I Couldn’t Help But Cry

… this morning, when I heard this report:

Six heavily armed gunmen stormed a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan killing more than 130 people, mostly teenagers, and many the children of military officers. Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, possibly in retaliation for Pakistan’s military operations against it. The death toll makes this attack one of the worst in the region in decades and is a grim reminder of the ongoing political turmoil.

All those children, all those families. It’s overwhelming to think on what they must be going through right now.

Loving, of course, makes us vulnerable. And loving our children makes that vulnerability seem infinite. It’s hard to imagine a greater pain – a pain that will go on and on, perhaps overtaking us – than losing a child. To lose someone who is (in the case of a biological child) literally, physically part of you, to lose someone (in the case of any child, no matter how he or she came to be yours) into whom you have poured so much work and love, and in whom you have seen such beauty and promise… the magnitude of such a loss is difficult to comprehend.

Which is why the Taliban chose such a target. It’s why bitter, angry, attention-seeking, sometimes ill people choose, over and over again, to attack schools: They house the treasures we hold most dear – the treasures our minds and hearts go wild at the prospect of losing.

My own heart had a small scare last week as I sat in my eight-month-old’s room, listening to him wheeze, watching his torso heave as he struggled to breathe. But my fear was short-lived. Soon we were in the hospital where he was monitored and cared for; the assistance he needed was within easy reach and I was pacified. I felt badly for the discomfort he felt, but my fear was gone.

wpid-20141212_025628.jpg

Fear rears up, though, from time to time. I love. I’m vulnerable. I fear when my children gag on their food. (They gag all the time.) I fear when I see them ride away in someone else’s car. I fear when I call for them in the back yard and they take too long to respond. Soon enough, I’ll fear when I send them off to school – real school, all-day school. I’ll fear when they’re the ones driving the cars, when they begin to claim their independence from us, when they leave home altogether.

It’s horrible, all that fear. It’s also enticing in a perverse sort of way. If I let myself, I could roll around in it, enfold myself in it. It would be in my nature: I remember convincing myself as a child, time and again, that something horrible would happen to my parents and they’d be taken from me. The fear was quick to take over. It was hard to see through.

Now, with a little more perspective, I’ve come to realize how difficult it can be to enjoy something you’re too afraid of losing. (And I’ve come to see how hard it can be to enjoy life while focusing on all that can be taken from it.)

So I try, these days, not to let the fears rule me. (I’m fortunate that I’m in a good position to do so, of course – my children are healthy and we live in a safe, stable part of the world.) I try to remember that fearing someone’s loss is a symptom of truly loving them. So there’s some beauty in the fear. It’s horrible and beautiful, all at once.

P1210294

My friend Mary is currently losing her daughter Courtney. My friend Amanda continues, rightly, to mourn the stillbirth of her precious daughter Brianna, even as she has welcomed Brianna’s younger sister and brother into this world. My family remembers our little Leah, whom my aunt and uncle lost far too soon. I can’t begin to count the number of women I know who have suffered the loss of their babies through miscarriage.

Given the events in Peshawar, I can’t help but turn my mind today towards those who have lost their children. Those friends and family of mine, those parents of Peshawar, those of Sandy Hook and Beslan and Columbine, those of Syria, Iraq, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, those whose children have been taken by violence and disease.

All that grief, all that fear – the wild, the heavy, the sharp, the lingering kinds. They swirl in my mind today, they squeeze my heart.

Lord, be with these families. Bless them. Bring them your comfort.

Disappointment, Truth, And Chocolate Cake

Is it Monday yet?

Because I’m really, really done with last week. With the last fortnight, actually. (“Fortnight” – let’s bring back that word. Isn’t it delightful?)

In the last fortnight the members of our household have suffered: a (thankfully, minor) car accident, a decently bad fall, a fever, a mild stomach bug, an ear infection, a glass shattering high enough up that we needed to clean a fine dust of glass off half the kitchen, two thwarted birthday celebrations before we hit upon a successful one, enough internet connectivity issues to make me somewhat concerned for my mental health, and a pickle juice spill in the refrigerator. (You might think that last one’s silly, but you didn’t have to clean out the refrigerator.)

Lesson: Steer clear of our family right now. You don’t want to be standing next to us when whatever’s-coming-next happens.

Folded into that litany of woes were two great disappointments for yours truly: First, due to my boy’s little stomach bug, I had to miss Jen Fulwiler’s talk at the Catholic Information Center in DC. And second, what “should” have been a nice evening of board meeting/reception/birthday dinner/walk by the water/maybe-even-ice-cream turned into a sad, stressful, embarrassing couple of hours of trying to distract my boy from the intense pain in his ears. And stop him screaming. (Poor boy – he suffered all those ailments in the span of three days.)

However, as disappointments sometimes do, these gems helped me recognize a few truths:

1) It’s not so awful to miss out on a good thing when you do so for the sake of someone you love. I’m definitely an angsty, crying-over-spilled-milk type of person by nature, so I surprised myself a little last Monday evening when I wasn’t a whiny, resentful mess over missing Jen’s talk. In fact, once the decision to stay home was made, I relaxed. I gained some clarity. I left my dress laid out on the bed and took my freshly-made-up face downstairs to spend some time with my sickly boy. We snuggled on the sofa and read his brother’s new books. I don’t do that often enough – just sit with him on the sofa to read. It was a lovely silver lining to our disappointing change of plans and it felt so right and so good.

