Category Archives: Parenting

Now You Know

Mindfulness.

This is a word you’ve probably seen pretty often lately, as it seems to be the latest technique for dealing with all sorts of ills: anxiety, eating disorders, stress management, addiction, emotional dysregulation, and depression just to name a few.  Add meditation to the concept of mindfulness and you have just identified the hot, new trend for young, urban professionals.

There is nothing new about mindfulness or meditation. People have been practicing both for centuries. What has gained them both so much press is that medical professionals have come to recognize the power of both techniques for improving overall health (i.e. lowering blood pressure) and reducing pain; mental health professionals have long used these techniques to help their clients reduce impulsivity and act according to their values instead of the strong emotion of the moment, which is a powerful means of increasing self-esteem and the likelihood of choosing positive/effective actions.

All this to say, gee…this mindfulness and meditation thing sure is useful!

Despite the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation, most of us are not using these techniques on a regular basis because they take time and effort to practice and master—and most of us don’t have enough time or energy to master even one more thing, so it Just. Isn’t. Happening.


My youngest daughter posted something on Facebook yesterday that really caught my attention. She said “If, when I was little, someone told me how much of life is going to work just so you can pay rent and taxes and be able to go to the doctor, I probably would have savored those years more.”

For just a moment I struggled with the urge to tell her that simple observation would have given her a clue if she had only bothered to pay attention to how much work her parents were doing!

I thought about accusing her of being bone-headedly stupid, but the truth is that I didn’t pay any more attention to the difficulties of adult life during my childhood than she did during hers.  I decided that the problem is endemic to childhood and especially to being a teenager, and this reminded me of a specific morning when I was teaching Sunday School to a bunch of high school students.

That Sunday one of the boys in the class was complaining that his mother wanted him to help her clean the house just because he was on Spring Break.  “If she wants to clean the house, then she should do it herself! Don’t make me something just because it’s what you want!”  Then he repeated the mantra of children everywhere: “I can’t wait until I’m an adult. I’ll do whatever I want to do all the time!

I kind of lost my composure for a moment and blurted out “Do you really think that your mother wants to clean the house?!” To my utter shock, he said yes. Still having no composure, I said “Are you on drugs?! NO ONE wants to clean the house! Ever!” He actually had the audacity to ask me why his mother cleaned the house if she didn’t want to do it, since she was an adult and therefore could do whatever she wanted to. So I explained to the class that adulthood is about doing the many things you have to do and need to do whether you want to do them or not…with occasional moments of ease when you get to do what you’d like to do. Then I pointed out that if their parents didn’t clean the house on a regular basis they would quickly be living in filth and unsafe conditions. Then I made it clear that neither their mothers nor their fathers particularly liked going to work every day, nor did they like paying bills, or doing yard work, or doing laundry. I told them that most parents would actually prefer to do the same things that their kids want to do all day: sleep in, play video games, hang out with friends, go shopping, watch a movie, and eat food that somebody else prepares. I made it clear that their parents were not getting to do what they wanted to do very often at all.  I wish I could show you a picture of their crestfallen faces. I think I might be personally responsible for destroying their dreams of an adult life of ease, and I’m not sure that it was the kind thing to do since they had so little time left to indulge that dream.


I did post an answer to my daughter, admitting that her father and I tried to tell her how difficult adult life would be, and revealing that she was consistently unwilling to listen to that truth. I also let her know that she would say much the same thing once her children were born, except in reference to her life with her husband before children. I also told her that she would say the same thing again in reference to raising her children, once her nest became empty.

It’s that old adage: hindsight is 20/20.  You only realize how good you had it after you no longer have it, whatever ‘it’ is.  This is not news to anyone over the age of 20.

Except that I’m not sure that that this is how it’s supposed to be.

And this is where I return to the subject of mindfulness.

Our culture is so focused on productivity and problem-solving that our lives have become driven by our to-do lists.  Each day becomes a marathon of trying to get it all done, with increasing levels of efficiency and task mastery as we grow older, which only lets us cram more onto our to-do list, at least until we reach our mid-60s and need to start slowing down a little.

You’ve heard this before, but I’ll say it again: we have become human doings instead of human beings.

I don’t have the solution to alleviate our busyness or our endless to-do lists, but I do have an idea about how to stop the endless cycle of looking backwards, longing for a chance to truly appreciate what good thing that we didn’t know we had, now that it’s gone.  And no, I’m not going to try and sell you a meditation CD that will increase your levels of gratitude or insist that you sit with a raisin for five minutes, focusing on its texture and appearance, and then five more minutes giving yourself a chance to truly taste a raisin.

Can you tell that I am just a little frustrated by the ways that we teach mindfulness?  I knew you could.

How about we just take a minute to pay attention to the good things in life?

I don’t mean the house/apartment/rented room you live in because that’s obvious, and if you aren’t grateful for the roof over your head, this blog isn’t going to do you any good.  I understand that we often forget to be grateful for what we have, but that’s not what I trying to say. I’m trying to shoot at the root of what my daughter talked about in her FB post: the habit of only valuing the fullness of our life after that part of our life has passed.

This problem…this is a part of the human condition. We like to identify our material possessions and our relationships as our blessings (because it’s so obvious) and consign everything else to the ‘meh’ category, wishing we didn’t have to deal with it.  But it’s the stuff in the ‘meh’ category that we will miss the most once it is gone.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

When you’re busy plunging, how often do you think about how fantastic it is to have a flush toilet that functions?  We don’t thank God for the sewer system often enough.

When your life becomes an emotional mess, do you ever think about the ways that your challenges and struggles illustrate to you exactly who your friends are? Trust me, you’ll know who your real friends are because they will show up (either physically or emotionally) to give you support in the midst of your difficulty.

When you are stuck at home with bronchitis or the flu, do you spend any time thinking about your body and how hard it works to keep you going…and how infrequently it breaks down? Ask anyone with a chronic illness how quickly they came to appreciate their previous health and what they now call their ‘good days’…and you might suddenly realize just how many good days you have in the average year.

