Monday, October 30, 2006

Rear Window

After ten years and four children, my husband and I pulled up our city roots, and headed for the cornfields. It wasn’t until we were packed to the gills in our two-bedroom bungalow that desperation set in, and the need became obvious to confront our urban addiction by quitting cold turkey. The vandalism, graffiti, and alley rats were growing passé, and our children too adventurous for sequestration.

Our hunt for home began in bustling suburbia, where strip malls defy nature by growing out of cement with the aggressiveness of ivy devouring an iron gate. “Now this one is just lovely, don’t you think?” With a practiced eye and convincing smile, our realtor tried her best to bring life to our deadpan faces. But at the end of each forgettable showing, it was clear that the impetus for a decision would be based on which cloned tri-level we hated the least. We were saved, in the end, by a visit to friends living quite contentedly in a small town just north of where we were searching. It took all of ninety minutes to secure a conversion. Troy and I were hooked on this Midwest Mayberry, with its tree lined streets, historic downtown, and European Market offering produce, cheese, bread, and flowers every Saturday.

We met our house on-line, and the attraction was instantaneous. The century-old Victorian lured us with its hard wood floors, exposed brick, and open floor plan. It was obvious at our first face-to-face a glamour shot had been submitted, but the damage was done, we had mentally unpacked our belongings. We loved this home, creaks and all, adopting the semi-permanent catchphrase of “work in progress” for describing our purchase. Most projects would be tackled with our own sweat and tears, as time and money allowed. Staining our floors, however, was too big a gamble for us to bet our skills on. For that job, we would call in professionals.

My parents, who had recently moved to the area as well, invited us to stay with them throughout the five-day process of sanding, staining, and sealing. Their four-bedroom, Zen-like, haven of organization would provide a nice respite from the headache of emptying, and breaking down boxes. After setting up the pack-n-play, and putting our suitcases in the guest room closet, I allowed myself to exhale the breath I had been holding for the last three months. The papers were signed, and the key to our happiness dangled reassuringly from the chain in my wallet.

The street out front of mom and dad’s was quiet and unthreatening. Cars turned corners gingerly, anticipating the possibility of big wheels, scooters, or a kick ball game. I clicked together the straps of a sports helmet under Elijah’s lifted chin, and sent him pedaling around the block. My seven-year-old feeling his first brush with independence, bended down on his bike like a striking tiger, and leaped with adolescent ferociousness towards an imaginary finish line. Earlier that morning, the kids and I had stocked up at K-Mart on sidewalk chalk, bubbles, and water guns. Priscilla and Benjamin, in their chlorine scented uniforms of swimsuits and flip-flops, pulled out our stash of summertime staples, and lined them up with “oohs” and “ahhs” on the sun baked driveway. I dared trouble to find us in this small town oasis.

Death, illness, and motherhood, are three common extractors of dormant thoughts and hidden beliefs. The flow of milk warming my breast, and perfectly quenching the thirst of one child after another was, quite frankly, too bizarre for me to make light of. The process of birth ignited my simmering faith to a boiling point. I was now doomed to wrestle with life, rather than ride the waves of random happenstance. Divine convictions can warm or cool, depending on the season. In a period like this, of tranquil stability, light-hearted ponderings on paint colors, blow-up swimming pools, and rose bushes took precedence over weighty issues of the heart. My prayers had become requests for affirmation of what I already knew to be true. God was my teammate, spotting my back flips and cheering me on. I had lost my sense of place and possibility.

Three days into my first week of being a Hoosier, I was descending the stairs with Mary on my hip when a scream from Priscilla pierced the silence, putting my existence on hold. “Mommy! Benji fell out the window!” From the second story office my father, white and fumbling, confirmed this dreaded statement by leaping past me, and rushing with purpose out the sliding door into the back yard. My husband also bolted into action while I stood frozen and wept. Elijah’s pitiful pleading for someone to call 9-1-1 prompted my movement, and I braced myself for the image I was about to see, three-year-old Benjamin lying flat on his back with each arm bent at a 90 degree angle, like an infant sleeping peacefully in its crib. The window, 15 feet above my head, now bare except for its hanging mangled screen looked almost as apologetic as a child holding the handle of a broken teapot, staring remorsefully at the shards of porcelain below. There was a second of not knowing which way the tide would turn. Normalcy halted, eternity opened, and trivial preoccupations, so heavy with their significance just moments before, flittered away in the wind. Outside the limits of time, logic, and reason, I closed my eyes and begged the Lord for mercy.

