Saturday, May 23, 2009

Waiting for Change

In general, I was a late bloomer - a late walker, always the shortest in my class, the last to lose my baby teeth, and the last, the very last to ride a two-wheeler. At seven-years-old, most of my peers were already zipping past me on their banana-seated Huffys and I was dying, aching, terrified to keep up with them.  Up until that point, the point of beyond readiness, my fanatical fear of falling had trumped my embarrassment. It took the horrifying prospect of being left behind all summer long and taunted by the neighbor kids to get me out on a Saturday with the intention of mounting, for the very first time, my hand-me-down orange Schwinn, sans training wheels.

 My father agreed readily to help me, his sweet baby girl, overcome my phobia of flying head first over my handlebars and cracking my head open ( Helmets? Car seats? Seat belts? U-m-m, no. In 1981, we still lived dangerously). On a sunny morning in June we took our places ready to act out a touching scene performed daily by parents and kids on sidewalks everywhere. I would pedal and he would run along beside me, holding on for just a minute or two before releasing me and then cheering as I sailed solo around the block, just me and my two wheeled rocket ship. That is what we imagined anyway - he and I both, so excited, so determined, so optimistic.

 My first attempt went pretty smoothly. Dad stayed with me, keeping me steady while I got used to the sensation of riding upright instead of teetering back and forth between the round and rusted crutches I’d become dependent on. On our second try, however, I became a little cocky and yelled to my father, mid-sprint, Let go! Let go! I think I can do it! He obeyed and immediately I leaned sideways. The bike, with me on it, came down hard.  What is the matter with you? I screamed. Are you trying to kill me?!  My stunned father looked on dumbfounded at my bloodied knees, shaking fists and accusatory expression on a face red with rage. You told me to let go, he said, which was true but beside the point. And for the next twenty minutes or so I continued being impossible to please, barking orders and getting angrier with each failed stab at mastering a skill, this long overdue skill, instantaneously. Finally, though, he’d had enough and left me to my own dramatic devices. * It seems like yesterday, dad tells me now. I can remember so clearly watching you from the window all scabbed and furious banging that old beat up bike against the ground.

 My own children are getting older and I am finding that what I’d never imagined possible (while up all night with babies) is totally true: it certainly does get more challenging, more heart wrenching, more everything as their blossoming ideals collide with barriers in the form of financial constraints, our rules, and their own limited capabilities. They get frustrated and then I get frustrated because to be honest, I thought I’d be better at this – managing schedules, meals, consistent discipline techniques and emotions.  Albeit exhausting, it was pretty black and white when the kids were tiny - no swallowing quarters, no running in the street, no sticking your fingers in the electrical socket. Now, oh boy, we are swimming in grey, every day presenting different and unfamiliar challenges. And what I want, you see, is to figure it out NOW. I want to be good, highly proficient, at everything.

 Our home parish’s patron saint is the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who, fortunately, I know quite a bit about due to biographies, numerous photos and historical documents. I love her so dearly because she was a woman for whom piousness, courage and resilience were earned through hardships. I recognize myself in her expressions of fear, grief and disappointment and I am humbled by accounts of her increasing desire to meet the needs of others, stay loyal to the Church and be a beacon of peace in the face of danger. I imagine that if Elizabeth knew as a young bride what she’d be asked to endure later on, it would have paralyzed her. Only gradually, and by God’s grace, did she find within her soul the wherewithal to transform from an earthly princess to a heavenly bride of Christ.

 A once greedy Zacchaeus paid back all that he stole and then some. A tongue-tied Moses became a spokesman for the Israelites. Paul went from persecuting Christians to unashamedly preaching the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. Clearly none of us is spiritually limited by our deficiencies or immaturity. Clearly all of us are expected, however, to exert ourselves, in faith and just beyond what we feel we can tolerate, for the sake of salvation. I could never keep up with four kids! I’ve been told often at parks and grocery stores. I’ve said the same thing myself to those with five, six or more children. I can’t imagine where the energy and resources to nurture, dress or feed for one more son or daughter would possibly come from. I can’t imagine where I’ll find the time to serve a neighbor or clean our church. I can’t imagine being courageous instead of anxious. I can’t imagine, at this just now starting out point, being able to successfully navigate, without continuously second-guessing myself or losing my temper, the murky waters of adolescence where empathy must mingle with firmness and where being a parent must take precedence over being a friend.  

 This past weekend, on a rare and romantic date, this is exactly what Troy and I talked about over dinner. We are both feeling the reverberations of a sudden shift within our household. It seems like we just got down the logistics of caring for and transporting helpless infants and squirmy toddlers and now BOOM, our kids are out of that phase and we’re all, Hey, slow down here a minute! But nobody’s stopping. There’s no one size fits all formula for protecting your unique and self-willed children physically and spiritually. I can’t imagine having the wisdom to know when to toe the line and when to compromise, when to lecture and when to listen, when to hold them tightly to me and when to liberate them, let them fly. It drives me crazy to have to begin all over again as a mothering novice.