2) Small children don’t care as much about plans as grown-ups do. My middle son turned three last week. Because we had a commitment the evening of his birthday, I made a few days’ worth of birthday plans so we could fit in everything I thought necessary to “properly” celebrate the occasion. Then most everything went wrong.

On Sunday, when we were to have our birthday dinner as a family – spaghetti and “wochate cake”* and presents and all – our oldest son and Brennan’s mother were both unwell. They ended up half-way joining us for the meal, present but not entirely so. Most of the birthday boy’s gifts (all but the bedtime books) were put off for another day. We sang “Happy Birthday” tired and deflated and sad about the unwell grandma and the glassy-eyed, red-cheeked, somber little boy who just needed to go to bed. We ate just a little bit of cake.

When they don't eat their cake, you know they're sick.

You’ve got to be sick when you won’t eat your cake.

On Tuesday (the actual birthday), we were due to head to Annapolis. I was to attend a board meeting while Brennan watched the boys, then we were all to attend an informal little reception. Afterward we planned to walk toward the water for a pizza dinner, maybe some ice cream. But as soon as we arrived, (though he’d seemed perfectly fine all day) my oldest son mentioned that his ear hurt.

Soon, that little off-hand comment turned into full-on wailing. The poor child couldn’t stop moving; he seemed to be trying to walk away from the pain. He wandered around, screaming. “My ear huuurts! I want Daaaddy!” (Daddy had gone to the drug store for some Children’s Advil.) “I want to go hooome!” (Please understand that this might be the first time in his life that this child has ever uttered those words. Our little social butterfly would usually rather be anywhere but home.) I tried to help. I sat on some steps and tried to hold him, to comfort him, but he was beyond comforting. All he wanted from me was pain relief, but until Daddy arrived, I couldn’t provide any.

But the birthday boy? (Getting back to my point now – promise.) He was fine. I could wish that he’d had enough empathy to be concerned about his brother’s plight, but I’m really just glad he was fine. He followed us around wherever we walked, singing and performing and pretending that a formal little flourish to the concrete steps was a trophy he’d won racing back and forth across the lawn. He showed me how fast he could go. He threw himself down on the ground and rolled in the grass. He ate a little cupcake.

wpid-20140930_183732.jpg

wpid-20140930_183206.jpg

He didn’t care that we’d driven so far for a couple of hours of confusion and concern and wailing. He didn’t care that we never got the pizza or walked along the docks or ate the ice cream. He was fine with pretending to be a race car. He was fine with the mini cupcake. He was fine with the chicken tenders he ate on the way home. He was fine with the frazzled, grumpy parents on his birthday evening. He’d been fine, too, with his sad little birthday meal on Sunday night. He was fine.

The plans, as it turned out, were for me, not him. He had people who loved him and wished him a happy birthday. He had a couple of presents. He had a “wochate”* cake. He was a perfectly happy little boy.

*(When I’d asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday, he answered, “wochate.” “A rocket cake?” I asked. “No, not wocket, wochate.” (They sound the same.) “Oh, you want a chocolate cake? We can do that! But what do you want it to look like?” “Wochate,” he repeated, “wiff eminems.”)

I obliged.

I obliged.

3) As hard as you try, as well as you mean, as much as you plan, sometimes taking your children out into the world is going to go horribly. I’m a very stubborn person. I tend to think I can just force something into place. I tend to think that if I’ve thought something through and tried very, very hard to achieve it, I will. And even though I know theoretically that everything can fall apart for reasons outside of my control, I really don’t expect them to.

So it’s not like I went into Tuesday’s meeting/reception/dinner plans thing on a whim. I usually don’t take my children with me to such events. (Or the mobile children, at least; I routinely bring my infants to meetings.) I’d arranged to have my husband meet me there to watch our boys during the meeting. I knew he’d enjoy chatting with some of the people at the reception anyway. I knew we’d be at a location where the boys could run and play with some freedom. I knew that my boys enjoy being around new people and that they’re generally well-behaved in public. I knew that we’d only be at the reception (i.e. my little people in the same space as all the grown-ups) for about an hour before we walked into the land of pizza and ice cream and water viewing. We weren’t there because of a thoughtless, “Hey, I want to do this thing! Let’s bring everybody, regardless of temperaments/accommodations/situation!” I’d thought it through.

But it didn’t matter! Just as small children don’t care about plans, neither do ear infections. My poor boy was caught unawares by a sudden onslaught of pain, and so were we.

I wish I could tell you that when my child was wandering around that beautiful place, wailing his sad little head off, he was my only concern. But he wasn’t. Though I felt horrible for him and hated how helpless I felt not being able to make him feel better, I was concerned about the other people at the reception too. I felt badly about our family creating such a distraction. I was embarrassed. (What a cliché we must have seemed: harried parents chasing after screaming children!) I was frustrated that I couldn’t force this situation back into place.

