In my last post I explained what the direction of this next year will be for me - deep listening. Over the course of the last few weeks, I have avoided the silence with as much intensity as I have deeply craved it. Similar to the way a person preparing for a fast subconsciously "stocks up" on calories beforehand, I have gluttoned out on everything overstimulating and fruitless. It's like I dove head-first into the media pool to make myself sick so I wouldn't miss it. I think I've succeeded.
I started reading a book called "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less." While I'm almost weary from any sort of input from books (particularly nonfiction) and podcasts, I was really drawn to this book. It seems to be complimentary to the changes I wish to make in life. I have such incredible decision-fatigue that I feel I can no longer sort the essential from the non-essential. That was one of the main goals of this year of listening: to get some perspective about what to hang on to, and what to let go of. I'm too close and it all seems impossible to reduce.
The first lesson that really stuck out to me had to do with the power of choice. Specifically, that I actually have one. While I logically know this, the busyness of my life persuaded me otherwise. While life with a large family quantifies a laundry list of responsibilities and therefore reduces certain options laid before me on the daily, I have equated that with not having a choice at all. I have learned helplessness; feeling unable to control my time or options and always having to choose the best of what was presented to me instead of realizing I could simply reimagine the possibilities altogether. Having the freedom of choice and having reduced options are two entirely different beasts. Being reminded that I have the ability to take the lead in what and how I choose, is incredibly empowering (and incredibly simplistic, I know).
I used to be addicted to busyness, now I can hardly sit down when I want to. I have realized though, after starting this revelatory book (and this recent aversion to the silence), that I actually still am addicted to the busyness. I may not have large blocks of time to sit and do what I want, but I do have spaces throughout the day that are used foolishly. Instead of taking those moments as a pause from the chores or needs of children, I don't stop. I busy myself with more and more meaningless tasks that add to my agitation and overstimulation instead of unwinding, gathering my thoughts, processing all of the input I keep stuffing myself with. I busy myself with things that are non-essential burdens to my day that trick me into thinking that I don't have a spare second. And sometimes, I busy myself with the duties of life that, at times, need to take a backseat to my humanity, too.
So, while it seems insane to have to allot blocks of media-free/input-free time, it's necessary to the simpler life that I am after, and conducive to the "deep listening" that I had planned for this year. There's something freeing about designating times to allow myself to think or read the bible or just not feel pressed to make phone calls or answer emails or switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer if I have 10 spare minutes. It's freeing to remember that I have a choice outside of the ridiculous habits that I have formed.
Overall, I am incredibly excited to use the principles in this book to help me determine what I want to be priority in my life, and to know how to continuously reassess my wants and needs. I am hopeful that the details of my life will go from the erratic frenzy that they are now, to a true, life-giving expression of my deepest desires. That to me, is most essential.
This time of year creates an intense lure to silence. Winter is a naturally romanticized time of year that can make a mere mug of tea a spiritual experience. It has a gravity that pulls at the deepest parts of myself to be still and to listen. The snow creates a silence that's difficult to overlook. My focus instinctively repositions inward, and there seems to be a graceful permission to change pace, to slow down, to be present and enjoy what is immediately before us.
Of course, with 5 children, silence is a rare and cherished gift. While I typically long for moments of quiet, I'm not just talking about the kind of silence that is a mere soundlessness, but a silence that is deep and cultivated. Silence as an experience that opens up feelings and helps me to identify the noise that I carry within.
This last year my anxiety was omnipresent. I couldn't seem to escape it. It surpassed being situational, therapy only helped so much, nothing made it better, and most things made it worse. It's there in part because I have been exceptionally good at stuffing skeletons in my closet. It's there because I am not good at feeling my feelings, but thinking about them. While I'm not blaming myself for my anxiety or trying to oversimplify the causation, I do know that the visceral set of "facts" that my body has stored and lived by, need some attention. Silence is a quiet attunement to hear what my body and emotions have been trying to speak to me, and that I am finally ready to hear. There are several spiritual disciplines that have proven worthy of my time and attention, there are also some very practical ways that I can help myself not to feel so overwhelmed and frantic.
This is my tentative focus for the year:
While I don’t expect these practices to cure my anxiety, I do expect that they will enliven, rejuvenate, and help anchor me to the Spirit of life that keeps one hoping and whole. I need to practically relearn what I was created for, and the best way to know that, is to go to the source of life itself. These disciplines will help me to slow down, to make space from the chaos of human-stimuli, to disengage from the non-essentials, and to focus my time and energy on hearing the One who can lead me to freedom if I could just hear his voice.
• I could get used to the kinds of mornings when the world wakes up more slowly. Where the space between breathing and doing is a mighty chasm. Where I can sit in the dark, before the fog lifts, and witness my own rebirth.
