Tuesday, July 31, 2007
It was 5:00 p.m., time to make dinner, so I preheated the oven to 425 degrees. While putting away the grapes and yogurt I noticed that the pizza dough was not in the refrigerator. “Shoot!” I mumbled, pulling open the opposite door where, sure enough, sat one of the most essential ingredients for compiling our supper unusable like a rock in the freezer. Rummaging through the plastic grocery bags, I found a package of tortillas purchased for a different recipe to be used later on in the week. “This will have to do,” I decided, laying them on cookie sheets and topping each one with mozzarella, hoping there’d be enough for my ravenous family. Thus was the opening scene when entering stage left appeared five noisy characters lead by the obnoxious Susanna. “Not in here you guys,” I ordered sternly, “I’m busy.”
Six months ago, while cleaning the upstairs bathroom, I heard deep laughter from a voice I didn’t recognize coming from the porch outside our door. When I ventured down to investigate, five-year-old Priscilla grabbed me by the arm with excitement. “Mom,” she said, “this is the new friend I just met, she was riding her bike past the house. She can burp the entire alphabet! Can I play with her… please?” In front of me stood Susanna, a full head taller than my daughter and wearing a t-shirt pulled taut over a chest that bulged where Priscilla’s stayed flat, saying something inappropriate about a cowboy. Her upper lip was stained with what I could only imagine was orange soda and the smell of cigarette smoke clung stubbornly to her hair and skin.
Somewhat alarmed by Priscilla’s obvious awe of this girl, I asked a few questions to try and figure out where she came from. To my surprise, Susanna was only in the first grade and lived a mere two streets behind us. “Stay in the yard where I can see you,” I finally relented. Soon thereafter Susanna became a regular visitor, ringing our doorbell anytime between the hours of 7:30 am and 8:45 pm. It became sadly apparent that she was quite often left to her own devices. I was leery of her presence, always on alert for behavior irreconcilable with our family values. I stayed distant, never too welcoming, lest she assume that I was tolerant of crudeness.
So when the timer dinged and I called the children over to the picnic table, it was no big shocker that Susanna was not expected home to eat her own dinner. “That’s not my problem,” I determined, because it was one of those days too chaotic and frustrating for thinking outside of myself. I was polite enough to at least inquire if she would be having a meal later, though I asked in such a way, in such a hurried non-committal way, that would guarantee an answer compatible with my intentions. But even as Susanna said “yes,” even as she agreed not to become a burden, she met my gaze and didn’t let it go. She knew what I was doing, I knew what I was doing and we shared that dirty secret while my own kids chewed and swallowed their consistently offered nourishment. “But if Susanna wasn’t eating at home,” declared Priscilla with confidence, her sweet voice as damning as a cock crowing once, twice, three distinct times, “you would give her some of our food, right mama?”
Back in the kitchen I wanted to peel off my skin, to scrub my insides of the guilt from treating a child, a child of great significance to God, with such distain. Like Eve naked, Peter tongue tied, or David with blood on his hands, I both marveled at and mourned my own depravity. “Have mercy on me,” was all I could bear to mutter while I filled a plate to be offered to the guest in our home, to the guest with a name, with feelings, and with a very real need to be cared for. “Thank you,” said Susanna as she reached out hungrily for whatever it was I was willing to give her: a smile, a pizza, a portion of the blessings bestowed upon me, blessings so obviously unearned. “See” said Priscilla, “I told you my mom would share.” Because I’ve stressed to her in the past the importance of being on the lookout for ways to serve Christ by serving others, because every day should be one of those “take up your cross and follow Me” kind of days, the kind of day for loving like I’ve been loved.
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Tuesday, July 24, 2007
I knew it was time to move when I was loading the kids into our van outside of a McDonalds Play Land and my six-year-old son, Elijah, pointing to an iridescent puddle of oil pooling under the pick-up truck next to us, in wonderment said, “Look, mommy, a rainbow!”
For as long as possible, we delayed the inevitable. I home schooled, we converted a porch into an extra half bedroom, and we cleaned out the basement for a few more square feet of living space. With the birth of Mary, however, our family of six was busting at the seams of our 2 ½ bedroom condo getting smaller by the minute. And then our garage was broken into. All of the hubcaps were stolen off our van. My husband, Troy, was almost hit by a car recklessly speeding down the street. I was feeling tense and claustrophobic. The kids were sprouting wings and wanting to fly.
