the other front

This morning I was struck, looking out at the children during Mass at my kids’ primary school: my future is in their hands. Oh, I know, it’s the sort of thing we say. Like we know we are mortal. But it doesn’t really sink in until something presses it on us. (For me, it was the death of my mother that did it.) In fact, it is such a banal thing to say that Whitney Houston recorded a song about it. Today, though, that ‘banal truth’ (as David Foster Wallace might describe it) hit me in a different place. A deeper place.

I’ve long worried about the evaporation of childhood. Academic work starts earlier. And homework, and stress about school. Kids watch more TV and are protected from the dangers of tree-climbing. My generation thinks that childhood in the 1970’s may not have been as safe, but we survived it–and thrived. So I am not alone in the concern for childhood. Nor am I alone in the concern that part of what shapes childhood for our kids has little to do with safety and everything to do with what’s convenient for us. Screens keep kids occupied as easily and certainly as Mary Poppins. I know (#guilty).

And I wonder whether, at least for me, a part of the desire to keep my kids safe and healthy is a desire to keep things in order. Nothing disrupts my work like a kid off school. Yesterday, I let my 11-year-old stay home because he was so stressed out by school, knowing that I’d be sacrificing a day of work. We had a great walk in the woods and more time alone together than we have had in years. We both enjoyed it–and a funny thing happened. I slipped in the mud, and realised suddenly that he was fully my equal in terms of agility and speed. And he thought he was looking after me as much as I was looking after him. We have changed. I’ll miss the deadline I thought I would meet, though I judge the loss to be worth it. The unexpected sick days, though, can inspire grumbling and worse. Who thinks that missing work because a child is off school ill, or because of bad weather, is worth it? Maybe I’m just selfish that way.

That experience yesterday probably set me up for the awakening I had this morning, that conviction that my future is in the hands of all those children at Mass in the school hall. We worry about what sort of future we are creating for them. But we should be equally concerned about what sort of future they will create for us. God willing, I will still be around when they are running the world. And I will be vulnerable, as they are vulnerable now. I hope they don’t just give me a screen and hope I’ll leave them alone for a bit to get on with their work. If they do, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

Work, work, work. I love my work, actually, and am grateful for the opportunity to do it. As a moral theologian, I work in a space cleared for me by feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’ve expressed my gratitude for them in previous posts. And there is still work to in that space. Part of the reason I do not jump on the ‘it was all better in the 1970’s’ bandwagon is that it wasn’t. Not for women, anyway. I don’t mean not being welcomed into the workplace, either, though that is part of it. I mean the sick feeling I got when I watched an old James Bond film (with the young Sean Connery). The portrayal and treatment of women in those films horrified me. Never mind that there isn’t the graphic and grisly presentation of fighting: those films are deeply violent, unconsciously so…which makes it worse. I’m not going back to that, and I am deeply grateful to the women in Hollywood who have led the #MeToo movement. I dream of a future in which my daughter will never, ever use that hashtag.

There is, however, another front in this war we women have been fighting. A less glamorous and more dangerous front. One of the things that we have lost in the fighting is the value of childhood, of home, of motherhood–by which I mean the form of radically available parenting that doesn’t regard a sick child as an interruption in the work. In ‘mothering’, tending to the sick child is the work. (Obviously this form of family life was never the universal that some of us like to think. But it is still true that growing up with parents who were still married to each other is a privilege. So it is worth considering as a desirable form of life, even if it isn’t for everybody.)

The ‘other front’ is the battle for the honorable craft of caring for children. To fight for it doesn’t mean asking for a regression to the 1970’s, but for a true recognition that those who are children now are creating their future and ours. Teachers cannot raise our kids for us, though my kids’ primary school does a smashing job of making kind and generous-hearted young people. We are losing childhood and motherhood together, and it is a terrible loss. Not because we should all return to a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ society, but because losing childhood and motherhood means losing a space in which we used to do a lot of growing together. I remembered that space yesterday: every day my children change, and I change. I want to help guide that change, and I want them to guide my changing self, too.