When you are refereeing a fight between your children, or arguing with your teenager, or grounding your tween for bad behavior, do you ever stop to think that these moments—these frustrating, disappointing moments—are the grist in the mill that will help your child become a decent adult?

You can complain about the crap in your life—and broken toilets and bad breakups and the flu and disobedient kids are crap—all that you want to. It’s okay to call it like you see it. Crap is crap. I’m not asking you to pretend that life is all rainbows and unicorns.

What I’m trying to say is that we need to become mindful of the goodness that is inherent in the daily crap in our life.

We need to take a solid minute to be grateful for the obvious blessings and then another two or three minutes to be grateful for just how crazy life is, for the things that frustrate us, challenge us, and make us exhausted. Trust me…in their absence we will look back and say “If I had only known…I would have savored those years more.”

Well…now you know. Savor the life you have NOW…not just the obvious blessings, but the whole doggone mess.

This is your mindfulness minute for the day. Thank you for reading. I’m going to go clean the dog poop out of my backyard, and think about how I wouldn’t have to do this if I didn’t have two little Shih Tzus who love me, love me, love me!

I thank you Lord, for the crap. Literally.

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The Full Catastrophe

It’s family disaster week.

Actually, there is nothing “family disaster” in what I’m about to say; in fact, what I’m about to say probably reflects the same family life most people have in their fifties. Some days are good, some days are bad, some days are both good and bad, and some days feel like Murphy moved into your house, took over your bank account, and decided that he personally has a vendetta against you.

I hate that Murphy guy.

This will serve as your one and only trigger warning: if you are already overloaded with family drama, I’ll see you next week. Otherwise feel free to read on.

So…the mom brag moment!

My oldest daughter called me and told me that wonderful things are happening at her job. Since she hasn’t told the world yet I won’t give you details, but let’s just say that the money is getting significantly better, she’s about to become very happy with her job and her commute, and she hasn’t felt this valuable to a company in a really long time.

It was so surprising that she was a little stunned and overwhelmed, but I’m here to tell you that she totally and absolutely deserves all of it.  Yes I’m her mom but dang that girl is bright and capable!

To put the icing on that cupcake, she told me that her partner (who is a professional photographer who does mostly BMX races) has been marketing himself a great deal in San Francisco because she travels there twice a month for work…so why not fly there together, you know? Well, after showing his work around town he got hired for a 3 day commercial shoot for a major fashion designer!!  Seriously, when I heard this I squealed out loud and he’s not even my kid.  Again…they haven’t told everyone yet and so I am keeping some details under my hat, but OMG a major (MAJOR) fashion designer!

After our phone call was over I was so excited that I danced all around my house as I got ready for my Zumba class, where I danced rather exuberantly and with great joy.  I had to let the energy out somewhere!

It has been a good couple of weeks for my girls. My youngest passed her certification exam and now is a certified Pharmacy Tech (hello, big raise!) and my son-in-law got a great job at an airport with benefits and everything.  Considering that he is thinking of going into aircraft maintenance, this is a good job to have.

Some days are good. Some weeks are good.

And then…

I have written previous posts about the challenges of aging and how important it is admit and accept that you are going to require someone else to take care of you. I have written about the importance of working through the emotions of becoming more and more disabled before you come to that point, and understanding that aging doesn’t have to be about loss.

Yeah, my parents don’t read this blog.

My dad is 76 years old and has dementia; my mom is 70 years old and chronically ill.  Both of them are slowly losing their ability to be independent, although neither of them wants to admit it.

My dad is unwilling to admit that his dementia has reduced him to the point where he cannot live independently and needs a caregiver. My mom has been filling the caregiver role for eight years, with increasingly less and less physical ability to do so, and more and more emotional and mental stress related to my dad’s decline.

I feel like we are at the breaking point.

I talk to my dad and he unloads about his frustration and overwhelming confusion in combination with his anger with my mom.  You see, he still believes that he is capable of independence, and he keeps trying to live his life the way that he used to. He thinks that it’s my mom’s anxiety that causes her to stop him from doing maintenance around the house or driving. Sadly, my dad’s dementia has made it impossible for him to evaluate his own functioning, or lack of it. And he does keep trying to function, despite the fact that the results are consistently bad.  Over and over he’ll try to “be of use” and do the things he used to do around the house, but since he no longer remembers details or how things function he ends up breaking or destroying clothes, appliances, fixtures, you name it. He has lost or destroyed so many things that my mom is at her wits end, so she tries to stop him or she ends up criticizing him because he is doing it wrong and refusing to receive instructions on how to do it right. This causes him to become belligerent and angry and then he becomes aggressive and things just keep escalating until there is a huge confrontation.

That’s when I get frantic, emotional phone calls from my mom telling me just how bad it is, how agitated and aggressive my father is becoming, how exhausted and overwhelmed she is…and I gather resources and try to offer help to her…which she refuses most of the time.  Recently she revealed to me just how aggressive my father becomes when he gets agitated, and the last time I was at their home she had me take pictures of the bruises. It broke my heart to think that my father has become that guy and that my mother feels trapped in the situation.

Disaster.

Believe me, I have tried all sorts of things, and I have gathered all sorts of resources including an elder law attorney. Nothing is getting either of them to realize how explosive this situation is becoming.

I was up until almost 2am last night running it over and over in my mind, furious with both of them for the choices they have made and are making. I have a huge list of fears, with each one more terrifying than the other until the final one involves such a horrible occurrence that I would lose both my parents at once: one to death, and the other to the criminal justice system.

All morning I have been trying to interject more logic and less fear and anger into the discourse in my head, and I have realized that no matter how much I want to, I cannot make their choices for them. As much as I love and want to protect them, every attempt to help them make a decision that would admit that they need help because of their increasing debility seems to create a backlash of resistance and petulance out of my dad, which only serves to increase my mother’s anger with him.  I don’t want my desire to “fix things” to become the reason they end up in the next screaming, violent confrontation.

