the past week and a half, I have traded the clearly defined project of flinging myself into the arms of the Church for the open-ended goal of living a Catholic, i.e., Christian, life.  This is the same goal that has loomed before me for most of my life (I just have a bigger toolkit now), and very quickly I have run up against the hurdle that seems to stand in my way, no matter which way I approach this goal:

Being a Christian terrifies me.  Being a Catholic Christian terrifies me no less, and perhaps a little more, than being an Anabaptist Christian, a Confused Christian, a quasi-Episcopal Christian, and anything else that I have been.  The toolkit may be biger, but the project, the goal, looks no easier.
Entering the Church has been a moment of hearing once again the call that has always frightened me, a call to total renunciation of self-will, in favor of following in the footsteps of our crucified and risen Lord.  It's easy to get a little romantic about this call, and "taking up crosses" and "dying to self", but in reality this call scares me, because I am a wimp.  I don't like pain.  Having crucifixes all over the place does wonders to clarify in one's mind exactly what we're talking about when we talk about participating in Christ's death, and it's a bloody mess.  But I'm making myself sound too reasonable.  Most of us aren't keen on real pain and gory death, whether physical or otherwise.  The thing is, I'm not even qualified for real pain yet - all that Christ requires of me in self-renunciation at this point is being uncomfortable.  I hate being uncomfortable.  And this wrestling down of my overgrown, grasping self, gluttonous of small pleasures and demanding of comfort, is a project of overwhelming size, lifetime length, and no foreseeable termination date.  It makes me so uncomfortable.  I wish that I could claim that I don't know how to go about it, but, of course, I do.  Live life day by day.  Do the next thing.  Pray.  Avail myself of the sacraments.  It's like running, where trying complicated strategies for increasing time and distance mask the fact that all I really have to do is put one foot in front of the other one, and the reason that I don't want to do that is because it makes me uncomfortable.  And, of course, there's the knowledge that if I manage, by the grace of God, to make any semblance of progress on this, it will quite likely be my privilege to be entrusted with some real pain.  It's almost enough to make one feel sarcastic.

This is, of course, where it would help to keep a firm grasp on the End of all this.  The point of it all is to find that perfect Communion that lies at the back of all human longing, and thankfully, the Church knows something of that as well.  This is one of the shiniest new tools in my toolkit, if I would remember to use it  -  the way that the Church has shown me how our Future reaches back for us.  Through the Eucharist, through prayer, even through the very service that is part of my discomfort, I am learning that it is not only pain and self-renunciation that we experience in this life, but also the tastes, the glimpses, of that joy that is set before us.  And in light of that, I'm forced to feel rather ashamed of the direction of my focus in this past week and a half.  I really did bring myself along, didn't I?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

All is Grace

"This is it.  These are some of the best days of our lives."

I stood on the stairs yesterday afternoon, looking up at Landon who was about to walk into our apartment with a bowl of grilled meat in his hand.  I held the foil and the tongs, waiting for Christopher to inch his way up the stairs, and conscious of so many pleasures in that moment: cooking food outside; teamwork with my husband; the tow-headed toddler behind me; a joyful consciousness of our second child growing within me.  It's late summer, time for ripening, deepening, and the rush toward harvest.  Like a few other times in my life, I can sense Life settling into me; I feel the growing and ripening of my own self.  There are things growing in my spirit that I neither planted nor planned for, but are sheer gifts of grace.

One recent gift of grace is courage to more fully embrace my vocation of service.  My heart has been cracked open by repeated reminders of the selflessness necessary to love and serve my family well, and an increasing knowledge of my terrible inadequacy to that selflessness.  In this moment, I have been give the grace that allows me not to shrink from that knowledge, but - through the tiniest of baby steps - to allow it to do its work of softening, repentance, and humility.  I am amazed to see these things unfold.

