The Way of All Things

Standard

It’s been an intense fall. An intense year, really, but particularly an intense fall in my world.

We had no rain to speak for a couple months this summer, and so I didn’t expect much in the way of fall color, but it got crazy cold all at once. The one and only benefit of having no fall—just summer and then winter—was that the temperature shock overcame the lack of water. There’s a magic to fall color that never fails to move me, and as I was outside trying, as I do every year, to capture it, I was also thinking of my grandmother, who was dying and not dying and dying again through all of this.

I thought of the hasty trip to St. Louis with my sister, to see Grandma in the hospital, and the four hours of unexpected conversation we got out of that.

I thought of my 30+ cousins rushing into town to see her—she had 10 kids, in case you’re wondering—and chuckling because when another of my sisters called the hotel in Grandma’s small suburban community, they were completely befuddled because their entire hotel was booked full, and they could not, for the life of them, explain why. My sister laughed and said, “It’s all my family.”

I thought of the last time I saw my grandmother, propped up in a recliner with a bipap strapped around her head, and how Julianna was too scared to come give her a hug and say goodbye, so Grandma said, “I certainly understand,” and had my aunt remove the mask so Julianna could see her face one last time.

I thought of our week in Washington DC, visiting museums and eating out of food trucks and hanging out with my oldest friend—another cousin—and how everything seemed so raw and real and vibrant, and half my heart was an airplane ride behind me, with my parents and sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts, and most of all my grandmother—and realizing I couldn’t imagine a world without her in it.

I thought of how flying home to find central Missouri in a blaze of peak color glory.

And I thought, “Death can really be a beautiful thing.”

I intended to blog on this topic a month ago, but then there were fires in California and mass shootings (in the plural) and I thought perhaps waxing poetic about the beauty of death might be not only insensitive, but downright myopic.

Peak is long past now. The trees are all asleep for the winter, and my grandmother sleeps a different kind of sleep, one that wakes only into eternity. I sang the psalm at her funeral, and last week our Thanksgiving table was adorned with a pitcher that used to sit atop her hutch.

Two days before Thanksgiving, my parents finished harvest. Harvest has always been my favorite time of year on the farm, poignant and beautiful and bittersweet. But more so this year than ever, because this was the last. My parents are retiring.

The day after Thanksgiving, my family attended a play in a small community two or three towns beyond my hometown. It was weird enough to bypass the exit for my parents’ farm on the way there. But coming back, in the dark—and it’s so dark out there in rural Missouri—it was hard not to tear up, watching one familiar gravel road and another pass by, organizing the black grids between them into fields with particular memories. Thinking of the time the car broke down on that road and we had to walk home, or the time during the 93 flood, when I got the tractor stuck up to its axles in the field just beyond that field, or the way we once walked across the back fields to the house that lies just down that road and swam in their pond, or the way I stopped in this field just a year ago to ride the combine with Dad on the way home from a rehearsal.

All those memories, and realizing there aren’t any more to be made in those fields. They’ll be farmed by someone else now. I won’t have a reason to drive those dusty roads and navigate the uneven surface of a newly-harvested field. I won’t have a reason to smell that cool, semisweet smell that only comes at harvest time with the pouring of grain and the chewing up of plants in the threshing machine.

It’s disorienting, and very emotional. I got to thinking that I could name probably half a dozen pivotal elements of my identity: things that for my entire life have defined how I see myself in relation to the world. In less than a month, two of them have gone the way all things go.

It’s all beautiful, and I am eternally grateful for the richness of my memory. But it’s sad, too.

Advertisements

To my Church, in a time of crisis

Standard
shadow of person on water during daytime

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

In recent months, I’ve been retreating periodically from Facebook as it grows steadily more toxic. But I have never before seen the level of toxicity that I have seen this week.

I got on this morning, after a two-day (mostly) social media rest, and I shared the video linked below without comment. But then I realized: I need to comment. I need to share what I am feeling about all this.

I am feeling bruised, nauseous, sleepless, grief-stricken, very close to hopeless. And although those feelings definitely apply to what has happened in my Church, which I love, they are equally a response to the way people within my Church are treating each other over it. The things that are being said; the conspiracy theories, the way everyone is lining up according to political leanings and convincing themselves that God is on THEIR side, not on the side of those OTHER, less worthy, less Catholic Catholics.

In fact, yesterday morning when the daily readings turned their attention for the first time this liturgical year to the end times–for those who don’t follow the daily Lectionary, this happens every year at this time, but this year it felt different to me–I thought of the heartbreak I am feeling as I see my fellow faithful rush to condemn and blame and point fingers at each other, and more particularly, at whichever flavor of clergy they don’t like, rather than try to work together to fix what is so clearly broken, and which so many of us have been too silent about for far too long.

