Deadheading Discipline

23 Aug

One of my favorite hobbies is gardening. Not that you can tell by looking at my yard this summer – what a mess! Some seasons offer more challenges than others, the least of which is time to dedicate to weeding and planting and pruning. The excessive heat has not helped either, so I’ll blame that.

One of the reasons I love gardening so much is that it’s so rich with analogies and lessons for living. Recently one such lesson occurred to me, not while gardening, but while practicing yoga.

I take a yin yoga class every Thursday. Yin, I’ve found, is more meditative than your typical yoga class, and my teacher infuses each session with a theme or intention for our practice, reading quotes and inspired sayings as we soften into our poses and surrender to the practice of sitting still. The theme of the day was inner beauty.

She told us the story of the lotus flower, which has to struggle through the mud and muck before its blossom reaches the surface of the water to release a pleasing fragrance. It was a beautiful analogy for any of us who feel our circumstances are less than desirable.

After class, though, I was struck by another analogy on my way to the car. I thought of my roses, which have had a very hard summer. Between the heat and the beetles and some kind of disease that caused all their foliage to drop in late spring, they’ve suffered so much I considered just pulling them out of their beds and planting something else. But in one last ditch effort, I did a heavy pruning of all the diseased parts, and within a few weeks they seem to have recovered a little. My climbers even have flowers.

When a rose flower passes its peak and starts to fade, the plant puts energy into the “fruit” so it will have seeds. This is the natural reproduction drive of pretty much any green growing thing. This time of year especially, you’ll see a lot of gardens filled with overgrown, stalky, spent blossoms. Garden folk call this letting a garden “go to seed.” Eventually those ratty, faded blossoms will be replaced by dried pods that will release seed into the air or drop to the ground to reseed itself. It’s self-preservation, and it isn’t always pretty.

A well manicured garden doesn’t “go to seed.” Why? Because the gardener cuts the blossom heads as soon as the petals fade. With no fruit, no seed pod, no offspring, the plant, without any consciousness at all, instinctually is driven to survive by producing new buds which will eventually be new flowers, new opportunities for seed. This is called “dead heading.” As long as you keep cutting off the fruit, the plant will continue to put its energy back into making more flowers through its growing season.

God often seems to remove, to prune, the parts of my life that in one season seem so unspeakably beautiful. I’d rather He allow them to be perpetually beautiful. But that’s not the way God’s nature works. God may extend the beauty of the growing season, but he does it the way any gardener would, by removing spent blossoms. Short term pain for long term gain.

To me, the fading blossoms in my life are cause for grief. God’s pruning, too, seems cause for grief. To God, all is love. This weekend’s letter from Paul to the Hebrews, he reminds us, “Whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” Like a gardener who does a heavy cold-season pruning to improve the health and eventual harvest of a plant, God removes every branch that does not bear fruit. He “pinches” back my early growth like a gardener pinches the early spring leaves of a mum, so that my growth will not be tall and undisciplined and wild and easily destroyed in a late summer storm, but coiffed and compact and full, strong enough to retain a beautiful round shape even after a hurricane. “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”

The spiritual life – like the natural world – is so full of paradox. As Jesus reminds us in this weekend’s Gospel, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” If God is removing my spent blossoms instead of letting them go to seed, perhaps I need to remember that dead heading is the gardener’s way of sustaining beauty in the world before the seasons change. My growth is not just for my own self-preservation, but for the Master Gardener’s pleasure, and maybe this season He wants flowers, not fruit, for His glory.

Simple Dinner

18 Aug img_3921

This is not an elaborate recipe, but it was a hit with my children – a reminder that when it comes to my family, simple is better.

My ten year old could have made this meal without supervision.

Step 1: Rice and water in the rice cooker for 15 minutes. Maybe a dash of salt.

Step 2: Cleaned chicken breasts in the pan, sprinkled with soy sauce, covered and cooked over medium heat. After about ten minutes, flip, another splash of soy sauce, turn down heat, cover, cook another 10 minutes.

Step 3: Put a bag of “steam in bag” mixed veggies in the microwave.

Step 4: Get kids to set the table.

