The Good and the Bad, Part 2

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Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

Late last week, I said the only good thing about the pandemic and stay at home order was snuggling with my children in the morning. Spring Break days didn’t start until 9 or later. Well, they did for me; I got up early to write, and let the kids sleep as long as possible. But when the kids got up I set it aside and we spent long, lazy mornings snuggling in bed: a true luxury. I’m very aware of how blessed I am to have five people to live with; I am not starved for tactile human interaction.

But early this week I realized, on the back side of two hours spent working in the yard, that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent outside. I would have gotten the yard work done regardless, but it would have been the only exercise I did in the day, and it would have felt rushed and guilty, with the knowledge of all the commitments waiting for me dragging down my soul time. Also, we had several days in a row when the wind carried the interstate noise away from the house instead of toward it, so it really was soul food in my own back yard.

Deprived of having to run the kids hither and yon, and with the publishing industry at a near-standstill, my own work feels less pressured, my time feels my own. I’ve doubled and tripled my physical activity in the past few days. Not that it’s all high intensity. But I’ll do Jazzercise On Demand with Julianna and then hike with the family for an hour later in the day and do some light housework or take a walk or bike ride with Alex.

When a friend first posted a meme that suggested viewing this enforced isolation as a Sabbath, I saw the wisdom of it but I hated it. I still hate it, but mostly because I don’t see an end point. And it hurts me to see my children’s childhood formed by this, a quarter of their schoolyear spent in isolation from the social growth that I lacked as a child, and which I’ve worked so hard to facilitate for them.

But two days into online schooling, when we’d established a routine at last, I saw my children respond with love instead of the bickering that has characterized so much of the last several years.  There was laughter at our dinner table–all the way around–an easing of the tension and angst and negativity. It was such a balm to this weary, sleepless soul, I had to get up fro the table and grab the first “flower” from our stash of them to put on the Easter Tree (something we do from my Lent book)–the first thank you that has gone on our tree this year.

I told my teenager that this will be THE formative memory/event for his generation. And I realized that for most of us, the things we consider formative really didn’t impact us directly. 9/11 was crushing, but it’s a totally different thing to have experienced it from the heartland, far away from the carnage. The people who really suffered were my pastoral music friends who did weeks’ worth of multiple funerals every single day. The people who were in the buildings. The people who had loved ones they didn’t know if they were alive or dead.

I was on the outside of all that, and probably most of you were, too. I never really processed how different it is to be in the middle of a nightmare I can’t wake up from, faced with holding not only my own mental health together, but that of my kids. Kids who’ve been ripped away from their friends, their beloved teachers, their favorite activities. They’re suffering a hardship in childhood that the vast majority of us never did.

Escapism

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Yesterday morning, I was scurrying through the bathroom on the way to do something with some kid to get them ready for school when I heard the radio announcer talking about a show that night, and having tickets to give away. When I realized what the show was, I dove for the phone, because except for Christian, we were uncommitted and this was one of the shows I had intended to try to get tickets for in the first place before, well, the last few weeks happened.

So I got the tickets and I told the kids we were going to an acrobatics show, but I didn’t really know what it was, and truthfully I was kind of nervous, because I was tired and emotionally drained and the last thing I wanted was to have to buck up four whiny attitudes, and I was terrified that I’d remembered wrong and what we were getting ourselves into wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

Well, it wasn’t exactly what I’d been picturing, but it was one of the coolest shows I’ve ever seen. I wince on behalf of my community, which didn’t attend it well, because I can’t imagine the audience that wouldn’t like it:

In a week when sorrow feels numb and outrage feels impotent and discouragement is threatening to feel like despair at the end of a series of weeks that feel like being on the receiving end of a whack-a-mole, I am so, so grateful for an hour of pure delight and wonder and escapism…with no need for violence or villains.

And the fact that all my kids adored it…even the tween who hates EVERYTHING.

And the wonder of watching what the human body is capable of.

And a haircut.

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Look, my laptop takes such poor quality pictures, it almost looks artsy!

And secondhand scarves, because I love scarves.

And a good conversation with a friend.

And the tone of my husband’s voice on the phone in the background.

