Playing Favorites

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Image by Rusty Ross, via Flickr

I can’t be the only parent who lives in dread of playing favorites.

Especially of having a “favorite child.”

The online “soundtrack” of parenting reflections has presented me more than once with the theory that you butt heads with the child who resembles you most. But I think this is only true for certain personality types. If you are a strong-willed individual, committed to your own opinions above the approval of others, whose vision of the world is so clear that you can’t always put yourself in others’ shoes—if you have a child who mirrors you in these attributes, yes, you are almost certain to butt heads.

But if you are an introverted, deeply analytical puzzler who is very sensitive to the approval and opinions of others, and who values getting along more than getting your own way? If you have a child who mirrors you in these attributes, you’re not going to butt heads. You’re going to recognize each other as kindred spirits.

And if you have one child who completely befuddles you, because none of their choices make any sense to you as a person who values cooperation and compromise, you are going to struggle more to show that child love in the way he or she will recognize it.

I do not accept, however, that this constitutes playing favorites. Having such a child requires a parent to expend far more mental, emotional and spiritual energy trying to work out the puzzle that is that child, to figure out how to speak to and guide that child’s soul, and help them feel that they are loved. Far more than the children you just “get” instinctively. It’s way more work, and you might not always do it well, but the commitment is real and so is the love behind it.

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Love Speaks The Truth (a No Easy Answers post)

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No Easy AnswersIt seems to me that people come to blogs looking for one of three things: answers, inspiration, or solidarity.

I have my moments for providing answers–at least, as they have revealed themselves in my life–and inspiration. But the truth is that I often wrestle with questions that have no easy answers.  This is my place to think through my fingers and figure things out…and sometimes to conclude that there’s no solution at all, only the need for awareness.

I decided it’s time to codify that into a formal series: “No Easy Answers.” Not something regular, but at least something recognizable.

It begins with a half-remembered quote heard at a convention last summer. It went something like: “Friendship is the birthplace of conversion.” (Or was it the catalyst, or the crucible, or the garden of conversion?)

When I heard that quote, my heart whispered, Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Because I have a friend who calls me to be better than I am now, who meets my rants with a challenge to step back and look through things  from someone else’s point of view–someone whose love for me, in short, allows her to speak the truth to me, and helps me bend toward others and become a better human being.

This is true within my marriage, too. Love not only allows us to speak truth to each other; it compels us to do so–to lead each other along a path to betterment. Put another way, speaking the truth is how we bring each other closer to God.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, because if this is love, then it speaks to all relationships that we approach out of love–which is all of them. English really only has one word for “love,” and we shy away from using it outside of the romantic or family context, but the truth is we care about people because we are human and we are built to be in relationship. That is love.

Given that, the ability to speak truth is an ideal we should strive for in all our relationships: parent, child, friend, colleague, sibling, cousin.

But that’s where the hard part comes in. Because not all our relationships are strong enough to handle the speaking of truth. Sometimes love is twisted. Sometimes love is damaged by repeated instances of another person lashing out from their own pain. Love is still there, but the connection lines are not solid, and if we speak truth through those damaged lines, conversion gets twisted into something much less healthy.

In those instances, when we see someone we care about doing, saying, or holding attitudes that we can see are damaging to their emotional or physical or relational health, we have a choice to make: how to respond.

But there are no good options.

Option one is to speak the truth as gently as possible. But when relationships are damaged, this will only cause further division.

Option two is to ignore the elephant in the room–just not to address it–in an attempt to avoid sounding judgmental. But affirmation is built into human interaction, and the withholding of affirmation speaks volumes on its own. The person on the other end always knows he or she is being judged, whether you say it or not, so this, too, widens the divide.

Option three is to bury your own integrity and shower them with insincere affirmation. And I think we can all see what’s wrong with that one.

Christian has been reading Dave Ramsey’s book on leadership, where he talks about the root relationship between the words integer, integral, and integrity. It had never occurred to me until Christian read a paragraph to me, that these three words were all related to wholeness. Integrity is when everything you are is everything you are, and you don’t set some of it aside in different circles, because you can’t. This is what I have been trying to put words to for quite a while, my hope and my goal for passing the faith on to my children: that it becomes so integral to who they are that they can never fall away, because it would mean abandoning their very identity. And yet at the same time, it is not a facade polished up and worn like a jewel that you have to show off, but instead it’s something so integral that you don’t really have to talk about it all that much for people to know it’s there.