Our unit was on the market for three months. Three months of having to show our place at any given moment. Three months of waiting for offers, offers falling through, and discussions about lowering the price - I was as skittish as a heroine in a horror film. By the time the sale was finalized, after a nail biter of a closing, all the nostalgia had been drained from my heart. We found an old Victorian in a quaint Indiana neighborhood, twice the size and three times as far from Troy’s job downtown. Throughout all the mayhem of sorting and packing, I was distracted from dwelling on the changes that were just around the corner. Perhaps, in all honesty, I couldn’t bear a formal goodbye. The feelings were too raw for handling just yet, too sore for an intrusive examination. We drove off into the future, without regret.
Of all of the millions of concerns tossing about in my mind last year, my children and their adjustment to this move, was not one of them. I had packed them up, along with the picture frames and dishes, assuming they were just as unfeeling as the glass and porcelain we had wrapped with such diligence and care. “They are too small,” I thought, “to notice the difference.” But a week into our new lives as Hoosiers, once the novelty wore off and the permanence was starting to set in, Troy and I found ourselves with a small mutiny on our hands. “This house is too creaky and too scary! I miss my neighbors and our old park!” The disappointment expressed by my kids astonished me. “Are you serious?” we asked. “You have freedom here, and room to play. We live close to the library and bike trails.” But I was missing the point, entirely. Their longings could not be fulfilled using facts and logic. It takes time to develop roots and blossom in foreign soil.
I was reminded of that somewhat recently because this next January it will be ten years since Troy and I officially entered the Orthodox Church. Like our Chicago exodus, the conversion became imminent when it was obvious staying in place was no longer an option. It was a bold move, a big move and one that affected not just our lives, but also the lives of so many around us. We had been romanced by the beauty and antiquity of the Faith. We felt compelled to go ahead in the direction of God’s leading. We were confident in our decision and journeyed toward the future, without regret. Once the novelty wore off, however, and the permanency of sacramental living set in, my soul put on a mutiny of its own. It wasn’t a matter of facts and dates; I knew in my head how sound theologically were the hymns, creeds, and teachings of Orthodoxy. But being only a tiny bud, newly planted in the richness of Tradition, it was hard and humbling to have to wait on elements outside my control for nourishment that would stimulate my growth.
Like a tree, each year of my continued conversion forms a ring, marking a slow but steady development. A nine-ringed Oak is substantially stronger than a seed, but nowhere near close to reaching its maximum potential. There are forests strong and mature to inspire me. There are tender shoots of green, peeking out from under grass and dirt in need of my encouragement and prayer. All of us are stretching upward toward heaven at our own unique pace, equally dependent on the sun, the rain, and the oxygen so generously offered from the hand of God. A forced asceticism, I learned early on, can bloom quickly and even brilliantly before just as suddenly withering away, but a consistent and patient yearning to be conformed to the image of Christ will withstand the storms of doubt and persecution. It takes time to develop roots and blossom in foreign soil.
On our way to Troy’s parents for a highly anticipated long weekend, Elijah and Priscilla asked if we could please drive through the city. It was a little out of the way, but they were so excited by the possibility, we agreed to take the detour. It is captivating, all those buildings and the lights reflecting off the water of Lake Michigan. “Ah, Chicago,” said Elijah from the back seat, “the city of dreams!” I realized then, they were not mere possessions. My children were individuals with their own distinctive passions and sorrows. They would adjust, as they were ready, in their own time and in their own way. I was to love and respect the process. “I think I left my batman in my old room,” four-year-old Benjamin told me yesterday.” I promised him, that we had checked for such things before moving. “Let’s go upstairs,” I said, “to your new room and find it together.”
This previously published blog is being featured this week on Ancient Faith Radio.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
This month, I thought I should be cleaning because that’s what good moms do. Last month, when I was cooking, baking, and meal planning for the betterment of my family, I neglected the dust and cobwebs until the “haunted house” look became unbearable, until I put down my spatula to grip our handheld vacuum, eradicating dirt like my life depended on it. If I was more balanced, I could spread myself evenly, I could function in the middle of the road. But unfortunately, I’m about as flexible as a charging freight train that would sooner crash than change directions quickly. The way I see it, when your role contains as many definitions as a dictionary, sometimes just picking one of them to perfect and obsess over seems saner than trying to memorize them all.
So I bought a Swiffer, some new dish clothes, and anti-bacterial wipes. I made schedules to stick to like glue. I listed jobs and hung them on the refrigerator because good moms, responsible moms, teach their children to work hard like they do. It takes 21 days to form a habit, three weeks of refusing to compromise before the actions necessary for reaching one’s goal feel natural instead of forced. I couldn’t sit down, I couldn’t stop dusting, or washing, or folding, or scrubbing, but the results were incredibly positive; for the first time in a long time, my home was haven of tidiness.
