what we're about

Attempts to illuminate our brief mortal existence

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.