So I fight the battle for being a mom. (Or, I guess, a mum, since that’s what my kids call me.) When the world says, let him watch TV and finish that review, I have to say, no thank you. I’m going for a walk. I know there are mothers out there who do this every day and never think twice about giving their entire lives for their children. Their CV will never, ever reflect the world-changing work they do. And I thank them, because my future is in their kids’ hands, too.

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Our Lady of Sorrows

pietaI confess to a certain amount of bitterness, when faced with images of a beautiful young madonna and her cherubic child. One such statue stands in a Lady Chapel which is otherwise one of my favourite places on earth. But before that very young woman I feel deeply sad: sad that my own babies are no longer babies, that the magical days of their toddlerhood are behind me. Not that those times weren’t exhausting and often vexatious. But amidst the thousand small things that the littlest ones need doing for them, there was magic. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that I would miss those days, difficult as they sometimes were: I knew it.

Fortunately we have Mary rendered for us in a number of different ways (particularly in iconography), and she was not always the young mother delighting in her baby child. Motherhood also involves loss. Each new stage of development, while (usually) welcome, involves leaving behind traits of childhood–aspects of that precious way of being in the world that is unique to children. And when our children suffer, we suffer with them.

Looking at the pietà (by Giovanni Bellini, 1505), I see myself. The lines in her forehead show the passing of time, the work of motherhood, and decades of letting go. This, also, is motherhood. The painting invites me to join in this sorrow, this tremendous grief, to feel Mary’s sadness. Later, when small losses seem overwhelming, and the longing for my little ones bites deeply, I will turn to Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, and know that I am not alone.

A blessing and a curse

When I was about 7 years old, I was deeply troubled about the people I heard about in Africa. I still remember distinctly the conversation I had with my mother. (Probably, I’ve written about it before, and if you’ve heard it already, I apologize.) I wanted to send food. No, she said: it would not be let in the country. I wanted to send money. No, she said: it would end up in the hands of the wrong people, and would not help the people I longed to help. But, she said, you know what you can do? You want to be a doctor. When you grow up, and you’re a doctor, you can go and provide medical care, which is something much-needed.

Sure. But I wanted to do something NOW. (For the record, I never made it to med school, but still support Doctors without Borders.) Anything I could have done would have made my little heart happy. Now, I read about kids who do these incredible things to raise money for charity, and I’m so glad for them. And  little envious, of course: would that I had been able to get outside of the box my mother unwittingly set me in that day.

Even as a grown-up, I’m still struggling with that box. The desire to do something has never left me, and I wonder what on earth a theologian struggling to make ends meet can possibly do in a world whose needs are cavernous, seemingly infinite. I pray, of course. It’s free, and it’s in my skill-set, if you can call it a skill. But I still want to do that thing, that big thing that will make a real, tangible, visible difference in the life of someone, somewhere. I want to see some obvious change. I want results.

This is both blessing and curse. I can’t wish away the gift of a desire to make a difference, the gift of caring about the world and all the people in it. It’s the way I have borne that desire through the years that makes it a curse. Because I am a huge fan of George Eliot, and of the very end of Middlemarch, in which she observes that things are not so bad for you and I because of people like Dorothea, who ‘lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ It’s not the big things. It’s the little things. But these things make no obvious change, they seem to be very tiny drops in a vast, empty bucket. In everyday life, I can carry no more than an eye-dropper full of difference-making, and the bucket is bigger than I am.

So usually I find myself frustrated that I am not making headway. In fact, many, many days, I seem not to be doing anything to make the world a better place. Even the little things, the small kindnesses to those in my household and neighborhood…some days I fail to do. And then the curse comes at me, full force, cursing: you’ll never make a difference. Why try? It’s pointless. How can you imagine that the world will ever be any better because of anything you’ve done? You can’t even be nice to your family!