Just keep thinking about the cake.

Just keep thinking about the cake.

This must sound like another cliché, but I feel like I learn something new from this motherhood gig all the time. And even when the something isn’t entirely new, it becomes more present in my mind or more relevant than I’d previously considered. So it was during this (wonderful! terrific! ha!) past fortnight. And like so much of what I learn, this fortnight’s truths can be boiled down to one simple message:

“Chill, Julie.”

wpid-20140930_183412.jpg

Opening That Window To The World

One day this summer, my boys rediscovered the sprinkler in their grandma’s garden. I walked into the backyard to find them sopping wet, grinning from ear to ear. Even over their whooping and hollering, I could hear water sloshing in their rain boots.

It was a beautiful afternoon, unseasonably cool for the end of July, so I sat down on a nearby lawn chair and plopped the baby onto my lap. Together we watched his older brothers race back and forth through the spray.

20140731_161030

20140731_161038

The whole scene was just about a cliché of summer: the grass and trees were a beautiful, lush green; the children played happily under the warm late-day sun; the water droplets glowed gold as they fell through the air. At one point I laid the baby down so I could pull boots and soaking-wet socks off his brothers’ feet. The baby lay there in the grass and stared up at the leaves and the sky. It was positively idyllic.

20140731_163142

An hour later we were back inside the house with the television turned to the evening news. The program opened with a report on the fighting in Gaza: footage of destroyed buildings, mostly. My four-year-old, who normally begs me to change the channel on the rare occasions that I turn on televised news, was captivated. He wanted to understand what was going on.

I tried to explain, as gently as possible, about fighting in another part of the world, which breaks buildings and hurts people. But soon enough footage of crying, injured children popped onto the screen and I scrambled to the remote to change the channel as quickly as I could. I didn’t want those images stuck in my boys’ minds.

My boys are still small – just four and almost-three – so they understand little of how the world is organized, let alone its potential for conflict. We’ve taught them their town and they know the name of our state, even if they don’t understand what a state is. They recognize the American flag, but probably wouldn’t be able to tell you what country we live in. In fact, they’d probably say something like, “Merican Fwag!”

They know we’re Catholic, though that probably doesn’t mean much more to them than that we attend church on Sundays, where we have to be really quiet because we’re there to pray to God and thank him for the good things in our lives. They have no inkling that many worship God in other ways, that others don’t worship Him at all, and that some people use God as an excuse to hurt one another.

We’ve talked about death. Indeed, the concept has so intrigued my four-year-old that he routinely asks, “If I do diss, could I die?” (Doing “diss” can apply to any number of daring/stupid things, such as jumping off the third-floor landing.) If you mention Jesus to him, the first (and probably only) thing he’ll say about Him is, “Jesus died on da sign of da cwoss!”

I think it’s important for all people to be aware of major events happening in other parts of the world. I think it’s important to be empathetic towards those who suffer and to be engaged in trying to alleviate suffering. I think it’s important to make your voice heard on issues of consequence.

I want to raise my children to do all of these things.

I want my children to pay attention to the news, to think critically about the information they’re given, to care about those who hurt, to pray and act towards just resolutions.

But right now they’re little, and at least one of them is very sensitive to all things scary. (Seriously, he has on more than one occasion been brought to tears because “Dat bad man!” stole Elmo’s blankie in a silly little Sesame Street movie.) Right now their nightmares center on monsters and shadows and “sary wobots.” I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible.

So how do I begin to break it to them that so many people around the world don’t enjoy the comfort and security we do? How do I make others’ experiences seem relevant to our lives? How do I inform them without scaring them?

I don’t really know. So far, they listen to NPR with me, though I’m sure they don’t pay attention to or understand most of what they hear. When they ask questions, I answer them. And on the rare occasions that I notice relevant, teachable moments in the daily experiences of preschoolers, I try to take advantage of them. Maybe I’ll try to watch televised news with them more often, but only if I’m prepared to make that scramble for the remote.

More experienced parents (and more thoughtful people, parents and non-parents alike), I’d love to hear from you: How much of the world’s suffering do you let into your children’s lives? At what age do you start? How do you inform your children about conflict, war, terrorism, and other scary things without making them feel unsafe? Does there come an age when “feeling safe” is no longer your goal?

I would love to hear from you! Please share your experience/insight/expertise/best guess in the comments. I could use them! Many thanks in advance.

Single Lady Gets A Family

A few nights before the baby was born, as I placed a stack of clean, folded laundry outside my boys’ room, I decided to peek in on them while they slept. I crept in and saw each sprawled out on his new big-boy bed, looking so small surrounded by all that space and all those covers. I listened to their quiet breathing and watched them rustle and twitch, snuggling ever deeper into sleep.

I stood there in the quiet and I felt it wash over me: a profound sense of gratitude. The feeling was nearly physical: gratitude washed over my head like a wave, down my body, dropping my arms to their sides and stilling every movement save my head, looking from one boy to the other.

I have children. I have a husband. I have a family of my own.

Seven years ago this month, I could hardly have thought that possible. Seven years ago, I was well entrenched in my life as a single (single) young professional. I lived alone, I worked a lot, I hung out with friends sometimes, and I dated not at all. So it had been for years.

