Tuesday, October 23, 2007
“I already have a Church, thank you."
" I’d rather not put that sign in our yard."
"I don’t need the queen size sheets or tube socks you are selling from out of that shopping cart."
My credit card number? Signature? Date of birth? I don’t think so. I’m sorry but it’s way too risky nowadays. The rules have been broken, lies were told and I’m not interested in being taken for a fool by you or anyone.”
I have softened here, where eye contact is expected, along with a wave, as you pass a fellow driver, bike rider, or pedestrian. I assume the best because I want it to be true – that there are places immune to deception where the citizens are kind and honest, where when a doorbell rings I can answer it with a smile. Which is exactly what I did for the good ole’ boy from Nappanee, wearing a huge toothy grin and carrying a clipboard. “Hello, mam, my name is Brent how are you doing this afternoon?” And then I swear he tipped his hat like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, all wonderful, courteous and charming. "He had a badge and everything,” I would later tell my husband, unamused by this latest lapse in judgment. All Brent had needed was to do a real quick check of our last gas bill to make sure it included the clause about keeping our prices fixed throughout the winter. He would have hated for my family to have fallen victim to skyrocketing payments that would inevitably be required when the weather turned cold. So I signed, verified, made chit chat with my new best buddy who, wouldn’t you know it, just adored kids because he was the youngest of eleven. What a sweetheart, what an angel, what a super polite young man - that twenty-something, golden haired sneakster!
“Look at this,” Troy said, pointing to the website listing U.S. Energy Savings Corp. as a scam. “E tu, Brute!” I silently accused them. Even here I must be prudent and alert? Must I filter what flows through me from even sources so (seemingly) benign as the small talk with a utilities (ahem) provider, the catalogues in my mailbox, or the voyeuristic updates on lives led less than prayerfully being plastered on the computer screen in my own cozy office, where children are playing, laundry is folded, and tempers are soothed in the rocking chair. I don’t mean to complain, but all that vigilance can become awfully draining. I mean, shoot, it’s tiring to always have to ask myself if that decision will improve our financial situation or ultimately worsen it, if assuaging my curiosity will edify my spirit or degrade it, if that purchase will bring me satisfaction or an insatiable desire for more stuff. Sometimes, the invitation to surrender from those for whom this earthly existence is the end all be all can be very tempting. Sometimes I don’t want to think it through. Do I have to be spiritually “on” all the time?
My priest is some sort of mind reader. I know this because every homily he delivers is aimed straight for the hidden recesses of my brain, where I ponder on, justify, and dilute the negativity of, my actions. So when he hit me with, “At every moment you are either building up God’s Kingdom or actively obstructing it, there is no sitting on the sidelines,” I nearly gasped with embarrassment. Was the admission, “Presently pursuing an alternative to the narrow path,” written on my forehead? Or is it God, Himself, concerned about my salvation, who offers life saving reminders capable of raising my soul above the scams, the disappointment, the empty guarantees littered generously along the wide and easy? Could that subsequent regret from having wasted time, wasted money, be a Christ sent tap on the shoulder, a post it note saying “oil lamp refill,” a subtle aide-memoire urging that I wait, wait, wait for my Bridegroom.
So Troy beat the system by canceling, by doing the research and pulling us out of the program before the time limit to do so expired - I’m back to asking questions and looking skeptical. It’s a shame but its reality; blinded eyes will not alter the fact that all that glitters isn’t gold or, in this case, all that feels warm isn’t low cost petroleum. "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves,” said Jesus to His disciples in Matthew chapter 10. I guess some things never change; it seems the wolves continue breeding, providing each new generation with opportunities for being swindled, for seeking wisdom, for choosing a course and sticking with it come what may.
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Monday, October 15, 2007
"It might be easier to fall asleep, sweetheart, if you weren’t snuggled up against an entire set of Charlie Brown Encyclopedias.”
Elijah, my eight year old, glanced sheepishly at the cold hard evidence of his late night addiction: reading any and everything he can get his hands on. If I asked him to sit down with these books at a more reasonable hour, say at noon or 4:45 pm, he would complain passionately enough to make me worry that my love for the written word had not been passed on to our children. But put Elijah in a twin size bed (sometime after 9:00 pm) and suddenly he becomes best friends forever with Ramona Quimby, Roald Dahl, Nate the Great, and Homer Price. A good friend of mine relays so fondly his own youthful memories of reading “Lord of the Rings” in a pitch-black bedroom, illumined only by the orange glow from the on/off switch of his electric blanket. I don’t want to deny my son those sacred moments of adolescent enlightenment, but neither do I care to strain my vocal chords on repetitive requests to get up and get-a-move-on the next morning. “Hand them over,” I commanded, filling my arms with pages and pages of Charles Schultz endorsed data on space, geography, and reptiles.