A beautiful vision for my children, but it does create this impossible situation when relationships are not strong enough. Because the reality is I have to make a bad choice between looking (and maybe being) self-righteous and failing to be true to who I am and what I believe.

And I think that everyone has faced situations like this. Which is why I bring it up. (There’s that “solidarity” piece.) We’d like to think there really are solutions to every problem we face, but the reality is, this one doesn’t have one. There are no good solutions. Only picking the one that seems the least damaging at any given time.

No easy answer.

Ordinary Love

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Blog CK2I am hopeless romantic at heart–a sucker for a great kiss in a movie or a book, hopelessly sentimental about stories where new love is found alongside other adventures.

But I’m also becoming ever more aware of how easy it is to take an oversimplified, overdramatized, and romanticized view of love and trying to measure your reality against it. The end result? A deep dissatisfaction with what you have, and a longing for something that seems more “like the movies,” and thus better.

N and M on bunk bed stairs small

There’s a power in ordinary love, and I am determined to find a way to depict, to celebrate, and to develop that theme in my fiction.

Yesterday, after a six-month process, I finished the first, extremely rough draft of my new novel: new heroine, new conflicts to resolve, and a new love story to go with it–a story more mature than others I’ve written before, because it was conceived by a heart and mind that has experienced more. And yet I still have been walking a tight-rope between getting emotionally involved enough to make it work, and recognizing that it is fiction.

Feb. 3 lunch

Because my life doesn’t match the drama I write. The reality is, I have a wonderful life–rich, happy, infused with petty irritations that are no different and no less ephemeral than that of every other person in the world. And because I am already so blessed, my life doesn’t have that urgent tug toward resolution. Everybody loves a happy ending, because it’s neat and tidy.

But Happily Ever After is not a moment, it’s a lifetime, and the truths you discover in the process of getting to HEA have to be unpacked over the course of years–decades, if you’re lucky.

Alex OlafI learned some things about my marriage in the process of writing this rough draft. In the longing of a character for the trust and touch that I take for granted, I realized we sometimes forget to act like lovers at all. We take each other for granted. And it’s beautiful that we can, that our relationship is so fundamentally solid that way–but I realized I wanted more “lover.” I wanted that sense of longing and desire to come forward, to enrich the “best friend” and “partner” aspects of our marriage that tend to take front and center because, yanno, they kind of have to with four kids.

(Practicing natural family planning, incidentally, gives us a built in chance to do that–if we choose to take advantage of it. Which we are better at some times than others.) Love this picture. It illustrates so much. This is at Port Orleans Riverside, waiting for the bus.

But I also had to be careful. There were times when I had to take some space from the manuscript, because the more I got to know my characters, the more writing all that longing and drama into their lives made real life seem flat and dissatisfying. When I write fiction I have to guard against the tendency to get lost in a world that doesn’t really exist, and forget to notice the one that does. Living in the moment is not one of my strong suits, anyway, and it’s something I want to work on.

At the end of the drafting process (and the beginning of what I know will be a far longer editing process), I am so very grateful for my happily-ever-after-in-action–for the ordinary-ness of it, for the luxury of taking it for granted, and especially for the reminder not to do so. Blog-dance

True Love Looks Like…

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Photo by CatDancing, via Flickr

True love looks like deciding together not to bother with cards for Valentine’s Day, since we always forget anyway.

True love looks like arguing over college funding, ten years in advance.

True love looks like straightening the living room before piano students arrive.

True love looks like crying in each other’s arms at the words “chromosomal abnormality.”

True love looks like calling down your spouse when they are out of line.

True love looks like taking a deep breath and redirecting when your spouse calls you down for being out of line.

True love looks like fifteen years of NFP charts and the medical/lifestyle work that made them settle down into a normal, healthy pattern.

True love looks like taking bath duty. Or lawn-mowing duty. Or making-lunches duty.

True love looks like 5:30 a.m. exercise calls to stay fit and healthy enough to enjoy each other for years to come.

True love looks like lots and lots of Tiger Balm rubbed into troubled muscles.

True love looks like using your knees to give your wife a backrub when your hands have given out.

Photo by Nancy D. Regan, via Flickr

True love looks like no difference between “mine” and “ours.”

True love looks like choosing not to keep score of who’s done what and whose turn it is.

True love is continuing to look for a way to grow spiritually together, even when it’s not easy to find time or resources that work.

True love looks like turning off the TV and computer to talk.