Another recent gift of grace is courage to relinquish the fear of belief.  On Sunday, Landon, Christopher, and I will be welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church.  Landon and I will receive the sacraments of Confirmation and First Holy Communion, and Christopher will receive the sacrament of baptism.  Again, my cooperation with this work of grace is imperfect, and so so slow, like a toddler's fingers pried off of the illicit candy in his hand; this tiny sprout of courage, too, is wondrous to behold.

I know that there are those who, through their love and concern for me, look on these things in a different light.  Some of you worry that I will lose myself in mothering and homemaking, not in the positive loss of unselfish service, but in the frightening loss of sublimation and nonexistence.  Some of you look at the vast gulf between the church of my childhood and the church of my adult belief and are concerned that I have lost my way.  I do not blame you for your worry and concern, and I thank you for the love that motivates it.  Please, pray for me.  But if it is any comfort, know that when I look at my life right now, all that I can see is the work of God.  I know of no other way that could have brought me to this moment.  The circumstances could have come about by a certain stumbling and accident, but the seedlings of courage, the baby steps of virtue, the slivers of openness - grace.  All is grace.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lent, Day 8: Christopher

It's Lent, and my posts in these past few days are distinctly Lenten posts.  Today, however, I can't find it within myself to write another post about crosses, or struggles, or the nitty gritty implications of the Christian walk.  Today, this day, this lovely day, is my Christopher Luke's first birthday.

I love this baby, this would-be-a-toddler-if-he-decided-to-walk Little Guy.  I love his pure joy at waking up in the morning, and his utter delight at peering over the edge of his pack-n-play to discover - again - his still sleeping parents.  I love his giggles games, his outright chortles over peek-a-boo, and his screaming laughter over "chase."  Everything is new for him.  It blows his mind that he can move wooden beads along a maze of wires.  He thinks it's hilarious when the toy that disappeared behind my back reappears on the other side.  He wants to drop the same toy, or book, or rag on the floor over and over again because he just cannot believe that it falls down every. single. time.

I am utterly charmed just watching him putter around the living room, investigating every loose piece of paper sticking out from a shelf, experimenting with what happens when you push on the books on the shelf, discovering all over again a fascinating toy, being suddenly distracted by a more fascinating piece of shiny junk, chewing thoughtfully on a wooden block.  My heart nearly explodes with delighted satisfaction at the joy of seeing him crawl efficiently off to inspect the hallway and the other rooms of the apartment for any toys or random objects left within reach.  He is most endlessly fascinating when he is ignoring me.

I love doing life with him, as frustrating as it is.  He sits on the edge of the sink while I wash dishes - his back against the microwave, his feet dangling into the rinse sink - experimenting with the physics of the clean dishes that I stack on his side of the sink, and dabbing his feet in the running water when I rinse those dishes.  Laundry day is a personal favorite of his; there are so many ways for him to help, from dropping dirty socks into drawers of clean clothing, to adding folded t-shirts back into the basket of unfolded laundry.  When I go grocery shopping with him, he leaves a trail of smiles in the wake of his adorableness.

This child, this squeezable, kissable, beautiful, crazy-making child is bursting with Life.  This is the promise; this is why we go through Lent.  Life abundant is the only things that makes the cross worthwhile.  Suffering in and of itself is pointless.  Death left to its own devices is ignoble.  Sacrifice without hope is foolish.  Only in the Resurrection looming large beyond them do they gain significance, nobility, and wisdom.  We embrace Lent not because we love Lent, but because we have to get through Lent to come to Easter.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lent, Day 7: Real Love

"The way of Christian holiness is, in any case, hard and austere.  We must fast and pray.  We must embrace hardship and sacrifice, for the love of Christ, and in order to imporve the condition of man on earth. ...It is not enough to make pious gestures.  Our love of God and of man cannot be merely symbolic, it has to be completely real.  It is not just a mental operation, but the gift and commitment of our inmost self."
- Thomas Merton, Love and Holiness

This is all that there is to say today.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lent, Day 6: Courage for little things

I'm wearing around my neck right now a handmade silver crucifix.  I picked it up a year or two ago at a Catholic bookstore in Lafayette, IN.  I was not at the time even considering a move towards Catholicism, but I had been mysteriously gripped by an intuition that there was something more to the Cross than what I understood, something as yet undiscovered.  I bought the crucifix as a way to wear the death of Christ, to keep it before me, so that I would not forget to keep examining this mystery.

