Feels Like September

I have a half-written grant proposal collecting dust in my computer. It talks about the dream of sitting under someone much farther along, who is not emotionally invested in your identity and protection in the way that your mother, or even grandmother, is, and should be. But she is someone who still knows, and who, because of her completed steps, can guide or understand or cushion your own. The brewing idea is one of intergenerational community of sisterhood, that debunks the mommyblogs and echo chambers we fall into, because like tends to like, and our technological toys silo us as much as they can connect. She is the see-er. The voice missing in our confounding mental loads as women doing it all, fighting competition, pushing justice, weighing obligations and avoiding high fructose corn syrup.

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I have this idea of learning from older women, not in spurts but in rhythm, and making it more possible for others, because of the incredible women who are already a part of my life. But in practice, I’ve struggled to do this.

Because the ladies in the shallow end at swimming lessons have also recently given birth. The women in my grad classes were career-minded, seeking first mortgages, internships, and noble peace prizes. The ladies on my feed are in the trenches, reaching out in the nano seconds of alone time our thirties give us for a like, a laugh, a lunch break. And it’s hard to stop and visit with my senior neighbor when the whining pulls. It’s hard to interview and take long walks and listen to senior women when I am chasing, scrambling, and budgeting every minute and dollar.

There is another voice I have missed, in addition to the one far in front of me. It is my own. To a lesser degree, to a smaller detriment, but still. Interruption is my norm. Bending and adjusting is the plan. I forget things when I only have to think about myself at this point; I am more awkward and uncertain the fewer moods rely on my preparation. I have sought the help of professionals and brutal/beautiful friends to help remember me before us.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women throughout history have traded their very lives for the idea that there is nothing more important than nurturing others. In some ways, I believe that. In other ways, I know that idea, unexamined, threatens my sanity and health.       –Courtney Martin

I promote solitude in theory, primarily as a mode through which we hear God’s heart, not just our own. Not to brag but I have exercised it in 90-120 minute parcels irregularly over the past 11 years of adulthood/marriage/motherhood. The last time I had solitude that was not measured in minutes, but days, in which I was not completely anxious, was probably when I was 20. I am soon turning 33. I tried taking an overnight solitude retreat a few years ago. An alarm kept going off and there were no curtains in the sweet cottage nestled in the woods. I was officially citified by that point and completely distracted and edgy. Barely slept. When I was 20, I had 48 hour of solitude on a rock face, with a clif bar, a journal and bible, a sleeping bag, a headlamp, a water pump and bottle, and some sunscreen. It was one of the best things of college.

Tomorrow I embark on both a time of sitting for extended times with a woman much farther along than me, and being alone with my self and God, for not a matter of hours, but days. And I have no idea what to expect. It is a completely different situation than the past, oh, all my years, and I’m so grateful and humbled in advance, but also have trepidation. What does a day look like without a deadline and nap schedule and bell system? What DO I want to eat for breakfast, that meal that always eludes me? What will God show me as I sit, awkwardly quiet and un-needed? How will my life of planning, devoting, working, fighting for causes, and connecting with friends leave me to be, or inform who I am, away?

This summer has left some scars and presented good gifts. The school year is in full swing now. I remember that feeling of September, up in Oregon when we’d start school after Labor Day. Excitement. Unknowns. Courage and nerves, holding hands. Tiredness from that summer still on our shoes. This kind of feels like all of that. September is about diving in, and stepping out, and back to school. This year, me too.

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The good, the bad and the ugly.

Sometimes suffering comes crashing upon our personal lives despite our best maneuvers—perhaps a tragic accident or diagnosis, a betrayal or crime. But sometimes suffering touches us in the embrace of a friendship—through walking with a loved one who finds themselves in the throes of struggle.

It was natural to say yes when my neighbor asked me to read over some letters she had received. Though her English is excellent, the official documents were laden with terms difficult for me to decipher as a fluent speaker. This small invitation into Lily’s* life was the beginning of a long initiation process. I was soon researching the housing department and learning with her how to stand up against illegal hikes in rent. It is under her tutelage that I have learned about renter’s rights, power company corruption, the complexity of gaining citizenship, a vehicle towing racquet in cahoots with LAPD, and the impact of incarceration on our community. She is not a local politician or a professor of community development, urban culture, or theodicy, but perhaps she should be. Lily has taught me more than any textbook or class. And she has done so through allowing me to be her friend.

Lily has a small stature but immense presence. In her person, faith and bewilderment, celebration and grief, are fast companions. She has shown me how to walk with God in suffering, and she has generously opened a world to her friends through that posture. Lily’s life has included waves of undeserved suffering, the other not subsided before the next hits; interacting with suffering is not optional. With each wave, her authentic friendship with God has moved her theology further from steady explanations and resolutions to suffering, and my own with it. What I have lost in certainty, I’ve gained in empathy. Nerves newly exposed. As a witness and companion to Lily, I have felt the discomfort of losing touch with that worldview and the reassuring, privileged sense of order and justice in the world I once held. I have also felt the companionship suffering breeds. When we have gone through dark valleys, she is one of the first to listen. To cook. To cry. And I am bowled over all over again at the way love and friendship multiply themselves.