Troy enveloped Benji with his own lanky figure. A whimper from their combined form brought tentative relief. Sitting up, appropriately dazed and flustered, my son met my eyes and announced softly, “I don’t want to do that again.” We checked him repeatedly for a concussion, lacerations or broken bones. There was no possible way of escaping that plunge undamaged but Benjamin, feeling hungry, walked upright and fully conscious to the patio table, and proceeded to eat a taco. Troy, dad, and I, still reeling from panic and choking back tears regarded him with the same confusion as I imagine Mary and Martha did upon seeing their brother Lazarus anxiously quenching his thirst, still wrapped in burial rags, and smelling of rotting flesh. His unscathed presence, like manna from heaven or a weeping icon, was a miracle refusing to pass through our lives unacknowledged.

I had lost and regained a child through no intervention of my own. Nothing unnerves a mother like coming to terms with her own limitations. Carefully and methodically, I had constructed an environment for unencumbered success, and even here mortality followed. “Why did God let that happen to Ben?” Elijah later asked, still agitated by possible scenarios too terrible for his trusting mind to comprehend. Without pretense or patronization, I answered as honestly as I could. “To remind us of guardian angels, sweetheart.”

“No that’s not it,” he mumbled, walking out into the hallway. “I think Benjamin’s just clumsy.”

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


This week, Mary took the bull by the horns and started walking solo. She had been flirting with the idea for weeks, but was reluctant to commit until last Saturday, when her lust for a toy out of reach, trumped her fear of falling. Once she had that initial rush of upright independence, she checked out into this self-dictated zone of hardcore, walk training. Her mental tenacity to keep at it, despite initially falling almost every other step was truly admirable. I would hide behind corners, so as not to break her concentration, and sneakily view, with delight, her bobbing knees and surfboard arms trying their best to keep her balanced. Every day she gets a little better. She is confident enough to choose two limbs over four in almost every circumstance, but still looks eerily like a tiny, ninety-year old woman; head down, feet shuffling and mumbling messages only she understands.

This being the fourth time I have watched this process, I was surprised at how fascinating it continues to be. We take for granted that something so innate and common place as walking, requires an awful lot of effort to master. Especially considering the trainee is simultaneously figuring out language, eating skills, and social structure (all the while measuring in at under two and a half feet tall). What amazes me most is the naturally unselfconscious attitude Mary carries with her as she progresses from infant to toddler. There is not an ounce of pretension in her accomplishments, nor does she seem in anyway concerned about her audience, or lack thereof. Her own joy at perfecting a skill is the only incentive she needs to get back up after stumbling.

It is sad to witness the inception of self-awareness: a child who scribbles on top of his artwork in black because it looks “stupid”, a slow reader mortified by his fumbling over words in class, a baseball bat tossed in frustration after a third strike. Elijah, having only been in school for close to three months, is already acutely aware of his peer’s scholastic and physical capabilities, and how his own compares. Starting in grade school, I became my own victim of self-censorship. My once flowing journal of songs, poems and stories became bland and blank after I realized I wasn’t the “best” at writing. What was the point if I wasn’t going to be paid or recognized for my work?

I believe that everyone was destined to create something out of nothing. Being made in God’s image, how could we not have the same desire for beauty and originality for its own sake? For twenty years I stunted my own growth because I was too busy being busy to waste time on artistic expression. It wasn’t until my dear friend and neighbor, Jared, decided to direct and produce his own short film, that I was inspired to dust off the corner of my brain, not directly used to rear children, and set aside time to write. For months, I watched him film, edit, and bring to life a story of his own imagination. The hours he spent after work and on weekends, must have numbered in the thousands but in the end he had a stunningly original mouthpiece for his unique voice and talents.

I am amazed by the infinite number of gifts available with which to minister to others, and thus praise God in the process. With all the degrading and demoralizing images being shoved in my face, I find my own faith strengthened by the decent, hardworking, fortitude of a person who delights in going beyond what is “necessary”. My friend, Beth, sets her dinner table with such thought and detail, making guests feel welcomed and appreciated. My Priest, in Chicago, is a carpenter and has steadfastly used those skills to beautify the temple in which he serves. My grandmother, started carving exquisite wood crosses in her seventies, and gives them away for free to those who ask. My friend Stephanie can sew, my own mother knits and crochets, my friend Jennifer has an amazing eye for decorating a space with both function and beauty. Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because he gave the best of what he had. We do a disservice to God by letting lie dormant, divinely instilled talents and abilities.