When, once again, Elijah’s mattress was supporting nothing but the weight of his of own body, I kissed his cheek and then headed downstairs for last minute chores and preparations. After packing two lunches, programming the coffee pot, checking the calendar, and leafing through the homework folders for any papers I neglected to sign, I too, was finally ready to call it a day. The minute my foot reached the second story landing, however, I heard the telltale rustling of sheets followed closely by exaggerated breathing - heavy inhalations designed to imply that the person taking in such large quantities of oxygen was most certainly deep in slumber. Elijah knows that I worry. He knows I get frustrated when ten p.m. rolls around and he’s yet to have begun the restorative process of unconsciously resting. So he squinted his eyes shut when I peeked in through the door. But I was on to him.
The prayer corner is at the end of our hallway, just a few feet from where Elijah was faux sleeping. I knew he could hear me as I lit the candles and cleared my throat. That night I would pull out “The Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children”. That night I would chant louder than usual. If I asked Elijah to sit down with me at a more reasonable hour so I could fervently lay out for him all of my earnest longings for his soul, he would squirm uncomfortably enough to make me worry that nothing I was saying, nothing I was trying to communicate about faith and God and salvation was getting through to him. But confine Elijah to a twin size bed while his brain is unwinding, while speaking of him but not to him directly, and suddenly he’s as absorbent as a sponge.
First I took a moment just to look at her. I marveled at all she was asked to endure and still believe. And yet her face, so wise and certain, spoke volumes about the worthwhileness of her ascetic struggles in light of Christ’s victory over death - in context of the glory that was to follow. When I had absorbed the incredible truth that Mary, the Theotokos, was listening, that she loves my family with all the maternal tenderness in her heart, I commenced with the written petitions. I poured out my anxieties, my insecurities, all of my selfish wishes at her feet in exchange for a heavenly reminder of what I’m here for: to pass on a legacy of faithfulness to my sons and daughters.
"By the wondrous and incomprehensible actions of Thy Son," I implored Her, " lead my children with Thy merciful hand beneath Thy gracious protection, that with Sincerity I may cry to Thee:
Raise my children to seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.
Raise my children to walk the narrow way leading to life eternal.
Raise my children to do the will of Thy Son and God in every place.
Raise my children to long to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Raise my children to not commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Raise my children to be numbered among Thy chosen ones.
Raise my children, Elijah, Priscilla, Benjamin, and Mary, O Lady, to be made worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven and make them heirs of eternal blessings."
Each line I spoke clearly, pausing between sentences to let the words sink in because this head of mine can be thick as a brick sometimes. I hoped that Elijah was still eavesdropping. I wanted his last memories of that day to be the sound of his mother praying - for him, by name, with devotion. I can’t force-feed a significant interaction down the throats of my children; I can’t predict when a door will open. So if a rare opportunity presents itself for connecting on a more meaningful level, I try and seize it. I am looking, always searching for ways to make Christ’s teachings relevant to their every day experiences- with relationships, disappointments, and fears. But I was pleading that night, in front of God, the Theotokos, our patron saints, and Elijah, for the strength to desire for them humility over worldly success, patience over comfort, and eternal joys over temporal ones.
When the candles were extinguished, I kissed the icons – thankful for a chance to physically express my gratitude to Jesus, His most pure Mother, and the “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” all of whom miraculously and mercifully care deeply for the likes of a sinful, forgetful, impressionable old me. “I love you mom,” came a whisper from the boys’ room. And it nearly stung, the sweetness of that moment, like an electrical current carrying light, energy, life itself to our darkened hallway still smoky with the remnants of my supplications, still echoing with reverberations of God’s goodness. "Elijah... ," I choked out, almost inaudibly, into the quiet of a random weeknight evening turned extraordinary in its eleventh hour, "I love you, too."
Monday, October 08, 2007
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 back door. 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 an icon weeping, was a miracle refusing to pass through our lives unacknowledged.
I had nearly lost and then regained a child through no intervention of my own. Nothing unnerves a mother like coming to terms with her 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 is just clumsy."
Monday, October 01, 2007
My daughter, Priscilla, would gladly switch places with you if, heaven forbid, a stomach virus tore up your insides leaving you nauseous and raw in a fetal position next to the toilet. At least so she says, head tilted and eyelashes flapping like any good Disney princess, charming her one true love. Not bound by the confines of rationality, her warm and tender sentiments (“You are the bestest mom… more than no one in the whole wide world!”) can disorient the blues out of anyone. Priscilla is fiercely loyal, compassionate, and sweet as a peppermint candy. She is precious, cute as a button, and the absolute worst, most negligent cleaner-upper I have ever laid eyes on.