It was a good life, overall. I loved my work. It was interesting and fulfilling and on precious rare occasions, got me into a swanky black-tie dinner or two. I lived in a beautiful town full of brick-paved sidewalks and comfortably brooding cafes, where I could set out in any direction from my cute basement apartment and end up at the water. Many evenings, I’d close a stroll through town with a few quiet minutes sitting on a pier, listening to the dull knock, knock, knocking of sailboats bumping against their docks.

20130917_181425

My life could be busy, invigorating, peaceful… but it was always lonely.

I had long wanted to be married with children, so as much as I loved that interesting job and those beautiful environs, it all felt glaringly insufficient. Night after night, sitting home by myself (enjoying a great book and a nice glass of wine, so don’t pity me too much) I’d hear the sounds of couples and families walk past my apartment. And it was clear to me: what matters more than anything else in this life is relationship.

Relationship with God, relationship with people… growing one’s relationship with God by building up loving, life-giving relationships with people. Relationship.

And I was lacking in that department.

Yes, I was blessed with a wonderful family of origin, whom I loved and whom I tried to see as much as I could. Yes, I had lovely friends, some of whom I saw regularly, others I kept up with from afar. But deep down, I felt called to marriage and motherhood. And feeling called to that vocation, all other human relationships paled in comparison.

I longed to move through life alongside people. You don’t do that with friends or with your extended family. You cross paths with them, you touch base, you might walk along with them for a while at arm’s length. But your future is not intimately tied to theirs. Your paths don’t depend on each other.

I’d had enough of independence. I wanted to be in dependence with someone.

So at the beginning of that summer seven years ago, I decided to make a big, conspicuous effort at changing my circumstances. I ditched a bit of my pride, signed up for eHarmony, and waited. It didn’t take long. Glory Be and Halleluiah – before the summer was half over, I’d met my husband.

2603_55796858780_404863_n

Hiking at Antietam, September 2007

Everything changed so quickly. In June, I was beginning to come to terms with the idea that I might always be single. (Indeed, I was working hard to embrace the idea.) By August, Brennan knew that I was “the one” for him. And I knew that Brennan made me feel happier, more hopeful, and more at ease than anyone I’d ever met.

A year later, we were engaged. The next year, we were married. We welcomed sons in each of the two following years. Two months ago, we greeted another.

10175008_10203163661146406_8897300690616481433_n

10363511_10203163653986227_3939648298577452194_n

10426722_10203163671226658_8826979573693345896_n

It all happened so quickly that sometimes I’m tempted to ask myself whether it really happened at all. At my core, I suppose I still feel like that single lady, moving through life alone. Not to be overly dramatic, but I’ve come to realize that the experience scarred me.

Which is strange to think about while sitting at the center of a writhing heap of boy. These days I’m so smothered by touch and noise and activity that I crave the very solitude I once found depressing. I find myself daydreaming about that cute little basement apartment, those boats knock, knock, knocking against their docks.

For a moment.

Then I recall the realization, one long-ago weekend, that left me feeling hollow: I had not made physical contact with another person in over a week. The last time had been an impersonal handshake at a work meeting. I had no one in my daily life to hug, to nudge, to lay a hand on my shoulder. (See “Our Starved For Touch Culture” for an interesting read that jives with my experience.)

These days, my skin crawls with the over-stimulation of nursing, of small hands grabbing, of boys climbing, of baby holding. Yesterday my two-month-old was having a rough day. I don’t know what was bothering him, but I know he was unhappy or uncomfortable and he just wanted to be held. All day. In certain moments, I found it maddening. I was responsible for so much more than just that cranky baby: I had meals to make and a house to clean and two older boys to care for. My back ached and my arm went numb from nursing him so long. I was hot and sweaty and very ready to move around independent of that heavy, wailing bundle.

But I didn’t resent the situation – not really. I’ll take it. I’ll do it again a hundred times over, because independence is overrated. Because no amount of peaceful solitude can compare to the beautiful weight of walking through life alongside other souls.

914031_658060444228207_1206494137_o

A week after standing in my boys’ room while they slept, I sat on the sofa during a rare quiet moment in our home. I stretched my newborn son out before me and examined him closely. I looked at his round cheeks and his long fingers and the way his chest caught while he breathed his little newborn breaths. And I thought of it again: Children, husband, family – at once the most simple and the most amazing of things.

I have been so blessed.

Seven years into the most important relationship of my life, five years into marriage, and four years into motherhood, I suppose I should move past feeling like that single lady. She is no longer who I am. I’m grateful for the experience of my single years – so much more grateful than I could have imagined at the time. But the tugging and calling and clamoring I experience these days has gradually helped me to realize: It’s time to own my vocation. It’s time to feel like the wife and mother I now am.