I fear that the best course of action is to sit back and let their choices drive what comes next and hope that none of my fears comes true. But I’m telling you, I’m going to get a hold of that elder law attorney and get papers that would allow me to file for conservatorship and get them filled out in advance. I’m also going to ask her for a referral to an attorney that deals with criminal charges against compromised adults. I can’t save them from themselves, but I can arm myself with information, prepared paperwork, and referrals.

And then I am going to sit back, close my eyes and meditate on raises, promotions, new jobs, photo shoots, and the incredible joy I feel when I think of what amazing women my daughters have become and what amazing men they have chosen as their partners.

In the movie Zorba the Greek, one of the characters gets asked if he is married and he says “I have a wife, children, house, everything…the full catastrophe.”

Life is a catastrophe, indeed. A wonderful, excruciatingly painful and beautiful catastrophe. I would complain, but then I think of Jesus’ life and all that He went through and I realize that even my Savior lived the full catastrophe, even if he never had a house and may not have had a wife and children.  It turns out that this is the nature of incarnate life, and I don’t know that I would honestly want it to be any other way.

 

I Promise

For all the parents out there…hang in there. It gets better. I promise.

Parenting is a thankless job that requires you to act wisely and lovingly even when you don’t feel very wise and you’re starting to wonder why you chose to breed at all.

Parenting requires you to do the right thing no matter how inconvenient, exhausting, or expensive doing the right thing is going to be.

Parenting requires you to hold firm to boundaries and rules even as your children scream that you are ruining their life.

And of course, you are ruining their life…at least the life they think they should have.

The problem with parenting is that there is nothing to give you that smug sense of assurance that you have made the right choices, held firm at the right times, and bent the rules in the right ways. There is no way to be sure that the parenting choices you have made will lead to a happy, healthy child.

In so many ways, parenting is a crapshoot.

Maybe you throw a 7, and maybe you crap out. ***

And the big fear that hangs over every parent is that your child will grow up, look back at their childhood, and declare you a bad parent.  The fear is that they’ll remember the discipline and not the lessons, the punishments and not the good times, the fights and not the nights spent at their bedside when they were sick.

Hang in there, parents.  It gets better. I promise.

Today my oldest daughter called me to thank me, saying that she had recently read that children gain confidence in themselves from their interactions with their parents.  She wanted to let me know how much she appreciated her father and I and how much time and attention we gave her.

I want to make this clear: I was not a stay-at-home mom, and her father wasn’t a stay-at-home dad.

We both worked full time.

Then Phil started graduate school just before I got my call into ministry. I quit my job and went to seminary full-time while Phil worked full time and attended one class per semester at ASU in pursuit of a Master’s in Computer Science Engineering.

Five years later, we graduated within 7 days of each other, having done a ton of creative things to get through the grueling 5 years it took for both of us to graduate.

My seminary was in California, so I had fly to school every week. I was gone for two days each week while Phil had to do everything and I do mean everything: he had to deal with both kids, his job, and all of his homework. It damn near killed him and there were many semesters when he was so busy that he felt exhausted and on the edge of tears almost every day.

And the kids?  They don’t remember how tired and emotional their father was. They remember that when I was gone at school, their father would pick them up from aftercare program and take them straight to the library where they would return last week’s books, pick out new books, and then listen as their father read to them for a good hour. Then they would go the park next to the library and play on the playground, where Phil would morph into the Tickle Monster. He would chase the girls and they would run (and scream…you can be certain that they screamed enough to drive a grown man crazy) until they were tired and hungry. Then he’d take them to Taco Bell for tacos or burritos and then home for a bath, more reading, and bedtime.

Trendy parents might scoff at the quality of the food he fed them for dinner, or the repetitiousness of the playtime. Other parents might complain that dad seemed more like a babysitter doing the “good time” stuff while mom got the laundry, cleaning, and grocery shopping.

What my daughter told me was that while I was away, she and her sister soaked in their father’s undivided attention and adoration.  They became dyed in the wool “Daddy’s girls”…and both of them still idolize their father to the point that I actually apologized to my son-in-law when he married my daughter.  That might explain why he almost immediately moved her to Oregon. Hmmm…

ANYWAY…

You might wonder if my relationship with my daughters is tense and distant considering that I’m the one that kept leaving the state to go to school.

Nope.

In fact, I am very close with both my girls.

My oldest daughter said that she remembers spending summer breaks with me. I took her and her sister to swim team and dive team every day and then we’d rush home to watch I Love Lucy while we ate our lunches.  They’d spend their afternoons playing inside while I did laundry and cleaned house in between spates of doing homework.  When I had free time, we would make homemade jam or bake brownies together. Basically, I made food while they made a mess and then I got to clean it up.  My daughter said she could not imagine how I didn’t go crazy sitting there for hours in the heat and humidity (hello indoor pool) waiting for them, while they got to swim and dive and have fun.  Then she spent twenty minutes going on and on about how much fun it was when we would buy bagels from Einstein’s, and then go home and make homemade veggie cream cheese.

Listen parents: what I’m trying to tell you is that you are harder on yourself than your children will be when they look back. They won’t remember how crazy busy you were, not if you took a minute or two to braid a friendship bracelet with them, or to be the Swim Mom, or to be the library Dad. They will remember the times you danced in the Walmart aisles because a good song was playing, or the times you played nail salon, or the times you watched their favorite movie again and again.

You don’t have to be a perfect parent.

You don’t have to give them everything they want.

You don’t have to let them break the rules and get away with murder.

All you have to do is…

Be yourself.

My husband and I didn’t do these things because we are such spectacular parents. We did what we did because it made it easier for us in the midst of a very difficult time of our lives. It’s what helped us smile even as we were crushed under the load of work, kids, housework and homework.