And the return of anxiety, because it’s teaching me about the relationship among anxiety, scrupulousness, and hampered spiritual growth, and challenging me to move forward.

For a good air-clearing within my marriage about where we stand on a particular point of stress in our world, which may be a baby step, but it’s still the first step forward.

For a weekend of baby love, and the promise of another one coming up.

And for a woman willing to spend a weekend with my crazy kids so we can have aforementioned baby love weekend.

For a massage. Because maybe my back won’t hurt in the middle of the night tonight.

For college students who want to work with the Down syndrome community…because we have so many ideas and zero time and energy to bring them to fruition!

For dipping below 130 on the scales again, however fleetingly.

For being too busy to cook desserts, which makes it slightly more likely that I could pull it off two days running.

For homemade yogurt and kombucha, and the way I feel different…even if it’s totally psychological.

And for homemade sourdough bread.

And a really good walk this morning.

And rain. Because oh, how we need rain, with our crunchy grass in September.

That’s my gratitude list. Are you thinking of yours?

 

Reset

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Photo by Wendy House, via Flickr

We’ve been all drama, all the time lately (read: escalating for months) in our house, and for a couple of weeks, I’ve been telling people I’m ready for 2017 to cease to exist. Like, it should be wiped off the annals altogether. I know it’s not a sound way of looking at things–the hardest times are the ones that teach us most and gift us with the most life lessons, and anyway it’s not like my troubles compare to those faced by many others–but sometimes you’re just done and that’s all there is to it. That’s where I am right now. Just done. I’m at my breaking point. My tolerance is gone.

But, as is often the case, when the universe (AKA God) has a lesson for me to learn, he’s not subtle about it. I was reading a memoir called Hourglass, and the author shared a conversation with an older woman who said, “Yeah, I had a bad time of it for a little while. About twenty-four years.”

Two nights later I grabbed my “January book,” where every New Year’s Day I write down a summary of the past year and my goals for the one to come. I knew the content of the most recent entry, yet one thing, I found, I had forgotten. I wrote, “2016 was a terrible year. I just want to wipe it out of existence.”

Sitting there, staring at those words, I realized if I don’t want to have a twenty-four-year-long “bad time,” I have to do whatever I can to change my own narrative. There are a lot of practical applications for that, but probably the first is that I need to start looking for things to be grateful for again. Years ago I participated in the 1000 Gifts blog hop, and from that experience I know nobody else really cares about my lists, but that isn’t really the point. So I will begin my gratitude list again, and I give everyone carte blanche to stop reading before you get there–as long as you go looking for your own things to be grateful for. Maybe if a whole lot of us make some attitude-change ripples, we can reset not only ourselves, but large things. Things beyond our sphere of influence.

I am grateful for the bike ride I haven’t had time to detail.

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For friends willing to donate time to play with me on a recital this weekend.

For manuscript requests.

For the fact that having 10 tons of drama dumping on my/our head/s every moment prevents me from assigning drama to the novel query process. (That’s a really big deal.)

For what appears (and had darned well better be) the end of a plague in our house.

For the beginning of experimenting with fermented foods.

For expanding horizons inside my heart.

For the grace to interact with people on controversial topics without becoming too anxious to sleep.

For the most unwelcome resurfacing of anxiety, which has sparked all these reflections.

For cheesecake.

And the fact that cheesecake doesn’t last very long in the house.

For chenin blanc.

And although I never thought I’d utter these words, for Pit Bull.

That’s probably enough to start.

 

The Gifts I Didn’t Expect

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Photo by Joel Olives, via Flickr

This morning’s daily readings included the story of the man begging by the Beautiful Gate. Peter says to him, “Look at us,” and as the story says, “He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.” Only they had no money. Peter pulled him to his feet and healed him instead.

I’ve always thought of this story purely from the perspective of the miracle—how wonderful for this man, crippled from birth! But this morning it really struck me that a healing like this forces a huge paradigm shift in the life of the recipient. Presumably this man had spent his life earning his living by begging, and it was socially acceptable because he couldn’t do anything else. But now that he’s healed, he has to go find work to support himself. Now the social niceties and expectations he probably could have let slide his whole life are going to come down full force.

