Tuesday, December 19, 2006
I am fierce, from the top of my lightly feathered bangs to the bottom of my navy corduroy knickers. Even as my skin is sloughing off, as the eraser begins agitating the now pink, translucent, second layer – back and forth, back and forth- I do not flinch or ask for mercy. A sixth grader dared me in front of friends to offer up my arm for a test of endurance. Gripping an upside down #2 pencil, the architect of this grade school hazing heats up the downy hair and freckles, just above my outstretched hand, until they literally burn off from the friction of rubber meeting flesh with vigor.
My mother was stupefied. Her face searched mine for any semblance of common sense. The symbolic importance of my second-degree burn would be smeared, I knew, by the muddiness of words and explanations. I could tell right off the bat that she just wouldn’t get it. Inwardly, I sighed at her naiveté but offered up what I could when it was obvious my shrugging would not suffice. “I don’t know,” was my firm reply, and I backed away towards the bedroom while the tingling air wafted over my open wound, a throbbing memento of my bravery.
As a parent, I am appalled by the audaciousness with which most of my adolescent judgments were made. Summoning up Bloody Mary, séance style, in the bathroom mirror at school, torturing a quiet and unassuming member of a slumber party until she broke down in tears of frustration, picking up a needle and piercing my own ear, riding on the hood of a moving car driven by a recently licensed 16-year-old acquaintance, walking into a tattoo parlor in college … and well, you get the idea. The memories are almost dripping with freshness. Closing my eyes, I am there, searching for a ghostly image, giggling while placing a limp hand in a glass of cold water, wincing at the sensation of metal forcing itself through cartilage, balancing with shrieks on a neighborhood joy ride, and cooling the sting of an inky black cross by dousing my shoulder with a cotton ball soaked in hydrogen peroxide.
Oh how I wish that maturity had taken an upper hand or that motherhood had quieted the tendencies to act now and think later. Jesus Christ spent 40 days prayerfully preparing in the wilderness before beginning His mission of salvation. Why can’t I spend 40 seconds evaluating my need to buy, overreact, or spend valuable time on that mind numbing activity? The soul searing consequences of a poor choice can be beneficial as a reminder of my limitations and the need to be vigilant in my intercessions for wisdom. But a cumulative series of reckless behaviors only deadens sensitivity until my conscience becomes scarred and unresponsive.
I will do anything to avoid prayer. The premeditative act of standing before icons, of carving out a slice of my day and offering it up to God is painful for a girl of my” fly by the seat of your pants” disposition. I wander, I squirm, and I spill out my words hastily. I can think about God all day long, I can talk about His omnipotence and mercy, I am fully devoted to the idea of discipleship. An aspiring author can dream obsessively about his first novel, but all the rousing thoughts in the world mean nothing until he sits down and begins the tedious work of typing out one page at a time.
Yesterday morning Troy discovered every one of his razors in four-year-old Benjamin’s pillowcase, their protective covers nowhere to be found. The same blank stare my own mother encountered in me over two decades ago was now etched in the stony face of my son. “I don’t know,” replied Ben on cue, when asked what in the world he was thinking. I am fully aware there is no possible answer that could satisfy me yet I question him anyway, out of habit, out of duty, out of guilt that the razors weren’t less accessible. I am harsh when my children act spontaneously foolish, my mirror image reflecting in their character is maddening. We typically criticize loudest that which hits closest to home.
I am Jonah, David and Peter, zealous but low on self-control. I am the first to claim my love and the first to bail when things get hairy. I can be used by God, I must believe that's true, it just might take a few days of sitting in the stench of my bad decisions before I am released with clarity and ready to obey my calling. I am doomed to wrestle my impulsivity for the rest of my days here on earth.
Tonight, the sun will go down on all that was today. Tomorrow is a canvas blank and clean. Before I lunge for the brush, taking amateur stabs at mixing and matching the colors in my palette, I will pause in consultation, letting Him who is the prototype of all I desire to emulate, guide my hand with strokes slow and steady. Tomorrow I will start again.
Friday, December 15, 2006
This week, I got lucky. Priscilla was still worn out after her three previous days of illness, and my mom said I could drop her off at her house to rest while I took Benjamin to his preschool class at the library. Since it was Mary’s naptime I got her to sleep in the guestroom pack-n-play at my parent’s and I left, taking only one passenger with me. Benjamin jabbered away from the back seat of our minivan, not necessarily directing any of his ongoing commentary towards me so I let my mind wander a bit, staying open to whatever random thoughts happened to weave themselves in and out of my subconscious. It was the typical hodgepodge of to-do lists, irrational worries, and overly ambitious expectations; fragmented ponderings forming a mosaic of mental self-absorption. As usual, I was overwhelmed by me.
