Monday, March 17, 2014

Passing on

And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
10,000 years and then forever more.
 -Matt Redman - 10,000 Reasons

It's not a song that's normally sung in our traditional service, but yesterday was Youth Sunday and they were in charge, so the song sets for both services were the same. As I sang the lyrics I looked around at the rest of the congregation. Median age? About 70, give or take a few years. And something about that struck me as a beautiful and profound picture of walking out our lives with faith to the very end. It's a reasonable assumption that most of the congregation I stood with yesterday morning are much closer to finishing the race than I am. They know what it's like to have strength that is failing. They've lost parents, partners, friends and more. They are watching the end draw nearer and they are still singing, still faithful.

I didn't know, in that moment when I looked around and thought about endings and lives well lived, that my own grandmother was passing away that morning.

It's odd, the little things that we remember. For me it's the homemade crackers she sometimes made, all crisp and onion-y. I know she made a lot of wonderful food, but the crackers are what I remember, just like I can remember hoping on the long drive from our home in Ohio to theirs in Indiana that this would be a visit when there would be crackers. The first time I made my own batch of homemade crackers I thought of her. I wish I had asked her for her recipe.

And I remember her sewing room, the place where we usually ended up sleeping on our biannual visits. Not in detail, just vague memories of the scent of cotton and sewing machine oil, the sound of the clock on the wall chiming the hour. My grandmother never pieced her quilts while we were there visiting, but I knew that when we were gone that room was her domain, the place where she spent hours at her machine.

I never realized just what an artist she truly was until several years ago, when a rare trip to Indiana meant a chance to visit her after years of living too far away. Ninety-five years old and she was still piecing together quilt tops and wall hangings. Not just piecing from pattern, but designing. "Oh, I saw that picture on a place-mat at breakfast and brought it back to the room because I liked it so I wanted to see if I could make a wall-hanging from it." And so she did, and it was good. Learn a new fabric folding and applique trick at ninety-five? Yes, please.

Me and the boys with my grandmother in 2007

Most of her quilts and wall-hangings were pieced for charity, 46 years of measuring, snipping and stitching all so that they could be auctioned off to raise funds for Mennonite Central Committee, the relief and development arm of the Mennonite Church. She pieced her last quilt in 2013, at the age of 101.

This is a faithfulness that brings me to tears, a combined passion for creating and for giving that poured itself out through every snip of the scissors, every stitch of the machine. It's a faithfulness and passion that refused to waste one single moment of her life, that took the gifts she had been given poured them out in her own language of praise.

My husband and I have both been honored to have grandmothers like this. His own grandmother, who passed away in December, pieced over 5,000 comforters in her retirement that have been sent all over the world as part of MCC's relief efforts. Where my grandmother was art and design his grandmother was practicality and 'these scraps are still good, someone should use them.' But it was still snip of the scissors and hum of the machine.

Mike's grandmother and the boys - 2012 (?)

People are warm today because of his grandmother. People have drinkable water and medical care and access to sustainable farming education because of my grandmother. They took their ordinary lives and the resources they had around them and they gave themselves.

I think we sometimes don't hear the songs of the quieter saints. We listen to the young and the loud, the hip and the relevant. There's just not much relevant about piecing a comforter or a quilt. We talk about being radical but sometimes I wonder if we will still be singing our songs with the same fervency when our strength is failing, when our own end is drawing near. I want to have the passion of our grandmothers, to take this beautiful, ordinary life and not waste one second, one word, one drop of the gifts that I've been given.

About two weeks after Mike's grandmother passed away our boys spent a few days down on the farm with his parents. And my nine-year-old decided that he wanted to piece a comforter, so with a little guidance from Mike's mother, he did. Snip of the scissors. Stitch of the machine. Piece by piece. It's finished and waiting to be tied, waiting to be sent on its own journey of relief, to be warmth to someone who needs it.

Kyle's comforter
 There's a legacy that's been passed on, a song of faithfulness that's been sung down through the generations, praise rising up from ordinary lives. Oh, how I want to still be singing it when my day is done.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Me, the Pharisees and Common Core

Photo by Mikeyp2000 via Flickr
It's a scene that's been playing out all year in our house and in other houses scattered all over the nation. Child comes home with math homework. Child gets stuck on math homework. Parent who considers herself reasonably competent at math because the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants declared her to be competent at math-y things sits down to help child. Parent looks at paper, turns pale and begins to mumble "What? What? I don't understand! What are they supposed to be doing? Agh! Just get the answer already!" Parent tries to 'help' child by showing them how we did it in the good old days. Child looks at parent and says "OK, go away, just let me do this by myself."

It turns out that I really don't know math anymore. At least not this math. Everything that I thought I knew is all turned around upside down and backwards and I just want it to be the way that we USED to do it because then it would make sense. I could follow the rules that I know, get the answer and we'd all be happy. A pox on Common Core, I say! (Or at least I'd say if I were in Shakespearean times, I guess.)