This sparked a couple different thoughts. First, it occurred to me that I’ve never once heard anyone say about Biblical beggars the things that are said about modern-day ones. (They’ll just use it to buy drugs; I tried to give a meal to a homeless guy once and he yelled at me because he wanted money for booze, not real help, etc.) It’s like we can assume the best of those in the pages of Scripture in a way we’re not able to do with people in our own time. I’m sure there are sociological reasons for this—the existence of social safety nets, etc. I’m not trying to pick a fight; it just really struck me this morning that it would have been entirely believable that the man at the Beautiful Gate would be like, “Dude, I didn’t ask you for healing, I just asked you for money!”

But he didn’t. He embraced the gift that wasn’t the one he’d been asking for. And this brings me to my second thought, which is about people like me, utterly ordinary middle-class Americans.

It’s easy to get laser-focused on what it is I think I need, and fail to appreciate–or sometimes even recognize–the actual gift I’ve been given. Easy to get rigid in my view of the world and see only the obstacle that’s just plopped down in my path, and fail to recognize that maybe what I see as an obstacle is actually an opportunity. One thing writing has taught me is that brick walls can’t be beat through, but if I go looking for a path around it, it’s even odds that I’ll find out I’ve just stumbled on the path I was supposed to be following all along.

The Negative Loop From Hell

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coyote-bluffLife has been feeling pretty overwhelming lately. If I haven’t given out that vibe, just look back at the fluffy blog posts I’ve been publishing, trying to avoid talking about it.

I’m not sure why it seems so much harder right now. Really, not all that much has changed. Maybe this is what people mean when they say they’re under spiritual attack: you resolve to adopt a demeanor of joy and immediately the powers of the universe start aligning to beat you down. This belief, I should be clear, is not my default approach to the spiritual life. In fact, it’s not even on my list of approaches to the spiritual life.

I’m more inclined to think maybe everything is as it has been for a long time–it’s just eventually I get worn down.

One way or another, my outlook hasn’t been too pretty lately. I’m trying really hard to see the positive, because it’s always there—I know that. But my work load is currently higher than usual, and the time to accomplish it has been significantly compressed. I’m not imagining that.

Nor am I imagining the repeated calls/visits to the orthotist, the new PT visits, ENT visits, the ongoing foot pain, the escalating need for homework supervision, or the ridiculous number of early-outs and scheduled no-school days this semester. In other words, the persistent, consistent interruptions that prevent a person who works from home from establishing any momentum. The kind that make you feel like every day you’re trying to launch a rocket from a dead standstill using half a cup of lighter fluid and a single match.

And the global worry. Oh my word, the global worry. And trying to separate hysteria from what really warrants worry. It’s exhausting.

Still, I’m experiencing at a visceral level a truism I’ve bandied about glibly for years: it’s really, really easy to get into a negative loop. And once you’re there it’s really, really hard to knock yourself out of one.

My choir helped me today. So did a walk with my family and a few minutes sitting on the bluff, watching the wind skip from one part of the valley to the next before arriving at our rocky outcrop. Listening to the kids (and my husband) trying to make echoes off the far hills. But of course, multiple extended periods of air conditioner weather in February brings me right back to “global worries.”

I know all this, too, will pass away, and I have to choose joy in the meantime. Take a day off. Say no to things I want to say yes to, and yes to things I want to say no to. Maybe I need to chew on a 5-year-old belly. Maybe I need to list two positives for every negative.

Most of all, now that I’ve said my piece, I’ve got to quit complaining about it. Because, you know…negative loop.

Negative Nelly Tries To Turn A New Leaf

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Photo by  N@ancyN@nce, via Flickr

 

It’s one of those days when you don’t feel all that hot and from the time you wake up, the entire world seems to get on your nerves. You’re getting the kids ready for school and there’s the note in a kid’s backpack that starts with the passive aggressive phrase “Just a friendly reminder…” and then you can’t find that same child’s jacket because she just throws things wherever (of course, they all do that), and the sound of the radio and TV announcers on the news feels like nails on a chalkboard, and Instagram is being snooty and telling you they’re not willing to fix the problem you didn’t cause, you just have to deal with it, and  you hold back from responding to so-and-so because your word for the year is “cheerful” and…

And there you stop, because you shouldn’t even have let the whole tirade get this far.