10402661_10203163659626368_7778798260943961678_n

Let’s Just Pretend…

Let’s just pretend, shall we, that the week ahead will not look like this:

P1170971

P1170992

Rather, let’s imagine that March actually means Spring, and that the following will be waiting for us tomorrow when we open our doors:

IMAG1471

IMAG1581

IMAG1586

IMAG1594

IMAG1589

IMAG1602

IMAG1600

IMAG1624

IMAG1632

IMAG1649

I can almost feel it, smell it, hear it, can’t you? Open windows, warm breezes… shoots breaking through the dirt… blossoms on the trees… hyacinth, tulips, lilacs… the smell of new, damp grass… the sound of little children laughing outside (as in, NOT cooped up indoors)…

It’s it amazing?

Let’s just hold on to those images for a bit. Maybe they’ll help keep us warm.

 

This is post six of the 7 Posts in 7 Days challenge at Conversion Diary. Stop there to check out the hundreds of other bloggers who are also participating.

Big Babies, A Child’s Innocence, Race, War, and Spring: 7 Quick Takes Friday (Vol. 25)

7 quick takes sm1 Your 7 Quick Takes Toolkit!

—1—

Giganto Baby #3

Because my due date is one whole day after my 35th birthday, I get to be classified with that lovely “Advanced Maternal Age” label for the whole of this pregnancy. (Seriously! One day!) The burdens/bonuses (depending how you look at it) of the AMA label include a handful of extra sonograms. I had one yesterday.

As I knew they would, the technician and doctor found that my baby is ginormous. At 32 weeks gestation, the kiddo is already estimated to weigh 5 pounds, 8 ounces. Now, I know that sonos can be well off when it comes to weight, but I’m inclined to believe this one: (1) because the estimate jives with the weights of my other two giganto babies, (2) because – just like my previous two pregnancies – my uterus has been consistently measuring ahead, and (3) because the sono estimates for my other two boys were both spot-on.

So, surprise, surprise, it looks like I’m in for another big one. Which is unlikely, of course, to be surprising at all to anyone who has had the honor/burden of lifting my 30-pound two-year-old or my 40-pound three-year-old.

Just… please, Lord, let me be able to deliver this kid safely! My second son, who came ten days early and weighed in at 8 pounds, 15 ounces, got stuck on his way out. We had a scary few minutes there when his heart rate was dropping and everyone was scrambling to get him out as soon! as! possible! If he had been any larger, I’m not sure we would have had such a good outcome.

So, Baby Boy, how about if, when you get to 8 and a half pounds or so, you decide that you’re ready to just come on out to play? I promise it’s nice out here. And I know a couple of other big boys who will be eager to meet you!

Giganto Baby #2 (Can't find one of #1 at the moment!)

Giganto Baby #2 (Can’t find one of #1 at the moment!)

—2—

Corresponding Giganto Belly

Just shy of 33 weeks

Just shy of 33 weeks. Excuse the blurriness — really old mirror and really inadequate camera on my Android.

—3—

Open Mind of a Child

My friend Krista, whom I’ve mentioned before, wrote a lovely blog post yesterday on her recent visit to the pool with her five-year-old daughter. Her daughter had brought a doll with her, which she proceeded to baptize in the baby pool. Krista writes:

Most of us recognize the story from the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus urges his disciples to bring the children to him, because “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” It is a story that tends to be linked to the idea that what is most valuable in children is their innocence and unworldliness. It seems to imply that children, in their dearth of experience, are better able to absorb the teachings of faith, and indeed of the world around them. I don’t believe that this is a strictly religious way of thinking. There is a common tendency to think of children as blank slates waiting to be written upon.

Children are certainly unworldly. There is necessarily an innocence to the way they approach their world. They have no basis of comparison. They have no prejudice. Their minds are open. They are open, but I don’t think they are waiting, passively, for us to shape them.

If I have learned anything about children and the way they approach life, it is that they do so through constant questioning and experimenting. They are endlessly pushing the boundaries of their universe. And these attributes apply equally to the way they understand faith and the way they process new facts.

When I think of my daughter, who is at that perfectly ripe age when the concepts of faith and fact are just coming within her intellectual grasp, I see nothing passive about her approach to the world. All I see is activity – a dynamic, unrestrained pursuit for more knowledge, a constant pushing and stretching of the limits of her understanding.

I hear her asking why, and no matter how thorough an answer I give, I hear her asking why again. I see her acting out, and re-enacting, what she is learning so that, through interpretation and experience, it becomes a part of who she is.

When I think of the idea that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” I don’t see it as a calling to submissiveness or innocence. I see it as a calling for us to approach faith — and reason — like children do – with flexibility, enthusiasm, ceaseless questioning, and a mind with ever-expanding boundaries. Those are the best things that children have to offer the world, and we adults should not forget that.

It’s a beautiful post, which somehow also includes a totally appropriate reference to… farts. I kid you not. I hope you’ll stop on over to Krista’s to read the rest of it.

—4—

Discovering Race

Reading Krista’s post, especially the following words: “Children are certainly unworldly. There is necessarily an innocence to the way they approach their world. They have no basis of comparison. They have no prejudice. Their minds are open.” I was reminded of one of the many half-written posts I’ve got sitting on my computer.

This particular one is on race. That oh-so-touchy, oh-so-important issue that I feel I have to get just right. Despite multiple re-writes and lots of hours, it’s not, yet, just right.