It takes her thirty-five minutes to hang up a dress, an additional twenty-two to put her shoes away. And the moaning from her bedroom, the pitiful cries of injustice at having to clear the floor of paper dolls, Polly Pockets, and ballerina tutus, is enough to make a loving mother wring her hands in exasperation. Accusations of unfairness have more than once instigated an eye-rolling tirade from yours truly – a self-gratifying breakdown of the chores completed daily by me, without fanfare, acknowledgment, or thanks. Last weekend, having reached my quarterly limit with the clutter and the stuff and the disturbing wads of dust reproducing like rabbits behind the dressers, I broke out the vacuum and trash bags. Trembling at the site of me, a mom on a mission, Priscilla’s whimpering began with the first syllable in the sentence: “No one is going anywhere until this mess is cleaned up;” because it was altogether possible that her house arrest could last a lifetime.
You can imagine my suspicion when seven minutes later Priscilla emerged smiling from her room. “I’m going to play next door with Elizabeth!” she announced.
“You’re finished?” I asked, incredulously.
“H-m-m, h-m-m,” she confirmed, not meeting my eyes, picking nervously at a scab on her skin.
And of course I had to verify such an audacious claim, like when five-year-old Benjamin yells down the stairs, “I’m done! Are you going to check my closet?”
“I am now,” is the standard reply.
At first, I was dumbfounded by the orderly nightstands, visible rugs, and the patchwork quilt pulled bumpily over her pillow. But then suddenly it all made sense, as my gaze focused in the on the bits and pieces of hair ribbons, Strawberry Shortcake accessories, and dirty socks peeking out from beneath her twin sized bed. Upon closer inspection, it became obvious that Priscilla, as a justifiable solution (at least in her mind) to an otherwise insurmountable dilemma, had employed the bulldozer technique of sweeping all the debris into one enormous pile and, in this case, shoving it (not so discreetly) out of sight. She could tell, I suppose, by my “you have got to be kidding me” face, we were not on the same “tidying up” wavelength. I was tired. Priscilla was tired, of the nagging, the frantic searching for missing items, and the undercurrent of disappointment emanating from my pursed lips every time I passed by her doorway. “Come back in here,” I said softly “and let’s fix this problem together.”
Out from her drawers came the too small, too big, and out of season clothing. Out went the toy box and dress-up supplies. Out to the trash went last year’s school papers, the dried up markers and random puzzle pieces, lost and lonely. Out went everything that so easily overwhelmed her, which she wanted but couldn’t manage on her own. What remained were the bare necessities, clearly assigned places for her things, and a space that Priscilla could rest and breathe in. How could she have obeyed me, at the tender age of six, faced with a task most ill defined? After awhile, after a certain amount of junk in anyone’s life is accumulated, the process of cleaning up becomes a lot more complicated, becomes a lot less realistic in the long run.
I’ve had this dream of becoming an author. I’d like to get the field trip permission slips in on time. If I could afford one renovation, I’d rip up the kitchen flooring and put in hardwood. I am curious about the monks protesting in Myanmar. This Christmas, should we travel or stay home? This Thursday should we have pizza or stew? Is it normal that my children argue so much? I have to figure out a way to get some exercise. “What’s that?” “Do what?” “You mean right now?” Of course, I would (if I could)! In fact I talk about it incessantly, the peace that comes from submitting fully to God’s will. It’s just that I’m kind of busy, it’s not so cut and dry, I have goals and responsibilities I need to attend to.
It is often at this point, when the every day details begin crowding out my opportunities for divine illumination, that Christ mercifully and painfully starts to toss out the rubbish, on my behalf. My work is rejected. Our finances become strained by unforeseen car troubles or the laying-off of my husband from his job. An angry and stubborn child rocks my confidence. A series of stupid, humiliating, mistakes makes me question my own capabilities. Yet when the fluff, the broken agendas, the misplaced desires are finally cleared away, wouldn’t you know it…life suddenly becomes a whole lot more simple. What to do next, is not nearly so confusing, so up for grabs, so clouded by a soul-full of earthly stimuli: pray, beg for mercy, feel the unexplainable tranquility of being swallowed up by God, the only Hope I’ve got for getting Home.
My daughter, Priscilla, looks around her, admiringly, at the haven of unfussiness and minimalist beauty. It feels good to watch her sink into that bed – without having to shove off the girly-girl litter, without having to endure my disapproving scowl, without having to waste a moment on sorting through the chaos in an attempt to find exactly what she is looking for. For all that is left are the things of true importance, are the items that I, as the mother who adores her, deemed necessary for this stage of her development, for this moment in her childhood, for right now.