Maybe not. At least not unfailingly. And yet, failing doesn’t have to mean I ought to give up. I have to remember I am still the kid who kept asking: but couldn’t we do this? couldn’t we do that? The blessing isn’t the ability to change the world (for the better) in big, obvious ways. The blessing is the ability to get up, when yesterday I failed utterly to do anything kind or encouraging, and to think that today, I still might.

Just this

This has been a blurry season. You know, the space of weeks or months when mostly you’re chasing things–a never-ending to-do list, a house that seems to generate mess even when nobody is in it, and the work projects that crawl along at a snail’s pace when you needed to finish them yesterday. And you look back and wonder what happened to that space of time, and can’t see any of it clearly. That’s the blurry season. I hate it, because time is so precious and so fleeting. I feel I ought to seize it and make use of it, to make every little job an opportunity to be glad that I live and breathe. But it’s cold and grey, the sun mostly refuses to shine, and I can’t seem to appreciate the little things.

Well, most of the little things. I did appreciate an article in the New York Times (as you do) on marrying the wrong person. It was liberating, in much the same way that writing my post ‘fifteen years’ was liberating. Because it reminded me that normal is not always being happy. It’s sometimes staring at the lemons and griping about them for a while, whining about the lack of sugar and being too frustrated to fill a jug with water. Eventually I’ll get around to the lemonade. But today I’m just going to complain that I really wanted a fresh, ripe, sweet, juicy peach.

And I think that’s probably ok.

How newness enters the world

Once upon a time I was a graduate student with time to read and discuss postcolonial theory. Gradually I built up a repertoire of books written in rhyming couplets, though, and my time for the likes of Homi Bhabha (who wrote the essay whose title I’ve taken for this blog post) dwindled.

Even as a keen grad student, I had to read Bhabha’s essay about three times before I could work out exactly how it is that newness enters the world. Since the essay is well-crafted and enjoyable to read, the repetition wasn’t a chore. After those re-readings, I came to the understanding (right or not) that the social-historical-cultural world really does move forward in the grinding of big structures (as the structuralists have it), but that is not the whole story. Change emerges in the interstices, Bhabha argues; newness slips in along the fault lines. At this distance from my reading and re-reading, that remains my basic impression.

In the intervening years, my reading of books by Sandra Boynton and Julia Donaldson (two writers at the very top of their game), the children’s literature, and the raising of the children have come to play well together with post-colonial theory . Now, I might sum up the argument of Homi Bhabha’s essay as something like: newness enters the world at points of transition and emerges slowly; or, newness doesn’t barge into the world boldly, but slips in at the corners, gently, so you hardly notice it until is well underway. That is, the grand, tectonic changes begin as tiny fissures and grow so gradually into mountains and rivers that you only see them once the landscape itself alters.

Looking at Bhabha’s brilliant theory now, it seems somehow obvious. At least, as a mother, it seems obvious: the changes of childhood are enormous and powerful, but it is impossible really to watch them happen. Change happens–in the world and in children–as the grass grows. So the really trite saying about the little things being the big things, which one hears occasionally, turns out to be true. But it isn’t true for the reason that I used to think, or at least not only for that reason. I used to think that the little things, the things we do for each other daily, really do become the big things as we look back on the building of relationships and the growing of families and communities. That’s true.

It is also true, however, that changing the world is not something that mostly get done by people whose Great Deeds make the news. No: the world is constantly changing, and you and I are the ones changing it. The thing is, and maybe this is what Homi Bhabha was trying to tell me all those years ago, we don’t always see ourselves in that way. We fear that we do not make a difference. Nothing appears to change as the result of what we do or fail to do, however grand our gestures may be. Not so! If we think that, we do not see our own great power, which lies in the very small opportunities to ‘be the change’, as the saying goes.