 In 1891, St Ambrose of Optina wrote that, A man cannot correct himself all of a sudden, but it is like pulling a barge - pull, pull, and let go, let go! Not all at once, but little by little. Do you know the mast on a ship? There is a pole to which is tied all of the ship’s lines. If you pull on it then everything gradually pulls. But if you take it all at once, you will ruin everything. When I approach a dilemma by asking for help initially only to then research, fret, and speculate my little head off, I fail to align myself with God’s grace, with His will. All the days of my struggle I will wait until my change comes, said Job. It is hard to wait. It is hard to be content with stumbling forward and backward, or to keep on trusting anyways despite the quiet and almost imperceptible measuredness of it all. Slow and steady wins the race, as opposed to zooming forward unprepared, unassisted by choice, feeling out of control and mere seconds away from a catastrophe.

This evening I soaked in the bath while my husband put the kids to bed. I could hear five distinct voices laughing and yelling; it was a tackle dad, tickle the kids kind of night and it was truly a noise sweeter than most anything on earth. I remembered back on how we wondered if life with children would ever seem “normal,” how I mourned my loss of freedom even while passionately loving my family. I looked at my body, saggy and scarred; I thought of all the countless ways I’ve already been stretched by becoming a mom. I like me better now than before because of it. We must pray together, I told Troy when it had finally sunk in for the umpteenth time that I am useless, utterly clueless on my own. I simply can’t think ahead; it’s too overwhelming. So here I am, warts and all, ready to throw myself and my darling, growing, divinely wrought children, at Your feet. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me today. Be in the words I speak this moment, the limits I set this morning, my reactions this afternoon and in the embraces I offer always, as often as possible. More than answers, I long for patience. Amen.

*I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank my father for only rarely smirking when my own daughters get all irate and over the top flustered by coming of age undertakings requiring persistence and practice to achieve. I am fully aware of how easy and even satisfying it might be to chant liberally and enthusiastically that, What goes around comes around! Ha ha ha!  Your restraint has been greatly appreciated.

The above article is from the Spring 2009, The Truth about Heaven and Hell, issue of The Handmaiden. Click HERE to order a subscription! 

Friday, May 01, 2009


When planning our honeymoon, the very first thing that Troy and I did was to lower our expectations. It became obvious pretty quickly that my fiancĂ©’s meager income, as a full-time employee of Barnes and Noble, combined with my miniscule hourly wage as a part-time publicity assistant for a small book publisher, was not going to fund a backpacking tour of Europe or a week long stint in Hawaii at a luxury beach resort. “We have friends willing to rent you their cabin in the Smoky Mountains,” offered my dad. “That’ll be fine,” we decided ready to move on to other more pressing matters regarding silverware patterns and the thread count of our future bed sheets. 

It wasn’t until the big day got closer, however, that Troy and I both became truly excited about our upcoming trek to North Carolina. With all the stress and wedding preparations behind us, it would feel awesome, we thought, to finally relax and soak in the peacefulness of quiet and nature. What I anticipated, throughout the entire twelve hour drive up there, was to find the winding roads, the dense forests, the isolation, dreamy. I envisioned us reading side-by-side on a porch swing, taking long evening walks and eating by candlelight.

 Hot and exhausted, we finally, around dusk, arrived at the cabin - that picture perfect, cedar scented retreat from all of the hustle and bustle of Chicago. Leaving our luggage and empty diet coke cans in the air-conditionless Honda Civic parked out front, we ran eagerly inside for a self-guided tour. It was lovely - quaintly rustic and obviously well taken care of. Out back was a deck with patio furniture. On the walls were family photographs and framed needlepoint samplers.  We were alone, far away from traffic, the sound of sirens, other people. I mean, really…no other people were around - no neighbors, no tourists, not a soul within earshot. It was just Troy and me, Troy and me by ourselves, and the sun was going down rapidly.

 Wait! Sh-h-h! Did you hear something? Something like a grizzly bear, maybe? Oh how silly! How ridiculous! “Honey, be a dear and go out there in the dark to get our suitcase.”  My brand new spouse, bless his heart, took a big deep breath, bolted bravely out the door, grabbed our stuff from the trunk and was back inside in seconds. Should we rent Deliverance tonight? He asked facetiously. And then we laughed, but just a little bit because to an urban couple secluded in the woods that sort of a joke is only kind of amusing. 

In my fantasies about that once-in-a-lifetime vacation, our first get away as husband and wife, we weren’t terrified by all the creepy nocturnal sounds we could hear but not see or interpret, there wasn’t a vicious swarm of bees hovering menacingly around my head on our hike by the waterfall, there wasn’t a three page long check-list of chores to complete in order to get the cabin ready for it’s next renters, we didn’t run out of things to talk about and we certainly didn’t become so stir-crazy and city starved that we drove all the way to Atlanta where my parents were staying for a conference and spend the night with them in their hotel room. It’s remarkable, isn’t it?  How efficiently reality can rub the luster off our idealism.  What you hope for isn’t always or, let’s face it, isn’t usually what you get. 