On the way, I picked up my almost three-year-old niece, Isabelle, and two minutes later the three of us pulled into the library parking lot. Today they were having a cookie exchange, and Benji and Isabelle both carried their cookie-filled tins with pride and excitement.
“Hey Benji, my mom made these cookies,” said Isabelle.
“Oh, my mom made these cookies,” repeated Ben.
“Aunt Molly, I am going to carry these cookies all the way in and give them to Miss D. O.K Aunt Molly?”
“That’s a great idea Isabelle, you’re a big girl!”
“Hey Isabelle,” said Ben “I am going to give my cookies to Miss D too.”
And with that, they both handed me their cookie tins and ran for the door.
Entering behind my two skipping companions, I was greeted by the uplifting smell of books. There are few places a financially strapped mother of young children can venture into without feeling like an eyesore or a bother. The library is a haven of possibilities and hope to everyone, no matter what their age or social status. The librarians here are warm and welcoming. Aisles of pages and words invite me to cook, laugh, create, or solve a mystery, all from the comfort of my couch. Mothers and a few dads were starting to gather in the children’s section, unzipping coats and smoothing down static charged hair. Miss D was handing out nametags. Isabelle and Ben were fully engaged in the process of finding an empty place on the multi-colored rug and shouting out random bits of information, primarily pertinent to preschoolers. “My favorite color is blue Miss D, but today I am wearing pink.” “Miss D! Miss D! I am getting a new batman for my next birthday!”
Without having to trail my 16-month-old, I was free to grab a magazine and actually sit in a chair and read it. Ahh! What a thrill! The class would last for 45 minutes, nearly an hour of me time. I settled in and got busy. About six feet to my right was a small table and chairs set up with crayons and coloring pages where two women, each watching a toddler, started a conversation frequently interrupted by the whimpering of their daughters for attention and juice. I wasn’t eavesdropping, necessarily, but being that close to me I couldn’t help but keep one ear tuned in to their attempt at a discussion. It started off with the usual back and forth about school stuff and community events, and then one of the moms shifted the tone by saying “It’s harder now to volunteer as much, since I was diagnosed with MS.”
My mind froze up. All attempts at reading with comprehension were now futile. I had talked to this woman almost weekly, while both keeping our little ones from pulling down displays and interrupting the class. She wasn’t that much older than me and always seemed bright and upbeat. “Oh I totally understand,” said the mom across from her, also a woman I had smiled and said “hello” to on a regular basis. “I have been going through treatments for breast cancer and I am really worn out most of the time.” The magazine, now just a prop in my hands, lay limp in my lap and my eyes stared inattentively at the swirl of tips and life improving suggestions, illegible with their unimportance.
Both women recalled, matter-of-factly, the moments they new something wasn’t right, tingling hands, slurred speech, a call back after the results of a mammogram.
“I was fine until I actually sat down in the office of the specialist, then I bawled my eyes out.”
“It was the mastectomy that finally got me.”
Tears of my own were welling up. Tears of sympathy for them, their families, and ashamedly for me and the unknown burden I would one day carry. Their normalness, assaulted unexpectedly by terrifying possibilities, was a little too, well… possible. What phone call, letter, or diagnosis would I receive, capable of turning my entire world upside down?
How did they go on, exchanging pleasantries and baking cookies for preschool class at the library, a chore that felt overwhelming to me, full of health and free from such intensive emotional baggage? I stole a glance in their direction, two women transforming into warriors right before my eyes, coloring pictures and doling out snacks. Part of me wanted to step in their shoes, to feel the tingling, the missing breast, to will peace upon myself in this pseudo state of crisis. But their crosses, too heavy and too form fitting to their own souls, were impossible to carry on my unsupported shoulders. I was no more capable of lifting this weight unassigned to me, than of throwing on some spandex and attempting to run a marathon I had never trained for.
At the end of class, the moms and dads joined their children for one last song. We helped them put away their nametags and thank Miss D for another stimulating session of stories, games, and crafts. We made small talk, all of us parents. I gazed warmly at each of them, having no idea what other secrets were bravely up locked up beneath the smiles I had become familiar with over the last couple of months. My biggest fears, the anxieties that rob me of sleep, could very well be the reality of her, or of him, or of me tomorrow.