• The warm mug against my palm always makes me feel like I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.
• The upside down letters written with a finger on the foggy window remind me that children aren’t worried about perfection as much as making their mark on the world.
• I’m learning that peace isn’t something you do, but a presence to know.
There’s something about this time of year - when Advent is upon us - and the silence the snow evokes can be felt deep in the bones. It’s the kind of silence that invites a richer life, a good look at the heart, the hope of what can be. It’s one of the few times of year that God-as-gift feels tangible, feels close. Like an expectant mother holding her rounding belly, I hold a heart that is swelling. My heart as the inn, emptying itself to make room for the coming king.
Tired mothers push their children in strollers with wheels that are coming off from overuse.
Mere children so afraid of gang violence and cartels that they're leaving their own families before they're in double digits. Walking a thousand plus miles with strangers just to have a chance at asylum. A chance to feel safe.
Mother's hearts breaking as children run off in the night to join the masses.
Pink eye from the dust stirred beneath their sore-covered feet.
Running from the kind of poverty we can't even fathom. Not the food stamp, homeless shelter, food pantry kind of poverty we know.
Afraid of their own government
of political unrest
of gang violence.
Blistered and dehydrated, the children still laugh and play and hope.
How desperate does one have to be to leave their homes, their families, their culture, familiarity, just to have a fighting chance at refuge?
Poor restaurant owners pass out beans and rice and bottled water. The people with the least helping the most.
Then we throw tear gas to those who are just asking for help. 1,243 miles later, and they extend their hands to us with high hopes and are met with poison and push back.
Denying Christ isn't just a verbal renunciation of belief, but the thousand different ways we trample the image of Christ in others.
We renouce Christ by ignoring the cries of the oppressed
by giving stones to those asking for bread
by spraying poison at children asking for peace
by protecting our way of life instead of the actual lives of others.
We deny Christ when we refuse to see his image in the lives of everyone around us: migrant, refugee, native, neighbor, and brother alike.
We deny Christ when we say we carry His name and act nothing like him.
Others will use our lives to define who God is. Do you look like Jesus? The one who offers peace and promise, or are you presenting serpents instead?
We are tabernacled by a holy God.
Filled with the capacity to hold the world within our hearts
to carry the oppressed, the voiceless, the marginalized, and to carry it all with grace.
So as mothers carry babies, and babies carry fear, let’s allow the love of Christ to enable us to carry them.
To respond to their vulnerability with understanding, to respond to their pain with aide, to allow others to jump on the same caravan of Grace that’s been carrying each and every one.
As the leaves are falling and the air is cooling, I think of her and how she loved this time of year. When the crochet hook could come out and there were pies to be made and she could sit a little longer without guilt.
I think of her as I sit in the wooden pew on Sunday. As the hymns are sung, I can still hear her alto voice, harmonizing.
For a fleeting moment when I pass her house I get excited and think I should drop in and say hello, and then I’m pained with the reality that I can’t.
I miss hearing the sing-song way she said “hellll-ooo-oh” when I opened her front door.
I love how she’d send me letters in the mail even though we shared the same tiny town.
I think of her as I enjoy the last of her homemade preserves. I enjoy each bite knowing that next year I won’t have any of the berries her hands have touched.
I miss pouring her “cuppa you know what” into her favorite coffee mug and watching her enjoy that long-drawn first sip.
I miss seeing her interact with my children. While I feel grateful they can say their great-grandmother was a special part of all of their lives, I feel greedy for more.
I miss the diaper coupons I’d get in the mail. Not because they saved me all that much, but because she was thinking of me when she took her scissors to the dotted line, just so she could keep the line between us connected. Intact.
Although she was a tender-hearted woman, she was always very tough. Maybe she wasn’t the person to console the crying, but she’d be the first to send a meal or money or an encouraging letter to remind you that God was near.
She’s not here, yet she always will be. She graces so many moments still, that’s how special she was. I am her namesake and I hope I wear it well. I hope to always remember to breathe her sweetness into those around me, so that I might keep her legacy going.
• I awoke while it was still dark outside. Making beds, opening curtains, waiting for the light I knew would come.
• Relaxing with the warm cup against my palm. I watched her from across the room - the one whose hands were a ballet while she spoke.
• I admire my collection of sunrise photos my 7-year-old has captured on my phone. Especially the ones where there is a bit of the windshield or a finger in view. He calls them a masterpiece and doesn’t even realize.
• I’m caught reflecting on the ways I might be building military bases on the holy sites of others.
Motherhood is such a beautiful ideal, and an extremely difficult truth. We have such difficult scales to balance - to nourish adequately, to help our children navigate their way out of their unkempt outpour of emotions. To teach them to be flexible and to share, to be kind and brave, and to steward their belongings with care. We feed and nap them, we give deliriously without asking for anything in return, except the hopeful anticipation that our children will be happy and love well in the end. We manage all of these aspects of their lives, while we, ourselves, are sleep-deprived, and have our very own emotional gardens that need tending.