Step 5: Put all the cooked contents in a pretty serving platter and feel like a sophisticated adult who has her act together. Enjoy the bliss of children actually eating their dinner and liking it. Savor the, “Wow, this is good!”

***

I sometimes over-complicate things. I set unrealistic expectations for myself. I forget that it doesn’t have to be so hard.

First Family Vacation, Check

11 Aug

Last week, I took my kids on our first family vacation. This probably comes as a surprise to most everyone; after all, I’ve been a parent for 13 years, and you’ve seen me post pictures of my travels with the kids for the last eight years I’ve been on Facebook. Some of those photos were even taken at Disney World! How could this possibly be our first family vacation?

Well, for starters, I don’t count the Disney trip in 2013 as a “vacation.” I was traveling with my three kids and two parents in one minivan for 10 days without even one hour of solitude (even sleeping)! It was an amazing voyage filled with highs, lows, and everything in between. Also, it was made financially possible by the generosity of my parents, so, no, I don’t count the Disney trip.

But what about the other travels? Believe it or not, I’ve never had all three kids with me on any of our overnights in D.C. or Yorktown or camping. The only exception to this was a weekend beach trip five years ago, and again, my mom and dad footed the bill and provided the additional adult presence necessary for taking three young kids anywhere more than an hour or two.

Surely, you say, I must have gone on a vacation when I was married, right? Not really. Our extended families were all local, so we didn’t have to go far to visit anyone. We did mostly day trips. The only time my ex and I went away from home for more than one night was a long weekend when we left our then two children with grandparents. And when our son was four years old we took a train ride to D.C. to see the zoo and stayed overnight. Those little trips don’t, in my mind, “qualify” as a legitimate vacation.

I could probably fill whole journals with my explanations and excuses for not taking family vacations. When I was married I was pretty sure it was because my ex was some kind of workaholic who couldn’t leave his job at home for more than a day without freaking out. It turns out if I point a finger at someone else, it leaves three pointing back at me; I’m just as much a workaholic as he ever was. In recent years as a single mom, my excuses boil down to lack of money, lack of time, and lack of confidence at being able to handle three kids alone away from the familiar.

It embarrasses me to write this, but there are times I’ve felt like a complete failure as a parent because of my inability, whatever the reason, to give my children a proper family vacation. Social media hasn’t helped. My friends and even my brother have taken their families to some pretty exotic locales, including Thailand, Key West, Maine, and places in South America that I can’t pronounce. The ex took them on a Disney cruise last year. Not that I’m comparing myself to you, but . . . yeah, I’m comparing myself, and I come up short.

I haven’t just been comparing myself to you. I’ve been comparing myself to my parents. The family in which I grew up travelled to Pennsylvania for a week to visit grandparents at least twice a year, and we almost always made visits to historic side trips like Gettysburg and D.C. and even New York one year. We took occasional “big” trips to Florida and California, and we went to Disney World two times, Disneyland one time, and the beach for a week pretty much every year from the time I was a tween until I graduated from high school. To me, this is what normal “modest” families did, and this has been my expectation for myself.

(I realize the last several paragraphs of whining should be followed with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. If you’ve made it this far, you’re a real friend, and I thank you for putting up with me.)

This year I made a commitment to take my kids somewhere. I considered renting a beach condo for a week (too expensive), taking us camping (too hot and buggy and stressful), taking us to a luxury resort for a short stay (too little appreciation for the finer things). One friend offered her river house, but I didn’t want to impose a specific time, as there was only one week I could easily take off work. So, I opted for the most “basic” vacation I could fathom – a two night stay in a cheap hotel in Williamsburg with side trips to Virginia Beach, Colonial Williamsburg, and Water Country.

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Although there was a little sunburn on all our shoulders, there were no meltdowns and everyone had a good time. I felt gratitude at being able to financially provide a good time for everyone. I had a 13-year-old son who could keep an eye on his littlest sister while me and the daredevil redhead took in a more adventurous waterslide. My three mild-mannered kids didn’t want to do anything at the water park except float in the lazy river and the wave pool, so it was actually pretty relaxing. The boy caught Pokemon everywhere we went, and we were lucky enough to get a room with a king-sized bed and a sleeper sofa, so no one had to sleep on the floor.