I loaded up our van with two bubbly children and a bag of brand new books. The sun had warmed that winter afternoon to a balmy 52 degrees. The day was wide open and my heart, stretched a little wider by the courage of others, beat it time with my prayers for mercy.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Dressed in our Sunday best my family strikes a pose, targets of a digital camera in the trigger-happy fingers of my mother. It is an uncomplicated scenario: aim, smile, click, but a lens focused on the likes of us would sooner crack in two than take a decent picture. We now forgo the studio after three years of overpaying for an amateur photographer to crowd us together on a crate in front of a beige muslin background, trying to convince us that the third shot was actually quite good and that maybe, could we please, just settle for all being visible and take our side show out the door so she can get some lunch.
This is my fifth year of implementing the annual family portrait. Every November, I am amazed at how no time seems to have passed since we last gathered together with pinches, prods, and gritted teeth to capture in print our 365 days worth of growth. In my totally unbiased opinion, all my children have stunning smiles. Watching joy spread from their dimpled chins, through pink chubby cheeks, scrunched up noses, and into clear, glassy eyes is like beholding a crimson sunset, you can’t pass it by without taking just a little bit of wonder with you. Spontaneity is key, I have learned, for capturing these unselfconscious expressions. As soon as we sit and say “cheese,” a dead in the eyes, canned, laugh track version of happiness is plastered over the authentic faces of merriment I am so in love with.
I can’t help but giggle when looking at the pictures of Christmas past. Only those present, counting to ten for patience and begging for cooperation, can see the truth behind the photo. My seemingly innocuous hand on the elbow of my son reveals, upon further inspection, white knuckled gripping. Troy’s eyes so sweet and proud also reflect, just beyond the surface, a definite edge of frustration, and I can practically hear the echoes of whining drifting from the silver frame and into my nostalgic ears. I keep the pictures layered, each year on top of the next. Flipping through them is like entering a time machine, within seconds infants are added, inches multiply, baby fat diminishes, and maturity marks the passage of time with subtle wrinkling and subdued faces, every day a little more accepting of the unpredictability synonymous with parenthood.
So why do I do it? It’s a legitimate question. Why do I insist on pushing through the grumbling and the dozen or so outtakes of Priscilla pouting, Benjamin wagging his tongue, Elijah’s frozen toothy grin, and Mary, focusing in on everything but the camera in front of us, all for one, not too horrible picture of my family? Perhaps it is for the same reason that I stay up late on December 5th, wrapping up $5.00 gifts for each of the kids and putting them in shoes filled with carrots they have left by the door for St. Nicholas to drop goodies in. Why I myself eat most of the carrots, leaving just a nub so it looks like the donkey carrying the kindly Saint ate his fill and was pleased with the gesture. Why I sift flour onto the floor to resemble snow, having Troy then make footprints, proof of St. Nicholas’s presence in our house.
There is something about tradition that calms me. Too much of the time I am flailing in the unfamiliar and I welcome these habitual self-imposed responsibilities as a right of passage from one year into the next. With each implementation of a sentimental ritual, I cement the memories of our young family, still soft in the relative newness of their development. Eventually, despite the initial complaining, my kids will become the uncompromising enforcers of these Sabourin customs because they too will find security within their boundaries.
God is merciful to give us holidays, feasts to look forward to. A tradition of beliefs and celebrations passed down from generation to generation, regardless of what this world can throw at us, serve to keep me grounded in faith and community. I thrive on the predictability of the Church, on a calendar guiding me from one holy event to the next. Sometimes I grumble about too many services or too much preparation involving less food and entertainment, but I will be the first to admit that having a Tradition to build my life around, to grab hold of without worrying about the strength of its foundation, has kept me more than once from drifting off into ambiguity.
The night before St. Nicholas was scheduled to make his yearly stop, I overheard Elijah tell his sister, “I wonder if this year he’ll step in the flour like he did last time?” I smiled at my son’s unquestioningly literal translation of the clues I had carefully orchestrated for their pleasure. It was good to know he would not be disappointed. This memory will be layered with others, like our family photos placed one beneath the other in an 8x10 frame. They will be his to flip through whenever he needs a good dose of home, reminding him of who he is and where he comes from, the one gift guaranteed to grow sweeter with time.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
I am exhausted, wasted from two days of stomach cramps and continuous vomiting. At 12:45 am on Monday night, Mary made a gagging sound from her crib and I leapt out of bed just in time to hold her in my arms while she heaved and coughed, her scrawny body convulsing with the effort. Two minutes later, I handed her off to Troy and ran to the bathroom myself, beginning the nastiness of emptying my own gut with a ferocious fury. For the next six hours Mary and I took turns throwing up, never sleeping and never apart. She refused to be more than three inches away from me so we clung together, two matted, stinky, miserable souls finding solace in the warmth of each other.