Every day, I sit at my computer, to work out thoughts on paper. I choose this activity over housework or phone calls, which isn’t always easy or convenient. I am quiet and receptive, and this waiting and listening for the words is an act of prayer and humility. As soon as I become self-conscious of my audience, my skill level, or my bank ability, my writing becomes forced, disingenuous, and oppressive. It ceases to bring joy and clarity. I want my kids to find spiritual enlightenment through the ups and downs of success and failure. I want them to feel the difference between the sustenance of creating as an act of praise, and the exhaustion of looking for approval.

The short, staccato rhythm of Mary’s little steps across my kitchen floor is a sweet and soothing sound to tired ears like mine, unaccustomed to such blatant self-acceptance. I get down on my knees and reach out my hands. “C’mon baby”, I call out. Immediately, her face lights up with happiness. She giggles and pants, trying her hardest to catch her legs up with her arms, now aching for a hug. Her bottom half twists, straight- legged, from side to side, much like that of cowboy entering a saloon. The last two steps are more of a lunge and then finally, we fall over laughing in an embrace, both thrilled with her achievement.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sunday Morning

Every weekday, I single-handedly dress and feed four children, pack a lunch box, gather homework, and locate jackets; all by 7:30 am. There is quite a bit of scrambling and cajoling involved, but nothing that a strong cup of coffee can’t push me through. Our early morning routine is definitely not the highlight of my day, but I would take one- hundred, back-to-back, Monday through Friday kick-offs, over the chaos and cheek-biting frustration involved in one Sunday morning.

Have you ever had that dream where you are trying to get ready for some unspecified event, scheduled to start any second? Dashing around the room, you frantically try to unearth a missing shoe. Your hair refuses to cooperate with your brush. You are racked with indecision as you change your outfit dozens of times, all the while impatiently reminding yourself to “Hurry up!” No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot pull yourself together. I live that nightmare once a week.

Regardless of what time I wake up, or how much preparation I do the night before, a Sunday morning, in our house, is as maddening as a Friday evening commute. On this day shoes feel tighter, little brothers become more annoying, toothbrushes and nail clippers mysteriously disappear, and the sight of a belt and a button-up shirt sends tempers soaring. Inevitably, the size 4T dress pants I washed the night before, lay damp and wrinkled in the dryer I never turned on. A last swig of juice misses a mouth and finds a sweater. An odor, that can’t be ignored, is emitted from a fully dressed (tights included) toddler.

Of all these headaches, the most confusing and unexplainable has to be the amount of over-the-top, nonsensical, mess associated with this production. Upon leaving the house, I gaze with wonder at the wet towel crumpled on my dining room table, the large bundle of purple and pink fuzzy pipe cleaners lying precariously on the windowsill, a pumpkin stabbed on each side with corn cob holders in my kitchen sink, and a pile of snow boots in the downstairs bathroom.

Amazingly, we pull into the parking lot of St. Elizabeth’s only three minutes late. Our hushed warnings, and stern expressions are replaced with tight sunny smiles as we make our grand entrance. Candles are lit, icons are venerated, and we take our place, as a family, in the front of the Church.

Now anyone with a child under the age of two knows that 9:30am is smack in the middle of morning naptime. Mary, my one year old, is vehemently opposed to sleeping in public, so she and I are in constant motion; looking at books, pointing at flames, walking the aisle, and occasionally sneaking an animal cracker when things get hairy. My husband, Troy, concentrates on keeping our oldest, Elijah, focused with a service book while downplaying the theatrics of four-year-old Benjamin, who is noisily personifying the paper clip he’s found on the carpet. Five-year-old Priscilla, works slyly at pushing the line between full compliance and outright disobedience. Is leaning your bum against the pew technically considered standing?

Every week, at least once, I honestly question whether all this work is worth it. I try to keep focused, but my thoughts drift easily to shopping lists, song lyrics, or lunch plans. I feel ashamed of my flippancy in the midst of such sacredness and beauty. Staring into the faces of martyrs, I ask myself, “What are you doing here?” “You are hopelessly incapable of such passionate devotion!” “I am useless,” I think, “A broken toe in the body of Christ”. But just then, when on the brink of total self-loathing and resignation, I am tenderly and lovingly rescued by the onset of the Cherubic Hymn.

“Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the thrice holy hymn to the life creating Trinity; now lay aside all cares. Lay aside all earthly cares.”

These words, sung slowly and reverently, pull me up from despair by anticipating my distraction and mercifully inviting me to come, as I am, and worship. “I do belong here!” And that realization is so much sweeter, knowing I don’t deserve it. For a few fleeting moments, the veil is lifted and I receive a glimpse of heaven. This soul quenching respite from a tired world looks nothing like the grocery store, the library, or my kitchen counter. I receive the sacrament of Eucharist, and am struck to tears by the enormity of this miracle: Christ in me.

