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.

Hippie Girl Chocolate Chip Face Brother love Alex Olaf Talk To The Hand Selfie With My Baby Feb. 3 lunch 100-day model

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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.

The Trouble With Absolutes, Part 1: Parenthood

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between heaven and earth

between heaven and earth (Photo credit: Mara ~earth light~)

It’s not the big stuff that gets you, it’s all the little stuff piled on top of each other. When the big stuff hits, you handle it with grace. It’s the little stuff that makes you lose your cool.

This has been my mantra lately. I think we’ve had viruses running laps around our house nonstop since the first of the year. In conjunction with teething and separation anxiety, Michael’s become progressively more clingy and needy. When he’s with a sitter he cries the whole time. With me, he just complains and whines any time he’s remotely uncomfortable or bored. Which is most of the time.

Any mother can tell you that a baby’s cries and complaints flay your nerves raw almost instantaneously. They’re designed that way, and so are we. Pile that on top of three other kids who’ve also been sick, plus cooped up by snow that is not conducive to any kind of outside play for ones this small (it’s up to their thighs, with a crust that gives way at every step) and…well, use your imagination.

Basically, having four kids is kicking my butt. My fuse is nonexistent. Whoever said after the third child adding more doesn’t make any difference? They must have been living on some other planet.

What does all this have to do with “the trouble with absolutes”?

Well.

I’ve spent much of the last few weeks talking myself down off a “the sky is falling!” cliff. I find myself saying things like, It can’t possibly get any worse! when I know full well, from my own experience, it can. My present trials are nothing more than annoyances. I feel like a terrible mother because I cannot STAND stepping on one more DVD case. Or tripping over one more pie plate I’ve put away three times since lunch. Or breaking up one more fight between children who only want what someone else has because someone else has it. Or being interrupted while I’m having a conversation with Daddy.

I’m not a terrible mother, of course, and painting a broad black stroke against my own character only digs me further into my pity pot.

And yet the opposite reaction–the one moms in my situation hear all too often–is equally counterproductive. “Oh, enjoy it! It goes so fast! Someday you’re going to miss these times.”

Cough. That was the word you know I was thinking, but was too polite to say.

I know people mean well with that sentiment. They’re trying to say, “Don’t focus on the bad and forget to notice the good. It’s not going to last forever, and on the other side, you want to remember the good, not the bad.”

The problem is, there’s a subtext to this message: Your problems are not valid. Your feelings are not justified. It’s not okay to be frustrated. If you can’t set aside your frustration and focus on the good instead, you’re a Bad Mom.

I don’t think anyone means to convey that subtext, but it’s there nonetheless. And that absolute is just as damaging as the other. Yes, it will pass away, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear right now. Yes, others are dealing with far more painful problems than my ten weeks running of sickness and crabbiness. At least I have my kids. And yet, all crosses are real. Pretending otherwise just makes a tough job unnecessarily harder.

On Thursday night, the family went out to dinner, and a couple in their 70s stopped me on the way out. “Your kids are so well behaved,” she said. “I didn’t even realize there were children sitting behind me.”

These are the messages parents need. Parenthood is hard at all stages. Affirmation and encouragement go a long way, while you’re going to miss it and oh, you sure have your hands full! just flay an already battered soul further, layering guilt upon the sense of failure that accompanies losing your temper again and again.

UPDATE: Michael’s 15-month well-child visit became a sick visit, and lo and behold, the boy’s ear infection never fully healed. The culprit? Urgent Care under-medicated him. In other words, the prescription strength was too low for his size. (Face-palm.) Since that Rx was already a second-stage remedy, now we’re bringing in the big guns: antibiotic shots three days in a row. Yippee. I hope this finally takes care of it.

A Word For A New Year: Charity

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Plus haut

Plus haut (Photo credit: iko)

I love the idea of celebrating New Years, but in reality the idea’s not even on the table anymore. Last night we went to bed at 10:30 and called it an hour late…because by eleven Nicholas woke up with a nightmare, and when the fireworks hit at midnight Michael woke up scared. And then there were the “Happy New Year!” text messages beeping on Christian’s phone. (Face palm.)

Well, in any case, it’s just ahead of six a.m. on New Years Day, 2013, and here I sit, reflecting forward. For the last few Januaries many of my bloggy friends have been choosing a word for the year, a word to direct their spiritual focus for the coming months. I’ve never participated before, but there’s been a word rattling around in my head for the last several weeks, consistently enough for me to recognize the Spirit at work. The word is charity.