I sometimes refer to myself as an emotional exhibitionist. I pretty much put it all out there, both good and bad. But more bad than good, I’m afraid, because I’m also prone to being what Christian calls, with blistering accuracy, the “brooding artist.” Which basically means looking for things to go wrong. It’s a lot easier to find things to gripe about than it is to look at all the good in the background.

Last year, I read “Come Be My Light,” about Mother Teresa. I didn’t realize until just now that I never blogged about it, although I did write a Liguorian column on the topic. The thing that struck me most about that book came very early-on, where Mother Teresa observed that those who exude the most joy and love often are covering profound suffering. Almost, I thought, as if there is something about the choice not to dwell on suffering that frees up all that joy and love.

I knew right then I’d found my central theme for 2017, because the truth is, I don’t really suffer but I often act like I do. My irritations, though legion, are really rather petty. And I don’t want to be a Negative Nelly. I want to be like Mother Teresa. I want to be someone whose presence exudes calm and joy, not frenetic frazzlement. (Don’t you love coining words?)

I didn’t intend to blog about this at all, because I felt like even talking about it would undermine the whole point. But I started and abandoned two blog posts in the last twenty-four hours, because they were both turning into whine-fests, and when my family walked out the door this morning and I tried to start working on a novel synopsis and couldn’t concentrate, I just clicked open a window and started venting, and here we are.

I did say I was going to be more off-the-cuff.

So now you all know, and you can hold me accountable. Because I think this commitment to cheerfulness may turn out to be the hardest spiritual task I’ve ever set myself.

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Image from Symphony of Love, via Flickr

 

The Deep, Dark Underbelly of Parenting (and how my attitude is still my own problem)

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Give them rocks to climb and they won't fight. Oh wait. They had that fight over the walking stick, didn't they? Never mind...

Give them rocks to climb and they won’t fight. Oh wait. They had that fight over the walking stick, didn’t they? Never mind…

I was driving home last night from Julianna’s last horseback riding lesson of the year, and pondering what to write for a blog post today, when I realized Julianna and Michael were in the back seat, fighting over…

…wait for it…

…a dirty paper plate.

This was not the first fight of the afternoon, either. Two hours earlier, Nicholas and Michael had a screaming match over who got to use the electric piano at the piano teacher’s house that included a tug of war over the headphones. And they snapped the cover off one of the headphones.

Fortunately, in this case I was able to snap the cover back into place, and no harm was done. But they got the full scolding, including the words not okay, not acceptable, and who has to pay for the things you break when you’re fighting?

Several things occur to me this morning, as I sit outside typing this and listening to Michael shriek, “JUWEEANNA, *I* AM THE LEADER!” while they ride bikes before school.

But if they work together to try to, say, dig a trench from the wall seepage to the creek, you might just get forty-five minutes of peace and quiet.

But if they work together to try to, say, dig a trench from the wall seepage to the creek, you might just get forty-five minutes of peace and quiet.

One: Michael has definitely hit the age where he’s no longer the victim of sibling oppression, but a full and willing participant.

Two: Often when I do presentations on Down syndrome I get the question about how my boys view their sister’s disability. These illustrations make it very clear that the younger boys, who were not partners in her early intervention therapy, see no difference at all. She’s fair game in every way that ordinary siblings are. She gets no free passes in the Sibling School of Hard Knocks.

Three, and the main point: having children is without a doubt a powerful reminder that I have to choose my attitude, because life will always, always be full of irritations and frustrations.

I frequently feel like pulling my hair out when my kids start bickering. It’s usually so petty. I mean, really. A dirty paper plate? There’s not even a good story behind that one. It really was just a dirty paper plate. And fighting over the electric piano? They actually both had good cause to consider themselves justified in wanting that instrument. Michael got to it first, but the purpose of the piano being there at all is so that kids waiting for their own lessons can practice, and Nicholas wanted to—gasp—use the piano for its intended purpose.

But it never occurred to them that there was any way to resolve their dispute other than PULLING APART SOMEONE ELSE’S ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT?????????

Excuse me for a moment while I take a deep breath. Or twelve.