The side effects of this most recent preoccupation were minor, at least as far as I was concerned. My inability to pause for drawn out dialogue or an impromptu game of Uno was a small price to pay for the gift I was giving to my husband, my kids, and myself. I prayed for the discipline not to get sidetracked, to keep this train a movin’ straight ahead. But wouldn’t you know it, that this week, the third week in my quest to form a habit, our youngest daughter Mary has decided to break free of her sweet and docile temperament in favor of a new personality just a little bit louder and a whole lot more stubborn. This updated version of our baby girl is not interested in the rules so clearly posted. The fourteen days I’ve invested in bringing order out of chaos means nothing to one whose own obsession is to feel the tickling grass between her toes. Mary has made it perfectly clear that my unyielding distractedness is an annoyance that will not be tolerated.
The high-pitched whining reached glass-shattering decibels as she furiously scratched at our closed front door. Admittedly, I was frustrated and torn. “Just a minute,” I promised, “I am really almost finished.” But I knew in reality it would be more like half an hour before I felt free to step away from the daily chores. I also knew that one hectic afternoon could undo a week’s worth of effort and that vigilance was my best defense. But then, like a whistling in the wind, came an almost imperceptible nudging blowing through my thoughts, suggesting, but not demanding, that I stop mid-sweep and tend to Mary. “The work at hand is so important,” I mentally argued with my conscience, “Later, I swear, I will make it up to her. We will swing as long as she wants to, but I really need to get these few things done.”
“Take her outside,” came again that subtle prompting, Spirit filled whispers presenting me with one of a million chances to deny myself and simply obey – without question, without pausing, without trying to justify the hundreds of excuses slowing my response time and hardening my will. Begrudgingly, I finally surrendered, putting down the broom to take my anxious daughter by the hand. “Let’s go,” I said, as she wobbled her way toward the sidewalk, laughing and pointing at all of the commonplace miracles I have learned to take for granted over time - like dogs, ants, and bluebirds cheerily chirping. The sun warming my shoulders, the fresh air clearing my head, and the sight of my child truly happy were enough to elicit spontaneous prayers of gratitude, prayers that would have never have found their voice within the confines of my stringent to-do list. “How many times,” I wondered, “has God, in His mercy, offered me the opportunity to commune with Him? How many times have I lost a glimpse of heaven because my eyes were firmly fixed upon the ground?”
It is very inconvenient to stand before icons, to break-up a busy Saturday and attend evening vespers, to plan meals around periods of fasting, or to stop a charging train in its tracks. But of the many definitions summing up my current identity, there is one that must shine brighter than the rest. Should not all my actions be securely bound in Christ, fusing together, working together until each reflect the glory of my Savior? Because maybe, just maybe, amidst the rigorous requirements of self-assigned resolutions there are miracles light and joyous to rediscover - like smiles, conversation, and impulsive prayers of thankfulness for little girls, a change of scenery, and other such inconvenient blessings marking this day, and every day as holy.
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Tuesday, July 10, 2007
These words, penned in the winter of 1996, were presented to a handsome, intelligent, and quiet young man by yours truly in the form of a Valentine. Back then, when our love was hot as fire, flames of intensity swallowed whole any naggings, doubts, or complicated questions that could dampen a romantic inferno like spit laced fingers snuffing out the blaze of a candle setting moods sweet and dreamy. Back when our love was brand spanking new, still wrapped in shiny cellophane and ribbons, I wasn’t sure if he would treasure it, after years of wear and tear, after memorizing every flaw and wrinkle. But I squealed with delight when he offered to try and asked me, on bended knee, to do the same.
“Where were we?” my children wonder, looking at the pictures of their mom and dad dressed to the nines. And they are shocked to discover why they couldn’t attend the wedding, “Weren’t you so sad and bored without us?” Truth be told, I can hardly remember how Troy and I spent our time alone, before babies and car seats and constant interruptions, before bedtimes, and homework, and minivans. It takes effort to go back, to find that person behind the role of husband, father and provider. It takes discipline to keep treasuring a love worn and weathered from a decade of stretching and adapting – to adulthood, parenthood, and the onslaught of growing responsibilities. It takes a man, good and noble, to serve his wife by submitting to Christ, adoring her with holy and pure affection. It takes a marriage upheld by Faith to keep a covenant from crumbling, due to selfishness and worldly persuasions. But in the context of the Church, there is joy and salvation in this sacrament both miraculous and merciful. It takes a wife this appreciative to praise God every evening for the partner, warm and stable, at her side.