The trouble with newness and change is that we want to see it. We want to see results when we extend ourselves, trying and hoping to shift the hills. But newness enters the world behind us, as it were, in our tracks. And if we keep looking behind us to check whether it has happened, we will lose our way entirely.

I suppose, if I were not a person of faith, I might just stop there. But I cannot forget that there is one more thing that’s true about newness and change in this world, and that is that they have already happened. What I do in the way of making change is simply to walk in the good works set out for me by the Author of this world and its Redeemer. So the business about looking back is doubly important: if I spend all my time turning round to see what a difference I have made, I will lose sight of the one who is the Difference, whose love brought the world into being and has redeemed it, and is restoring it all the time. This is not work I do by my own power; this is my participation in the Newness of All Things that is the work of the One in whom they all hold together. So all I do really does matter, and yet the burden or changing the world does not rest on my shoulders: it rests on the shoulders of the One who carried it up to calvary.

Deo gratias

 

 

 

Another morning gone

6:05am.  Wake up. Realize that the reason it feels like it’s still the middle of the night it that the 4-year-old woke us at 1:00 because she was wearing the wrong pajama bottoms. The rest of the night was not, well, restful. Hit snooze.

6:14am. Wake up, round 2. Think. No, not yet possible. Hit snooze.

6:23am. Wake up. I must get up. At this point, I still believe I can make up for lost time. Brain will maybe catch up with the body eventually, but at least the physical activity of the day must now begin.

6:25am. Stretches. Almost-yoga. I am not virtuous. I am totally dependent on doing back stretches in the morning to be able to move about normally during the day. If I don’t do them, eventually I will move in a way that would be fine for most people my age, but will result in me finding myself on the floor. So I stretch.

6:45am. Husband arrives with coffee as I am finishing stretches.

I love this man.

6:50am. 4-year-old wakes up, requires cuddle. She’s the fourth (of four!) and I know how quickly the cuddle-able stage will pass. Without really considering my lateness, I oblige.

7:15am. Now lateness is absolutely irreversible, but I am still not awake enough to take this seriously. 4-year-old announces she wants pasta for breakfast. ‘Sure,’ I say: there’s some leftover pasta from last night, and this is not a battle I ever, ever fight. I resist, if it means cooking pasta, but I surrender easily. She does not negotiate with 40-somethings.

7:25am. While said 4-year-old is eating breakfast, I begin to tease the kitchen into a state I will later find conducive to work. This involves a broom, a bit of spot-scrubbing, and getting the boys (ages 9 and 12) to help with dishes: unload dishwasher, help stray glasses and bowls to find their way into empty dishwasher. Oddly the 9-year-old is less resistant than the 12-year-old. Or maybe it’s not so odd.

Somewhere in the middle of that, make second cup of coffee. Some of it will end up spilled on the hall table in the midst of the Battle of Finding-Things-and-Departing. Never mind: 60% of it will make it to its target, and I will slowly become a functioning adult human being. (Ok, I admit this is optimistic. But I am still not admitting that we’ll be late, so optimism is pretty much my morning modus operandi, until about 8:45–the time we ABSOLUTELY MUST LEAVE if we are to be on time.)

Time passes. This is always the mystery of the morning: where does the time between 7:30 and 8:40 go? I pack up laundry to be taken somewhere else to be washed: this is an admission of defeat. I manage to get the kitchen floor looking less awful. The boys clear away a good bit of stuff in the kitchen. Someone rouses the 14-year-old, who miraculously gets up and starts getting ready for school. I pack up the girls’ backpacks. How does this all take more than an hour?

7:45-8:30. Get 4-year-old ready for school. Insist that she put school clothes on even though she insists that she’ not feeling well and can’t possibly go to school. Remind her that the alternative to teeth brushing is not to have any. Remind her that socks instead of tights are a bad idea in January. (She tried this last week: I let her have the choice, and she admitted before she even got to school that it wasn’t a good one. Mummy was right.) Agree that she can have a sticker if she does anything at all, really.