As I was driving home, it occurred to me we don’t have to be gone for a week to feel like we’ve been gone for a week. Although I still very much want to take my kids for a relaxing week at a big beach house one day, I’m no longer feeling guilty that I can’t take them for a week to Florida amusement park heaven. Our brief time away from the break-neck pace of summer day camps and evening dance classes put the whole vacation thing in perspective for me. My parents may have given me trips to Pennsylvania, but it was out of necessity (visiting grandparents); my kids get to have a relationship with their grandparents every day. My parents may have rented beach condos, but not until we were teenagers; before that, our experience with the beach was limited to long weekends and modest hotels planned around times when my dad had to go to Virginia Beach for work. Our pilgrimages to Florida and California were not just trips to expensive theme parks, but marathon visits with the many uncles, aunts, and cousins who lived along the route there; I now have Facebook to stay in daily contact with distant relatives. My ex may be able to take the kids on Disney cruises, but I get to wake up to their faces almost every morning.

Rather than focus on the glass half empty, as I’m inclined to do when I compare myself to others, I now see the glass as more than half full, and I realize how lucky I am. In preparing to write this reflection, I thought of a famous quote from Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

As a mother, especially a single mother, I need to remember it’s the small things I do with great love that will make a difference for our family. They usually don’t ask for big things anyway. It’s my big ego that insists on setting unattainable goals.

Evidence

9 Aug

This weekend’s scriptures were so rich and full of quotable verses; I’m still digesting and trying to figure out what I want to write. One of my favorites was this one from St. Paul to the Hebrews: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”

It is one of the most confusing verses in all of scripture. Usually when I think of “taking something on faith,” it means that I’m making a decision to trust something even when I’m unsure. The modern understanding of faith is to be sure something is true without having evidence.

Paul said faith IS the evidence of something being true.

I know a lot of people who’ve had faith that something for which they hoped would come to pass, who were disappointed in the actual outcome. How can faith be the realization of something that never happens, like a healing, or a new job, or conceiving a child?

Perhaps it’s that we don’t really understand faith. It’s not an intellectual exercise, nor is it blind belief. Faith is not about outcomes or earthly circumstances. Faith is about action. Faith is deciding to act as if God is present in my pain, God cares about me, and God can and will use my circumstances to bring love and healing into the world if I offer my brokenness and incompleteness for Him to use.

We can’t always see the ripple effect our actions and attitudes have in the world, but our faith, our “acting as if” our pain has purpose, is itself the evidence of the unseen purpose.

As for “the realization of what is hoped for,” exactly what IS it that we hope for? My experience has taught me that when I hope for a bigger house, a better job, a happier relationship, etc., those things do not satisfy even when they are realized. It’s human nature to want more, bigger, and better. Discontentment is one of the shadow sides of being human. Whether we understand it or not, there is only one thing that will satisfy the inner longing, and that is a relationship with our source, our creator. The moment I hope for that relationship above all other things is the moment that hope is realized, and the moment faith is born.

There’s a song that came to mind as I meditated on Paul’s mind blowing words: Evidence by a group called Citizen Way. It gives us another word for faith – love.

“My life was changed by the evidence of love.” This is a message we all need more than ever as political season ramps up into high gear. I do my best not to look at the bumper sticker on someone’s car as evidence of their love. I look at their actions. When I do, I find that many people with whom I don’t always see eye to eye still live a life of faith and love, and those qualities are what we all need to have hope. When we outsource our hope to a figure behind a podium, we lose sight of the true source of lasting peace in the midst of chaos. Let’s keep our eyes on the evidence.

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

29 Jul

Right now I am sitting on a wrought iron bed in a cozy front bedroom in a country cottage, windows open, the Alleghenies, a light cool breeze blowing through, the scent of bacon wafting through the house. It is beautiful here, from the scenery to the rustic yet luxurious furnishings. Last night I slept with the windows open to the sound of raindrops on the tin porch roof. This is the kind of place in which I’d like to live, a perpetual vacation surrounded by woods and mountain views.