Nearly two years after first writing about discovering this mystery, one tiny corner of it has been made clear to me.  The light has dawned slowly, as I've read book after book on a faith that I thought I knew, started praying new, awkward prayers, and experienced one moment of sudden, desperate longing on an ordinary Sunday morning.  As the dust has begun to settle after the years of spiritual upheaval, I find myself looking around at a strange, new, beautiful landscape - one completely dominated by the Cross.  And I realize that this mystery is my calling to come and die, and that it's shrouded in fog because God knows that I can't handle it all.  I used to be confident in my ability to die for God, whether physically or spiritually, but that was 10 years ago;  I thought that I was brave, then.  Now, my very being flinches away from this call.  I don't know what it means, exactly, and I don't want to.  What I do know, is something of the shape of the ground in front of me.  

Right in front of me, my very first step in this call to come and die, is a renewal of my determination to embrace the struggles of my vocation.  And as small as they sometimes are, as easy as they might be for someone else, and as insignificant as they may look, these struggles are hard enough for me.  A part of me, the whiniest, most demanding, most self-centered and fearful part of me is going to have to climb up on the cross every single day just for this patch of ground.  For all I know, I might never progress further than this in this life.  But the grace is there; I know that it is.  I know that I have been made strong enough just for these struggles.  And it's Thomas Merton, again, who is giving me the necessary kick in the pants:
"If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us.  He will certainly give us the grace we need.  If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift."
- Merton, Love and Holiness 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lent Day 3: Grace and Sacraments

It was probably a differing understanding of sacraments that first began to nudge me away from being fully Anabaptist, and these days I find myself increasingly resonating with a fully Catholic understanding of sacraments (at least as far as I understand this understanding).  Yet another layer was added to that resonance when I began reading Love and Holiness, by Thomas Merton.  Merton  begins right in the introduction talking about grace:
"Grace, the power and the light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory."
- Thomas Merton, Love and Holiness
Just grace.  I've read this before in the work of authors such as Brennan Manning, and although I've never doubted it, there's always been something frustrating about the way that it's presented; there's a frighteningly ungraspable quality to it.  By contrast, as I read on, Merton feels practical, very practical for someone who's supposed to be a dangerous mystic.  The difference, I believe, comes down to Merton's inescapably Catholic understanding of our relationship with grace.

In the Mennonite church and its attendant subcultures where I grew up, I was given to understand (whether this was the intent of those teaching or no) that grace was this thing that was just out there, floating around.  It was available, of course; when you needed it you prayed for it.  And then you either assumed that it was there, and therefore you should be able to work harder at whatever your difficulty was, or you tried to summon up the feeling of it being there to help you along.  This is what I mean by "ungraspable".

When I read Merton, however, knowing the understanding of the relationship of sacraments and grace that lies behind his writing, the talk of grace - living by grace, drawing on grace, being changed, renewed, and made holy by grace - there's something for me to grasp at.  When I look through the Catholic lenses that I've been trying on, I can see the concrete ways that grace happens.  , Baptism, communion, marriage, even confession - I know where to go to find the grace that I need.  Not, of course, as though I'm pulling some heavenly lever for the distribution of my sugar water, but a concrete way for me to order myself to receive what is already there.  After all, as my RCIA leader told us, it's not God that needs the sacraments, it's us.  Physical actions, signs that enact what they signify.  If, as I'm told, I'm swimming in an ocean of God's grace, the sacraments give me a way to open my mouth and drink it in.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

           Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. - Genesis 3:19
An activity that is based on the frenzies and impulsions of human ambition is a delusion and an obstacle to grace (8).   - Thomas Merton, Love and Holiness
Although I didn't make it to an Ash Wednesday service today, at RCIA tonight I sat in a room full of people with the ashes of death marked on their foreheads.  Dust to dust. Life ends.  Death comes. And when it does, the things that I do to please and impress others, the activites that I undertake to placate my own aching soul, and even good deeds done with the subtle expectation of transaction - these will fall to dust and ashes along with my body.