True love looks like setting aside my to-do list because what you need done is more important right now.

True love looks like growth.

True love looks like self-emptying.

True love has no idea on Day One what it’s going to look like on Day 5475, let alone Day 18,250.

True love identifies itself by adapting, and changing, and deepening over time. By becoming less and less about “me,” and more and more about “you” and “us.”

True love is not very sexy to look at…but it gives life.

Image by Shena Pamella, via Flickr

What does true love look like for you?

How To Fight

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We really don't take enough pictures together.

We really don’t take enough pictures together.

If my husband is upset, he cannot eat. But he can always, always sleep.

If I am upset, I can always eat. But I cannot sleep.

Therein lies the challenge for us in conflict resolution.

Before we got married we were required to attend Engaged Encounter. One of the resource couples that weekend laid out some “rules for fighting.” They included things like “hold hands” and “stick to the subject” (a tricky one, because human beings are notoriously inconsistent in the standards we hold for ourselves versus others, and I routinely get called down by my husband when I point out what I perceive as such) and, of course, the practical application of Ephesians 4:26: Don’t go to bed angry.

I think that rule is a stroke of brilliance. Except it doesn’t work. At least not for us.

The way I look at it, every marital disagreement takes the shape of a mountain. The climb gets steeper and more treacherous until you reach the summit, but once you get there it’s all downhill.

I would rather stay up until three in the morning and work over a disagreement from every angle until it’s resolved. But Christian is not built that way. As conflict escalates, he retreats. Shuts down. I’m more like the Energizer bunny. I just keep going…and going…and going. The harder I push, the worse we both feel.

Image via Wiki Commons

I have yet to master the art of going to sleep angry, but even I can see how smoothly and quickly our conflicts are resolved at 5:35 a.m., compared to trying to do it at 10:30 at night. I’ve only managed to make myself postpone the argument until morning once or twice. Those were not restful nights.

But then, neither is it a restful night when I try to force conflict resolution on my own terms. Even when we do try to haggle it out before bed, real resolution still doesn’t come until 5:35 a.m.

Fighting sucks.

The only real solution is to avoid getting into fights in the first place. That means a full-on, intentional commitment to communication–no easy thing. By the time we get to the end of the day, with work commitments done and lessons taught and Down syndrome or NFP conference calls finished and four kids to bed–well, by then we’re shot. We can’t even think what we ought to be talking about, much less summon the energy to do it. We’d rather just veg in front of the TV. Besides, there are all those red-sleeved DVDs coming in the mail. If we’re going to fork over all that dough on a monthly basis, by golly, we’re going to get our money’s worth.

But when we are taking time to talk to each other regularly–over lunch hour by phone, around the heads of the kids while preparing dinner, or on the couch after bedtime–we rarely fight. We still have conflicts, but we can resolve them calmly, like rational people who love each other and are willing to compromise for the good of the other.

It’s living parallel lives in the same house for weeks on end that leads to trouble. It’s far easier to slip into that habit than it is to establish a routine of making time for each other. But the payoff is worth it.

It reminds me of a paradoxical lesson I learned in grad school about playing the flute: if it’s hard to get a good sound, you’re doing something wrong–but in order to achieve that ease, you have to work harder.

Marriage Has Made Me Free

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K & C sunken gardens 1The other day, Christian looked up from Discover magazine and chuckled. “Guess what?” he said. “73% of Discover readers think humans are meant to be polyamorous.”

I confess: I rolled my eyes.

Monogamy can be a challenge, I’ll grant you, but the alternative causes such pain and dysfunction, so much emotional scarring for the adults involved, to say nothing of the children, it seems irrational to me to suggest that marrying for life is contrary to our nature. It takes so many years for a human child to grow to adulthood; how can we be built for anything other than the long term?***

This opinion reflects a skewed vision of what freedom is. We have this idea that “freedom” means doing whatever we want to do. Any restriction on what we’re allowed–and let’s face it, marriage is intrinsically a limit on outside amorous encounters–is viewed as an imposition upon freedom.

Well, that makes a certain amount of sense. But what it lacks is a larger perspective. One of my favorite Thomas Merton quotes is this one:

“It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say “no” on occasion to his natural bodily appetites. No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person. He has renounced his spiritual freedom and become the servant of bodily impulse. Therefore his mind and will are not fully his own. They are under the power of his appetites.” (From New Seeds of Contemplation)

Pay no attention to the grumpy-face boy.

Pay no attention to the grumpy-face boy.