In the midst of chaos - the no's and time-outs, the tantrums and upset, the whining and general non-cooperation - I can experience a lot of anxiety, especially when the delirium of sleep-deprivation sets in. Most days, I deal with the messes as they come. I can take one incident at a time, isolate it from the rest of the chaos, and move on with relative ease. But there are some days when my mind is overstimulated from multi-tasking, "exhausted" is an understatement, my fine motor skills are more like a joke, and my nerves are raw and exposed. I feel the anxiety creep through me like a sickness, and I internally implode over every rebuttal of my authority.
I don't check in with myself, I continue to justify every nuance of frustration until anger is born. I lose it in front of the very beings I am teaching to have self-control. I yell and I cry and I feel such an enormous amount of relief from unloading. I take all of the weight back when I realize the repercussions of what I've done.
I am guilt-ridden and overwrought with the fact that I am giving my kids life-tools. I am personally handing them mechanisms to deal with conflict and to navigate reconciliation and peace. I am the one that will set the standard for their lives. What I say and how I react in one moment, has the power and opportunity to settle into their personalities, and to become their inner dialogue.
So I take my children into my arms. I humbly ask them for forgiveness, and I vow not to behave so recklessly in the future, and a miracle happens, one that makes me realize that I'm doing alright at this parenting gig, despite my mishaps. My children embrace me right back, and through teary-eyes, they forgive me. They forgive me.
We can't be perfect, but we can be sorry. We need to sit with our children and let them see that humility and forgiveness have power. I realized in that moment that my children are understanding their role in conflict resolution - their very choice. Our home will never be completely conflict-free, but we can all make the individual choice to forgive. We love each other enough that we can make allowances for each other's mistakes because the safest place to practice...is at home.
So we move forward, safeguarding our hearts with practical ways we can diffuse our frustrations before they give birth to destruction. I promise to keep more careful track of my emotions, to keep better balance of chores and fun, to put down the dish towel or the laundry and to guard our relationships most carefully when the stress meter seems dangerously overworked. And above all, to have a little grace for each and every one of us.
I was able to teach my children a valuable lesson - albeit the wrong way - and they taught me one too: that love is messy and imperfect, and ALWAYS a choice. No matter what, we are there for each other, and that is what matters most. Love is a powerful motivator, and they are doing it right. It compels me to be a better person, to love harder, and to let go of the things in this life that pester and nag me into defeat.
(First published in The Village Magazine's blog in October 2017)
I know in the past I have discussed the dangers I see with this recent trend of self-care, and while I don't wish to be belabor the point, I find myself continually coming back to it. Social media feeds are filled with the topic, and typically revolve around splurging, overspending, and feeding an insecurity by fulfilling its wishes. I see these things, and I feel so unsettled by the definition of self-care that our society has found true.
Intrinsically, self-care is not negative (obviously). Our bodies make non-negotiable physical demands, our minds need time to process and rest, and our emotions really need our attention. The chaos of work and paying bills and dealing with our feelings is a part of life that all of us are trying to find balance within. We are all learning how to give space to these aspects of life, and to do so in a healthy way. However, most of what I see practiced when people use terms like "self-love" or "self-care," has more to do with consumerism and less to do with connection and communion with self.
Binge eating a box of donuts during emotional turmoil is not self-care, it's impulse happiness. It's an aversion to the deeper issue. A manicure or spa day, expensive new wardrobe can all really feel like we're treating ourselves, when actually, we are running. There are times when it's appropriate to make space for ourselves, where we can be alone or someplace beautiful, or even buy ourselves a latte, but if most of our "self-care" is based on treating ourselves to consumer goods more than it is feeling and processing our emotions and assessing our failures or re-strategizing, than I hate to say it, but we're doing it wrong.
I have personally found that self-care is often the exact opposite of excessive indulgence. It's about restraint and denial and self-control. It's usually doing the hard, ugly, unbeautiful, everyday things that push me closer to peace and security. Ways like: reconfiguring a budget or a plan to get out of debt or increase savings, creating a healthy meal plan, or just making time to sit with my emotions until I can find resolve. Consumer self-care is a form of escapism, and will only make us more selfish. Nobody becomes a whole person by running.
I have a history of running. Of changing scenery. Of busyness. It has taken years of practice for me to be able to confront the conflicted and wounded feelings within myself, and really am still very much learning to navigate through such things, rather than hiding behind a book, a podcast, or another commitment. Self-care is quite ofte, me, sitting humbly (and embarrassingly) before all of my unsavory feelings and tendencies, and asking myself hard questions that will get me to the why.