Kyrie, eleison.  Christe, eleison. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Tired out

This is a tired blog post, because I am tired.  Not really physically tired, although there's a touch of that, but mostly I'm tired of just keeping on going.  Serving others, even just my own baby and husband, is hard for my spoiled little soul.  I'm accustomed to frantic mental manipulations to figure out how to do enough for them so that I can feel okay about it, but still mostly concentrate on doing whatever makes my frantic soul feel better.  So focusing on my vocation the past little while is giving my flabby self-discipline a workout.  And sometimes, I feel about the middle section of my days like I feel about the middle section of my little thrice weekly runs: I'm not worn out by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm just so uncomfortable and I hate being uncomfortable, and I'm bored because I just keep doing this uncomfortable and unvarying thing, and I just want to quit but that would be stupid, and I've already started counting how many breaths it takes me to run a minute and I haven't even finished half my time yet.  So the end of today feels like the end of a run where I just ramped up my time or distance - my willpower to keep putting one foot in front of the other is ready to snap as soon as I soon as I hit my finish line.  Not because it was a day full of difficult, dramatic, or even frustrating things, but because it was full of making the choices that made my self will uncomfortable.  

This falls, as do so many things that I've written recently, into the category of things that I've learned about all my life, but never really got.  Jesus talked about crosses; St. Paul talked about beating ourselves into submission.  These things are difficult.  Somewhere I had gotten the impression that if you were doing hard things correctly, they would cease to be difficult things.  It would be like wearing yourself out dancing late into the night, not wearing yourself out pushing through that last half mile on the treadmill.  As I've been learning, it's simply not true.  Hard things stay difficult, even if you're doing them for all the right reasons.  Even if, like running a mile and half, you don't think that they should even be hard things.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On vocation

I've been reading a lot of Catholic writing recently, from Catholic bloggers to the Pope.  And one idea that I've come across quite consistently is that of vocation as answering the question, "who will I serve?"  This has been an enormously helpful consideration for me.  After all, for me the primary answer to that question is made obvious by my situation in life: I am a spouse, and I am a parent.  This is my vocation, to serve my family.  When I look at any given day, and make my lists of what needs to go in it, the summation of my priorities is:

Serve Landon.  Serve Christopher.

And this has made several other things abundantly clear.  I knew right away that this was about more than housework and baby playtime; this was about my life having priorities so that there was a hook to hang everything on, and so that I would know when I was out of hooks.  So, because serving Christopher is a priority, and because Christopher and an open laptop do not happily co-exist, I've suddenly found the motivation to close my computer and find other things to do when Christopher is awake.  Christopher knows when I'm distracted, not just from direct attention to him, but from being engaged with him and his needs; he knows that when I'm on the computer, he has to work three times as hard to get my attention for something as basic as a diaper change.  This should not be, of course, and I knew that my computer and I had issues, but I've never been able to quite get a handle on it.  I think that this is because I was still thinking of it terms of how I would benefit from being off the computer - how much less guilty I would feel, how much more I would get done.  It wasn't until I thought in terms of serving Christopher that I was able to see how much of a no-brainer it is to just close the laptop while Christopher is awake, and I'm the only one at home.  I'm able to be much more in tune with Christopher's needs, and as a bonus I get some of the other things thrown in - less guilt about my computer use, and more productivity on the home front.  I still get on my computer at least twice almost every day, but I've found a hook to hang it on - it doesn't belong in the same time as my son.