As aware as I have become of my privilege from trying to keep up with spiritual giants such as Lily, I continue to have impressive blindspots. I speak out of new knowledge and experiences too often, instead of letting them settle, and staying humble and contrite. I struggle to apply the things I’ve learned at Lily’s side to the little souls under my care.

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As a mother, I am daily challenged by the desire to nuance judgments and descriptions that seem inescapable in our binary climate. But parenting doesn’t wait for preparedness. I cringed when I first heard my oldest talk about bad guys, many years ago. It’s hard for me when they play cops and robbers. I pray, “God, please help relieve my heart from things I cannot carry, feelings you’re not asking me to feel. Grow in my children a sensitivity that is loving. Help me know…what is good to teach them.” 

How do you help a child, so honored in Scripture for their simplistic faith, refrain from oversimplifying people into good and bad? How do you decide what is innocent play and what needs to be reframed–in the name of loving playmates who have been terrorized by, guilty of, or in the middle of cops and robbers? How do I help this mess of boyhood mine to embrace suffering, to endure loss, as an invitation…when I barely remember myself? To have more time between hearing about something and knowing why it happened. How do I show them misfortune is so often the ultimate bridge between people, not a charge against them?

When things go sideways, from a toy breaking to a sickness, I watch their minds and hearts try to make sense. To sum up whys and dive into despair or push away with blame. I see the nature of Job’s friends in the Bible, of my own craving for judicial order and linear effects. This is a big job–to fight the goliath of distance from suffering as an adult, and also try to be alert to it as a parent. This is a calling.

Walking alongside Lily was initially a choice, indicating my privilege. But now I consider it a luxury in its own right. She’s shown me more of Jesus, and because I’m learning, just by being nearby, I have hope for my kids. That their privilege, their resources, and their choices will not keep them away from truth and complexity. I hope they have to unlearn less than me, and that extending friendship to suffering will be second nature.

We are all learning beside each other, in this big city, on this little street. Suffering lives nearby. But friendship and love are growing like weeds, thriving in its shadow. A child, with children, I’m lucky and humbled to reside right here.

Staying

It is no small and unholy thing to stay.

I don’t know about you but I sow my wild oats in the wee hours of my soul’s nights. I rebel from my heart, not my body. In my deviance, I move through my own life as a visitor, a reluctant tourist, as though my connecting flight was delayed and I flirt with fantasies of departure. Mentally, emotionally. I wish to be impenetrable. I think that it, that my presence, makes no difference.

In the morning, when dawn starts and I feel the relief of new mercy, I relearn that becoming absent is not the answer, but rather full presence is the promise. Compartmentalizing is not often our strength as nurturers; integration is. On the other side of my leave, I resolve that one of the most powerful and transcendent things I can offer my own health, my Lord, and my family community, is the posture of staying. I pray for the faith that suggests that God is for me here, with my longings and fears. I believe that God is for them—the children, the friends, the others—here, so we can all stay and I can be present to whatever this holds.

Professional chaplains finesse the art of this ministry of presence. Their work relies on the theology that the Diety indwells the humane and in one another’s company, we draw nearer to God. Whether visiting a person in a coma, or incarcerated, a premature infant in NICU, or a chatty outpatient, the chaplain offers their presence to the pain, and enters the space having been honest with their own condition and capacity that day. Their effectiveness is not often measurable; it must be undergirded with a sound theology of Immanuel. So too is ours.

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We do not wear badges, nor chart our visits, but mothers and wives and women are full time practitioners of the ministry of presence, the discipline of staying, and it is a powerful cadence in the milieu of constant updates, upgrades and uprooting.

As missional women, the fire in our spirits and the thrust in our activism can lead us to a restlessness that bankrupts our confidence. Because the rubric of the empire, which American Christianity has often adopted, involves fame and fortune, statistics and stages, we itch. We measure our success on a faulty scale and despair, when all the while, our steadfast presence, our dwelling here and with, is the salve to our want, and the world’s searching. It is resistance and it is confounding. It is growing up and it is an anchor to the tossing.

Sharing reflections from the transformative community of Benedictine life, Joan Chittister speaks straight to me in the middle of my sticky linoleum: There comes a time in life when everyone else’s family seems to have been better than my own. There comes a moment when having everything seems to be the only way to squeeze even a little out of life. There comes a day when this job, this home, this town, this family all seem irritating and deficient beyond the bearable. There comes a period in life when I regret every major decision I’ve ever made. That is precisely the time when the spirituality of stability offers its greatest gift. Stability enables me to outlast the dark, cold places of life until the thaw comes and I can see new life in this uninhabitable place again. But for that to happen, I must learn to wait through the winters of my life (Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p. 151).