But its beginning, the only part of the piece to stay constant through all my re-writes, is illuminated, I think, by Krista’s words. (To clarify, her words are above. The following are my own.)

Not long ago, my three-year-old son pointed out to me that he and his brother, and me, and his father, all have “the same kind of skin.” We have light skin, he said. The implication being that there are people with skin that is other than ours.

His observation unsettled me a little. Is he so old, already, to be noticing such things?

A moment later, I was pacified by the recollection of reading recently (where did I read it?) that children start noticing race at the age of three. And I gave what I believe to be the appropriate response to his question: “Yes, in our family we all have light skin. Other people have different colors of skin, don’t they? It doesn’t matter, though. People are people. Sometimes our skin just looks a little different.”

Now, I don’t begrudge my son his curiosity or his interest in making observations. I wasn’t unsettled because his brain has registered a range of pigmentation. I was unsettled because with his observation, he’s on the cusp of inheriting the persistent, uncomfortable, even insidious burden of race.

The thought gives me a sinking feeling.

From my perspective – my white, middle-class, somewhat-southern, raised-in-a-diverse-community, now-living-in-a-decidedly-not-diverse-community perspective – I think race continues to divide and define our society more than we’d like to admit.

And I hate that. I hate the division. I hate the definition. I hate the not admitting. I hate that my boys’ background and skin color will place them in a camp that they bear no responsibility for constructing. I hate that the issue continues to hurt so many who likewise bear no responsibility for the camps they find themselves in. I hate that there’s no end in sight.

I know this is a gloomy little excerpt to be throwing in here, but at this point I don’t know when (if ever) I’ll take up the post again. Yet I thought this part of it was worth airing, especially if we’re already taking a moment to consider the world through the innocent, unworldly, unprejudiced, open mind of a child.

—5—

Neglect in Sarajevo

This is a fascinating series of photos of the abandoned sites of the 1984 Olympic Games in Sarajevo. It’s at once beautiful and sad and it gives me so much to reflect on.

Stripping away the historical context and the emotion that the context evokes, it’s just plain interesting to see how quickly nature takes back what was once its own. I live in the verdant Mid-Atlantic, where every patch of ground left untended for a short period of time will quickly turn to forest. The tiny backyard at our last, very suburban home, was evidence of that. Too many summers, occupied with graduate school (him), wedding planning (me), or new babies (both of us), we let (first his, then) our little patch of ground revert to its true jungle self. (Our poor neighbors!) Brennan always commented on how surprised his Minnesota family would be to see just how thickly and quickly our little forest grew. I always took secret comfort in it.

As I’ve mentioned before, my family has lived in this part of the country since the early 1600’s. In that span of time, of course, the changes made to the land have been nearly incalculable. Just in my own life, they’ve been obvious. In my grandparents’, they’ve been stunning. As I also mentioned in that post, I’ve mostly made peace with the fact that change happens and one can only control how one reacts to it. It’s better for me to see the good in the changes that have occurred, rather than resent them. But there remains a part of me that is grateful for the speed with which nature takes back its own. I am comforted by the fact that the land my family once worked is still there, hiding behind all the fancy new houses. If we humans were to step aside from it for a while, nature would quietly reassert itself.

Of course, there’s also a very human context to the Sarajevo photos, and that’s much more sobering to ponder. Less than ten years after the 1984 Olympic Games, the city that had been the center of the world’s attention for reasons of sporting excellence and international cooperation went on to capture the world’s attention for reasons far, far worse. From 1992 to 1996, Sarajevo suffered the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Some 9,500-14,000 people were killed.

I can’t help but look at those pictures of encroaching trees, crumbling concrete, draping vines, and quiet little nooks of moss and think of the human cost that enabled them.

—6—

Unrest Today

Today, of course, there are other Sarajevos – cities and towns and countryside in places like Syria, the Central African Republic, Ukraine, Venezuela – where conflict is destroying lives and damaging families and communities. Let us keep the people of such places in prayer.

—7—

Spring Comes

I can’t go out on those sad notes. Right now the sun is emerging from the clouds (literally – I’m not trying to be poetic or anything) and the ice is melting. This morning a strange, haunting mist rose off the snow, filling the area with a fog that looked like smoke rising from fields and hollows. Yesterday morning everything was white; this afternoon we see grass and ivy and dirt. Soon, I know (I hope?) we’ll see green shoots making their way up. I am so ready for spring this year. (As I imagine most people in the eastern half of the country are!) We might not be there just yet, but Spring is coming. It is.

P1180059

Thanks, as always, to Jen for hosting 7 Quick Takes Friday. Stop on over to see the rest!

The Religious Climate In My Here And Now

I was happy to see that Jen of Conversion Diary was revisiting her “religious climate” questions again this year. I always find the variety of answers she gets to be fascinating. (I’ve just realized that I always italicize the word “fascinating.” It doesn’t seem to work for me any other way.)

I’m not sure how fascinating my answers will be to anyone, as I live in the good ol’ U.S. of A. just like the majority of Jen’s readers, but I thought I’d tackle them nonetheless. Because I really like pondering questions of how religion and society interact.