These hooks, however, are not all full with housework and baby play time.  It's a dirty little secret in my stay-at-home-mom-of-one life that, honestly, I have time.  It might be somewhat unpredictable time, but it's still there.  And the thing about thinking of life in terms of vocation, the thing that differentiates it for me from some other notions of service to a husband or children is that I am not asking them to define my self by my service to them, but I am serving them by giving them my Self.  In order for this to be meaningful, there has to be a Self to give.  And in order for me to have a Self to give them, I need to be doing things that renew, refresh, and build-up that Self.  I know that in years to come, when there are two or three or more little ones running around, and they're making more work for me, and demanding more in terms of interaction, I might not have much time for this - it'll be manna in the wilderness time for me then.  But that time is not now, and right now I have time to do one very concrete thing to build-up this Self that I give in service to my family - I have time to go back to school.  Not a lot of time, granted, but a little.  And suddenly, I've found the willpower to spend a little bit of time, every day, working on going back to school.  So far, I've finished filling out one application and started in on another one.  These are things that I've been meaning to do, talking about doing, for a very long time.  My guilt, railings, and feelings of un-fulfillment weren't enough to overcome the inertia.  Seeing it in terms of serving Landon and Christopher was.  There are still lots of questions to be answered, like "how do you think you're going to pay for this?", but faithfulness doesn't require that I know the answers ahead of time.  If it doesn't work out to go back to school because of issues other than time, at least I'll have explored that avenue to its end, and I'll know that it's time to turn to other option.

In the end, here, I'm a little frightened at the sheer gift of this all.  As I look back at the past several days, and see the ways that I've found willpower where inertia seemed invincible, calm and persistence where anxiety seemed unstoppable, and an attitude of service where resentment seemed inevitable I am overwhelmed with the sheer grace of it.  These things are not natural to me, and since they are a gift, I both marvel at their presence, and hold my breath for their absence.  If the lives of those who have walked this path before me are any indication, the road will be much harder up ahead.  Knowing my weakness, God has lavished me with so much help here at the beginning; He doesn't owe this to me, and He can withhold it in the future.  But can I refuse to fully accept the gifts that He gives, because I want to protect myself against the pain of their surcease?  I could, and that's a whole 'nother blog post, but for now, I find that I am also give the gift of gratitude.

Monday, January 14, 2013


By gnuckx [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tender-hearted.  It's not a quality that I think about a much, except maybe in its opposite when I joke with my friends about being a hard-hearted mommy because I let my child cry sometimes.  But today the word jumped out at me from the end of Ephesians 4.

"Be kind," says Paul.  "Be tender-hearted towards each other.  Forgive."

For a second after reading that, I caught a glimpse of a church, a community, a world where we all have, indeed, put away such things as bitterness, wrath, clamoring, slander, and especially malice (Eph.4:31) and are simply kind to each other.  Where our hearts are not just tender toward each other both sympathy, and in openness.  Where we forgive slights, offenses, and outright wounds.

Ideally, I would go on here to write about what a wonderful vision this is, and how much I wish that reality conformed to it.  But I can't.  Because although that briefest of glimpses made me catch my breath in the morning, I realize now, having pondered it through the day, that I don't actually want to live in it.  As far as concerns myself and those I love, I want people to behave like this.  I'm also happy to try it out among my peers; people that I like, and whose good opinion of myself I value.  But I don't want to be responsible to live like this with everybody, because a world where all is genuinely kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving is a world free of boundaries between peoples, and I thrive on boundaries.  Not the good kind of boundaries, where you don't let toxic people run all over you, but the negative kind of boundaries - the kind that tell me who is in (me and my little circle) and who is out (the people that me and my little circle like to disapprove of).  In fact, I am so far in the thrall of these boundaries, that I really start to feel at home in a new place when I have 1) found a few friends, and 2) figured out who we all subtly disapprove of.

