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Attempts to illuminate our brief mortal existence

Monday, January 13, 2014

Word for the Year: Joy

My word for this year is Joy.  Last year's word was "struggle," and struggle I did.  One of my biggest takeaways from the experience of the past year is that struggle isn't just a one-year thing; it may have been my word for one year, but it will be and should be a continual part of my life.  I've learned something about the value of struggle, about letting go of my expectation that life should be free of unpleasantness, and, finally, about the joy that comes in and through struggle applied correctly.  Since I know that struggle will be a feature of life going forward, this year I want to focus on that joy.

Joy can be difficult for me.  I'm feeling the reality of this more keenly now then I did a few days ago when this blog post began to germinate.  I've hit a rough post-partum patch.  Life is settling down into its new normal.  Landon is back at work today.  I'm figuring out what I can expect to get done while tending to the needs of my two boys.  The lack of sleep, however, probably in combination with difficulty getting a good diet and the dearth of exercise, is catching up with me.  I am less stable mentally than I have been in at least a year.  Whatever combination of anxiety and obsessive symptoms that float around in my brain are making their presence known.  I woke up this morning with life clinging to me like an ill-fitting outfit, seams in all the wrong places, twisted and too tight, impossible to ignore, making me want to scream and throw things.  Since I can't do that, I settled for yelling at Christopher, snapping at Landon over little things, and storming away from the breakfast table for a good cry in the bedroom because the tip of my strip of bacon (that Landon made for me, in addition to the rest of breakfast) was floppy.  Even I know that this is beyond petty, but when my brain is screaming for an unattainable perfection, something petty can be the last straw.  This is not healthy.  And it's certainly not joyful.  

My goal in choosing "Joy" as my word for the year is to be able to look through the chaos that I kick up for myself to the joy that life holds underneath.  I can't always help it when an out-of-order life feels like a kick in the stomach.  I can remind myself, though, of the joy of my life that makes it worthwhile to fight the lies that my brain and emotions conspire to tell me.  The purpose of all the struggling that I do is not just to struggle because it's the right thing to do, or because I don't want to be beaten down by my own weaknesses.  I am fighting to find the joy that is right under my nose, in my husband who does so much for our family, my toddler who is an explosion of learning and discovery, and my sweet still-but-barely-a-newborn who falls asleep in a squishable heap on my shoulder while I'm burping him.  Beyond these is a community of the sort that one finds perhaps once in a lifetime; wonderful family on both sides; fulfilling activities that keep my brain exercised; and all of this in a world saturated with heartbreaking beauty.  This is true, whether or not I feel the truth of it on a regular basis.  And I'm hoping that, by living into the truth, I will find more consistently the joy that seems sometimes so easy, and sometimes (like now) so elusive.   

Baptism, then and now

My tiny James Benedict was baptized on January 12, 2014. 

Since the rite of baptism includes the renewal of my own baptismal vows, I spent some time in the days leading up to James' reflecting on my that time in my life, nearly 15 years ago.  

My baptism at the comparatively tender age of 11 1/2 was a reflection of the kind of faith that I had as a child. In conversation surrounding the baptisms of older cousins, I was introduced to the idea that there are things that we could do to mark our relationship with God. This was a concept that I embraced with eagerness. Then, as now, I craved actions that mean something, and the active and visible elements of the conservative, separatist faith in which I was brought up became sacraments to me, although it would be years before I knew the word, and longer before I understood that it was what I needed.      

I was a comparatively young child to be seeking baptism in the Mennonite tradition. The normal age at our particular church was 12-14 years old, and I was nine when I first approached my parents about the possibility. Concerned about my possible immaturity and lack of understanding, they held me off for a year, but the spring that I was 10, nearly 11, I joined the instruction class for baptism. Along with a best friend who - at a little over a year older than me - was also unusually young, and nine other teenagers, I sat through months of Sunday morning classes that touched on Anabaptist history and theology, as well as more general spiritual formation. In the late summer of the year, we were baptized as part of a Sunday morning service.  

There is a feeling of radiance associated with the day in my memory. Although baptism had always and repeatedly been taught to me as a simple, though momentous, symbol of my commitment to follow Jesus, I felt vaguely even then that I somehow needed the symbol to make the commitment happen. From my current vantage point, the vagueness evaporates -  a sacrament, after all, is a sign that effects that which it signifies. And, although I didn't quite know it at the time, a sacrament is what I sought, and by the grace of God, it is what I found. In the tumult of ensuing adolescence and young adulthood, my relationship with God has shown a tenacity that I attribute to the real grace of baptism, as opposed to my own notoriously weak willpower.

Monday, January 6, 2014

My children are not my enemies

I don't remember when the thought first came to me.  Sometime late this past fall, probably, when Christopher was needing something.  I do remember the sudden epiphany: 

My children are not my enemies.  

It was only after I had the thought that I realized that I had a habit of thinking of and treating Christopher as, in some respects, my enemy.  My mental framework of our relationship set him up as my main competitor for some of my most precious resources - my time and energy.  If he got it, I didn't, and vice versa.  The best case scenario in this framework was a carefully choreographed tug of war, with my toddler and my conscience on one end of the rope, and my sanity, selfishness, and legitimate need all jumbled up on the other.  If I allocated resources just right, the rope stayed taut and we all stayed upright, but under continual strain.  In the less desirable but more realistic scenario, an unexpected tug on one end led to a giving way on the other, leaving everyone on the ground and nobody quite happy.  Christopher gets his snack, but maybe I yelled at him a little, and my sanity has a nosebleed.  Or my sanity gets its knitting break, but accompanied by much guilt, and Christopher doesn't get read to that day.  

But if my children are not my enemies, my competitors, then what are they?  My best answer for this at the moment is that they're other human beings, with whom I am in relationship, within the larger organic unity that is our family.  Basically, I think of us all as part of one organism.  There are still more demands on my resources than I can answer.  Those demands still sometimes seem to be in direct conflict.  But it helps to remember that this is not a win/lose situation; rather, what is good for one part of the body, i.e., our family, is good for the whole.  Practically, this means that instead of seeking a sort of static even tension, where everyone is getting just enough resources to stay upright and keep things balanced, there is flexibility, with an eye toward equilibrium.  Just as one part of an organism might temporarily demand more than its "fair share" of resources in order to heal or grow, so one member of the family might need more time and attention for a short while.  Sometimes that's one of my children, and I give up something that I legitimately need for their sake.  Sometimes, it's me, and my children go without something important, like story time, in exchange for a functional mother.  

I find this framework especially helpful during these days of early motherhood.  The fact remains that my children are very dependent parts of our family, and much more fragile than myself, or Landon.  They can't handle much deprivation of resources; James, in fact, can handle almost none.  It's comforting to know, however, that there's a reason that things feel off balance and a little feverish, and that this will not last forever.