Hang in there, parents! I have good news!

You are enough after all, and the likelihood is that your kids will one day tell you so, right to your face.

Hang in there. The good stuff is coming, I promise.

 

*** In case you’ve never heard of Craps    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craps#Rules_of_play

Presents and Nests

It’s been a weird year for me.

My youngest daughter got married just a few weeks ago…November 17th.  She got married on a Thursday because apparently, you can save thousands of dollars if you get married on a day when no one else wants to get married.  So my baby girl decided to want to get married on a Thursday, and I think she’s a smart girl. I’m pretty fond of her new husband, too.  He’s a good guy—he just wants to change my youngest daughter’s last name…and her address, because come this January he wants to move her to Oregon.  And that’s kind of freaking me out.

My oldest daughter moved to Colorado only 8 days after the wedding, which was the day after Thanksgiving, if you’re counting.  Wow.  She moved, like, 850 miles away. Which I really shouldn’t complain about, because when I moved away from home, well, first I moved 348 miles away, and then after I married my husband I moved about 1,747 miles away from home.

I suppose that I really have nothing to complain about.

The thing is that…I feel…so…

LONELY.

I went into Target the other day and I saw all the Christmas stuff.  Dear God, I love Christmas!  At least I used to. And then I looked at all those decorations and the lights and the ornaments and the gift wrap and the baking supplies and I thought…

There is no one left at home to pamper!  No one left at home to bake for!

There is no one left to pamper!

My little girls have all grown up and they are moving away!  My whole world has been reduced down to me and my husband and two Shih Tzus. That’s it. There is no one left to bake for, no one left to buy stuff for, there is no one left to decorate the house for.

I have discovered…the EMPTY NEST.

I thought the empty nest would happen when my daughters stopped living at home, but it didn’t, not really. Alex moved out 5 ½ years ago, and then Katie moved out three years ago.  I freaked out a little wondering if they were safe or if they were well fed, but in general I was fine.  I thought I had this empty nest thing mastered, and then…

They got married and moved away and I’m dang near dying of the pain of it all.

Who exactly am I here to take care of?

I mean, I have a husband and all, but realistically?  How much care does he need at 54 years old?  And I need to be careful not to smother the man, so…

What exactly am I here for?

I hate that question!

I’ve spent my whole life being the mom and the wife and the daughter and the pastor and the counselor and suddenly…there aren’t near as many people to take care of, and I don’t know how to handle it.

I find myself sitting before God with an empty bowl, wondering why I’m here and what God needs me to do, and I’m not getting any answers.

It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had.

I wake up every day to this empty bowl, and no matter how many people I try to put in my bowl, God keeps pulling them out. I wake up with an empty bowl, and I go to sleep with an empty bowl. After a while I don’t even want to look at the dang bowl. I’m sick to death of that bowl because all it does is remind me that there is no one left who needs me, not really.

I know I’m supposed to be happy because it’s Christmas and all, but I’m not. I walk through the stores and I see all the Christmas decorations and I just feel sad.  I feel empty. I feel like I want to cry and I can’t make it go away.

I prayed about it. I did!  I asked God over and over to show me what I’m supposed to be doing now and no answer came.

I’m not used to not getting an answer from the Lord.

But not getting an answer has made me wonder about empty bowls.

You see, I grew up in farming country. I grew up where we grow the corn and the wheat and the cows and the chickens and the soybeans.  I spent my summers canning with my mom, putting up vegetables and fruit, preparing for the winter when nothing was fresh.  We knew that we could make it better at home than anyone could ever make it at the store and so we spent the summer preparing for the barren times.

That day at Target I sat in my car, crying and wondering what my mom did when there was no one left to can for.  You know, she and my dad can only eat so many jars of pickles and tomatoes, so many bags of corn and beans.  My mom used to spend the whole summer canning and putting up vegetables and fruit, so what exactly happened to all of that? And what did she do when my brother and I were gone?

I decided to call her.  I told her how I was feeling and I could hear her smiling at me when she replied.

First you cry, she said.  First you cry.

And then she said things I wasn’t expecting.

She said “Let God lead you into a time of lying fallow.”

I know what that means. Fallow. It’s what farmers do with their fields when the field has been used to produce crops for years and years. Over time the field gets worn, even though it keeps producing good crops. The field gets tired and exhausted and the soil gets thin; all the good stuff and the nutrients that made the field produce such good crops fade away and the field becomes weak.  If the farmer is smart, the farmer stops planting in that field and lets it lie fallow, and if the farmer is really smart they do that long before the field becomes so weak that its crops are worthless.  The field might lie fallow for a year, and sometimes longer!  And during that time, the field just sits there, with the stalks from its last crop sowed back into the ground. While the it rests, the field gathers up its strength.  Somehow, in the time that the field lies empty, the soil become rich again, and then after a couple of years, the farmer replants and the field bears fruit and crops and good things happen there.  But for at least a year, nothing. Most of the time it’s longer. Most of the time, a field lies fallow for several years—years where there is nothing at all.

I understood what my mom was saying to me but it was hard to accept. I don’t know about you but I feel like my personal worth is wrapped up in what I produce, what I do for my family and friends, what I do for my church and my God.  Who am I and what the heck am I worth if I’m not doing anything at all? If there is no one to take care of, who am I?

I may think that way, but The Great Farmer is wiser than that.  The farmer knows that a field left to lie fallow, no matter how long it lays there, empty—the Great Farmer knows that a field left to lie fallow is a promise.  A promise of what is to come. A promise of a greater future. A promise of purpose and meaning and value. A field that lies fallow is a field at rest; a field waiting to be all that the farmer can ever hope for.

God is like that with us.

We hate it when our bowl is empty. We hate it when we can’t see why we’re here and what we’re here for and what we’re supposed to do and who we are supposed to serve.  We want to be active and filled with purpose and meaning and God is the wise farmer that says Wait! Stop!  Rest.  God asks us to let it go and lie fallow and know that we are everything God ever meant for us to be and yet, we still aren’t done.