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But if I lived in vacation accommodations year round, it wouldn’t feel like a vacation, would it? I know that. It is the change of venue that makes it a vacation, and the change of routine. Right now I have no particular demands on my time, but even when I’m home, I’m mostly in charge of my schedule. My deadlines are self-imposed, the result of my choice to support my kids’ various activities, to take on a particular freelance project. Even my day job allows me flexibility. The fact that I don’t have to maintain this lovely home on the hill is exactly what makes it a vacation. Maintenance, no matter how lovely the setting, is the drudgery.

I suppose even if I were paying someone to keep my house and make my meals, there would be other activities of maintenance that would drag me down. The “ladies that lunch” who frequent the nearby Homestead Resort in posh style probably complain about the drudgery of their demanding social lives. For them, and maybe even occasionally for me, the folding of clothes and washing of dishes could be a vacation if it is out of the regular routine.

I have a deep longing to live life as if it were a vacation, yet I know this would be a life of perpetual discontent as “vacation” becomes its own routine. Escape from routine is what I crave, simultaneously knowing that it’s routine that keeps my life from going completely off the rails.

The obvious solution is to travel more frequently (but not too frequently), to give myself breaks from routine, even if I don’t know what to do with myself when I take them. Did I mention the bed I’m sitting on is perfectly made, pillows fluffed and throw blanket carefully replaced at my feet? I made my bed on vacation.

Daily

21 Jun

My ex-husband got remarried a few years ago, and last week their first child was born. Needless to say, I’ve experienced a smorgasbord of emotions about my children’s new baby brother, but the most striking are my recollections of when my own first child was born, and my earliest days of motherhood. On one hand, that first week as a new mom was one of the hardest of my life. On the other hand, it was just a drop in the bucket.

I remember looking at my nipples, cracked and blistered from breastfeeding, and telling myself it would get better (it did). Being utterly exhausted from the night waking and the anxiety of every sound that baby made, and telling myself it wouldn’t last forever (it didn’t). Standing in my kitchen with tears streaming down my face, bouncing a screaming newborn and feeling completely overwhelmed and inadequate to the task of motherhood, and telling myself in time it would get easier.

But it didn’t. It got harder. It was as if each difficult stage of being a mother has just toughened me up for the next slightly more difficult stage.

It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.

My son was eight weeks old when this realization dawned on me. Followed first by the words, “Oh God,” then a strange peace as I took a deep breath and thought, “Oh well.” The “oh God oh well” is a frequent mantra even after 13 years; it’s like a morning prayer as I open my eyes and an evening oblation as I haul myself into bed. Does postpartum depression last into the teen years, I sometimes wonder. The mental exhaustion of being responsible for another human being – make that three human beings – takes a tremendous toll. A daily toll.

That word “daily” jumped out at me from this weekend’s Gospel. Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Most of the time when I think of “crosses,” I think of the temporary crisis, like an illness in the family, or a job loss, or a difficult relationship. “This too shall pass,” we say. The crucifixion, after all, was a one-time event, followed by a glorious resurrection after only three days. Would that all our crosses could pass so quickly.

But Jesus used that word daily. The cross is not one and done. It waits for me every morning. Like the laundry.

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

It’s helpful to keep Jesus’ words in context, especially when my all-too-human instincts for self-preservation rise. This weekend’s passage begins with Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do you think I am?” And they answered rightly when they recognized him as the Messiah. But instead of giving the disciples a verbal gold star for recognizing God in their midst, Jesus rebuked them. This has always confused me. Why would Jesus rebuke them for recognizing Him for who He was?

Jesus was not rebuking them, but their illusions and fantasies about what “messiah” really meant. The Jews were hoping for a savior who would literally be a king, who would deliver them from Roman occupation. The reality, as we know in hindsight, was to be much different.

Jesus may as well have asked me, “What do you think having a family is?” When I was young, my one desire was to get married and start a family. It feels so long ago I can hardly remember what my fantasies were, but I suppose I imagined the trip to Disney World, fresh cooked meals together every night, reading to my children before bedtime, and spending evenings with the quiet affection of a husband who took joy in being a partner and didn’t have to be asked to pick up his socks. I thought having a family would save me from loneliness. Although my reality has given me a certain fulfillment of those hopes, it has not been without an equal part of suffering, rejection, and sacrifice. Daily. Unrelenting.

Oh God oh well, I pray as I surrender the illusion.