In one of those tangents that we sometimes take in our small group Bible Study a member who is a professor of education started talking about Common Core, and how people miss the point of what it's about. When we learned math we learned rules. We learned one way to solve a certain type of problem and we will use that forever and ever amen. But the point of Common Core is to teach the 'why' behind all of that solving, to create people who can think and solve and apply concepts already learned to new concepts so that they actually understand what they're doing instead of just parroting the rules the teacher laid out.

And here's where the Pharisees come in (and why we were talking about Common Core in a Bible Study). Because the Pharisees were kind of like all of us. We've got our rules, our rubrics, our long divisions and our stacked multiplications and they suit us just fine. So did the Pharisees. They had everything down to an exact equation. If we do these things in this order we will achieve righteousness. And they'd gotten really, really good at doing all the things in all the right ways. They had the official stamp of 'People Who Know and Apply All the Rules.'

Then along comes this Jesus guy and he starts saying that the point isn't to follow all the rules right...the point is to understand WHY. He's trying to tell them to go deeper, to solve the problem by understanding how things relate to each other, how God could become flesh and become their redemption and their righteousness. And they're not having it. New-fangled stuff and nonsense. The rules were good enough for our father's fathers, they're good enough for us. We know how to get the answer, get that new way of thinking out of here.

This isn't about Common Core, not really. I'll adjust to it somehow, although it may be by begging my children's teachers to please, please, PLEASE let me sit in the classroom too.

But I'm kind of a Pharisee about a lot of things when it comes to faith. I learned the way to do things from my parents who learned from their parents and so on and so forth and that ought to be good enough. I go to church and I read my Bible and I say my prayers because that's what a good Christian does and I try to fit everything into an equation that equals righteousness. And Jesus is standing to the side trying and trying to tell me that it isn't about following the rules, that the answers come from knowing and understanding who HE is.

It's going to take a lot of work to learn to live faith from understanding, not from rules. I suppose I'll learn it best from sitting at Jesus' feet.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rotten Inspiration

I'm currently getting over a miserable cold that was probably not really all that bad but I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to being sick. I keep telling myself to buck up and practice being a peppy sick person because it's a skill I'd like to have in case I ever develop a serious illness. (I have a fear of being the sort of patient that nurses hate, even more so because my husband works in the hospital and I don't want them to feel sorry for him for having a grouchy wife.) Apparently the good people that make Halls cough drops want to help me in my quest to be a peppier sick person, because they've started adding little motivational sayings to their cough drop wrappers. Unfortunately, motivational sayings don't seem to be quite their thing, so mostly they come across as either weird like "Let us hear your battle cry!" or maybe a little bit like a drill sergeant at boot camp yelling "Buckle down! Chin up! March forth! C'mon, what are you, slackers?"

Photo by Megan Morris via Flickr

But I just unwrapped my latest cough drop and it's telling me to "Inspire envy." And can I just tell you all, I am SO OVER that message? I'm not perfect. There are times I'm going to still struggle with envy. Not just wishful thinking, but that feeling that worms its way into the heart and says "You would be happier if..." (Currently I'm envying people who live within walking distance of the public library, which I will freely admit is probably an odd thing to envy but it is 100% true.)

But I'm over the message that if I am more, it means that someone else is less. (And, of course, the idea that I am less if someone else is more.)

I'm over the message that the things I do should be done with the end goal of making others wish they were me.

I'm over the idea that envy is a good thing. I'm at my least happy when I give in to the temptation to envy someone else. And while we all are responsible for our own reactions, I don't want my goal to be to create that feeling in someone else.

I'm over the idea that we need to march through life with our measuring sticks, always comparing, always placing rankings on ourselves, our families, all those with whom we come in contact. That somehow accumulation of stuff, or looks, or a million blog hits a day makes a person better, someone we should envy. Sure, maybe the people at Halls really mean they want people to envy my sparkling personality, but I'd rather people just enjoyed it. (I'm not sure my personality can be said to sparkle, but if it does, please don't envy it, just call me up for coffee instead because I'd a million times rather get to know you than have you envy me.)

My blog might stay tiny. I might never write a published book, let alone a best seller. But if I do? I don't want to inspire envy. It's the opposite of everything that I want to inspire.

I want to inspire dreams. For every person who's secretly wished they could do something, I want to inspire them to try. To find their own unique voice in the world and sing it out with all their might.

I want to inspire hope. For every person stumbling through the world in darkness, every person who feels alone, I want to say "Me too, but there's a light and I'll walk towards it with you."

I want to inspire action. I'm not an activist of any sort, and I know that there are a million things I could be doing to make the world a better place in some tiny way. I want to learn how to find those ways and I want to inspire others to find them too.

I want to inspire kindness. Because in a world of sharp divides, where we are told we are either the enviable or the one who should envy, we need kindness to wear away the sharp edges, to remind us to live in love towards every person, every day.