Charity is a funny word. My whole life I’ve associated it with giving money to those in need, but in Scriptural terms it’s used interchangeably with “love.” It makes sense; love is a series of choices and actions, so it should naturally bear itself out in giving.

But there’s still another definition. For me, charity is a call to change my heart.

I’ve fussed often enough on this blog about the way we talk to each other in the modern world: the vitriol, the rigid mindset that causes us to dig in at the extremes of any political, philosophical or religious disagreement. A mindset in which we make assumptions about others’ thoughts and motivations and pass snap judgment based upon assumptions, sound bites and half-truths, while simultaneously refusing to recognize our own self-righteousness in doing so. It’s a state of mind and heart that shreds others’ human dignity, and as such it stands contrary to what we believe as Christians.

But you know, what a person focuses on sheds a great deal of light on their own mindset. I’ve said it a lot recently: religious writing is like one ongoing examination of conscience. And I’m at least as guilty of these sins as anyone I call to task for them. Charity for me this year means changing my internal monologue from judgment to acceptance. It means giving people the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming the worst about their beliefs, motivations and actions. It is an exercise in finding Christ in others, and in myself.

And it’s probably the hardest task I’ve ever set myself for a new year.

(Others are sharing their word-of-the-year here.)

In This Season of Life

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There are times when I realize I will never understand my children.

Like Julianna, who can drag a pile of “Your Baby Can Read” cards the thickness of a Tolstoy volume around the house…but when I tell her to put them away, she must do it one at a time. (Whimper, pick up a card, carry it to the other room, come back, whimper, pick up another card, carry it to the other room…)

Or Michael, who apparently feels an irresistible compulsion to climb the stairs, even though the instant he reaches the top, he turns around and starts wailing because no one else is up there, and he wants to be where everyone else is.

Or Nicholas, who must tattle on Michael and Julianna, even though I am standing right next to them both, with my eyes on them, and am perfectly capable of observing Michael’s or Julianna’s mischief for myself.

As I type this morning, the living room is strewn with papers hither and yon; in front of me the trash bags we stuffed into the unused gas fireplace for insulation glare unattractively, no longer hidden by the heavy, sharp brass grates we took down after Michael repeatedly yanked them down on himself. At the foot of the TV stand sits the rubber ducky I take up to the bathroom repeatedly, yet always seems to appear on this level of the house. Behind me, the kitchen is free of dirty dishes but not of clutter; the papers we from school get tossed every night, except the ones that require action, so you can imagine how that goes.

In short, this season of life is chaotic. There are things you expect from life with four kids, and yet there really isn’t any being prepared. This weekend, we had a wedding, children’s theater rehearsal, and a cub scout campout on Saturday, but nothing on Sunday, and the opportunity to do nothing was blissful. Soul food. I wish we (and here I’m speaking collectively, of all of you reading as well as my own family) could find a way to better balance between life-enriching activity and soul-needed rest. Because I know I’m not the only one in this position. It just seems like we, collectively, are so busy pursuing the goodness of life that we don’t have enough brain capacity available at any given moment to revel in the richness. And then twenty years down the line we regret having only skimmed the surface of life instead of drinking deeply.

Hardest of all is making a change. I ought to be able to shift my trajectory, but so far my efforts have not been successful. I suppose it’s another truism of life, that you can’t change others, only yourself. It’s just a lot harder when “yourself” happens to be the one responsible for keeping the schedule for a household of five other people who aren’t feeling the same need for change. Sometimes, you get overruled. And let’s be honest, my husband and my children are a lot better at living in the moment than I am. So maybe I’m really the one who has to change, anyway.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

*

Nicholas standing in a “wheat”-box (instead of “sand”box). Note the inside-out sweatpants. Nicholas’ self-dressing habits should be a post in themselves. 🙂

Can you imagine sending a big honkin’ bus like this, so long it needs two stop signs, for a teeny wisp of a girl like mine?

What If?

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A New Day Brings New Opportunity

A New Day Brings New Opportunity (Photo credit: w4nd3rl0st (InspiredinDesMoines))

I think it started the day I hurt my knee.

I wasn’t doing anything to deserve injury. I was just coming around the corner to go upstairs after a voice lesson when my left knee popped and went out from under me. For six weeks, doctor and PT notwithstanding, it hasn’t been right. In combination with an ankle weak after an early-summer sprain, I am not in good physical shape. My weight is creeping back upward because I can’t exercise properly, my back is tight, and in general, it’s an unpleasant taste of the waning years of life, all the more disconcerting because I didn’t expect it to start this early. I’m only 38, for crying out loud.