We know this irritation and this wait. And we also know, when by God’s grace we’ve approached Him with our misgivings, and sat with ourselves and each other, warding off both the guilt and the flight, that the ministry of presence is disarming in all the right ways. We know, for when we receive someone’s full attention or we feel the Lord’s pleasure after the full arc of a day alongside a child’s wonder, that the ministry of presence is healing. Renewing. Soothing.

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As a chaplain of communities such as the family, the church, the school, the neighborhood, the mother figure announces God’s goodness and steadfastness even as she relies on it herself. As a person vulnerable to other people, she demonstrates the invitation of the triune God. As a person rejecting the chains of perfection, consumerism, and control, she presents herself as an approachable companion to others. As she sits without judgment with an overwhelmed new mom, quietly occupies an overtired child in a hospital waiting room, or listens to a child’s unreasonable plans for a birthday for the tenth time, she suggests a Love and a Grace we only learn from one another. She resembles a weeping Savior, a cooking Messiah, present, stayed in the smallest and deepest of ways.

Even when it costs. Even when the night before she took a little trip through the weeds of want and the rushes of regret. She is present not because she does not have any other options or distractions or because it is easy; she is present because God is present to and in her, and this station is a conduit of the calling, not its culmination.

And so, my sisters, I see your choice to stay and I raise my glass. I applaud your outstanding grit to remain present over the years that you cannot speed nor slow, the surprise visits, the illnesses, the chores, that bleed into each other, that step on the heels of the next, and on the toes of your own securities. May the meaning of the moments neither pass us by nor overwhelm us to despair. We are here, together, injecting the daily with the divine. Thank you for staying.

Missional Women and Skyscrapers

When I first became a mom, I was also in my early years of adulthood and vocational ministry. I had just graduated with a masters in theology, and as grateful as I was for the gift of a child, I also deep down felt a little cheated. Like I had let everyone down, like I was going in the opposite direction as planned. I was very young, and I had many ideals and intentions that seemed incongruent with being a mother. I careened into motherhood like I did other stages of my life, and as quickly as I could I resumed roles and responsibilities, out to prove that being a mom wasn’t the end of me. Mostly to myself. In doing so, I delayed forming a more congruent sense of identity, and fostered a belief that motherhood competed with a better purpose.

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Looking back, I wonder if I spent too much time fighting against my role as mom, disliking the embedded stereotypes I felt defensive towards, as opposed to seeing this new part of my life as a conduit through which those ideals could manifest creatively. I wonder if I could have been a little easier on myself, a little more trusting of God’s work through me as opposed to relying on my effort. I am now seven years into my irreversible tenure as a mother and I’ve settled down a bit. I had a short, glorious reprieve from diaper bags, leaking sippy cups, and pack’n’plays. Now, we are a year into our third son, cherishing the good with the hard, a little less rushed, a little less pressured, and, honestly, a little less together.

I can tell you that being a mom has not become the definition of who I am but it has determined most of my waking and sleeping hours for the past 7 years. I can also tell you that, at the same time, it hasn’t been a death sentence to my ideals, my sense of calling, and my dreams. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you, yes you, that new mom, or the woman who had an unexpected, irreversible detour of any kind, are still on mission. I’m glad to report, even just 7 years in, that the socially-minded, justice-fighting, feminist, grown-ass Jesus-loving woman can co-exist with this honor of motherhood. That, as Donald Miller articulates in describing his friend David in Scary Close, maybe while life is declining “in earthly validation [it is] all the while ascending in the stuff that really matters.” You don’t have to become a mom to learn some of the things I’m learning. But you don’t have to not be one also.

I am writing against the doubts and shadows of despair that I myself still face occasionally. You know the ones: the flat one-liners that reduce us to who we are in relationship to one other person, or box in our dreams to a specific shape, size, and color. I’m writing to you from a fellow trench of deafening needs, long days, and short years. You are still you, and your heart for others is going to grow, not wither, from your station in the home.

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Women who are primarily labeled stay-at-home-moms in this blessed world routinely practice a very profound behavior: the act of invitation. She invites the tears of her children, the sighs of her husband, the stories of the cast of characters in her ever-growing community. She invites care when she is exhausted or confused, and help when she is sick. By nature of being a woman, she is vulnerable to surprise, cycles, changes, setbacks and regrouping. She receives people, in her physical space and her emotional depths. She reflects Trinitarian reciprocity and extends the hospitable nature of God as wife, mother, neighbor, friend, visitor.

As a woman translates her self into her leadership in the home, in developing familial and extra-home relationships, and in turn allows her self to be affected and matured through that role, she embodies a powerful combination of structure and adaptability. These are the crossbeams of a good invitation.