And as I listened to that “be ready, you don’t know when it’s coming” Gospel, I thought for the first time in my life: I think I’m about ready for a second coming, Jesus, because I don’t think I can stand to see the world get any worse than it is right now.

I thought about all those times in the Church’s history when there has been upheaval. We look back from our comfy 21st century vantage point and say, “Oh yeah, this heresy in this century, this abuse in this one, and then they fixed it at this point.” I’ve never before thought about what it means to live through that. It’s awful. I have to believe that the Spirit will see us through, but that does not help much right now.

To my fellow Catholics I say: We are all hurting. We are like wounded wild animals, lashing out. But we’ve got to find a better way. As Bishop Barron says in the video below, this is the time we have to fight for our Church–and this does not mean reclaiming it from the “homosexual agenda” or the “reactionary fill-in-the-blanks.” Those are human divisions, human constructs, and when we get focused in on those, we make idols of our own agendas. We have got to start acting like Jesus and listen to each other with open hearts. We have got to set aside our secular agendas and picking and choosing which leaders we give credibility to and which we don’t, based on how well they reflect our own particular flavor of political ideology. We have got to stop rushing to judgment about motivations and who’s guilty and who’s not, simply based on which person we WANT to be guilty or not guilty.

We have built some serious idols in our Church, and it’s time to stop trying to prop them up. It’s time to take an honest look at what is broken and recognize that no one side can claim righteousness. There are major, painful days ahead, and the more we fling vitriol, call names and place blame, the more deeply we are allowing Satan to get in and split us apart.

Testing (or: when a morale-booster ends up being demoralizing)

Standard

This past week, we got the results of Julianna’s “re-eval.”

Now, for those of you who are not immersed in the world of special education, part of the process is that every three years a child must be re-evaluated to make sure they still qualify for special ed. There’s a whole battery of tests, and I guess the team has some leeway in which ones they think they need and will actually be useful.

Julianna just went through this process, and I’m blogging about it because this is the first time I ever understood the antipathy among special needs parents to the whole concept of IQ testing. (Check out this link–the first one to come up–to realize how people thought of those with low IQs when this first became a thing.)

Truthfully, I was kind of curious. Julianna was tested when she went into kindergarten, and at that time we were told that in the first couple years of elementary school the number can shift. I don’t remember exactly what her first IQ was—I think it was middle/high 60s.

Three years later, they didn’t retest her IQ. I was slightly unhappy about that, because I was sure it would go up and let’s be honest, I wanted that morale booster.

Well, this time they did the IQ testing. In fact, they led with those results when we met last week.

40s, people. She tested in the 40s.

They were quick to say they didn’t think this was representative of her actual intelligence. They had to pull her from class to take the tests—all of them. And she was not happy about that. Not happy at all. She loves school. There’s not one single thing she doesn’t like about school. So the entire time she was being tested, she was grouchy and focused on getting back to class, where she belonged.

But they kept going around the table, and every one of those global numbers came out in the 40s. It was all the same caveats:

“She showed she understood the question, but the instructions said to use the cue word, and she didn’t use it. She used other words instead. So she got counted off for that.”

Or:

“Some of these areas she scored really high on—in the 70s or 80s—but the comprehension is her problem.”

Or:

“She was really focused more on what we were doing after the test was done rather than the questions.”

You get the idea. And I found myself stopping the meeting to say, “Hang on. If these tests are not indicative of what she’s actually capable of, why are we doing them?”

They hastened to add that they chose some more…descriptive (I think that’s the word they used) tests that they felt would showcase her strengths, to supplement the standardized tests. So that’s good.

But for me, this has put the whole question of standardized testing in a new light, which is why I’m sharing. Too many of us just take many of these things for granted.

I totally get that standardized tests are standardized for a reason. Everybody gets the same instructions. Nobody gets clarifications. Nobody gets alternative instructions. That’s the only scientific way to say everybody got exactly the same opportunity. My whole life, people have complained, “Standardized tests don’t test knowledge. They test how well you take tests.” I always thought that was hogwash, but then, I’m a darned good test taker.

Now, I understand.

And here’s the thing: for most of us, those standardized tests are really not that important. But Julianna’s going into the 5th grade. In the next twelve months, the entire shape of her middle school experience will be decided. The whole purpose of this battery of tests was to help direct that process.

So now what? Will she be walled off in a self-contained classroom where her focus will be “essential skills”, and no longer be able to interact with her typically-developing peers for any academic work whatsoever? How much inclusion is possible? How much can we fight for?

It would be very easy to use that 40-something IQ and related test results, and put her out of sight-out of mind for the rest of her educational experience. And she would be poorer for that. Even more importantly, her peers would be poorer for it.