My new vulnerability casts a different tint on the world. There’s so much that’s beautiful about life and love and relationship, but there’s so much ugliness, too. As I try to sort through the bile being spewed in the political process, to separate the genuine from the rhetoric and the rhetoric from the slant imposed by whoever’s telling me about it, the only rational conclusion I can draw is that there’s no one truly worthy in the whole process. And that makes me wonder: What if our government collapses under the weight of its own debt, lack of integrity, and dearth of political will to change? What if the environmental scenarios are right? What if all the saving my husband and I do, what if all the plans we are laying so carefully for our future and that of our children, come to nothing because of forces wholly outside our control?

I try to insert reason into the voice of gloom. Doomsday scenarios have been around as long as there have been people to preach them, after all, and we’re all still here, limping along as best we can. And I’m always fussing about how none of that other stuff is really important, anyway, that what really matters is family and relationship, and living in love. If one day the entire world  falls apart, we have a big back yard to grow vegetables in. We’re not going to die. But that’s not much comfort.

This morning, I took my exercise walk (because I can’t run on my knee) in the dark. The sky was spangled silver, a sight that never, ever fails to insert a sliver of awe into my outlook. And as I walked, my face turned upward, checking the ground every few seconds to keep from injuring myself further, some half-forgotten insight, heard who knows when, came to mind: that human beings were made to look up, not to get our sights stuck on the things of earth, because let’s face it, at any given moment, life on earth is only a hairs breadth away from disaster. If we fix our joy and fulfillment on anything of earth, we’ll spend our whole life in fear of losing it.

I raise my eyes toward the mountains.

From whence shall come my help?

My help comes from the LORD,

the maker of heaven and earth.

(Ps.121, NAB)

 

Come To Jesus (or: what happened in the wake of a Mommy meltdown)

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The kids beside the field at Busch Stadium, before the epic 19-inning game

No one likes having to confess that they lost their cool in front of their kids. It’s a tossup deciding which is worse:  the experience itself, or having to admit it where others will hear about it.

It’s been three weeks since my bad week–the week in which I lost it (twice), and life looks a whole lot different now. So different, in fact, that I daily shake my head as I see the evidence before me that sometimes, your kids need to know how tough they make their parents’ lives.

Because, you see, ever since that morning, with its Shakespearean monologue on lack of cooperation, lack of help, and the fact that Mommy is not a servant…ever since then, Alex has been really tuned in to the moments when I’m having trouble juggling it all. During that hellish witching hour before dinner, he’ll sweep in to give Michael a bite or two of food while I’m in the middle of cooking and can’t spare a hand. He’ll hurl himself down on the floor and entertain his baby brother, diverting the whining and crying before it finishes shredding my nerves. He’s showing his love for me by acts of service, and I’m fit to burst with joy, pride, love–what an amazing kid I have.

But that’s not all. Nicholas and I have had an incredibly antagonistic relationship for months. It’s just that age. As I’ve said before, I’m not a toddler mom, and that extends to the preschool years. The constant battling wears me out. Nicholas is unbelievably stubborn, and he has a knack for making himself appear the victim when he finally, after great emotional pain and angst, is forced to comply with directions like “eat your dinner before you get ice cream” or “go use the toilet.” It’s even tougher because Julianna’s at the same stage, and with Michael in the house too, there’s just no dealing with the obedience/cooperation issue with both of them simultaneously. (How do parents of multiples do that?) So this summer, I made a conscious decision to focus on one of them. I chose Nicholas, because I thought he’d get through it more quickly than Julianna. But wow, it has been exhausting and confrontational, and “not no fun at all!” as Nicholas likes to say.

Making crab quiche for Friday night dinner

The day of my meltdown, I didn’t think Nicholas would “get” what was the matter, and what it had to do with him.

But he did. Because the toddler-preschool rebellion ended that day.

It took a few days before I recognized the change in trajectory. But three weeks post-meltdown, it’s unmistakable. I’ve only had to count him down two or three times (instead of half a dozen a day). We’ve been laughing together, enjoying each other, and he’s been beautifully cooperative. It’s been such a breath of fresh air.

I know part of it has to do with my own improving attitude, too. But the evidence of how much better life is now, despite all the chaos and responsibility still flying around, is something I can’t deny. My kids became better people because they got that glimpse inside me.

It was not a pleasant experience for anyone involved, but I realize anew that what Christian often refers to as “come to Jesus meetings” frequently occasion the deepest growth in wisdom, understanding, and empathy–for children and adults alike. And thank God, God can form something beautiful out of the wreck of our epic failures.