The divine promise is that in willingly losing my life, I will find it. If my crosses are not one-time events, then neither are my resurrections. They, too, are daily, and in my experience they do not often come in three days’ time, but are fleeting moments of connection to my source of life, my Father who cares for me, not Christy the exhausted mother, but Christy His beloved child. And He never gets tired. He never feels resentful or bitter when I reject Him or fail. He doesn’t love me any more or any less than any of His other children (including the ones to which I gave birth). His love is the great equalizer, as St. Paul so eloquently wrote in Sunday’s letter to the Galatians. We are one in Christ, even if we are not always one around the dinner table.

In my darkest moments of motherhood, I feel as if I have lost my life, and if I stay mired in that attitude, I miss out on recognizing the blessings. This was not what I expected; I certainly never imagined being a single parent. I didn’t picture the constant feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and failure that linger in every pile of clutter, every moment I lose my temper, every time I’m running late. The inner critic taunts me, saying, “Hey lady, you are the one who wanted this.” And it’s all I can do not to crumble.

When I hear those words ringing in the space between my ears, I consider how Jesus literally carried His cross. He fell multiple times under its weight. Already beaten and abused, He was not strong enough to carry it without help. There was no hiding the cross and suffering privately; His pain was mercilessly on display for all to see and judge, from His weeping and powerless mother to the cruel Roman soldiers to the judgmental haters who sentenced Him in the first place. He must have felt like a failure, and in at least one account He felt abandoned even by God. It is a comfort to know that my Savior understands when I falter under the weight of my daily crosses. It’s ok that I feel overwhelmed. That’s the whole point of the cross.

Jesus also said to follow Him daily. He knows the cross leads to resurrection, and if I follow Jesus’ example of grace, if I can find it in my heart to say the words, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do,” I may feel pain but I will also experience the exhilaration of birth. Those early days of motherhood with each of my babies may have been exhausting, but I never felt more alive than in the moment I first looked into each of their eyes. There is no intimacy that rivals holding them in their first days, weeks, and months of life, before they have words.

In my spiritual journey as a mother and a woman, I am the helpless newborn without words who embraces the chance to be born again every time I embrace the cross, to be cradled in the arms of my Father. Daily.

Pool Season

30 May

Right now I am thinking about my shaved legs. Yesterday, the neighborhood pool opened, and of course the girls wanted to go. Fortunately it was hot and sunny, but I had things to do around the house and was in no hurry to put on a bathing suit. I promised them if I got everything done by 5, we would go then, so they promptly suited up in their matching one-pieces at 2.

I took a break from yard work and cleaning to take a shower, my second that day. I’d neglected to shave my legs the first time, and as I lathered up my calf, not without a twinge of resentment, I thought to myself that this is Tori’s last summer to suit up for the pool with reckless confidence. She is ten.

The summer I was ten was the summer my mother said I had to shave my armpits. My strawberry blond is not there yet, and I’m deeply grateful, because you can never go back once you cross that threshold. By the time I was 12 I started shaving my calves, and the next summer, my thighs. Finally at 14 I tackled the bikini line after being thoroughly disgusted at the beach seeing a woman who did not take that care.

While I continued to love the beach and its anonymity through my teenage years and beyond, I stopped going to the neighborhood pool at 13. Why give the assholes on my school bus any more ammunition than they already had? Yes, I knew we all had insecurities about our bodies, but that was little consolation, because the more insecure they were, the more likely they’d verbally abuse and belittle me to feel better about themselves.

About ten minutes before venturing to the pool, Tori asked if she could wear her bra (which she doesn’t need but insists on wearing) under her bathing suit. Something inside me died. Insecurity starts early, I guess. I told her no.

“But it feels weird!”

“But no one wears a bra under their bathing suit,” I said. “That’s kind of the whole point.” I was in my tankini (chosen to cover my less than toned mom belly) and I puffed out my chest to display my size A half-rack, which will probably be surpassed by hers in another two years thanks to modern agricultural practices and her dad’s genes.

She complied and did indeed get used to it once she was in the pool, doing water acrobatics and behaving once again like a little girl who doesn’t notice body hair, who still yells, “Watch me!” instead of hiding under a towel on the deck chair.

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