“Are You My Friend?”

marymarthaDo you ever look around and wonder who your friends are? I sometimes do. I’m naturally introverted, and yet the combined effects of several relocations, caring for two special-needs kids (and now my mother), and endless work-related social media interactions (I’m an editor) have depleted my little black book on those rare occasions when I’m craving a girls’ night out.

Yesterday I was discussing this with an author friend who happens to fall in the category of both professional and personal connection. She has met my extended family, and made rosaries for my kids. I’ve slept at her house, and call her whenever I’m in her area to get together.

Apparently this sense of rootlessness is something that many women experience. She also made me sit up and take notice when she identified what is often the source of the problem. “There are persons, and there are personas,” she reminded me. “When you are a writer, you cultivate a persona that you let out into the world … but it’s not the same as the real you, known to your real friends.”

The moment she said this, a light bulb went on. Do editors have personas, too? Of course! So … how do I set aside the persona and let the “real me” out to play, to establish real friendships?

Interestingly, my friend’s first suggestion was … silence. Spending time together in silence, “until the uncomfortable silences become comfortable.” Of course, this isn’t something that can happen on Facebook, or in any other social media venue. It takes physical presence. It means stepping away from the computer and inviting others into the messiness of ordinary life.

This is risky, of course. I’ve had women — from church, for example — who have reached out and made an effort to connect with my daughter and me. It always surprises me a bit, to experience such kindness, knowing that I’m not really in a position to reciprocate meaningfully. What is more, the way my life is set up right now, it seems almost impossible to set up regular get-togethers. And yet, this is exactly the kind of effort true intimacy in friendship requires.

The topic of friendship is very much on trend these days. Emily Jaminet and Michele Fahnle’s The Friendship Project is being discussed in book clubs and parish women’s groups across the country. Elizabeth Foss published True Friend, a four-week devotional to help kick-start friendship in your own life.

And yet all these wonderful books won’t do a bit of good unless I’m willing to venture into that scary territory of vulnerability and initiate contact. Invite someone over (or invite myself over) for a cup of tea. Strike up a conversation with someone at a bookstore who is carrying a book I’ve recently read. Even (*gasp*) take that water aerobics class for us grannies-in-training and chat up the friendly looking lady on the kickboard next to me.

Because every decades-old friendship begins with the touch of a real, live person.

 

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Letter to My New Mom Self

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m getting ready to go out of town for a few days, and so I wanted to reprise something for Mother’s Day from a few years back. This year Christopher turns 18, and is reconnecting with some of his birth family, so it seems like the right time to get a little retrospective. (If that’s the right word.)

Oh, and if you caught my Mother’s Day article over at “The Perennial Gen” and have wandered over here … Welcome! (Don’t get scared off by the post under this one. I promise I can’t remember the last time I blogged about anything political. I have enough drama in my life without adding to it — don’t you?)

And so, without further ado … Pour yourself a cup of tea and meander with me to 2015.

Next weekend we celebrate a decade of “official” family life. Ten years since the adoptions were finalized and the kids were officially welcomed into the family . . . and baptized into God’s. We plan to go to Cedar Point with their godparents, to celebrate. This weekend, though, as Sarah and I sit in the living room — her painting designs on her fingernails and watching Girl Meets World, and me typing, my mind drifts back to those first few weeks together. Some parts are such a blur, but others come back with crystal clarity. And so, before those bits get fuzzy, too, I thought I’d write a little letter to my new-mom self.

Dear New-Mom Heidi:

I know it seems impossible right now, when every hour drags as you try to cope with enormous mounds of laundry and unending chaos. Poop on the walls. Food splattered on the ceiling. Kids screaming you awake at one-hour intervals. A husband who spends L-O-N-G hours at work and leaves you alone from dawn to dusk with these ornery little dickenses. I know. I know. But trust me, it won’t always be like this.