The danger in failing to acknowledge the icky underbelly of family life on a blog is that you give the impression that your life is all unicorns and rainbows, thus making others feel inadequate.

But the danger in focusing on said icky underbelly is that it’s really, really easy to start seeing nothing else. You start thinking that your kids are going to grow up to be sociopaths, when in reality there are indications to the contrary. For instance:

A week ago, Christian dropped Julianna and me off at church on Wednesday night so she wouldn’t be late for “church school,” and then he took the boys and went to fill up the van with gas. The gas station happened to be next door to Taco Bell, and nobody had had dessert, so Christian decided to get them some of those amazing cream cheese-stuffed fried whatevers. And Nicholas put a check on Alex, who wanted to finish them, by saying, “But what about Julianna? Julianna didn’t get any.”

It’s hard to accept the self-absorption of young childhood, especially when your whole life is structured around meeting their needs ahead of your own. It doesn’t really matter how many times the experts tell you it’s normal. It always chafes. And that chafing draws attention to itself, to the point where sometimes you fail to recognize—or choose to ignore—the sweet moments, and cling to the problems.

When all those parenting surveys show how “less happy” people are after they’ve had kids, I think it is more an indicator of our own attitudes, which are, let’s face it, entirely in our control. Bad things happen. That doesn’t mean it has to ruin your entire life.

Thus concludes my daily self-pep talk. How about a funny Nicholas school paper?

That mile-long word?

That mile-long word? “Music.”

Lifting The Veil

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Image by *jay~bay*, via Flickr

Saturday morning, Christian and I provided music for a funeral at our parish. The man was our age and had school-age children, and it was impossible to avoid the recognition of just how fragile is the reality we cling to, how quickly it can change, and truly, how blessed we are to have what we have–even when all we see is stress and worry and emptiness.

It was the first time I have sung “Shepherd Me, O God” in public since my grandmother’s funeral (can it be a year and a half already?), a fact of which I was very aware as I skirted the coffin and made my way up the sanctuary steps for the psalm. Very, very aware of exactly where I fell apart singing it for Grandma. Praying for the grace to keep it together. I did…mostly. But I couldn’t make eye contact with the assembly as I usually do.

Following that celebration, the day unfolded in a blur of chaos. I never changed out of my gray dress because our choir was providing music for Saturday evening Mass. It’s been a very long time (though not nearly long enough!) since I wore pantyhose for a full day. In between those two Masses, we had two birthday parties and a playdate to chauffeur our children to, and I had to have a confrontation with Staples over a large print order they had messed up. Two confrontations, in fact.

And throughout the busy-ness of preparing meals and negotiating trade settlements between children, getting the preschooler changed out of his ripped clothes and into semi-passable clothing for church, and the barely-under-control behavior of the kids during church (they do NOT do well at 5:30 in the evening!), the awareness stayed with me. How thin is the veil between our crazy-busy ordinary and the loss of it all. A single diagnosis, a moment’s lost concentration on the road, can change the trajectory of our ordinary forever. How rarely we stop to take stock of what we’ve been given, and put into perspective the petty irritations and stresses that occupy our waking hours.

Saturday evening, when the kids were finally in bed and Christian and I were sitting in front of the TV, I leaned my head over to rest against his, felt the warmth radiating from him, the softness of skin, the roughness of the coarse, whitening hair at his temples. And for a few moments I let the veil blow away and saw my life in all its beauty and fragility, and thanked God for what I have.

Things are Changing

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Photo by yooperann, via Flickr

Things are changing in my heart these days.

We are five weeks into the new year, just about the time when the gyms stop being overcrowded and the motivation to avoid that caffeine, or sugar, or whatever, starts to slip. The year is burying certain parts of the country in deep, impenetrable snow, while in other parts (like mine) the earth rides a wild seesaw between spring and the heart of winter.

This is the time of snow days and hacking coughs that last for weeks, of stir crazy children and sloppy boots and snow pants that no one ever puts away. Of deadlines crowded one upon the next and the mess of Christmas crashing into the insanity of birthdays. The days when children scream at each other over that one matchbox car, even though there are three dozen others to choose from, and the noise level is always about three times what my quiet-loving soul is ready to handle.