The entire evening was a little too reminiscent of labor. I was totally focused on the pain right in front of me, the one currently ripping apart my insides and shredding them to pieces, never knowing how I was going to find the strength for the next wave, or how long the entire process would last. But at least I understood that it would have an ending. I tried to keep calm and quiet for my daughter, who had no context for evaluating her sickness. I was her only gauge for assessing the desperateness of the situation. Her watery eyes stared at me constantly, even while I held her over the bucket and wiped her mouth with a rag. The softness in my voice and assuredness of my smile brought security to a very confusing scenario. Normally an event I would like to suffer through untouched and without the additional responsibility of worrying about another person’s well being, in those long hours I found within myself a fire usually smothered by the logistics of raising children.
The next day, my own mother came by at my request. I was still raw and achy, and Mary not yet interested in being anywhere but on my hip. Priscilla and Elijah were at school but Benjamin, my firecracker, was home as always and I needed a little back up to help rein him in. Mom walked through the front door coughing and sneezing. She was obviously not feeling well but I didn’t have it in me to step up and say, “don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine.” The truth is, I still look into my mother’s eyes to assess the desperateness of a situation. I wanted her to see Mary’s flushed cheeks, droopy frown and runny nose. I studied her expression for any signs of concern and took courage in her matter of fact portrayal of the scene unfolding in front of her. “Yep,” mom said, “she doesn’t feel good, poor baby!” and she rubbed Mary gently on the forehead adjusting the tone of her voice for my benefit, assuring me with her calmness that this is normal because being the mother of four myself, I would certainly never need to ask.
Benjamin started in on Wednesday afternoon, throwing up while walking across the living room to find me. I washed the floors, the slipcover on my couch and laid him down with specific instructions on the importance of using buckets. Late last night Priscilla upped the drama with her heartfelt and tearful soliloquy on the horrors of waking up suddenly to her own vomiting rampage, which repeated itself at least twelve times before morning. At 10:30 am, I got a somewhat expected call from the school nurse. Elijah was feeling nauseous and needed a ride home. Back at the house he too surrendered to his own version of the Sabourin stomach ailment, and now I can finally stop anticipating, with nervousness, the next yelp, hiccup or splatter.
There is something assuring about the definitive work of tending to sick children. It is exhausting, lonely, and nerve wracking but so beautifully simple in its necessity. There is much about good parenting that is open to interpretation, the best way to discipline or to educate, for example. But the physical act of nursing, dressing, cleaning, holding, and comforting a feverish son or daughter anchors a mother to her role as provider. It is the most basic of acts, a most effective means of stretching character, and the most memorable of gifts a mom can offer.
Monday, December 04, 2006
Raising my head after the reverent pre-communion prayer, I look over to see Elijah and Priscilla both bending their torsos and readying their legs, two small faces hardened with determination. “What in the world?” I think. The Chalice is raised and the words “Let us in faith and love draw near,” signal parishioners to come forward in reception of the Eucharist. To my horror, our two oldest children spring from their positions at the very edge of the Oriental rug and race, in fierce competition, to be first in line. With arms crossed they elbow and shove one another until I abruptly grab them by the collars and pull them to the side. “What is wrong with you two?” I seethe. “He always gets to be first,” pouts Priscilla. “Nu-uh!” says Elijah, “she’s lying.”
Utterly confused and embarrassed, I am lost for the words that would even begin to describe how wholly inappropriate it is to sideline fellow church members in order to claim first dibs on the body and blood of Christ.
“Me first!” has to be one of the most annoying, grammatically poor, peace shattering sentences, known to mothers everywhere. I think its safe to ascertain that it originated with the first ever siblings, Cain and Abel, and has been torturing the ears of parents ever since. The other morning as I was painstakingly trying to set three bowls of cereal on our kitchen table without any one bowl touching the surface before another, I asked my children why they cared so much about arriving first, departing first, eating first, and speaking first. Elijah, Priscilla, and Ben just looked at me. Apparently, such a foolish question wasn’t worthy of an answer. “No really,” I asked again “what about being second makes you angry?”