Be as gentle with yourself and your family as you possibly can. You have undertaken the most difficult challenge of your adult life, infinitely harder than you thought it would be. But trust me when I tell you this: You can make it easier, or you can make it MUCH harder, just by what you choose to see. This is not the time for your “volunteer” gene to go into overdrive at church, or to take on a forty-hour work week. Because you will never get this time back. And neither will your kids.

Don’t worry about your job right now, and get some help if you possibly can so you can catch up on your sleep. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Every moment you spend with them now will pay rich dividends down the line. But now it’s time to pay up.

Breathe. Laugh. Relax. These kids won’t get calmer, or sleepier, or happier if you are a stressed-out mess. So do everyone a favor. Don’t set the bar too high. Get some help — since you don’t have family nearby, au pairs are worth their weight in gold. Keeping them at home, close to you, is going to help the trauma heal. Read about trauma. And stop yelling, or you’ll make it worse.

Protect them, and never let them out of your direct line of vision, even with other kids. Yes, you need a break, and yes those breaks are few and far between. But trauma attracts trauma, and the worst kinds of abuse breeds sneakiness. Keep your kids close, as close as you possibly can as much as you possibly can, if you want those broken little hearts to heal. When you want their attention, whisper. And don’t forget to teach them “feelings” words. Or to get down on their level, and touch them gently when you want to make eye contact.

Resign your dreams and expectations. They may always struggle academically, no matter how many story hours and silly songs you share with them. No matter how many specialists and therapists they see. They may never make the honor roll, but if they keep talking to you, you’re ahead of the game. Spend more time focusing on their gifts, and less on their challenges.

Expect it to hurt . . . but look for the joy. The kids won’t remember if you stood over them while they struggled through their homework. But they’ll never forget it when you put down the rake, and jump in the leaf pile with them! Let them eat the raw cookie dough and sprinkles, and don’t ration the M&Ms so much.

Adoption is hard work. Don’t forget to enjoy the perks!

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

When Mom Prays…

prayerTonight, I’ll be honest, felt like a big, fat fail in the parenting department. I’ll spare you the details (or perhaps it’s me I’m sparing), but at one point I looked into the snarky face of one of my children (ha) and thought (very loudly): “I don’t know if I can hold on another day.” Then I made the horrific mistake of opening my mouth and telling her exactly what I thought of her and her behavior. (Woops. Kind of gave it away there.)

My mother was sitting in the next room, and there is no way she couldn’t have heard what was going on. But she didn’t say a word. All through dinner she was quiet. Then I took the kids to youth group (“Yes, you DO still have to go even though you are 18, young man”) and came back just in time to hear of another complication that will be re-entering my life in two more weeks. *sigh*

Even after icing and heating it, my arm was throbbing like someone had set it on fire. But I made my way downstairs to put mom to bed and read to her. When we finished our devotional read, I asked her if there was anything she wanted to pray for. Her reply was immediate and simple: “I’d like to pray for you.”

My eyes were full of tears before she said the first word. I was a little afraid, truth be told, because there was no hiding the fact that I had been short, and mean, and cranky all day. Apart from the hour or so we spent in the Japanese garden in Mishawaka, and the hour I spent unconscious in my room afterwards. But you’d never know it as I heard the words fall from her lips, kind and gentle like rainfall.

“Lord, thank you for my daughter. Thank her for everything she has done for me, and how hard she works every day. Help her to listen to her body, and to be gentle with herself. Help her to know how much she is loved. Help us both to know which way to go in the days ahead, so we will be doing just what you want us to do.”

It’s been a long time since someone prayed for me like that. It kind of took my breath away. And suddenly I saw myself as my mother sees me — someone who is just doing her best with the hand she has. And someone who wants to do the right thing.

Later, as I sat there thinking about her prayer, I realized that this is probably what my daughter needs from me, too. Someone who will be gentle and kind. Someone who knows she is just doing her best.

“Lord Jesus, thank you for my daughter….”

Blameless?

naughty kidDo you ever feel like diving for cover when you hear the school bus pull up outside your house?