If there is one thing that has dawned on me (slowly but surely) about family life, it’s that everything, every situation and experience, should be swallowed with a big old, sobering grain of salt. And though it sounds pessimistic, I can assure you that such pragmatism has saved me on countless occasions from throwing the proverbial baby out with the whining, moody, spit-up-ey, peed through, “gotta leave early because it’s nap time” bath water. By assuming all will not go smoothly, I am much less often discouraged and much more likely to appreciate the little victories woven into the over all frenzied existence and pace of being a raiser of children. If you make it out of any errand, vacation or excursion alive, for example, and still speaking to one another, without having to write a check for something that got broken, or to publicly apologize to store employees, other parents or (hypothetically speaking of course) a roomful of patrons at a Bob Evans restaurant for a sticky, syrupy mess your kids made or a high pitched outburst, you can consider that outing a grand success and be thoroughly pleased with your accomplishment. 

 I believe it is a positive thing that Troy and I have become calloused, by way of multiple blows to our vulnerable agendas, to the biting annoyance of “let-down.” My children, however, …well, they don’t really get it yet. “How could God let this happen!?” My son, Elijah, once wailed when our anticipated outing to a McDonalds Play Land was foiled by a dead car battery.  I can see them writhing internally when unforeseen circumstances bar their pathway to that one item or event they just know will trump all prior gifts, parties, play dates, etc. in terms of coolness and I can empathize with them to a point but tire quickly of the theatrical, sackcloth and ashes reaction we typically see around here when disappointment rears its mean and unjust head. Inevitably, I pull out the old, “Life isn’t fair, get used to it,” speech, which they never take to heart just as I never processed it when my own mother performed it two decades ago. Patience and long-suffering are only learned, are only earned, the hard way.

It’s no secret that I struggled awhile to apply this recently acquired, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit" approach to Orthodoxy, specifically in regards to our attendance of services. I had to spend approximately 288 Sunday morning liturgies shushing, rocking, nursing, redirecting, wincing, warning and biting my cheek in frustration before I finally accepted that all of those distractions were, for now, necessary for my long term maturation. I’d been a feel good junkie for as long as I could remember and rearing children in the Church did a bang up job of teaching me to separate emotions from discipleship, that Christ’s commandment to, “Follow me,” meant, “obey,” out of love, not chase relentlessly after soul soothing, heart warming validations. 

In the dryness of just showing up each week, of exposing my family to the ancient prayers and hymnography of Orthodox Christianity without any guarantee that I, myself, would be able to concentrate or reflect on the mystery of the sacraments, I passed through a more shallow and romanticized belief and into the rigors of unconditional and lasting devotion. It wasn’t until I stopped expecting and depending on immediate spiritual gratification that I developed a true and rooted confidence in God’s perfect (and often maddening) mercy. It seemed, initially, like motherhood was going to have a stalemating effect on my faith but in all actuality, it instilled courage, groundedness, flexibility, and an unflappability imperative for staying focused in the midst of life’s turbulent ups and downs, where before there was only skittishness and doubt.

Every once in awhile (BAM! out of nowhere), I get completely bowled over by an overwhelming sense of Christ’s actual presence among us, within us, working through us – like during a pre-sanctified liturgy when I stood tearily in the communion line behind my mother watching her receive the Eucharist or when chills passed down my spine during the Holy Friday reading of the Ezekial passage about the dry bones (“Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.” Ezekial 37:13). 

I attended our local book club last week made up mostly of women from my parish and right there in my parent’s living room could hardly breath so thick and heavy was the sensation of paradise mingling with earth in the honesty and purity of our discussion about life and death, loss and forgiveness. The fact that these satisfying gems of enlightenment are not always tied to my ascetical efforts or attempts at conjuring up a geyser-like gush of giddiness for all things Orthodox, affirms that God’s grace is not limited by or contingent on my own failures and successes.

 Eleven years ago, I envisioned myself being healed by our conversion and by my giving birth to our first child. In my fantasies about those significant milestones, I’d be freed instantaneously from selfishness, jealousy and insecurity, as one held captive by chains has the potential to be liberated by but a turn of a key. Never did I factor in a prolonged period of intensive training designed to build up my endurance. I’ve had to relinquish my skewed presumptions about what piety looks like, sounds like and yes, what it feels like, which is often like passing through a hot and stagnant desert dotted with cool and refreshing streams.

 It is a hard, demanding, sometimes grueling journey, but one we travel hand-in-hand, carrying each other, encouraging one another, motivated always by the footprints of those who walked before us and stayed the course. My salvation is all wrapped up in this conviction that now is when we toil in preparation for the judgment and resurrection to come.  I didn’t get what I hoped for (Hallelujah!); I got what I needed, and how rewarding, fulfilling and nourishing is becoming more Christ-like and durable, through the wisdom and compassion of God and His Church, than you ever in your wildest dreams thought possible.