A field that lies fallow is a promise of what is to come.

As far as I’m concerned, a promise of what is to come is just short of a wrapped Christmas present that God is preparing just for me.

I like that idea. I like the idea that where I am in my life right now, as difficult as it feels at this moment, is actually a wrapped Christmas present from God to me—a present that will slowly open all by itself sometime in the future. And when that present opens, I’ll know it for what it is: a blessing from the Lord to me.  I also know that when my present finally opens, my bowl will be full to overflowing.

God is like that with us. God is always like that.

May God bless you to overflowing during this Advent season, and prepare you for the coming of the Christ child!

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.      Psalm 23, NRSV

Tradition!

** Please forgive me if the title makes you want to sing show tunes from Fiddler On The Roof.

My daughter is getting married two weeks from today.   Getting ready for the wedding has been an exercise in remembering exactly why weddings are stressful and expensive.  It has also been an exercise in tradition, because weddings are full of traditions.

As I sit and write this, I realize that no one threw a bridal shower for my daughter…but then again, what would we give her for her bridal shower? She hasn’t lived at home for three years.  She has plenty of kitchen utensils and cookware. Her household is already established.  When it came to her wedding registry, she and her fiancé registered at places like REI so that friends and family could get them the things they’d like to have, especially when it comes to camping gear.  So what’s left? Lingerie and marital aids? Can we be honest and admit that she already has plenty of those, too? She’s been living with her fiancé for almost a year now!

So there goes that tradition out the window, at least for this wedding, not that it matters. Some traditions just aren’t that important to me.

That’s a strange thing for me to say, because my family has a huge value for tradition.

In my family, tradition is the way that we remember who we are and what really matters. I couldn’t have explained that to you when I was younger. It wasn’t until I needed tradition to anchor my family during a difficult time that I came to understand what purpose tradition served.  Since then, I have come to value our family’s traditions more and more, not just for the act of repeating the tradition but for what the tradition represents.

My mother’s family is full-blooded Sicilian; they immigrated to this country sometime in the late 1910’s.  My grandparents were both 1st generation Americans, but they were born to families so entrenched in Sicily’s culture that I could swear that my mom and her brother are the 1st generation Americans in their family instead of their parents. Every Christmas, my mom and I (and now my youngest daughter and I) make Cuccidata, a traditional Italian fig cookie.  Cuccidata make Fig Newtons look sad and paltry by comparison, and they are best cookies I’ve ever had.  And cuccidatas aren’t the only thing we make for the holidays, because when it comes to holidays, Sicilians love to cook. Actually, Sicilians just love to cook in general.  The food at our house during the holidays is plentiful, rich, delicious, and did I say plentiful? This is another way we celebrate our Sicilian heritage and part of the reason that most of the women in my family have childbearing hips (what a lovely way of saying ‘Baby got back’) and the men have the tummy that comes with a wife who cooks good food frequently. Our holiday dinners may raise our cholesterol counts a few points during the first few months of every new year, but it’s worth it.

Not all traditions come from generations past.  Every year in December my husband and I take our kids to Flagstaff to re-enact the year that our oldest daughter was in drug treatment. We couldn’t bring her home for Christmas and so we chose to celebrate Christmas in a hotel in Flagstaff during her two day, off-campus visit in December. You might think that remembering such a difficult time in our lives would be depressing, but it isn’t…in fact it’s incredibly joyful.  That first year we sat in the hotel and went through as many family traditions as we could: decorating the tree (albeit a smaller, sparser, fake tree); opening the stockings on ‘Christmas Eve’; going to worship on ‘Christmas Eve’ (an AA meeting sufficed); opening the few presents we brought on ‘Christmas Day’; and spending as much time together as possible before we had to take our daughter back to her treatment facility.  Each year we repeat the exact same things we did the first year, bringing the same fake tree and decorating it; then we declare our first evening in Flagstaff as ‘Christmas Eve’ and go through all our Christmas Eve traditions.  Every year we return to the same hotel, the same restaurants and coffee shops and local stores…and every year we revel in spending time together as a family and remembering that our family is stronger than almost anything that would try to destroy us, including drugs and alcohol.

My family has tons of traditions: opening the stockings on Christmas Eve because Santa always manages to come to our house while we are at Christmas Eve worship; dedicating Memorial Day and Labor Day to spending time with our children, a practice my husband and I started when we were both in graduate school; Friday night ‘date night’ at our favorite restaurant; and a big homemade dinner for the family on Sunday evening.

In a million little ways, traditions remind us of who we are and what really matters.

Sadly, some traditions remind us of who we were and they highlight beliefs that are damaging and need to stop right now.

I’ll give you an example.

Before my wedding, my husband’s groomsmen let me in on a prank they were going to pull on my husband during our reception. They gave me all the details and told me my part in the prank. While it sounded a little silly and kind of sexist, I wanted to be a good sport and it was going to be funny, so I just went along with it. About 60 minutes into the reception, before the dancing was going to start, my husband’s groomsmen grabbed him and lifted him off the floor and attached a ball and chain to his ankle. I had the key stashed in my bra, and I coyly pulled the key from my cleavage, giggling and teasing my husband.  I figured that was the entire joke.  I cannot tell you how disappointed my husband’s friends were when I immediately freed him from the shackle around his ankle and set the joke aside.  They wanted me to leave it on him and make him roam around our wedding with a ball and chain attached to his ankle. And that’s when I realized that I had misunderstood the seriousness of their joke. I thought it was just supposed to be some temporary fun with an old symbol of marriage. The reality made me sick to my stomach. To my husband’s friends, I was a ball and chain.  Did they really mean that?  Probably not…but then why was it important to make him wear a 15 pound ball chained to his ankle for more than a minute or two?  What exactly is funny about making someone actually wear a ball and chain while they are trying to enjoy their wedding and dance with their bride? Nothing…unless you are in it to make a point.  And that’s what made me sick to my stomach.