8:25. Husband takes boys and laundry. 12-year-old spends last 5 minutes at home frantically searching for his keys and phone. (Poor kid is definitely ours.) Leaves with keys, without phone, dissatisfied with his organizational skills. Blow him a kiss from the window: he needs it.

8:45. Realize that girls are going to be late. Think: these children need a new mother. One who is on time for things. Clearly the 12-year-old has inherited his organizational skills from me.

9:00. Take 4-year-old to school. ‘Will we get there before the bell, Mummy?’ she asks. ‘No, darling. The bell rang 5 minutes ago.’ She decides not to play the game where she remains just out of reach as I try to come up with some kind of choice for her to make that will allow her to get in her seat without losing. And I try not to lose my temper. But today, nothing is lost.

9:05am. Arrive at school, grateful that we live so close. Realize I am not alone in being late to school. The kids don’t need a new mum; I just need to get over it.

9:15am. Time to get 14-year-old to school. Insist she brushes teeth. Try to do too much while she is doing that. Get to school late and realize that she’s not brushed her hair. Sigh.

9:30am. Arrive back home. Find 2 loads of laundry left behind. Sigh. I face the usual choice: how much of the domestic chaos do I attempt to order before turning to the writing project before me (the one I should have finished last week)? Make the usual decision and try to order too much of the chaos, and find the day slipping away, writing project staring at me from across the kitchen table.

11:00am. Despair.

11:10am. Write the 800+ words I should be adding to some writing project or other here on my blog. Hope I will live long enough to do some writing after the children are grown.

Noon. Might as well go to Mass. Although I fear I will just hang my head and weep, I know from experience that I probably won’t. And I need to repent of my despair and self-loathing, and remember that it’s not about what I accomplish in a day. Sometimes I forget what it is all about. Somewhere between the sign of the cross and the ‘go in peace’, I usually remember.

I just hope I don’t forget it again by tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

St Therese of the Child Jesus

I can’t say I have ever been a fan of St Therese of Lisieux. Not, that is, until today. I tend to resist the sort of sweetness for which St Therese is known, being suspicious, like so many cynical people, of anyone who seems ‘too nice.’ Jesus, after all, wasn’t ‘too nice.’

That’s the grown-up Jesus, though. What about the child Jesus? St Therese, after all, is St Therese of the Child Jesus. Staying behind in Jerusalem strikes me as a not-nice thing to do–as the parent of an almost-12-year-old boy, I can’t help but think it was a bit vexing for Mary and Joseph. Not having been a great fan of St Therese, I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that it wasn’t the 12-year-old Jesus that she had in mind.sta_thumbSt Francis de Sales, in a series of letters published as Letters to a Wife and Mother, advises his cousin in her endeavor to life a holy and spiritual life in her ordinary, daily tasks. She gets discouraged; St Francis suggests that she go about her work imagining that she does everything as Our Lady might have done: holding the small hand of Jesus. St Francis offers to his cousin the presence of the Lord as a child. And there is something at once gentle and unyielding about that presence. The set of letters is well worth reading, especially if you happen to be a wife and mother. Even if not, St Francis gives advice so kindly that anyone would benefit from it.

It is the sort of advice that fits very well with what I know of St Therese: in the small things, the everyday tasks, there are opportunities for grace, for love, for living in the presence of the Lord Jesus. Tenderness is not the way of our world, but it is required in the proper care for small children. And anyone who spends any time caring for small children will tell you that tenderness can be difficult to muster. Attending to the presence of the child Jesus is not a way out of the hard work of the spiritual life, but is a deepening of it. Not only is the Lord present to us as teacher and savior, but as child–not to be ignored or forgotten, or left in a corner, but taken by the hand and kept by our side.

We have always been taught by the Lord in his vulnerability on the cross. Perhaps it is time for us to allow us to teach him through his vulnerability in those precious years between the presentation and the finding in the temple.

St Therese, pray for us.