Now, for the first time, I understand why all those parents said, “Don’t ever, ever, ever, EVER let them do an IQ test on your kid!”

I said to our IEP team: “We have always had a really good experience, we’ve never felt like the relationship with the school was combative, we’ve always felt like we were on the same page. I need you guys to stand with us as we go forward in this process. The reality is, Julianna is never going to be a high academic achiever. Sticking her behind a wall isn’t going to change that. She won’t accomplish any more there than she would outside it. What she’s good at is people. She needs to be around people, and they need to be around her. I need you guys to help us discern what is the appropriate level of inclusion, and I need you guys to advocate for us.”

So that’s where we are. We have a true IEP meeting in a few weeks. I’ll update after that.

Mad Lib Theology

Standard

Today, I visit my blog to talk about this girl:

Julianna ladybug

Wednesday nights, Julianna goes to “church school” (because it’s easier for little kids to say than “religious ed”) while we’re having choir practice. Usually, in the chaos of grabbing boys from the nursery, cleaning up octavos and books, and getting an overtired family of six out to the van 45 minutes past bedtime, we don’t even catch a glimpse of whatever work she did at school.

So this week, when we gave the choir a week off after Easter, I took Julianna to church school by herself, and in fact I did get a good look at the work she did. Are you ready for this?

Julianna theology

1. I am the Lord your 9: you shall be have mom gods before me. 2. You do not take the chalice of the Lord your God in mercy. 3. Bread to keep three the great Day.

Image result for eye pop emoji

Once I got done giggling–I mean, it’s like a mad lib!–I realized I was staring at concrete proof of something I already knew: she’s really never going to “get it” from a class. Religious formation is one of the most conceptual things a child can possibly be asked to learn, and Julianna does not do “conceptual.” There’s value in having her in religious ed classes because going week after week teaches her that the faith is central to life. And she’s obviously picked up a couple of key words. 🙂

But with that paper in mind, the lesson I learned on Holy Saturday really gelled. We had gotten Julianna tickets to Disney on Ice at an 11 a.m. show in Kansas City. It was a two-hour drive, and we spent the time listening to the compilation of downloaded Christian music I made her for Christmas a couple years ago. (All legally purchased!) I chose these songs with the idea of having simple, hooky music that still had substantive messages, in order to teach her lessons about the faith. Because music is what Julianna does.

It was an incredibly uplifting drive, singing this music, with Julianna in the back seat decked out in her Miraculous Ladybug getup and dancing. She sang every word, and she danced as best she could while buckled into a seatbelt.

(That girl has jazz hands down.)

And I had this moment of inspiration: to take the essential Scriptures and write simple but hooky songs for kids like her–theologically sound, hopefully theologically dense–but still, simple? Methinks such a thing would be of use to a whole lot wider demographic than musically-gifted 11-year-olds with Down syndrome.

Which also brings up the question I want to ask of anyone reading today:

What songs already out there fit this bill for you?

In case you’re wondering, here’s the playlist we sang on Saturday.

 

The Multiplication of Rage

Standard

fire-orange-emergency-burning.jpgYou know how muscles get stronger, right? It’s by being broken down. Stressing muscles causes micro-tears that allow for growth.

This seems a very appropriate analogy for life right now. I am going through a time of great spiritual…let’s call it development. “Reorientation” and “upheaval” both sound good, but they aren’t really accurate. Basically, I feel like I’m looking at a stressful situation (my life) and beginning to consider not just how to handle it but whether I’m making it worse by my own spiritual-emotional habits.

I meet weekly with a wonderful pair of women for faith sharing. We’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. It’s been a weekly occasion for mind-blowing, in beautiful but sometimes very challenging ways.

“How different would our life be if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace would multiply as long as there are people to receive it?”

The thing is, what Nouwen says of love, forgiveness, joy and peace is equally true of judgment, resentment, anger and intolerance. And when I say intolerance, I’m not referring to the common topics associated with that word these days, although it applies there, too. No, what I’m talking about is tolerance for irritation. For having our convenience thwarted. You know. The car that’s driving too slowly in front of you. The school district’s decisions about scheduled days off and weather days. The incompetent cashier or the inconveniently-timed software update.

Every January and every Lent, I spend a fair amount of time discerning how best to grow as a human being in these fresh seasons. Yet nearly every year, I get a few weeks in and discover that I’m off-course, or at least, not digging deep enough.

pexels-photo.jpgI’m angry these days. So very angry, all the time. Angry about big things, but finding that it gushes down into far too many of the little ones, too. Eroding my capacity for tolerance for hassles, for kindness to people who inconvenience me. Even my capacity to love.
I’m hardly alone. This essay came through my Facebook feed last week; the resonance of it left me speechless. The first few “top comments” prove the author’s point.