Pulling out of the driveway, life on earth swallows me whole and I am once again immersed in the necessities of day to day living. Naps, laundry, and afternoon football are forefront on our minds. Throughout the week, I will attempt to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, and each day I will fall painfully short of my objectives. My inability to keep my mouth shut, stay awake for prayer, be patient with my children, or put Troy’s needs ahead of my desires, will make it impossible for me to trust in my own strength. By Saturday, I will be tired, discouraged, and depleted – just in time for a taste of grace on Sunday morning.

Listen to this reflection by clicking HERE. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


This past July the six of us traveled to upper Michigan where Troy’s grandma lives. We stayed in her house with his Aunt and Uncle, cousin, and her four-year-old son. Our family set up in the basement so we could spread out and have plenty of room for all of our luggage, pack-n-play, and sleeping bags. It seemed perfect. We had privacy and could be separated from noise and distractions during naptime. The only problem was that Elijah was terrified to be down there alone. Even with all the lamps switched on the basement was dimly lit. Nondescript noises would creak and hum throughout the night and many of the objects stashed away in its corners could easily be construed as something spooky and threatening.

One night Troy and I took advantage of his Aunt and Uncle’s kind offer to watch our kids while we went out for ice cream. They were, for the most part, all asleep so I was hoping that the babysitting experience would be uneventful. When we returned Uncle Larry told us that he was watching television when he heard shouting from downstairs. In the basement he found Elijah upright in bed, absolutely positive that he had seen something monstrous out to get him. Larry helped Elijah regain his composure and eventually he did go back to sleep. A few hours later Troy and I were laying down on a pull out sofa in a small room next to the children.

I was out cold and the only phrase I can think of to describe what happened next is “a violent awakening”. Two feet away from me I heard a loud and bloodcurdling scream. In my state of utter confusion I bolted up and matched that yelp with one of my own. Troy practically flew over the bed while also screaming ready to wrestle the wild creature he assumed had entered the house to attack us. Coming to our senses we found Elijah sprinting for the stairs, eyes wide and pitifully declaring, “I can’t take it anymore!” I had been annoyed that whole week with Elijah’s refusal to settle down for quiet times and his begging to keep the overhead light on at night. No one else had a problem with it and I assumed he was just being difficult to avoid going to bed early. At that ridiculous moment, however, with all three of us panting and trying to assess what in the world just happened, I saw true terror in his little face and I was ashamed of my unfounded accusations.

I myself am “courageously challenged” so it should be of no surprise that I passed this unfortunate trait down to my eldest son. When Elijah asked me why he had to wear mosquito repellent, I explained West Nile virus and he refused to leave the house. When we had a tornado warning last month, Priscilla and Benjamin thought it was great fun to all sit down in the basement together but Elijah could sense the tension and panicked. Fear has weighed me down my entire life. I missed out on many opportunities because the risk was too great and I couldn’t guarantee a favorable outcome. Seeing these same irrational and negative thought patterns sprouting up like weeds in my son makes my heart ache with frustration.

The blissfully ignorant, rose-colored filter that protected Elijah’s mind as a young child has started to wear thin and it pains me to see his eyes begin to narrow and focus in on the dingy reality of what this world has to offer. I am easily paralyzed by the unfathomable evil that seems to run its course without opposition. My response to hatred, sickness, poverty, and death is being closely studied. I have to make a conscious decision about what approach I am going to take because riding the fence between faith and despair does an incredible disservice to my family.

So here is the question I must ask myself: Do I believe in the resurrection of Christ or do I not? If the answer is no than by all means I should head indoors and take cover, encouraging my kids to stay low to the ground. But, if the answer is yes then I must put forth the ascetical effort necessary to develop roots in a source that is good and holy. My prayers, normally obsessed with shielding Elijah from pain, should evolve into intercessions for the purification of his soul by whatever means God deems best. “Perfect love casts out fear” we are told, but the casting out requires so much discipline. I want to release you, Elijah. To let you live a life emboldened by its assurance of eternity. I can start by removing my hands from your eyes and gently using them to lift your face upwards. I have already accepted the obvious reality that I screw up all the time as a mother. If, however, I accomplish nothing else in life but to break the chains of doubt and trepidation entangling our household, I will leave this world contented.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Public School

