Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Writing "Space"

Thanks to Jennifer Fulwiler over at Conversion Diary for providing the inspiration for the post - a picture of my writing space.

First, although you may be astounded by the beauty and organization before you, please rest assured that this is in no way staged. This is actually what my space looked like right after I posted the piece of wisdom and insight immediately following this. Yes, that is really a half-eaten pickle and wad of wrappers in the upper left hand corner, all handed to me by my considerate children while I immersed myself in the art of writing. I am also supposed to be creating a shopping list this morning instead of blogging, as evidenced by the circular on the left and half-finished scribbles about food on the right that I abandoned when I decided writing would be more fun. And also the fact that one of my children had a pickle for a snack this morning. You can also see that I physically shoved my coffee cup away from me to avoid drinking any more and tempted myself with a glass of water. And don't forget the dirty breakfast dishes I still haven't tended to.

I count it as the progress that can only come from motherhood that I'm at all able to write in this state (although the quality of the writing could be debated). In college, before I could put pen to paper everything had to be meticulously clean and organized or, I told myself, I couldn't concentrate. Now, I could clean for an eternity and never find time to write, so I've learned to let this particular requirement go. Obviously.

Yoga Class

"And your body to the iiiiiinfinite....."

My yoga instructor has a bad case of Yoga Teacher Voice. She seems like a very nice lady, but every time she drones her instructions in her flat, drawn-out, modulated-down voice, I wonder if she speaks this way in other areas of her life.

Job interviews? Dates?

"Sooooo, teeeeel meeee.....what do you doooooo?"

In spite of this, I'm enjoying the class. I used to practice yoga more often when I was pregnant both times and a bit afterward, but slowly running began to take more of my time. It's been interesting to return to it now with all the miles under my belt after so long a break. In some ways I'm stronger, in some ways my body yields more easily, and in other ways I'm more tense and inflexible.

This particular practice is more flow-based, so we are moving through poses as the instructor gives us direction. Downward Dog into some sort of twist, into a standing pose, into Tree Pose. I'm finding it much more enjoyable and less static than holding Warrior for interminable minutes, and the breathing comes easier.

As the instructor tells us to "let our bodies be our teacher," I find my mind wandering over to Pope Benedict's criticism of yoga, that it can devolve into a "cult of the body." At the time I heard it, I thought it was kind of an eye-roller. After all, I was exercising, not worshipping. It's easy to look at the old dude observing all the young whipper-snappers doing this devil-worshipping yoga and think it's rather silly. But his words were underlying a larger truth, one that my mind groped towards as my body moved from pose to pose.

Anything can become an idol, a religion, if we allow it to stop there and not travel through it to God. Bodies, after all, are valuable teachers. But they ultimately are designed to point to the Teacher Himself. It also highlights that almost anything that is good and beneficial, if not ordained toward God, can become detrimental. G.K. Chesterton wrote that "the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad." We love, but without a full understanding that love is sacrifice as well. We hope, but without looking closely at what we are building our hope upon.

Taking care of ourselves is good. We are told that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit. But they are icons, not idols. Icons provide a roadmap for God, a tangible way to experience Him in a way our limited human-ness can understand. Idols cause us to exploit our limited human-ness and make things into gods. In our innate desire to search out God, we make gods instead of search for one.

So, I get what Benny XVI was saying. He looks at the world and sees people stopping at the body instead of going through it, and calls us on it. It has gotten me thinking, especially during Lent, about all the things I am tempted to see as an end rather than a means. When I am busy and parenting and stressed it's easy to get caught up in the utilitarian nature of the things I am doing, just getting from point A to point B without making a mess.

But everything, every day, can be examined and found to point to God in some small way, even the messes. And part of what I am called to do is find those ways.

And avoid developing Yoga Instructor Voice. Definitely that, too.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Yellow belt

I am a proud mama this weekend. Yesterday was Sam's advancement test in karate from white to yellow belt. He's been salivating over this moment for months, although we had our ups and downs getting here.

Sam begged us to take karate. We finally relented in September and said we'd give it a try, and he was so excited. His dojo is structured so that each child gets an individual or small-group lesson once a week, and can come to as many classes as they'd like in addition. Every Thursday after school Sam would change into his gi and off we would go to his lesson, and every Saturday Mark would take him to his big group lesson.

We ran into trouble about 4 weeks in, when the newness started to wear off and his white belt, which would eventually hold 3 black stripes signifying advancement, remained bare.

"I don't want to go to karate today! I want to quit!" came the whine from underneath a pile of pillows on the couch. "Karate is boring!"

"I understand you don't want to go and you want to quit," I said. "But we made a promise to Sensei that we would be there this afternoon, so we have to go today. We can talk about this more when we get home if you'd like."

His attitude would always have improved after class, but we still had a rough few weeks. One time, I actually had to carry him in to the dojo while he clung to my neck. We were both obviously pretty frustrated with each other. His Sensei saw and came over, with an expression that said he knew exactly what was going on.

"Let me talk to Sam," he said.