I sometimes do. Bracing myself for the drama, I toss something in the oven for supper, flop on the couch with the dog and a cold glass, and paste a smile on my face, trying not to think of all the work I still need to do that evening.

If it’s been a particularly arduous workday, I turn on my ER reruns and try to decompress a bit before the door slams. But I may need to rethink that strategy.

This morning a paragraph from one of the readings leaped out at me:

I will walk with a blameless heart within my house;
I will not set before my eyes whatever is base (Ps 101).

Now, the psalmist didn’t have access to ER reruns, but he knew a lot about human nature. He understood the temptation to find a handy “escape” from the realities of life. And yet, life has a way of breaking through.

Nine times out of ten, my R&R is interrupted by the sound of teenagers quarreling — doors slamming, glass breaking, high-pitched demands for snacks. You know, life. And more often than not, my response is less than maternal — loud, self-centered, and irritated beyond words.

I feel justified in my outrage, of course. They are perfectly capable of getting a snack or drink, and coming to settle in next to me for a chat. Or better yet, go with me to walk the dogs.

On the other hand… “I will walk with a blameless heart within my house.”  Am I truly blameless in the drama that ensues? Isn’t it just possible that by escaping into reruns, I am unwittingly putting up a “keep out” sign — and my kids, who haven’t seen me all day, express their legitimate need for my full attention, any way they can be sure to get it?

In Psalm 101, the psalmist connects the dots between what I see and who I become. As an adult, I manage my own time and can decide if some “down time” is in order. As a mother, I must also consider what my actions are saying to my two high-anxiety, stressed-out teens. When they see me, how do they feel? Welcomed … or tolerated? Relaxed … or nagged? Loved … or lectured?

Who have I become to them? Is it the person I want to be?

When the Caged Bird Stops Singing

Today cyberspace was abuzz with news of the death of poet Maya Angelou, whose fearless prose, particularly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a work of autobiographical fiction, was a bright spot in my high school career.

When I heard about Maya’s death, remembering the title of her book immediately made me think of my mother, whom I saw last weekend at a mental hospital in Atlanta. The only thing harder than seeing her there, it turns out, was leaving her there, knowing that there is a better-than-average chance it was the last time. Her carotenoid artery 90% blocked on her right sidJohn and Sandy=201250e, she is not in her right mind, yet her doctor refuses to do surgery because she is a “surgical risk.” And so, while we seek a second and even a third opinion, she waits in a ward with her “people,” a group of similarly old and confused patients.

Almost everything has been stripped away. Hospital policy prevents her from having her hardbound study Bible (only paperbacks allowed), or anything on the walls. Her life has been reduced to a few changes of clothing, a hospital bed, and one-hour visits from up to two family members a couple of times each week. She has lost 30 pounds, and there is no telling from one day to the next whether she will lash out, or reach out in a hug.

The one bright spot in the ward is a nurse I will call “Queen Winnie.” Magnificent and matronly, her close-cropped hair silvery against her ebony skin, she is kindness personified as she gently directs my mother to wherever she next needs to be. “She’s a good singer, your mother,” she told me on Sunday. “We were singing the old church hymns together before you go there.” Mom smiled and nodded.

At that moment, she wasn’t singing. “I want out of here,” she said plaintively. I want that, too.

Sometimes, though, no matter how much you want something, you have to let her go.

On the way home, I raged — feeling a little ashamed about the likelihood that I was adding to my father’s burden, but unable to contain the sense of injustice, that a woman who had spent her life in the service of others, was spending the last days so confined. And equally mad that the love of her life had been robbed of her presence long before her breath left her body.

A detachment of a most powerful and terrible kind.  It is, in the words of Sheldon Vanauken, a “severe mercy,” the moment in an adult child’s life when you realize that you cannot fix what is wrong, and you cannot save them both. All you can do is hold on, and hope.

In the words of Ms. Angelou: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

Keep singing, Momma. And when it comes time to leap that fence, know you take a piece of me with you.

