Tuesday, July 27, 2010

the Measure of Success

The last week the D.C. metro area was hot – like triple digit hot – with a thick, sticky humidity. As a result we were quarantined inside for days on end, and it started to wear on everybody, myself included. My toddler walked up and the hallways, swinging his arms, looking for something – anything, to pick up and play with, only to set it (or throw it) down after a few minutes. We did the art -- finger painting, watercolors, crayons, markers. We got creative – “shape hunts” in the house, homemade aquariums out of paper plates and saran wrap, stuffed animal parades, tea parties, sugar cookies that looked like little watermelons. But the cabin fever really began to set in. On Friday with about two hours before daddy came home we took a five minute trip to the grocery store…just to get out of the house and let the children roam. I felt like I was spending most of my day saying, “No, thank you!” “Put that down!” “Are you okay?” And: “Oh dear, what was that noise?”

So as I sat on the couch last Friday nursing the baby and watching the two toddlers unload the bookshelves for the millionth time, I found myself wondering if the day was a success. And in fact, were any of these days a success?

In the working world, there was a certain degree of satisfaction in creating something – a document, a database, briefing slides; or in fulfilling a task – interviewing agency officials, briefing staffers, leading or participating in team meetings. Most days there was tangible evidence that I was moving forward toward achieving a larger goal. But what was the evidence of a job well done about as I stay at home? Did I have a goal for the day? Most days, in between thinking up activities for the kids, I am frantically running from one room to the next, trying to sweep, mop, do laundry, vacuum, cook – anything to feel like I’m on top of the mess. My husband will come home from the day, and if the house is mostly assembled, the children are still alive, and there is some semblance of meal... I suppose this equals a job well done.

But once again my 3-year old reminded me what I had been missing. The other night she was counting the number of paper hearts that the children receive every time they demonstrate an act of love to one another. This is our way of making tangible our verse of the month – “love one another,” from the Gospel of John. When my daughter counted her hearts, she had eight– the most she had ever received. She looked very proud. “Wow, Mommy," she said, her eyes big. "I really loved today!”

And so, spoken from the mouths of babes, I find one definition of a successful day.

The laundry is nice, but did I lay myself down? Did I give of myself with a joyful heart? Was I patient, kind, and forgiving? And oh dear -- shouldn’t this standard always be the measure of my daily “success,” wherever I am – the workplace or the home?

God must give us children so that they can be three and so full of wisdom.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Stillness of Growth

Staying home full time for the last three weeks has provided an excellent opportunity for me to better understand the areas I am most in need of improvement. For example, this week has revealed that I kill plants. No matter how hard I try, it seems I cannot apply the appropriate proportions of water, sun, and soil long enough to move from seedling to flower or to sustain a flower already in bloom. This is especially distressing because my husband comes from a long family line of farmers – people who make things grow for a living. And yet here I am, unable for the life of me to keep a single zucchini plant alive. It’s not for lack of interest -- if I could only will it to happen, I would have beautiful flowering vines on my deck, hanging blossoms on my front porch, and a garden full of fresh produce – from which I would feed my family from a hand-made apron in a kitchen that would consistently smell like fresh homemade bread. This is the vision of my domesticated self. Instead, I lose one blossom after another, and with them my dreams of home-made salsa and fresh basil pesto.

My husband likes to remind me that to keep a plant alive I have to water it… and not just once but every day. Ah. And sometimes what it needs is not more water or more sun, but shade. And not all plants can use the same fertilizer or the same soil….Goodness, I think. It all starts to become very complicated. But here is the key: Do I want to try?

Apparently I have not wanted to try enough, and herein the weakness is revealed. I love the idea of many things – but the follow through is often lacking. True confessions: my “homemade stocking” for my now-three-year-old daughter’s first Christmas still has a snowman with only half a head. And despite the money I spent on oil paints to create homemade art for our walls – we still have only one tiny landscape that I hide tucked away in the bookshelf. But my failure at the art of gardening has been particularly hard. What is it that I lack? Perhaps the ability to be still, to be patient, to continue to persevere day in and day out even as I wait for something so small like a seed to finally take root…and grow.

The Gospel reading last week was about Mary and Martha. Mary “chose what was better:” she sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha was busy with many things. Our parish priest reminded us that, like Mary, we too need to sit at Jesus’ feet; we too need to be still. Are we too busy to pray? Then, he said, we are too busy. And like watering a plant, it is so easy to put off something like being still for another 5 minutes because I have so much to do, until each 5 minutes turns into an hour, and then an afternoon, and then another day...until I wonder, why does my spiritual well feel dry? My relationship with Jesus is not formulaic. I cannot repeat a mealtime and bedtime prayer and expect to flourish. Sometimes what I need is fertilizer – soaking in His presence. Sometimes what I need is the water from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I need the Word of Life. What this takes is time.