And yet this year I’m staying pretty calm.

Things are changing in my heart these days. There’s a word that I’m whispering over and over every day, every time the chaos and the too-much threatens to overwhelm: treasure.

Mary treasured all these things, reflecting upon them in her heart.

Too often, I have chosen to “treasure”—to cling to—the worst of my life. I used to count the number of pieces of laundry I had to fold, gnashing my teeth in resentment. More recently, I’ve approached one of my children with frustration at a constant simmer, waiting to boil over at the first sign of resistance. I have focused on strings of nights with little sleep and the self-centered ingratitude of children. I’ve brooded over injustices and blog comments and Facebook status updates that rankle.

But my heart is changing these days. The thing I’m learning—the thing I’ve always known, the thing you know as well as I, the thing that is common sense, and yet we all conveniently forget—is that like begets like. What we choose to focus on defines our reality. When my emotional energy is focused on the worst facets of my life, the worst soon becomes the only thing I see.

But whispering this word, treasure, over and over when irritations arise is giving me the gift of release. I have the choice to release the bad moments and hold onto the good ones. It’s steering me on a course toward serenity of heart. It’s giving me the ability to head off conflicts with that one child, turning them into giggle fests–not always, but sometimes is much better than never–of keeping me calm when things don’t go my way, and releasing some of the pressure on my temper. I’m noticing the hysterical kid moments these days, laughing over them late at night with my husband in a way he’s always been able to, but I frequently was not. More of my life unfolds within a glow of gratitude these days, an awareness of the richness given to me.

Things are changing in my heart these days. And that is a very good thing.

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Rolling With The Punches

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Photo by avrene, via Flickr

Life is a well-oiled machine, dependent on every cog to keep chugging along. Have Michael in the van and ready to pull out the driveway when Julianna’s bus arrives at 7:50 a.m. Fasting blood work at 8, when the doors open. Drop Michael off at 8:20. Meet friend to work through flute duet-in-progress at 8:30. Breakfast packed for consumption following. Park butt at church for ninety minutes to work until Michael’s school dismisses. Pick up Michael. Replace heart monitor battery and run to the library on the way to Jazzercise. Home for lunch and nap.

A good, time-efficient plan, starting at one end of town and working my way to the other.

Until the bus failed to show up.

The busses are notoriously inconsistent around here, but when they changed Julianna’s route in November, it seemed I’d finally hit the jackpot, with two drivers who really could be counted on to be on time.

But by 7:58 a.m. my efficient, non-gas-and-time-wasting plan was in jeopardy, but I thought I could still manage to pull it off, just a few minutes late. I took Julianna to school myself. You’re not allowed to drop off until 8:05 a.m., when the teachers come outside to supervise the process.

Except the teachers didn’t come outside. At almost 8:10 I had to take her inside myself, because after all, this is Julianna we’re talking about…the sneaky wandering child.

By the time I got her where she was supposed to be and back to the car, I knew I didn’t have time for blood work anymore. I had ten minutes to get Michael to school, and another ten to get to my flute appointment.

And that’s when I realized: I’d forgotten my flute.

Now, everybody knows plans have to include a certain amount of flexibility. And parents know that you have to be ready to make complicated plan changes on the go. I remember when I was first reading blogs, I kept coming across stay-at-home moms defending their decision to let their careers go, saying they had to exercise more brain power as mothers than they ever had in the work force.

This, I think, is what they meant: spend an hour concocting a complete, workable plan that accomplishes everything. Then life happens and you throw it out and concoct a new one in ten seconds.

And it works. It’s not ideal, but it works.

Not so long ago, having my whole plan for the day upended would have put me in a foul mood. But something amazing is happening to me as I focus on the word “treasure” this year: things are sliding off my back a little more easily. Disruptions, work interruptions, late school starts that equal no school at all for Michael. I could choose to treasure the irritation of having my will thwarted, but that just leads to me griping and looking at the world through a fog of negativity.

I don’t know how long this will last. Is this a miraculous, permanent change to my outlook? Or is it just the first blush of a new resolution, soon to wear off—about the same time the gyms empty out again?

That remains to be seen. But permanence comes one day at a time, so for now I’m just going to focus on today.