“It’s for the revenge, mom,” Elijah finally ventured, reading my eyes to make sure he wasn’t going to be punished for this honest response. “I get angry when Priscilla or Ben get to go ahead of me all the time.”
“Uh,” I said. “Interesting.”
No too long ago I was looking for a parking space at the grocery store on a busy Saturday afternoon. There was a spot close to the front that I was hoping to nab, so I put on my right turn signal, pulled up close, and waited for the couple to finish loading their groceries into the trunk and pull out. Meanwhile, another woman in a Suburban had the exact same idea. While I backed up to make room for the couple to leave, the woman on the other side slid in to the now empty spot and parked her ridiculously large vehicle. I was livid. I scowled at her and rose up my hands in disgust. Never mind that it was warm, that I was perfectly capable of walking, and that there were plenty of open spaces a little further down. I was there first! I wanted to yell at her. I wanted to prove that her actions weren’t fair. I wanted acknowledgement of my correctness. I wanted revenge.
Little Mary, my 16-month-old, is perfectly content looking through her board books when I walk into the room holding my two-month old niece. Immediately she toddles over, forces a whimper, and pulls on my pants leg. She can’t yet talk, eat with a spoon, or get off the couch after crawling on top of it, but she is acutely aware of what is hers and isn’t shy about claiming it. “Mine,” is a word spoken often by toddlers.
This weeks’ Gospel reading was about the rich young ruler, a story that I have always viewed as somewhat discouraging. Here is this nice guy who had probably worked very hard to secure a good living. He had done his best to obey all of God’s commandments and now he was coming to this Jesus of Nazareth for verification that he was on the right road to eternal life. “Sell all your possessions,” Jesus said “and follow me.” I have often tried to put myself in the shoes of this young man only to step right back out of them just as confused and dejected as he was at such an extreme order. It almost seems like a set-up for failure. Even the disciples questioned Jesus, “then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
There are many good and honest people all around us, people who donate their time, labor and finances to help the poor and needy. Goodness, is honored in nearly every religion, culture, and society. Jesus was not content with the rich young ruler’s good behavior. Following Christ could not look, taste, sound, or feel like following anyone or anything else. Jesus went straight for the jugular, He had his finger on the pulse of this man’s security and His request was a death sentence. Like the rich young ruler, I too desire to follow Christ while retaining just a sliver of myself.
Protecting my interests has been a priority since I was born. It is foolish to let yourself be stepped on, to not stand up to injustice, to not lock up your valuables, or to offer the other cheek when you’ve been slapped. “Me first,” has been the motto of some very successful individuals, leaders who would not be held back by naysayers. “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God,” says Paul in I Corinthians 1:18. Christ’s command to the rich young ruler will not make sense, cannot make sense, in the context that I want it to.
It would be worlds easier if I could be good, and through being good, be saved. I have offered up the “majors”, as I like to call them. I am a very regular Church attendee, I am a devoted wife, I ask for God’s blessings on my decisions, my future, and my children. I am mostly honest, I am moral, and even so I am faced with the eye of a needle and the chances of me squeezing through on my own are next to none. It is fluff, my outward offerings. Christ has his finger on the pulse of my security and His touch is hot and painful. He has his eye on that sliver I want to retain, and if I can’t hand it over I may as well take back all I have given for the sake of my faith thus far.
Then I don’t want to pick up a ringing phone or take the time to fix two bowls of soup in case my husband is also hungry; when I get something in my mind that I want to own and figure out ways to be sure I get it; when I automatically tense up at a request to volunteer for school, church or community events; when I become anxious for a future I envision as perfect; when I can’t stand to read one more book, play one more game, or clean up one more mess; I become acutely aware of the chasm between a full and partial surrender to the will of God.
A “Me First” life is not a peaceful life. I can tell by watching my kids, how exhausting and emotionally draining it is to keep track of score. Only by emptying all of myself will I have ever have the opportunity to be filled back up with the life of Christ. By dying, I will live. By losing, I will win. Through my weakness, I will be made strong. By offering up what I am most terrified to give, I acknowledge the difference between following Christ and following anything or anyone else.
First thing in the morning, I will be awakened by the demands of four young children. Before I even step out of bed, I will feel the stress of meeting these needs. My gut reaction will be one of annoyance, frustration, and self-protection. This is the ideal time to start praying, to offer up every resistance as I feel it. I can’t trust myself to ever stop, to ever assume I have it down. Taking one thought captive at a time is all I can currently handle. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall added unto you (Matt. 6:33).”
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me!”