I left the waiting room and wandered outside with Caroline, knowing I wouldn't be helping if I was standing there. I watched through the glass as Sensei got down on Sam's level and talked to him and I saw Sam nod a few times, then smile and follow him into the open gym area for class. Afterward, Sensai came and talked to me, told me that it was normal for kids to go through phases like that, and that it was important to just keep coming back.

Things got better from there, but we still had some ups and downs. Sam was sent to sit in a corner a few times during class when he was disruptive or not listening, but Sensai always took the time to talk to Sam afterward about how studying karate takes focus and he knew he could do it. He told me privately that Sam's penchant for falling down on purpose or blowing random raspberries was something he remembered doing as a kid when he felt like his energy was all cooped up, and he knew what he was going through. I observed many times when Sensei would give Sam positive reinforcement in front of the group, such as praising him for his tenacity or focus during a particular exercise, or noting how hard he was working at something. I saw Sam's attitude towards karate change as he gained the stripes on his belt, and eventually the invitation to the yellow belt test.

We weren't allowed to attend the test itself, but Mark was able to come at the very end and observe the way the kids were given their belts. As the parents entered, all the kids sat quietly meditating, kneeling on the ground with their eyes closed while their parents snapped pictures. The three senseis at the dojo walked around and quietly placed each child's new belt and certificate in front of them, telling them that when they opened their eyes they would find out if they passed.

When Sam finally opened his eyes, Mark said that his face told it all - shock, joy, surprise, pride all mixed together. You can see it written all over him in the picture Mark took of him holding his certificate and belt with the senseis. Afterward, Sam told Mark that part of the test was that they were each asked what they learned from their studies so far. Sam's answer was that earning a yellow belt takes a lot of focus.

So yeah, I'm pretty proud. And, as I told Sam, not just of the accomplishment but of the fact that he worked so hard, stuck with it when it wasn't as fun, and kept coming back. I'm also really heartened to see the relationship between Sam and his sensei, especially as we get ready to send him off to kindergarten and years of adult authority figures who are not us.

But most importantly, I see that Sam is proud of himself. He was able to articulate at the test what his particular challenge was, and voice that he overcame it. I see that he is proud not just of the belt, but in all of the work that went into earning it.

And I also reflect on what Mark and I do to show and reinforce those values. That we value working hard over trophies. That when everything seems overwhelming, sometimes just showing up when you promised to is enough for now and the rest will come later.

I know we'll have lots of ups and downs in our future, over karate and over other things. He'll want to quit, he'll get frustrated and sad when he doesn't make progress, doesn't win, or feels like all the work is in vain. But I hope we can help him understand all these things, put them in perspective and remind him that working hard for something takes time, and is ultimately its own reward.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Natural Consequences

I may possibly be willing to whisper under my breath that Caroline is finally potty trained. I whisper because if I dare to speak out loud, the Gods of Bodily Evacuation will surely smite me with a #2 in the middle of Target. So, we'll speak softly about this.

Caroline was so very different from Sam on this count. With Sam, he basically woke up one day and decided he was done with diapers. Ok, maybe it wasn't quite that smooth, but there was no doubt that he drove the bus on that one. Did I mention he was a few months past his second birthday? I will definitely say that there are good points about having a stubborn kid.

Caroline, however, approached the entire venture with suspicion and fear. I knew that she knew when she had to go, and she would even tell me when she was about to go but would insist on going in her diaper (thanks for telling me, kid?), turning her nose up entirely at the idea of sitting on the potty.

I kept expecting that she'd let me know when she was ready, like Sam did. But the thing about Caroline is that sometimes she needs a little push out of the nest, and I have to know when to give it.

I made up my mind about three weeks ago on a Wednesday morning. We'd run out of diapers and I was frankly too lazy to go out to the store and get some with both kids, and I couldn't find any of our diaper covers for the cloth ones that would fit her. So I took a deep breath, set up the potty and some strategically placed towels, and decided she'd bare-bottom it for the morning.

Maybe I need to interject here that there are two things I struggle with in parenting (and life) more than most, it seems - messes and natural consequences. And it hardly seems fair how often those two things seem to go together. Allow your kids to play with play-doh and they don't clean it up, and the play-doh is dried out and no more play-doh. At least, that's the way it should go. What usually happens is that my sanity is slowly chipped away at by the sticky floor, the unavailability of my kitchen table and the general clutter, so I either make the kids clean it up or do it myself.

I hang my head in shame. I always said I'd be a stickler for letting my kids experience natural consequences, but it is so, so much harder in practice than it is in theory. And in looking back, it's hardly surprising. I've never been good myself about connecting my actions to their consequences. It's so much easier to eat that fourth cookie and then feign surprise when the number on the scale doesn't move, or kick yourself for delaying and staying up late writing that term paper, even when it's exactly what you did last time and the time before, or run on that injury, instead of exercising a little patience and temperance, and make it worse. I am terrible at that stuff. And I'm probably not the only one. It often seems that our entire world is not really all that concerned with natural consequences, either. No matter what you did to lead to the jam you're in, there's a quick fix for it, often at a price. Entire industries are built upon our inability to pay attention to and learn from natural consequences.