If anyone pulls that stunt at my daughter’s wedding I will not be so gracious.

The thing about any tradition is that it only has meaning in as much as it represents what we truly believe in, what we deeply value, and what gives us life.

The thing about weddings is that they are filled with traditions that often speak loudly to the idea that our culture thinks marriage is an institution that benefits the bride, shackles the husband, and still represents the transfer of a woman who is property from one man to another.  All we are missing is the bride price and the dowry, and we could easily be back in the old country.

What the heck, people?!

I’m not going all feminist on you here.  Because it’s not just marriage traditions that are filled with not-so-subtle reminders of much less egalitarian times.  You don’t have to look hard to see the evidence of racism and sexism in our society.  Size-ism and body shaming are all over social media and television. Ageism is a major problem both in Hollywood and in corporate America. We have all sorts of behaviors that give testimony to our unwillingness to truly root out the ugly undercurrents of hatred in our society. Even our most hallowed traditions—our marriage traditions—are rife with symbolism that when closely examined, fail to match up to what we say are our dominant cultural values.

So which is it? Are we still sexist and racist and hateful…or are we just slow to challenge old behaviors?

I want the traditions that my daughters participate in as they live their adult life to be much like the ones that they have already experienced in their family: traditions that hold up what is most precious and worthy of respect and honor. Traditions, that when examined, are filled with deep meaning and connect us to the things we value most.  You might be thinking that a cuccidata is just a cookie, but in my family it is the thing we do to remember where we came from and who we are. It connects us to all the generations that came before us. Cuccidata are delicious…and they are living history.

As we head into the holidays, I encourage you to pay close attention to the meaning and the hidden messages in your family’s traditions.  Ask yourself if what you are re-enacting in these traditions is something you actually want to teach the children in your family.  Does it represent your highest values? Does it represent your faith?  If it represents your heritage, does it represent the part of your heritage that doesn’t participate in the oppression of other people?

Don’t just blithely stumble along, doing the things you’ve always done just because you’ve always done them.  A part of moving our culture forward is knowing what part of that culture should be abandoned so that the culture can be refined.

And this isn’t just about ‘culture’ and American society as a whole.

Remember that your life is a story that you tell to the world.  No one else can tell this story, and it should express what you’re worth and what you believe truly matters.

Tell the best story you can, and when the story you are telling doesn’t represent who you are or what you believe, change the storyline until it does.

Here’s to the traditions that color your story bright and beautiful!

All The Things I’d Tell My Daughter

My daughter is getting married in November, and there are so many things I want to tell her about marriage that I don’t know where to begin.  It’s not that she hasn’t been witness to her parents’ marriage for her entire life, but so much of marriage takes place behind closed doors or simply away from the children’s eyes that I’m sure there is plenty that she hasn’t gotten a chance to witness.  I have been trying to write it down in some meaningful narrative, but it isn’t working.  I have tried several times to parse the many things I’ve learned in 28 years into a concise story but I haven’t managed to write anything really meaningful. This morning I thought it might work better if I separated the information into the early years, once we had children, etc.  And so here we have:

The First Year

Everybody tells you that this year will be the most difficult, and they are right, but if you’re lucky it won’t seem that way until you look back after 5 or 10 years of marriage.  The first year is quite a lot of fun but there are a lot of things to work through before you can settle down into the long-term work of marriage, which is staying married. More on that later. For now, it is important to pay attention to a few things that you may not have discussed prior to marriage…things like gender roles.

You moved in together before you got married and you’ve probably fallen into one of the more common expressions of gender roles in dating: she does the dishes and the cleaning and laundry and thinks nothing of it, and he does an occasional load of wash or dishes and thinks he’s Mr. Wonderful because he’s helping.  It can stay this way for years if you let it, but I encourage you not to do that because one day you will have kids and if you think you are busy now…you have no idea.  Spend some time discussing how the work should be divided, and don’t be afraid to be bold when telling him that no, he is actually NOT doing an equal share of the chores.  Men, especially men who didn’t live on their own before moving into a committed relationship, often have no idea what it takes to run a household.  They have no idea what it costs financially and what it costs in time and effort.  He had his chance to live like a bachelor (read this: in filth, eating crap food) prior to his marriage and if he didn’t take that chance, too bad for him.  He’s going to be a married man now and it is time for him to learn how to pick up a rag and clean; how to fire up the vacuum cleaner and sweep; how to run a dishwasher and how to run a washing machine without ruining the contents of either machine. You will be a much sweeter wife if you don’t feel like his maid, and never underestimate how good he will feel when you listen to your girlfriends complain about their lazy live-in boyfriends and then state that you “don’t put up with any crap like that” because your husband is a good man. To quote my mother, “Get ‘em young and bring ‘em up right!”

On the other side of that coin is this: if he is genuinely trying to help you, give guidance but don’t criticize unless he is only giving a half-ass effort.  Many men want to help their wives but find themselves victims of the “can’t do anything right” syndrome that overtakes women when they get used to running a household.  If he loads the dishwasher wrong, so what? If he folds the clothes wrong, re-fold them.  If he folds the clothes wrong and you have to iron the entire load because of that, coach him…repeatedly.  And remind him: if his ‘work’ around the house creates more work for you, that isn’t sharing the load. That’s punishing you for making him do work around the house.  Only the occasional man will be that rude and ignorant, and if yours turns out to be that variety (which I sincerely doubt) you need to kick that lazy bum to the curb.  Otherwise, coach, gently, and thank him for every single thing he does for you, even if it isn’t done the way you would do it.  Be grateful for each and every single thing he does because each and every thing that he does is something that you don’t have to do.  This is how you keep yourself in the gratitude zone.  It’s easy to take your partner for granted, and you will have to work on that the most after the first year, so start early and be grateful consistently, even when he is simply doing the jobs he agreed to do.