Today I am going to take the kids to a local garden, a "gardener's delight with 20 different themed gardens." No, I'm not going to wallow in self-pity at the garden I will never have, and I'm going to resist my typical burst of short-lived enthusiasm to take on a new project. Instead, perhaps today I will just listen. Maybe I'll bring my Bible and share a passage with the kids. I'll try to be still. Perhaps today, as I sit in the stillness surrounded by quietly growing seeds (and my not-so-quiet, but still-growing children), I will begin to learn a lesson. I might not see immediate results, but in time, these seeds will grow.

We didn't make it to the gardens yesterday. The near-100-degree temperature with near 100-percent humidity came with public warnings to keep infants and the elderly indoors. This was enough to deter us from any outside excursions. The best-laid plans.... However, I did find some quiet time: between laundry loads and during naps, I hunkered down in the cool, dark basement. I closed my eyes to block out the visible chaos, and, for at least 15 minutes in the silence, I listened.
Baby steps.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Some things don't change

My daughter is a creature of habit. Like many 3-year-olds, she thrives on consistency, routine, and order, and sometimes almost to a perplexing degree. Woe to me if I think of a creative idea for snack time on Monday without supplies for the exact same tuna-fish sailboat sandwich with an orange-slice sun on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Did I sit in a particular beach chair to watch her swimming lessons on day one? Then the chair better be vacant the rest of the session, because that is now our chair, where I will sit and clap my hands each time she pops out of the water. I will do this, because it is the routine. I will also lie on her floor every night next to her bed and hold her hand until she falls asleep. I’ll cut her peanut butter and jelly toast into little squares, crust removed. I’ll do these things, because it brings her comfort. It helps her feel a sense of order in a vast and confusing world.

It’s amusing to watch my daughter agonize over the shapes of her bread, but really, I find I’m not that different. In the most insane moments of my day, I, too, am quick to look to my Father for the assurance of His consistency, the comfort of His order. When the weeks get long, I covet my morning prayer times; I anticipate the Celebration of Mass. The routine of seeking Him helps me bring order to my day. And I know that my loving Father is always ready to hold my hand, is always quick to offer His constancy when the world looms so large. The grass might wither and the flowers fade, but the word of God stands forever. Like my toddler, when I weak, I must look outside of myself to what is strong.

My daughter won’t need me forever. I know that there will come a time when my little girl won’t want me in her room at night. She won’t need to see me cheering her on at swimming or holding her hand as she falls asleep. And all too soon the baby boy cradled in my arms will be too big for me to cradle, and too grown up for his mother’s embrace. But maybe these little seeds of consistency will help my children learn to continue to look outside themselves when they are weak to find what is truly strong. We never out-grow our need to grasp on to the One bigger than us. We will always need to hold His hand in the darkest night and let Him guide our way. So while it is true that I am tired now, let me embrace these moments to let my children lean on me, that I might lean on my Father, and that through these interactions, they will see that yes, this is the way: there is indeed a higher order to our world; there is One who is a Rock. And He will never change. He is always ready to offer His love -- the kind of love that lays itself down.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

And baby makes...

That's two adults, three kids -- and no, not a typo. When we learned last year that we would be welcoming another baby, it was a joyful -- although intangible -- event. Really? We were going to be a family of 5 with three kids just about under the age of 3? I felt like looking around me -- surely, Lord, you saved this task for someone far holier than me....

The two lines, the positive doctors tests, and my growing queasiness confirmed the new life, but I just couldn't imagine our young family expanding. I watched my two kids growing -- their days full of laughing, playing, bargaining, and spending respectively longer times in time out, and I would wonder -- where in this situation will the baby be? He was very present in my ever-expanding belly, but even in the days, hours, and minutes leading up to his birth, we were still amazed to think -- what will he look like? How big will he be? Which of his older two siblings will he most resemble? He was alive, with kicks, a heartbeat (like a gallop, according to the nurses), -- but still invisible. And from the beeping on the hospital monitor, to the waiting in the labor and delivery room for the contractions to grow closer together... it seemed that all we would do regarding this baby was wait, wait, and wait. And wonder.

And then -- in a matter of seconds, he came. And in that instant, just like with his sister and brother, I coudn't imagine life without out him.

Welcome Caleb Xavier, we're so, so blessed you're here....