First, let me (1) characterize my own little corner of the world, and (2) emphasize that this characterization, and all of the answers below, simply reflect my sense of my corner. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of my neighbors or relatives reacted to it with, “Where the heck are you? It’s not like that where I live!”

Just like so much of the United States, my State is distinctly divided along cultural/political lines. We have some very liberal areas and some very conservative areas. We have urban areas and rural ones. We have great wealth and real poverty. We have wealthy/intellectual liberal, urban/poor liberal, rural/suburban conservative. And the factions don’t always mix very well.

Too often, they quite purposefully don’t mix at all. Or if they mix in one sphere (say, the workplace), they feel like they have to keep their political/cultural/religious sides to themselves. It’s quite possible for the conversation in #3, below, to be very comfortable and friendly in one setting and extremely uncomfortable – maybe even laughable – in another. Same place; different mix of people; very different outcomes.

 20131006_152058

1. WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

In the greater Washington, D.C. area.

2. WHAT IS CHURCH ATTENDANCE LIKE? ARE THERE MANY CHURCHES?

There are lots of churches. Catholic churches in suburban areas seem to be full. Most of the parishes I’ve attended have been standing-room only for the main Sunday mass(es), less full at Saturday and early-Sunday-morning masses. They’ve had anywhere from 3 to 12 masses per weekend and their sanctuaries have probably averaged 500 seats. That adds up to lots of people.

That said, Christmas and Easter masses seem to draw at least three times as many attendees as “regular” Sundays. They necessitate additions to the mass schedule and/or the addition of an improvised worship space (i.e. a school gym). Which tells me that if all the Catholics in my area actually attended mass on a weekly basis, we’d need to get very busy building churches.

In short, Catholic churches seem full, but for every active Catholic, there must be several more who rarely or never attend mass.

Mainline Protestant churches seem smaller and (from my limited experience) emptier. Evangelical churches seem to have bigger, fuller parking lots, so I’d guess they do better in the attendance department. We also have some (not lots) of “mega-churches,” of which I know little.

We also have a fair number of houses of worship for people of faiths other than Christianity. Our region has so many people from other parts of the world, we’ve got members of just about any faith you can imagine.

3. HOW APPROPRIATE WOULD IT BE FOR A PERSON TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT HE OR SHE IS A BELIEVING CHRISTIAN IN CASUAL CONVERSATION?

Per the above, it depends. It would probably always be minimally acceptable. In some parts it would be accepted and encouraged; in others it would seem strange or even inappropriate.

4. WHAT KIND OF FAITH DO THE POLITICIANS CLAIM TO PRACTICE?

We have politicians of different faiths. Most would claim some faith; few would claim none. But even those who claim a faith in common with their constituents would be unlikely to talk about it too widely.

5. HOW COMMON WOULD IT BE TO SEE A FAMILY WITH MORE THAN THREE KIDS? WHAT ARE THE ATTITUDES TOWARD FAMILY SIZE?

Two to three children is considered normal; four is still mostly “acceptable.” Any number over that – or even three/four if they’re spaced closely together – is usually viewed as strange.

6. WHAT WAS THE DOMINANT BELIEF SYSTEM IN YOUR AREA 50 YEARS AGO? WHAT IS IT NOW?

My sense is that 50 years ago my area was more culturally and religiously conservative, if not politically. People were likely more church-going than they are now. There were far fewer religious minorities, but there was still a good mix of Catholic and Protestant Christians.

But that “mix” would have been in the broad sense. I’m under the impression that people of different faiths are much more comfortable with each other now than they used to be. I think the Catholic and Protestant communities were much more distinct and divided 50 years ago. My (Catholic) grandmother still vividly remembers a terrible experience from her childhood, when her (public) elementary school teacher in a predominantly Protestant rural area went on an anti-Catholic rant in class.

Per my answer in #2, there is much religious diversity. Still, Catholic and Protestant Christianity predominate.

7. DO THE PEOPLE WHERE YOU LIVE SEEM HAPPY WITH THEIR LIVES?

Given the current political stalemate in Washington and how dependent our local economy is on the government (many friends are furloughed right now), people don’t seem too happy at the moment. More broadly, I still sense a general unhappiness/sadness/frustration. Even if one’s own family has survived the economic (and political) crises just fine, they’re likely to have friends or family who haven’t.

Thanks for the great questions, Jen! I look forward to seeing what everyone’s got to say!

Fifty Years From Birmingham

This morning as I drove to mass, I heard this segment on NPR. I hadn’t realized beforehand, but today is the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Which killed four little girls. In a church. Sunday, September 15, 1963: The event has always stuck out to me as exceptionally horrible. Layer upon layer of horrible.

I can only barely, a little bit, understand how people could have fought so hard to maintain a system of segregation that is (to my eyes) so obviously unjust. I assume that fear played a role – fear of change, fear of losing power. I think those fears have motivated an awful lot of horrible over the course of human history.

I understand less how people could escalate their resistance to change to the point of undertaking violence. How does one make that leap from using speeches and meetings and rules and laws (however unjust) to causing physical damage to a person or his property? I can only assume that the original seed of fear must have been long overtaken by anger. And I think anger poisons people.