Take time to discuss needs for privacy and private time.  No matter how much you love him, you will need time alone.  And I mean, TIME ALONE, not time to be out with your girlfriends. You need time for that kind of stuff too, but time with friends does not substitute for time alone.  The thing is that you and your wonderful husband won’t have the same needs for time alone.  He might not need much and you might need an hour every day.  If you don’t discuss your needs for time alone, he might think that you are being rejecting, or that he’s angered you.  Discussing what you need and how you need it is a great way of putting yourself in context for your partner.  When your father and I traveled to China we were in a tour group and I would get overwhelmed by all the noise and lack of time alone, and so I would put in my earbuds while we were on the bus and zone out while staring out the window. It wasn’t until later that I found out that your poor father thought I was angry with him every single time I put in my earbuds and ignored everyone including him.  No context means no way to understand your partner. You would think that after 20 years of marriage that your father would automatically understand me, but NO…that’s unrealistic. Your father still needs some context to understand me, just like I need context to understand him. Tell your husband what you need and make sure you take time to listen to his needs for time with friends, time alone, and time with YOU.  By the way, no one should have to explain WHY they have a need.  Needs are needs and who cares why?  No one should have to justify themselves unless they are opting for illegal actions…and that’s a whole other topic.

Sadly, it won’t take long for the two of you to get past the initial flush of love and marriage and settle down into the daily humdrum.  Life is boring and mundane; at times life is hectic, chaotic, and painfully difficult.  Those wonderful and intense feelings that you have right now when you are around him will pass, and when they do, you will find yourself wondering if that means something is wrong with the marriage.  The answer is: probably not.  Love, much like life, gets boring and mundane.  Love is NOT a sentiment felt in the heart…at least not for long.  Love starts as a sentiment in the heart, and then love becomes a set of choices you make based on a commitment you made before God and your family. Love is a choice you will have to make again and again, multiple times a day.  Choosing to act in loving ways and choosing to take time to work on the relationship will yield years of joy with each other.   If you don’t put work into the relationship, it eventually will die like an un-watered plant.  The thing about plants is that even when they are well-cared for and watered consistently, most of the time they aren’t in bloom.  There’s nothing showy or eye-catching about them.  The ‘plant’ of your marriage will be much like that, in the sense that you will need to give your marriage daily attention and most of the time it will still feel kind of mundane and somewhat boring…and then there will be seasons where it blooms and your marriage will feel like the most amazing thing ever and all the emotions you had in the beginning will be there and you will feel them as surely as you feel your beating heart. And there’s another great metaphor: your marriage and your heart are much alike.  Your heart beats in your chest all day long and most of the time you don’t really notice it—but fail to take care of it and you will notice it right away!  You will have to devote time and effort to the health of your marriage just like you need to devote time and effort to your own health.  What I’m trying to say is: DON’T JUST BE MARRIED. Actively work to be a couple growing together and you will find that your marriage is one of the most satisfying things in your life.

Shortly before your father and I married, a friend told him that marriage is either the best thing that ever happens to you or it is hell on earth.  On a related note, many of your father’s friends told him that he better be prepared to give up his sports car, his hobbies, and sailing catamarans on Sundays.  Thank God those two messages came at the same time, because your father shared both of those messages with me and I decided two things simultaneously: 1) I was going to have a ‘best thing that ever happens to you’ marriage and 2) that I absolutely refused to make your father give up all the things he loved just because he married me.  That turned out to be a great decision, because many years later your father told me that one of the things that made him happiest in our marriage is that I encouraged him to do the things that he wanted to do: learn to fly a sail-plane; make stained glass windows; go back to get a second master’s degree; learn to blow and fuse glass.  Part of being ‘the best thing that ever happens’ to your spouse is encouraging them to constantly grow and learn; encouraging them to challenge themselves; being their biggest cheerleader; and not holding it against them when they fail.  This doesn’t mean that you give your husband a pass to do whatever he wants no matter what it does to you financially, or that you don’t ever hold him accountable.  That is unreasonable and foolish.  On the other hand, criticizing him for failing doesn’t really change the failure and doesn’t help him figure out how to move on and succeed in the future. Letting your husband explore his interests keeps him interesting to you and encourages him to stay young and keep expanding his life and his mind.  Treat yourself in the same way (and ask him to treat you the same way) and you will have endless numbers of reasons to talk to each other and listen to each other and share your separate experiences with each other.  It doesn’t hurt that your marriage becomes the reason that you do interesting things…because for many people their marriage becomes the reason they stop doing anything interesting at all.

And that’s a bunch of what I learned the first year I was married. Obviously I wrote this for my daughter, but if it helps you or anyone you love navigate the early stages of marriage, that’s great!  I probably left at least 20 things I learned that first year off of this list…mostly because I couldn’t remember them all when I sat down to write this.  You can count on a few more installments on this in the future, although I promise not to post one blog entry for every year that I have been married.  No one needs to read 28 posts on marriage, not even me.

Ragamuffin Me

When my oldest daughter Alex was 5 years old and in kindergarten she finally had her first “best friend”.  Her friend’s name was Jessica, and Jessica was a beautiful little girl.  Black hair, bright blue eyes, big smile…Jessica was truly gorgeous.  She was popular too, and sometimes Alex competed for Jessica’s friendship and approval.  Some days Alex won and she came home from school feeling on top of the world.  Some days then other little girls won Jessica’s attention and Alex came home from school sad and quiet.  Then there were days when Alex came home sullen and silent, refusing to eat or be cuddled.  I finally got her to tell me what was going on: sometimes, when the other little girls won Jessica’s attention, Jessica would be mean to Alex and tell her that no one wanted to play with her.  She would tell Alex that her clothes were ugly and that she was stupid and that no one liked her.  And then Jessica and her friends-of-the-day would go off and play.