Before we engineer another deed committed in the name of "self-care," I pose that we ask ourselves if this is something that will benefit our health and overall long-term wellness. If self-care is the preservation of one's self, than we have to be able to ask which part of ourselves we'd like to preserve.
A friend recently asked me for children's book recommendations that address race, and sadly, I realized that I didn't have a single book title to offer her. This motivated me to take a closer look at the message I have been giving my kids - at how deliberate I have really been, and to search for new ways to tend to this essential message. It is so important to me to integrate the foundation of equality into the lives of my children. While I am always looking for new and organic ways to introduce conversations about race with my kids, these are some pretty major ways that I already engage. Let's begin with the idea of proximity.
This will always be my go-to solution for the whole issue of the "other." When you're directly involved with people who are different than yourself, you welcome an environment to not only expand your worldview, but your ability to empathize as well. You can overlook the differences by realizing how very much the same all of us humans are. Providing my children innumerable collisions with great BIPOC themselves and introducing them to great black thinkers, writers, preachers, humanitarian and civil rights leaders, educators, and our very own kin, can only reinforce that people are people no matter what color they are. It creates a healthy normal where whiteness is not the standard. Not setting white as the standard inadvertently avoids making POC the deviation. In my opinion, this is the beginning of how to protect the image of those that are BIPOC.
In that same vein of thought, it is our responsibility to call out the cultural stereotypes that present themselves strongly and ceaselessly. Entertainment and advertising are completely tainted with innuendoes that set a social map in our children's impressionable and forming minds. I recently watched a show that my kids enjoy and found (in only one episode) that the Indian kid is genius, the Hispanic kid is overweight, lazy, and hygiene-deficient, the Chinese girl is overworked, over schooled and neurotic, while the lead white girl is rich, dumb, and of great moral standing. These seemingly benign messages cannot be tolerated and must be dissected with our children. If you are one to argue that these works of fiction couldn't possibly lay any real foundation for our children's perceptions, I introduce to you, the Doll Test.
In the 1940's there was a psychological experiment designed to test the degree of marginalization felt by African American children caused by prejudice, discrimination and racial segregation. This was the Doll Test. While the evidence of this study helped shut down the dangerous "separate but equal" ideology for African American kids in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education, it has been reintroduced in recent years to measure children's attitudes about what color has to do with "pretty" or "good"/"ugly" and "bad." The test used identically diapered dolls that only differentiated by color. When these dolls were showed to children of different races between the ages of 3 and 7, the majority attributed the positive characteristics to the white doll, assuring us that racism is internalized, and very early on at that. Black children couldn't explain why the white dolls were better, they just knew that the world reinforced this belief, and so it became their own. We have to talk about what our kids are being propagated to believe.
While there is a deficit in children's literature (that I've found anyway) that specifically addresses racism and slavery, there is a ton of great literature that shows racial and cultural diversity, and this is equally as important as addressing the history of colonialism itself. Around the holidays, I borrow library books that highlight different cultural celebrations so that my children can peak into the windows of other families who exist with their own unique traditions, as my own family does. While reading books together, I identify and talk about those differences, I praise those differences in all of their equal and beautiful ways. Driving the beauty of diversity into their growing minds will help them to see that different isn't bad or dangerous or inferior, it's just different.
While the Doll Test showed some improvements for believed "white bias" in black children since the 1940's, the results of white children have shown that they remain invested in believing stereotypes. Children notice race early in their lives, and so we, as parents, have to help shape healthy views. It is so vital to take every available opportunity to lay the groundwork for your children. Talk about the differences you see, don't attempt to stifle the issue just because you don't know how to answer questions, or address such issues in a way that you fear might offend. Do the work, educate yourself, start conversations to even see where your children are at with their beliefs, and keep the momentum going by showing your children how to cohabit this world in a meaningful and safe way for all.
Sadly, no matter how deep I go with my children, I realize that their experience is whitewashed and that there will always be a certain amount of effort that will need to be put forth to understand logically (never experientially) the burden that BIPOC carry. While the Doll Test showed some improvements for believed white bias in black children, the results of white children have shown that they remain invested in believing stereotypes. This is why it's insufficient to assume that if our children aren't explicitly taught racism in their home, that they can't grow in discriminatory ideologies. Our children will be shown what to believe about race at every turn, and it's our duty to not only avoid racist rhetoric, but to actually take it a step farther and to be proactively anti-racist.
While I am certain I have messed this thing up from time-to-time, or passed up valuable learning opportunities, I am striving to do what I can to learn, to keep my children in recognition of their privileges they have simply from being white, their responsibility in dismantling the corrupt social structures, to raise compassionate, thinking, loving human beings who will never overlook someone for their skin color, but will embrace them more deeply because of it.