But I don’t understand at all, not in the least, how people could bring violence to a church. How could any person, who has ever possessed even a morsel of faith or morality, bomb a church? On a Sunday morning? On the church’s youth Sunday, when a bunch of little girls were in the bathroom, excitedly preparing themselves to take visible roles in that morning’s church service? No purely human emotion helps me understand that one. Even anger isn’t sufficient.

I can only see evil. I can only surmise that people let evil in when they decided to nuture their fear. That the evil grew with their anger, each feeding the other. And that evil finally made itself obvious in that horrible act. A church. Four innocent children. Preparing to worship God. Evil must have rejoiced.

I cried as I drove to mass this morning, re-learning the story of the four little girls. I cried because I knew it was unjust; I knew it was wrong; I knew how unfair it was to those girls; I knew it must have torn apart their mothers’ hearts; I knew it had impacted so many more people than the victims themselves; and I knew that evil had had a say.

It’s a sobering thought on which to end my Sunday. As I drove to mass this morning, I hoped that my pastor would acknowledge this horrible anniversary. I wanted to feel uplifted. I wanted us to make some effort to remember what happened to those girls, to make a statement that their lives mattered. It didn’t happen. In my little corner of the world, no one seemed to remember.

But I hadn’t remembered either, not before that NPR segment. Which is why I write this post. With it, I’m issuing my own little remembrance. In these last few minutes of Sunday, September 15, 2003, let’s remember what happened exactly fifty years ago in Birmingham. Let’s say a prayer for those who lost their lives. Let’s say another for the family and friends who suffered their loss. And let’s say one more for the many who lost something less tangible that day. Because when evil scored with that horrible act, so much was lost.

That Mommy Dance

Have you seen this post on “Dating for Moms”? It floated around my Facebook feed last week and I just recently got around to reading it. It’s about striking up friendships with other moms, and how doing so can look an awful lot like dating. Pretty funny, to be sure. As I only have two very young boys at this point, I hadn’t given the subject too much thought. My boys aren’t into any sports yet, and my oldest only just started preschool last week.

I am, however, very familiar with a little dance that has always reminded me of trying to gauge whether that cute guy might be into you and whether maybe he’d like to hang out sometime. Only it’s way more transparent – and probably smacks more of desperation than you’d like. It looks something like this:

You’re at the park/grocery store/church/library and you see a woman around your own age, dressed in kinda sorta the same style and/or level of sloppiness as yourself, with a couple of kids hanging on to her (or being chased by her) that look to be about your own children’s ages. You give her some sort of sympathetic smile regarding whatever child behavior she’s dealing with at the moment. You glance at your own children to indicate that you are/have been in the same boat.

You find a way to walk over to her and inquire about her children. You say something about yours.

IMAG1727

If she seems likeable and interested in chatting with you, you introduce yourself. This is where you almost stumble over yourself, asking “Do you stay home?” with a sort of wild-eyed desperation that you’re honestly only a little bit embarrassed about.

If she answers yes, your excitement jumps up a few notches because Your Schedules Might Be Compatible! And She Knows What I Go Through! And Maybe She’d Like To Do Play-dates!

You ask a few of the requisite getting-to-know you questions: how many children she has, their ages, where she lives, does she frequent this park/grocery store/church/library, is she from the area, does she know lots of people here, etc.

While one part of your brain is processing the information, another part is just about jumping up and down, singing “I think I like her! I think she likes me! We could be friends!” Another part of your brain is trying to stay cool and not freak her out with your enthusiasm.

If everything goes really well, you get up the nerve to exchange contact information. You’re still trying to be cool about it, but you’re already thinking about how much time is appropriate to let pass before you email her. You might even call a girlfriend on the way home, to share! your! excitement!

Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this little dance.

Playground Climbing

Because I did it this weekend.

And in all seriousness, though the “dance” or the “dating” seems funny when you look at it through the lens of your long-ago crushes, it’s not a game, nor is it insincere.

As a stay-at-home mom, you spend the bulk of your hours surrounded by little people, yet also somehow alone. When you stumble across someone who shares that experience, and in whom you sense a spark of something that could develop into friendship, you grab at it. Or at least I do.

I know that an awful lot of people are too shy to approach a stranger and strike up a conversation. I’m pretty darned outgoing and I still hesitate before doing so. But when it comes down to it, I understand that if I want to have friends in my life who are here, right now, in my own community, I have to do something about it. I have to put myself out there. I have to walk up to somebody and make the small talk. I have to risk embarrassing myself over an awkward, hasty “Sodoyoustayhome?”

Six years ago, I decided to just get over myself and try online dating. I figured that if it lead me to my future husband, it would be worth the hassle and embarrassment. Boy, did it pay off — big time. So now I remind myself to take those smaller risks on the playground, in hopes that they’ll pay off too.

So if you find yourself at a park/grocery store/church/library in these here parts and I walk up to you, please be kind. Take my attention not so much as a mark of crazy-eyed mommy desperation, but rather as a compliment. You must come across as a reasonable, pleasant person who takes good care of her children. Because I’m not going to bother with any other sort.

Playground Slide