I'm too well-trained of a person, of course, to just rip off on people - that might be slander, after all, or even malice.  I'm usually nice to everyone.  But as my common denominator of disapproval with a friend becomes obvious, I slowly become more comfortable with pointing out to each other the ways that this person or these persons either irritate us personally, or are just generally clueless about the little facets of life that we find so self-obvious.  Sometimes I talk about them in lowered tones, with the correct facial expressions to indicate that I really don't want to gossip, but understand that we have to have someone to commiserate with about this.  Depending on the situation the disapproval might be aimed at people that we know, generalized groups of people, figureheads of movements of which we disapprove, or people in various positions in our life.  I am well-aware of my failings in this area, but I don't always realize when it's happening.  In fact, as I've been writing this I've thought of more and more examples of doing this, many of them relatively benign and even humorous, but some of the insidiously close and nasty. Nasty is a strong word, but it's the right word for this, because when I do this, I am deciding who I will think of as a real person, and who will be considered something a little less than quite fully human; that is, a little less human than myself.  Once I've begun to think of someone as not quite fully human, one aspect of tender-heartedness - sympathy - is shut down.  If they're a distant group of people, their troubles and concerns roll easily off my back.  If they're a part of a movement that I don't like, I conflate all the things that I don't like about the movement with the person who symbolizes them.  If they're an irritating person in my life, it becomes impossible for me to see their perspective, to recognize their struggles, and to acknowledge their own difficulties.  They may even be another friend, in which case I can make the correct noises when we talk, but the words that I'm saying don't reach my own heart.  No part of their pain is really imprinted upon myself; I am not helping to bear their burdens.  I just want it to look like I am.  Words are not sympathy.

Not only would this be hurtful to the other person/s, were they to discover it (which I truly hope they don't -  I don't want to hurt them, just use them to make myself feel better without them being aware of it), but it's toxic to my own self, to developing new relationships, and to relationships that I do wish to nurture.  Living inside of my self-drawn boundaries, I have to keep a closely guarded heart to new people and experiences.  I'm nice; I'm polite; I'm downright friendly to most people (I think); but I can't let anybody really in until I've figured out if they're an in sort of person, or an out sort of person.  Clues from my already-friends are a short cut, but barring that I have to be on the lookout for ways that they might disappoint me as a person; I have to see if they're more accomplished than me in some area of particular ego vulnerability; I have to find some area where I can consider us at least on equal footing, if not where I have a slight advantage.  Are they prettier than me, more accomplished than me, more self-motivated than me?  Those are not strokes in their favor.  As you can imagine, this doesn't make meeting new friends graceful.  It's difficult to have a free and light-hearted conversation with someone when you're acutely aware of all the ways that they're wounding your ego.  Fortunately, I can often rise above this initial, paralyzing rush of analysis, or I would find no friends; in fact, I'm blessed to have some of the best friends that a woman could ask for, both old and new.  But even after a person has slipped past the outer ring of my fear and suspicion, my guarded heart interferes with relationships that I really wish to nurture.  I'm reluctant to take off the last of the armor and be honest about struggles that nobody else seems to have, prejudices that aren't fashionable to acknowledge, and desired ends that I fail to accomplish.  Revealing these things makes me too vulnerable, too readable, too... tender.  If subtle contempt interferes with my ability to truly sympathize with others, my fear of being cast outside of the boundaries that I have drawn interferes with the second aspect of having a tender heart - being open to the touch, influence, and impact of others.

Although my word for the year is struggle, this is a knot of influences, instincts, and inclinations that is woven so closely through my being that I'm not even sure where to begin struggling with it.  So while I struggle with some other things that I may find the time to tell you about soon (e.g., food, organization, and finishing things), this is one situation that I'm just going to need to sit with.  It won't unravel with my own cogitations, but soaked in enough prayer and interior stillness, the ends may slip out where I can see them.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Gentle Divine Smackdown

Not quite what my day was like, but close enough

In today's late morning I began to do a dangerous thing.  I began, mentally, to write a blog post for this evening about how easy days aren't really good for me.  The post would discuss how I enjoy these days - the ones where my willpower is strong, the to-dos are practically accomplishing themselves, and I have a schedule worked out to make my complicated afternoon a breeze - but they present a problem because I then want to set them up as expectations for how every day should be.  I would then be disappointed were not the day of the sort where my tiny child sits with his feet dangling in the empty side of the sink while I wash dishes, and we listen to his CD of funky kids sing-along music.  And where, in my morning once-over of the bathroom, I did not hum carelessly to myself as I wiped up the random hair in the sink even though it wasn't bathroom cleaning day.  And where I effortlessly avoided the siren song of internet inanities to knit a repeat in my current project before enjoying a light lunch while reading an edifying book.