I'd be honored to hear that I inspired someone to make a change. But not towards envy. Sorry, cough drop people, but that's one inspiration that would leave me speechless.

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot. Proverbs 14:30 (ESV)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The measure of a mother

Photo by Jasmic via Flickr

He walked home from the bus stop on a day when the wind chill was sliding down into negative numbers. Minus nine, to be exact, which sounds cold until I compare it to that day a month or so ago when we hit minus fifty and school was actually cancelled! There’s a little corner of my brain that whispers guilt into my mind ‘a good mother would go pick him up at the bus stop.’ Never mind that he’s nine years old and the bus stop is just a three minute walk around the corner, or that the car would probably only warm up enough to save him a few degrees of wind chill. There’s still that picture in my mind of what a ‘good mother’ is and what she would do.

It’s an occupational hazard of my job, working from home on the computer all day, that I have lots of opportunity to browse the internet. And all over the internet there are parents who are Doing It Right. Good mothers who do amazing things with food, with crafts, with learning, with home decorating, with vacation planning, with clothing their children, with discipline, and with teaching valuable life lessons. I want to be those mothers. I want to be each and every one of those mothers, all at the same time. I want to pose my whimsically dressed children artfully by large stacks of wood that they have chopped themselves at our quaint little home in the mountains where we raise heirloom breeds of animals and vegetables which they sell to support orphans in Ghana. (True story, once when I was babysitting a three year old he slipped out onto the screened porch, picked up an axe and chopped holes in the window screens. I should probably never let my children near an axe.)

It’s taken me just about twelve years to realize that I’m never going to be any of those mothers. (I’ve heard subversive rumblings lately that even those mothers are not always Those mothers.) I live in an average home in a cookie-cutter subdivision without a mountain in sight, my children prefer athletic pants and the same two t-shirts over anything that might be termed ‘whimsical’, and the only plants I’ve been able to grow with any sort of reliability are tomatoes so in that fantasy picture apparently we are subsisting on tomato sandwiches.

But I think that I’m finally starting to come to terms with my lack of perfection. I’m learning that instead of listing the ways in which I fail to be a good mother by someone else’s standards, I need to recognize the ways in which I’m a good mother by my standards.

  1. I let my children take the cushions off the couches and build forts with them. Frequently. Even when it means I don’t have a place to sit. There’s a lot of spontaneity in our home and by spontaneity I mean mess and a bit of chaos, and that’s just who we are. No, it’s not all peaceful and quiet with sunlight streaming over polished wood floors, it’s OUR home. And it will be the place that holds my children’s memories forever.
  2. I apologize a lot. True, on my knees by their bed at night, holding their attention with my eyes, honest “I’m sorry” apologies. For yelling, for not listening, for telling them I wasn’t exactly having a bundle of fun being around them either, for eating their favorite candy bar out of their Halloween stash. So many apologies. Each one a chance for all of us to learn how to do better.
  3. I tell them that I love them on a daily basis. Even when they don’t always (ever) say it back.
  4. My parenting grows and changes. I don’t just dismiss everything I read and hear as something I could never do; if it matters enough to me I try adapting it to our family. Sometimes this is successful beyond my expectations, and sometimes it’s not. And I’m learning that if it doesn’t work it isn’t because I’m a failure, it’s because I am myself, parenting my own children with their unique combination of gifts and quirks. So I try, and I learn and I fail and I grow and our family takes on that character that is uniquely us, beautiful in our own way.  
  5. I share my hopes and dreams with my children. When I lost my bookkeeping job a few months ago I decided to finally pursue my dream of being a writer. Truthfully? It felt awkward telling the boys. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to the idea of ‘mom’s not going to be making any money for a long time.’ But the payoff is that I got to see some really amazing reactions from them, not the least of which has been watching the nine year old suddenly start writing book after book of his own in what I have convinced myself is an attempt to be like me because he loves me.
  6. I’ve stuck it out in the rough times. Post-partum OCD. Parenting during tax seasons and 60 hour work weeks (once with a brand new six week old). Adjusting to life in a new state. Depression. I’m showing my children what it means to navigate as a broken person in a broken world. I hope that I’m showing them what it means to let God’s strength show through our weakness.

I made my son hot chocolate while I waited for the bus to come. A year ago I might have told myself that a good mother wouldn’t give him all that dairy and sugar, that she’d have carrot sticks and hummus waiting instead. And then I’d feel guilty that my children don’t eat carrot sticks and hummus (or carrot sticks and anything, for that matter). Today I just smiled as I made it, stirring it slowly as it heated. Because in a messy, cold, imperfect world, sometimes a cup of hot chocolate is what he wants.

Note: For more posts on Parenting and Imperfection, head over to Beth Woolsey's blog "Five Kids is a Lot of Kids".  I'm thrilled to have gotten to take part in her writing contest and look forward to reading more entries. Plus, she's the perfect combination of laugh out loud funny and thoughtful inspiration, so you should read her whole blog.