And I realized that I had to turn off the radio in the car again—not just for a few days, but for the duration of Lent. There’s no silence, no peace in my heart; I feel this frantic, well, franticness (to materialize a word) to fill every moment of blank mental space with stimulus, with information. We are desperate in the modern world, and we don’t even know what it is we’re desperate for.

I think it’s rest. A rest we can never find, because we’re strung so tight, the slightest little whisper of a breeze makes us vibrate. Silence feels like a threat, like walking on eggshells through a room where a very colicky baby has just fallen asleep after hours of constant screaming. We’re longing for rest, and also authentic connection. I mean, what else is the draw of talk radio, podcasts, and social media if not to feel like someone is talking to us? Accompanying us in our minor pilgrimages across town?

Yet the only way to get to a place of rest is to sit down, shut up, and shut down, and we have to go through silence to get there.

I’ve had the radio off for two weeks now. Not just off news radio, but off. And still, it’s hard. I thought it would get easier after a week’s withdrawal, but it hasn’t. I feel the pressure in my chest, in my brain, begging for relief.

We all know when we’re strung tight, we can’t roll with the punches; we have no give in our strings. We just snap. It’s no wonder I’m angry. Sure, there are plenty of things, legitimate outrages. But I can see how easy it would be to let anger and negativity crowd out every good thing about my life. Anger feeds on itself and grows bigger, more all-encompassing. As Nouwen said, they multiply as long as there are people to receive them.

I’d rather take his solution and multiply kindness and forgiveness.

pexels-photo-207997.jpeg

But dang, it’s hard to make that shift. We’re wound so tight toward rage, the force is nearly impossible to resist. You try to turn toward the light and the dark pulls you right back.

But we didn’t get here all at once. It’s been coming a long time, and we’ve encouraged it. I know I have. So I have to commit to seeking the light, again and again and again and again, until it at last feels like my home territory.

I’m writing stream-of-consciousness late at night, following choir practice when my brain is revved up and won’t shut down so I can sleep. (Ironic, given the topic, I know.) The danger in opening myself up like this is that people will judge and/or try to tell me exactly what I SHOULD do, which is not at all useful. (In case you missed the hint: please don’t! I don’t need more negativity in my world, and neither do you.) I’m not putting these reflections out as a cry for help or an invitation for judgment—quite the opposite. I think I’m expressing something that is a universal wound of modern life, in the hope that it will resonate, and help others to set sail on their own, desperately-needed journeys of the spirit.

pexels-photo-431722.jpeg

Parenthood is all about “Pantsing”

Standard

pexels-photo-434446.jpegOnce, I was talking to a favorite uncle about life and all deep things. Because that’s what we do. (He’s a great uncle.) I said, “You know, when I was a kid, and something was bothering me, I’d think it through and make up my mind what to do about it, and that was it. I never questioned it again. Now, I never stop questioning things, no matter how many times I make up my mind.”

My uncle laughed. “Welcome to adulthood,” he said.

I was thinking about this last night as I listened to one of my children baring his soul about an experience that had hurt him deeply. It wasn’t a situation with a simple solution. He wasn’t at fault, but he was letting it get to him far more than was necessary or healthy. I told him what he had experienced was always going to be irritating—like mosquitoes you can’t escape—but he has a choice whether he opens up his heart and lets it hurt him down deep. Even though it doesn’t feel like he has a choice. That he feels things more deeply than other people do, and the first thing is to know that about himself.

A deep, heavy sigh. “Mom, I thought you’d be able to help me. Give me some advice or something that would help.”

Oohf. Speaking of opening up one’s heart and letting things hurt you down deep. This is not how a mom wants to be viewed by her child: as impotent. This is not how a mom wants to BE to her child.

Writers tend to split themselves into two camps: plotters and pantsers. (Those seem self-explanatory to me, but just in case: Plotters have a global plan in place before they embark on a novel; pantsers fly by the seat of their pants.) I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone reading this post that I’m a confirmed plotter. Without a plan I would have no idea which way to go. I would write 5,000 words and then hit a huge wall, because I wouldn’t know where to go. It’s too big a task.

That’s how I feel about life, too. I want a plan, a way to organize the things that are Too Big, the things that are Too Much For Me. This is how I deal with anxiety: by planning for contingencies. Even when plans A, B, and C get derailed, merely having thought through everything prepares me for flying by the seat of my pants.

Last night on our oh-so-romantic Valentine’s date at Denny’s, Christian and I were discussing parenthood, and we came to the realization that although we are plotters by nature, parenthood is really a game of pantsing. You’re totally making it up as you go along.

No wonder we all make such a mess of it.