So to Troy, on our tenth anniversary, I offer up words once again. For though we may be out of breath, out of our minds, and out of money, I am full of motivation to express these sentiments before distraction and busyness steal our thunder. When you temper my anxiety with calmness, when you gather up our family for prayer, when you demand that our children respect me, I feel cherished. When the future is hazy and uncertain, when I think I’m in over my head – with adulthood, parenthood, and the onslaught of growing responsibilities, I take comfort in your shoulders always ready and willing to share the weight and ease my heavy load. And while this heart, now bigger and wiser, has grown more or less accustomed to the doubts, it still maintains its steady, passionate, beat. Because the trials I feared would separate us, rather fused what was two into one; the uphill climbs only strengthened our resolve.
Husbands, never call her simply by her name, said St. John Chrysostom in his homily on Ephesians, but with terms of endearment, with honor, with much love. Honor her, and she will not need honor from others; she will not want the glory that comes from others, if she enjoys that which comes from thee. Prefer her before all, on every account, both for her beauty and her discernment, and praise her.
What more could a wife ever dream of? What lavishness could compare with being honored by a virtuous husband? When the flowers wilt, when the dinner is consumed, when the cards are packed away with dusty photos, this, my dear Troy, is the gift I will continuously revel in – being loved by a man such as you.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Searching for her sandals, Priscilla, my six-year-old, skipped through the door and stood with pride beside me. “Don’t you love it, mom?” she asked, “I brought nature in to look at whenever I want.” And I had to concede that it was charming, ethereal, and quite unexpected to find evidence of life co-mingling with the toys and furniture, heartbeats of rain, sun, and soil echoing off the hollowness of material possessions. Priscilla, with shoes now on her feet, was gone in a flash - off to be young while she can. Alone again, I uncharacteristically reached into the abyss of the white, tie handled, Glad bag to find the leaf I had tossed just minutes before. With carefulness I placed it back with the others and tiptoed out into the hallway, letting nature, all wild and nonconformist, take its course.
At risk of it becoming cliché, I have posted, e-mailed, and quoted my favorite Orthodox saying ad nauseam, but with its limitless ability to inspire I will dust it off again in honor of Priscilla, my woodland fairy. “Acquire the Spirit of Peace,” said St. Seraphim of Sarov, “and thousands of souls around you will be saved.” For one like me, having to break through barriers of traditional Western thought in order to capture the mystery that is Eastern Christianity, such an unconventional approach to evangelism is nothing short of revolutionary. With ears so stopped up nowadays, and words as cheap as penny candy, confrontational soapbox preaching rarely woos a wayward soul into a lifetime of submission to God. Belief in hell, a fear of hell, is painfully outdated.
But the surprising refreshment of stumbling across something so extraordinary as a life unfettered by earthly cares, amidst topsy-turvy morality, ruffled feathers, and pie-in-the-sky ambitions, is like discovering a pile of long stemmed roses lying atop a sewer grate. Without shouting, without protesting, without imitating the grit and metal beneath them, the fragrance and incomparable beauty of those flowers would quite naturally draw in a crowd of tired eyes and stuffy noses, steadily losing their sensitivity to all things fresh and light. And then here is the kicker, those same lovely roses would be offered free of charge, brightening up days and soothing sadness without demanding, without manipulating, without taking pride in their selfless acts of mercy – like a man, woman, or child fully contented with the pleasing of Christ, alone.
What about me stands out, like leaves in the folds of a curtain? How different is my demeanor because of Jesus becoming man and conquering death through the transforming power of His Resurrection? Would anyone have reason, amongst the hustle and bustle of sprinting aimlessly through the years, to pause and breathe in the comforting smells of Home - on my hair, in my mouth, and on my hands open wide for embracing, supporting, and for spelling out clearly why hope is still very much alive? Or has my faith become dull and dingy, blending in with the littered and lonely streets, passed by unnoticed like run-of-the-mill stones in a gutter?
There are nations and there are neighbors, equally in need of salvation. There are millions and there are a few, as close as my own backyard, who could sure use a dose of divine goodness. There are spiritual sights that are set too high, ignoring the opportunities in mundane interactions to spread joy like sunlight on the shadows. There are doubts too pervasive for acquiring the peace that will save first one and then another. And there are seconds, ticking away our existence, echoing off the hollowness of all that is temporal, reminding us with urgency there is work to be done. In a flash I’ll be gone, this lifetime is mine only once, only one fleeting shot to let Christ’s love, all wild and nonconformist, take its course miraculously through me.