I have had some requests for an update on how Elijah and Priscilla are adjusting to public school. This will by no means be a comprehensive report as I am piecing together two months worth of one-word answers and filling in the gaps with pure speculation, but I will do the best I can. School officially started August 23rd. Elijah entered second grade and Priscilla began afternoon kindergarten. Neither of them seemed particularly nervous. There were no tears when the bus arrived and, unfortunately no clues about what happened in the classroom when they came home. I went with the “no news is good news” approach and assumed they were adjusting well and making friends. About four days into that first week Elijah forgot to put his homework in his take home folder. I was tempted to run him back to school but decided that the best consequence would be for him to have to miss his recess the next day and catch up (I was also not to keen on having to put shoes on everyone and load up the van). I did end up e-mailing Mrs. Hall to tell her that I was aware of the situation and to please contact me if she started to notice any habits of forgetfulness in Elijah. The next day, while her students were in music class, Mrs. Hall called me at home to break the news. It turns out my son is quite distractible. He is doing well academically but gets lost in his books and personal thoughts. I have had three conversations with Mrs. Hall (and one phone conference with the bus driver) regarding this predicament. It is just so hard for him to sit still! At first I felt a lot of pressure to discipline these habits out of him and prove to Mrs. Hall that I was a perfect parent but Elijah is pretty insistent on behaving like a seven years old boy. She now knows to touch him on the shoulder when she asks him to complete a task and have him repeat to her what exactly he is supposed to be doing. Parent Teacher conferences are in November so we’ll see if that plan is working. He is making a lot of friends and is enjoying Boy Scouts. About two weeks ago I caught Elijah looking at himself in the mirror and saying, “yep, I’m starting to look like a real kid”. I can’t imagine what the context of that inner dialogue must have been but judging from the look on his face it seemed to be quite a compliment.

Priscilla is a complete mystery. She is so happy to get on the bus every afternoon and skips home when she gets dropped off three hours later. I was shocked when I showed up at the school Open House and her teacher told me she was working on pulling Priscilla out of her shell. I had never seen this so-called shell before and felt a little gypped that I was only privy to the louder, more expressive aspects of her personality. I was also a little surprised by our family picture taped to the classroom wall which included a lovely drawing of the goldfish “Janie” we don’t actually own. At first I was concerned by the amount of homework she was being given and all that she was expected to know about letter sounds and handwriting but she is steadily rising to the challenge and has a teacher’s aide giving her extra help with phonics. I am astounded, quite frankly by how quickly kindergartners learn and grow. The other day she walked in the front door brimming over with excitement. “Look what my friend Hoku gave me!” she squealed, pulling 25 cents out of her backpack.

“Why did she give you money?” I asked.

“She said if I’d be quiet on the bus, she’d give me a quarter!”

It was a proud moment for all of us.

Benji is too young for Brummitt Elementary but he does take his “Library School” very seriously. Library school is every Tuesday for 45 minutes and his whole week revolves around it. The moms are discouraged from being in the room while the preschoolers are singing, listening to stories and playing games but I can hear what is happening from a few feet away. Ben is one of the more vocally expressive children, offering almost continual insight on every subject. Most of these tidbits begin with “One time …..” and from there a story which may or may not be related to anything ensues. He still has Priscilla in the mornings and then naps most afternoons so he doesn’t feel that lonely. Next year when Priscilla is gone all day I will have to find some more organized activities for him to get involved in. Benjamin is 100% silly from the moment he opens his eyes in the morning until he crashes on his spider man pillow at night. I adore him.

Mary is small and feisty. Most of her communication derives form the word “no”. She is not as of yet walking but can climb a set of stairs in 5 seconds flat. She has an affinity for her father and has just learned to give real puckered lip kisses. We are all amazed by every single thing she does.

All in all I am pleased with how the school year is progressing. As I told my sister-in-law Michelle, I am learning that no situation is ever perfect so you just have to make a choice and stand by it. It’s an exciting time for the kids as they become more independent. I am doing my best to guide without smothering and to temper my reactions. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some homework to sign.

Priscilla with her backpack waiting for the bus

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Testing, Testing

Welcome to my first official attempt at public blogging. I am admittedly lousy at correspondance so this is a last ditch effort to communicate consistently with friends and family not currently living under my roof. My personal ramblings might not be on your top ten list for what to read this fall but maybe by checking in every once in awhile you can satisfy your gnawing curiosity about the comings and goings of a Sabourin in Indiana. Leave a comment, say a prayer, thank your lucky stars you decided two children were plenty. Whatever moves you to stay connected, I welcome with humble anticipation.
Here we go!