So, with the entire world and all my self-worth riding on it (I kid!) I resolved to at least give this a whole-hearted try for a few days in relation to Caroline's potty training. And it was messy, and time-consuming, and required me to constantly be on alert in a way that slowly fried my brain over the course of the day. There were all the pee-soaked clothes and, inevitably, the urine-filled boots and shoes. Each short errand or run to the store felt like some sort of human waste Russian Roulette.

But you know what? She learned. When she had an accident, I said, "Oops! That's ok. Let's clean it up together." And we did. When she was bare bottomed on the second day and asked me for a diaper so she could poop, I shrugged and said, "Sorry! No diapers available!" and let her make a decision about what she was going to do with that information (she eventually went on her little potty). When we were out and about and she balked at the large, scary public toilet, I said, "Well, this is the only potty available right now, so you let me know what you want to do." At first she chose to hold it until we got home, but will now use almost any potty anywhere.

I'm very proud of both of us for sticking with it, even when it wasn't comfortable. Frankly, it was a daily (heck, hourly!) struggle to bite back "you don't want to have an accident, do you?" or just take her bodily and PUT her on the darn potty when I knew she had to go. And this was just one small part of parenting, one small cornered-off area of the vast expanse of decisions and consequences my kids make every day that I help them with. I had to remind myself that Caroline wasn't the only one making a behavior change, here.

But the whole experience got me thinking about how this relates to my faith life. I believe that part of we humans' relationship with God is very much based on this idea of natural consequences. We have pretty much as much rope as we want. Free will and all that stuff. God very much wants us to choose the path that leads to Him, but He gives us that choice. He doesn't make us, although I suppose if that's what He wanted He could have made us to do so. But he would have had robots instead of loving, amazing, smart, impulsive, demanding, questioning human beings. I have to think that there is some pleasure for God in who we are, since He made us in his image.

And I believe that we parents who believe in this God are called to reflect our relationship with Him in our relationship with our own children. Doing so allows them to know Him through us, and to grow in their own faith as they get older. So, with this in mind, perhaps the best thing I can do as a parent is just to say,

I'm here, and I love you. If you make a mess, I'm always here to help you clean it up. If you leave your play-doh out and it dries out and you are sad, I'll listen to you. If you don't do your homework and have to stay up late or get a bad grade, I'll bring you a snack. And I hope you learn from all of that. But if you don't, I'll be here the next time, and the time after that, as long as I'm alive. Because I know you. I know you so well. And I know you can learn, I always hope that you will.

Make no mistake, I'm sure I have some spleen-filled cleaning binges and frantic calls to teachers in my future along with "I told you so" escaping from my lips more often than not, but I hope and pray very hard that I can let go of the controls and let my kids experience the natural consequences of their actions. In the end, they will be far better and more lasting teachers than I.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

I'm hungry.

And not just because it's Ash Wednesday and I've been fasting. No. I feel like I woke up from hibernation ravenous, except my stomach is my soul. There's no other way to explain it. You know how when you've been sick with a long illness and you just sort of get used to it, and then suddenly you're well and you realized just how badly it sucked to be sick? Sort of like that.

I don't really think I was sick, necessarily. I think I got complacent. It can happen to any of us about anything, and without really thinking. We fall off the diet wagon, stop our good habits. Often, it's something sudden and jolting that makes us stop and look at our feet and realize we weren't really paying attention to the path. For me, I had sat on my spiritual laurels for too long. I had assumed that at one point in my life I had worked everything out in my head and my heart, so I was good. I didn't really need to keep practicing at it, keep searching. I was done. I could go on and just live life now.

Except faith isn't like that. Faith is endless.

I was reminded with some reading earlier this week that God, like all the things he is compared to - Love, Beauty, Truth - is completely unending. Totally infinite. And I realized that I had limited myself. I had told myself that what I had done was good enough, that where I was was fine. And it is fine. But there's much more. I was barely scratching the surface of faith, and I thought it was a meal.

I spent a lot of time over the last month feeling disheartened and a little beat up over many things - the state of the world, my microscopic chance to make any lasting sort of change in it. I fell into what can best be described as a spiritual depression. Then, in the desperation of a convert, I reached out and felt a hand, and heard a voice.

It said, "Come with me. I want to show you something."

And I followed.

So now, I have book lists, and prayer lists, and things to write and look up, philosophers and theologians and saints. I'm sitting at a banquet, one that was always available to me. And the more I read and the more I pray, the more I see the beauty, and the truth, and the love that's there. Infinity.

I realize that to some this may sound extreme. After all, most of you know me already as a pretty devout Catholic. Not necessarily a good one, and I don't expect that will change much. But that's the wonderful thing about it that I found in these last few weeks. Conversion is a continual turning toward God, because there is always more turning to do. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Last Battle, there is always the call of Aslan the Lion, "Further up and further in!"

I plan to write a bit more about my faith journey here, especially as it intersects with the other areas of my life that I write about more often. In looking back at this blog, it becomes apparent that while I may have thought a lot about faith as a general principle, I didn't do a great job of exploring its daily application. I'm hoping that during this Lent I can work on changing that, both by walking the path more intentionally and by reflecting on it in my writing.

Here's to conversion. Further up and further in!