My heart broke.  I wanted Alex to hate this girl, to reject her, to refuse to have anything to do with her.  But that’s not how it works.  Alex desperately wanted to be her friend, and so all I could do was encourage my pretty little girl to stand up to her friend and tell her that she was being mean.  I told Alex to tell her that there is never any excuse for being mean.  But Alex refused to stand up for herself. Alex was terrified of what would happen, fearing that Jessica would reject her for good and never play with her again.  I told her that it was her choice, but that it made me sad to think she was friends with someone who made her feel so badly.

The funny thing is that I was having my own private battle with Jessica.  Actually, it was with Jessica’s mom.

You see, when I would take Alex to Jessica’s house for play dates, I would show up looking like the harried mother of two children who were both under six years old.  Because I was a full-time student in graduate school, I spent most of my days with my hair in a ponytail, wearing very little makeup and a t-shirt and shorts.  I’d get to Jessica’s house and there was Jessica’s 24 year-old mother, beautiful and young, wearing designer jeans and a delicate blouse, with her hair styled and spiked to match the latest trend. Her house was spotless. Her car was a Mercedes.  Her husband drove a Mercedes as well, and he looked just as perfectly dressed and styled as she did.

I’d walk into their home and instantly feel like an old rag: dirty and crumpled.

I’d sit and make conversation with Jessica’s mom…after all, that’s what moms do.  I’d be polite and ask her questions about herself and her spouse, about Jessica and their plans for other children, about her plans for her own life and career.  I’d shared with her that I was in school…in seminary, actually, and on my way to becoming a minister…and then I’d talk about my former career and how nice it had been to actually have money back when I was still working. We’d chat for a few minutes when I dropped Alex off to play, and then I’d head home only to make a return trip later to pick Alex up and bring her home.  I tried as best I could to be friendly and kind to Jessica’s parents, and to be patient with Alex’s desire to be Jessica’s friend.  I really understood her pain: Alex felt ‘less than’ around Jessica, and I felt ‘less than’ around Jessica’s mom.

One day Jessica’s parents came by our house to pick up Alex.  They were taking Jessica and Alex out for dinner and a movie to celebrate Jessica’s 6th birthday.  Jessica’s mom stood at my breakfast bar, watching me cut vegetables and meat as I prepared dinner for the rest of my family.  She stood there in silence, watching me, and then suddenly she proclaimed:

“God I wish I could be like you!”

My brain came to a sudden, screeching halt.

“You…want to be…like ME? Why?”

She looked me in the eye and spoke what appeared to be a very painful truth.  “You always know what you’re doing. You have a purpose and you’re doing things with your life.  I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.  You know who you are, and I have no idea who I’m supposed to be.  I look at you and you are so comfortable in your skin. You know what you’re about and why you’re here. I wish that I could be like that.”

Suddenly I realized that I had felt inadequate because I had been comparing my outside to her outside.  What an idiot I was!  She looked at me and looked right past my outside and through to my inside, where things actually matter.  It made me sad to realize just how empty she felt, especially in comparison with what I felt inside. The truth is that she was right. I knew exactly who I was and what I was about. I may have felt fat and kind of ugly when I compared myself to her, but the rest of the time I was truly comfortable in my own skin. I had a purpose and I knew where God was leading me.  I felt solid in all of the major choices in my life: my marriage, my children, and my choice to give up my career and become a minister.  In her eyes I had everything wrapped up in a neat little package and it was the perfect package.  I had everything she wanted to have and didn’t know how to get.  In her eyes, I had it all.

That was such an epiphany for me!  I wish I could say that I never compared my outside to anyone else’s outside ever again, but that would be a lie.  I did, however, learn to value and find greater joy in being me.  I had to learn to let being me be enough to establish my worth, no matter how I looked on the outside. The other lesson I learned was that being flawlessly beautiful doesn’t grant you any peace in this world. I should have known that intuitively, and I guess I knew it at an intellectual level, but I had never really accepted that truth all the way into my heart.  After that, I found myself looking at beautiful people and wondering if they felt like Jessica’s mother on the inside.   How horrible and painful it must be to feel empty, to feel no comfort in your own skin, no love for your innermost self.

I kept encouraging Alex to stand up for herself when Jessica was mean to her and one day she came home and told me exactly how she did it.  It was one of those days when the other girls had won Jessica’s favor and Jessica was busy telling Alex how stupid and ugly she was and how one liked her.  Alex said that she marched right to Jessica and told her that she was being mean, and that there was no excuse for being mean and then Alex said that she wouldn’t accept that behavior out of Jessica anymore.  She told Jessica that she could be kind and they could be friends, or Jessica could be mean and find her friends elsewhere.  I was so proud!  Then I asked Alex what happened, and she said that Jessica admitted to being jealous of Alex, specifically of how comfortable Alex was with playing by herself or sitting alone and reading a book.  Jessica admitted to being afraid of being alone, and Alex promised that if she wasn’t mean anymore, she wouldn’t have to be alone because Alex would be her friend.  Like mother, like daughter I guess.

I could tell you never to compare your outsides to someone else’s pretty, shiny outside, but I know that you will anyway.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to spend time making your insides beautiful. Feed your spirit!  Spend time finding meaning and purpose in this life.  Spend time becoming comfortable with who you are as a human being, accepting yourself for both good and bad.  Do all you can to increase the good, and limit the bad.  Know who you are and what you are about, and invest in this.  Spend time cultivating yourself and your personality like a lovely garden, because once people look past your skin, they will see the garden that is you and want to wander inside that garden for hours and hours. They will find peace and refreshment in the garden that is you, and you will become a haven for everyone who loves you.

Never underestimate the power of a beautiful soul, and the allure that it has to others who need a little beauty in their life. And just as birds of a feather flock together, a beautiful soul tends to draw other beautiful souls to itself. What a way to find your friends!

I wish you beauty on the inside.