I really was reflecting on these very things.  And I really had no idea how much I needed to be slapped.  But don't worry - justice prevailed.  It all went south about the the time I noticed the fire in the oven.

I had turned the oven up quite hot to make pita bread, this being one of my smugly-reflected-upon moments of good planning and strong willpower, whereby I was going to accomplish something in the early afternoon that would render the evening practically struggle free.  Unfortunately, while mixing the pitas I noticed an unusual amount of white smoke emanating from various orifices on my oven.  Investigation revealed a small grease fire burning happily about the element.  Several applications of baking soda, multiple episodes of towel waving at smoke detectors, and a window opened to sub-freezing air later, the bottom of my oven had stopped bursting into flames but my plans for the blog post had gone up in them.

All turned out well, of course.  I baked the pitas - albeit sadly subpar versions of their usual puffy selves - in my neighbors' oven.  And although I could write a whole saga in itself about the preparation of the lasagna for my friends who just had a baby (frozen ground beef, for starters, and triple the prep time that I planned on), that too baked quite nicely in my neighbors' oven.  As the lasagna baked, those same neighbors invited us to stay for dinner, then helped deliver the lasagna and its accoutrements to our friends at what turned out to be a fairly reasonable hour.  After which said neighbors and ourselves put our kids to bed, and hung out at their place eating cheesecake and watching football until late in the night.  By which I mean 9:40PM, because we are parents of small children after all.

The day, then, was salvaged (although my kitchen could use some help), and actually improved by the aid and assistance of some stinkin' awesome people, and I end it with these two thoughts:

1. Good neighbors are priceless, and mine are the best so you can't have them.

2. I will never again muse about the ease with which a day is passing before said day reaches its midpoint.

Corollary: I will never plan fatuous blog posts about a day until the day has proved itself worthy by continuing in smarmy glory from beginning to end.

So there.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On struggle

Last year, Sarah Bessey chose a lovely word for the year: fearless.  Even though some of the ways that this word has worked out in her life have been pretty hard-core and nitty-gritty, the word itself just embodies a lovely sentiment.  When I decided to join her, and others, in choosing a word for the year I quickly realized that it would not be a lovely word.  My word for 2013 is struggle.

In the past several months I've begun to let go of my persistent belief that if only I could set my life up just right, being a disciplined, productive human being would begin to come naturally.  I've realized that sometimes (and maybe most of the time) when I fail to be the person that I know I can be, it's not the fault of the routine, system, or checklist that I used: it's the fault my own underdeveloped self-discipline.  I've come to see that instead of casting around for a new approach to exercise or the honing of my creative talent when I'm stymied by sheer discomfort, I just need to keep right on doing this uncomfortable thing.  I've chosen struggle as my word for the year to help me apply these lessons.

I hope that it's clear that I'm not talking about "struggles" in the sense of difficult circumstances that simply present themselves to us as we live life; I had plenty of those in 2012, and expect my fair share in 2013.  The struggles that I want to lean into this year are of a different kind.

I want to embrace the struggle that come from simply doing the best that I know with my time, my talents, and my resources.  I want to stop taking the path of least resistance when it comes to how I spend my free time; how I eat; how I spend money; how I exercise.  I want to struggle against my very self, against my strong impulse to fulfill my duties as basically as possible and then make myself comfortable, and I want to leave open the possibility that I will fail.  I want to take on practices and habits that I think that I can master, but that I might not after all be able to.  And when I fail, I want to take responsibility for my actions and omissions that contributed to failure.  Then I want to get up, and keep on going.