The Gift of Perspective

j0438992As weeks go, it was not exactly the stuff memories are made of — not good ones anyway. In our extended family, one was diagnosed with prostate cancer, another had a gall bladder removed, a third was hospitalized a second time for serious mental health issues. The school called, reporting an incident with one of the kids. On Valentine’s Day, my husband went to have a suspicious growth removed. Plus there was the whole matter of the relentless white stuff that God kept pelting down from heaven like some cosmic snowball fight he was determined to win. Oh, and our ceiling is leaking from our (second floor) bedroom to our (first floor) kitchen. If I’d lit a candle for every intention, I would have set the church ablaze. Yes, one of those weeks.

But as I sat down to lunch with a friend yesterday, she looked at me and said, “I can tell life is good for you right now. You are glowing with happiness.”

The funny thing is … I feel happy. My life is infinitely better than it was this time last year. Sure, we have to move (again) in two months … but it’s to a job I love, to work with people who give me freedom to do my best work, and trust me to do it well. Yes, my child had a problem at school … but both my kids are HOME, and I get to tuck them into bed at night. Yes, our heating bills have been more than $800/month for the past two months … but we have been able to put food on the table, even so.

The sick relatives are a bit tougher. It’s always hard when a family member is hurting at a distance. It’s natural to want to lift their burden, or at least carry part of it for them. More than anything, you want to do more than pray.

But sometimes … sometimes trusting God is the only thing to do. When we open our hands and offer our burden back to God, we become conduits of grace to bring about God’s will in this world. And that is no small thing.

So, go ahead. Light that candle. Pick up that rosary. Breathe deeply, and speak aloud your intention not to let worry and fear prevent you from trusting the Creator of all things good. Ask God for the gift of perspective, that knows our heavenly Father does not leave his children burdened by life to their own devices. Rather, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “He shouts to us in our pain,” making us stronger and more compassionate, better able to recognize and respond to the hurting world around us.

At some moment of our lives, each of us is called to live in the Pascal Mystery. Is God calling you to carry your own cross, in the footsteps of Christ? Or is he asking you to follow at a distance, like the Blessed Mother? Both are needed, but you will only have grace enough for one.

31 Days of De-Stressed Living, Day 30: Zebra Girl!

az_zebrasWhen I think of zebras, I immediately think “black-and-white.” Black-and-white thinking can be extremely stress-inducing. (Unless we’re talking about cookies, fresh from the Reading Terminal Market or Zabars Bakery. Those are stress-lifting, served with a proper cup of tea to cut the sweetness.)

But on zebras, those black-and-white stripes serve a purpose that is most fully realized when the zebras stick together. While no two sets of stripes are exactly alike (stripes on zebras are a bit like fingerprints on humans), when a herd of zebras stand close together, their stripes camouflage the individuals, making it harder for predators to attack.

What’s more, when predators do attack, the injured zebra is surrounded by the others, who band together to drive off the predator. For that reason, zebras do not sleep away from the herd; they depend on the safety of the group.

Are we really so different? When God said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” he was pointing to the simple truth that one of the ways we reflect his image and likeness is that we are intrinsically social, designed to be in community with others. For women, it’s especially important to find the society of other women.

We are Zebra Girls: Individually, our stripes make us beautiful … yet we are strongest with the support of those whose stripes are like our own.

Recently I received a note from an old friend, whose absence from my life has been particularly difficult this past year. I had tried to reach out, tried to reconnect, but something had come between us. In time, I realized I needed to let go — I had to focus my energies on more immediate needs. But seeing her familiar handwriting in the mail, the pang hit again, and I realized just how much I had missed her.

Not every friendship is meant to last a lifetime. Some friends pass through our lives like gentle breezes, momentary gifts from the hand of God to fill a pressing need. What my friend taught me, though, is that even lifelong friendships have chapters. Sometimes the zebra steps away — or gets separated — from the herd. But our strength is in our stripes. And our stripes work best when we travel together.

Who do you need to call this week, Zebra Girl?

Photo Credit: “One Kind” webpage on the Zebra