In family systems theory, boundaries, adaptability, and the permeability of family norms and rules is discussed. When a family dance is met with a new person through birth or adoption, or a crisis occurs in a particular person’s life, the system has choices. Does everyone’s life come to a screeching halt? Do family rules end up in the trash bin, never to be considered again? Does everyone except one person make sweeping changes, protecting a particular person’s rigidity? Does the family grow out of touch, strangers under the same roof? How elastic is the microsystem?

In Los Angeles, buildings are designed or renovated with an earthquake in mind. The techniques engineers use to mitigate damage to the structure given a seismic crises are mind-blowing to this onlooker. And useful for the ideas of family systems and missional women. There are a variety of technologies but what I found most interesting are the innovative ways in which engineers equip a building to be flexible, and move in counterbalance to the earth’s movement. Rigidity is not reinforced; tension cables, swinging masses, steel tendons, rubber bearings, shape memory alloy…any of these may be the ying to the earth’s yang. To think that our ever-changing beautiful LA skyline is invisibly fluid, absorbent, and responsive.

It occurs to me that in so far as a woman equips her self to be responsive, yet stable, to the larger world, whether the bassinet beside the bed, or the neighbor everyone else calls crazy, she accomplishes the holy task of making room for the Other. In a spontaneous and unglamorous act of allowing her day (not to mention her night) to be run by a pre-verbal life-sucking bundle of joy, or in visiting the lonely with a front carrier and a curated portfolio of puree pouches, she is practicing divine invitation. As she becomes practiced at changing her plans to host a school playmate, inviting an unlikely guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, or promoting her home as a place to drop by unplanned, she demonstrates to her children, her self, and her community that perfection and predictability are not the priority. She acts subversively to the isolating American norms of privacy and refusing liability. She calls to the carpet the evangelical idol of the nuclear family unit and the consumerist approach to making a home.

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When a family system is moderately cohesive, and moderately adaptable, it achieves a flexible structure, a retrofitted connection. Family boundaries are neither rigid nor transparent but permeable. So it is safe for a crisis to arise in or out of the home; the system will hold. It is okay for someone to have an autonomous thought. The connection is not threatened. The dance will change. The change can be painful. But the building does not fall down. It is safe to go to this family with a need. It is appreciated when a guest invites their friend to the party. The children remain the children; the adults remain the adults, but the home is not a bunker. It is a port.

As a missional mom, it’s life-giving to me to continuously and awkwardly sort out how to use my home, my errands, my little realm of supposed control, in a reciprocal manner. I ravenously watch other women who have achieved these maneuvers. A dream that has birthed from the labor of motherhood is to instill an attitude of invitation in my family. My default as a mom is structure, preemptive organization, lists, and routines; these are my Ritalin. (I’ve been known to tape a newsletter-like document to the car dash when my husband and friend road-tripped with our oldest two kids. Because control.) But as a player in the larger mission of God’s upside-down economy, with creative agency instilled by our Creator, I’m compelled to counterbalance that structure by subjecting it to interruption.

The biblical account reinforces this idea of holy invitation, and dynamic family structures. Ruth and Naomi come to mind. Ruth, though she was the guest to Naomi’s family and land, opened up with her pain and adopts and attaches in response to calamity; their family dance shrunk and continued. In the Law, YHWH makes multiple considerations for guests and foreigners, establishing that even when His chosen people were a specific nation, that those boundaries were absorbent. His expectation was that they remember who they are and be responsive to the needs and guests around them (Deuteronomy 10:12-22). Structure and adaptability. Their family feast of booths included the visiting Levite, the servant, the sojourner, the fatherless. Permeable family lines. Jesus demonstrates innovative family makeup, and a hospitable heart always. Stopped on his way to bigger things, tending to basic needs of thousands, positioning his earthly mother to be cared for by his best friend. The culture of our faith is a radical hospitality. The sermon of our Gospel is simple invitation. Our realm lies strategically within this call.

This is unclear work. There is no syllabus. With every additional birthday of my children, additional personality type to the mix, job change, heck, counseling session, this goal of permeable family lines is adjusting. And it’s incredibly inconvenient but it’s a small price for remaining a congruent, missional person. Ladies, this is not win or lose. This is not pass or fail. Your heart is too big, your life too short for that binary garbage. Mine is too. We are committed to our families and that requires different things on different days. We are also committed to our gift for invitation and inclusion. Finding that sweet spot where these are mutually beneficial is a moving target, but what a holy opportunity. Our homes, our emotional space, our maddeningly ordinary tasks, may be the skyline of hope and belonging another soul needs. Stoicism need not apply. Perhaps never before have we been so in touch with our own humanity and limitations as now, here. What a perfect time to extend an imperfect invitation.

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