I realized yesterday how very freeing marriage has been to me. It hasn’t happened overnight, and I’m sure it will face challenges down the line, but the fact is, before I was married, every male I encountered was a potential “mate,” even those who, well, weren’t. I was like Billy Crystal’s Harry, incapable of having friends of the opposite sex. I tried, but there was always this awkwardness involved, this “what-if?” dynamic.

Marriage has freed me. I no longer have to view every XY chromosome that crosses my path as a potential romantic interest. I can now set all that baggage aside and develop relationships with men that are no threat at all to my peace of mind. This is a liberating gift, one that has deeply enriched my life, and it would not been possible if I viewed marriage as anything other than 100% permanent.

In other words, the limit of monogamy has given me freedom.

***Note: It probably bears clarifying that what I’m taking to task here is the notion that monogamy isn’t the ideal–not the fact that for many people the ideal falls apart. I don’t mean to pass judgment on anyone whose marriage failed–only on the idea that we shouldn’t try in the first place.***

Sex, Love, and Women’s Fiction

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Love ? I love love love you.

Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

I’ve been reading a lot of women’s fiction lately, and reading it with a more critical eye than is usual for me. As I contemplate the novel query stage, I’m analyzing how my book fits into what’s already out there. There’s a lot of really good writing out there: great character depth and engrossing storytelling. But one thing I just don’t get is the approach to sex.

That’s not exactly accurate. I’m not an idiot. I’m well aware that my outlook on sex, as an integrated act melding both body and soul, is way, way outside the mainstream. And I know that even after fourteen years of married life I’m still very sheltered. I find things revolting that others think are not shocking at all.

But recently I’ve encountered one character having oral sex (really? what possible attraction can that hold for the woman?), and another who repeatedly has sex with one guy as she’s becoming more convinced that she belongs with another. And Guy #2 knows about it. Eventually, Guy #2 and main character decide they’re perfect for each other, except they aren’t sure they’re “sexually compatible.” So into bed they hop, just to be sure before they get engaged. (Because no one can learn to give another what they need. You’re just s-o-l if you don’t get it right the first try. Puh-leeze.)

Do people actually act this way?

I suppose they do. But if they do, it’s no wonder our level of relational dysfunction is as high as it is.

I suppose it’s not surprising that contemporary literature for women would involve a certain cavalier attitude toward sex, since that is the reality of the culture we live in. And I suppose it’s no surprise that my formation, first as a sheltered Catholic girl and then as a woman who learned intimacy through the lens of an integrated, holistic sexuality that includes both body and soul, stands at odds to that. But frankly, having experienced the latter, I can’t imagine why anybody would find the cultural standard the least bit attractive.

A few years ago someone made a comment on a romance writers’ site that went something like: “And what is wrong with a man and a woman in love showing their love for each other through sex? If you’re honest with yourself, nothing at all.”

I suppose that’s a true statement, if it’s real love. But real love is revealed over time. You can’t front-load a relationship with sex and just call it love because you have an overpowering emotion. That overpowering emotion is not love. Love must be tested and proven.

It is a commitment made through choices over the long term. Yes, I know that’s really fuddy duddy, but anyone whose marriage has actually lasted would say the same. The sex is a response to and an intensification of a mind-and-soul unity that came first. Not a gateway to unity.

I don’t understand how women can not feel that this most intimate act loses value if you just pass it around to everyone you like. Frankly, it gives me the heebie jeebies to think about having sex with anyone other than my husband, whom I knew, long before we were intimate, has always had my best interests at heart.

And then there’s this question: If you know Person You’re Attracted To has just been sleeping with someone else, would you really want to be intimate with them? Isn’t there a huge “ewww” factor in that?

I just don’t get it.

But I think I have a totally different vocabulary surrounding this subject. To me, sex is a gift, and it’s intrinsically tied to personhood. It’s not something you can classify as “casual.” Sex has …well, consequences, for lack of a better word, although that has a negative connotation which is not what I mean. How can it be satisfying if it’s not experienced in the context of a 100%, no-holds-barred commitment? Which presupposes that the commitment came first?

Love and marriage is the central theme of my novel: when you grow up believing marriage is forever, and then you realize you made a big mistake, what do you do? How far do you go to salvage it? How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice?

I worry sometimes that my view of the world is so outside the mainstream that it won’t resonate at all. But words are the tool I’ve been given to try to make the world a better place. So I have to try. Novel query stage: bring it on.