Love Class

Warning:  Rated “S” for Spiritual.  Content may be inappropriate for atheists and agnostics.

crossAs I re-read my ‘Intention to Love’ declaration I noticed a tone of enthusiasm and self-assuredness.  Forty days ago I jumped headlong into Lent with a commitment to love – everyone.  What was I thinking?

It didn’t take long for me to be bowled over by the hard-to-love tidal wave.  Which I could have predicted and prepared for if not for a premature self-satisfaction with my success in loving criminals and sassy teens.

Caroline Myss advises watching what you wish for.  If one asks for patience, one will be presented with three people or situations that try your patience to its limit.  How else would you learn?  Did you expect that patience would fall into your lap just because you asked for it?  Did you think you’d be asked to forgive Santa Claus?

Truthfully, yes.  I had hoped that setting a conscious intention to love would ease the process.  Apparently, it had the opposite effect.  If this is Life School, I signed up for the A.P. class in Love.  And it was more than I bargained for.

One of my first assignments was to find love for a family member who conducted herself in an irresponsible manner.  It was an old story, a skipping record that keeps repeating, making it increasingly difficult to tolerate.

I tackled my assignment with prayer – the old standby.  I prayed for this person to be relieved of her evil ways.  I prayed hard for tolerance.  Nothing changed.  My prayers were like rubber balls bouncing off a wall.

I sat with my  frustration for a while before raising a hand to ask for help.  ‘What am I missing?’  An image of a mirror came to me.  Cautiously, I turned the mirror on myself – on my spiritual arrogance to be exact.  Who was I to think this person needed help?  Maybe she was fine and I was the one with the problem.

I could sense teacher nodding approval.  I was onto something.  My prayers changed to pleas of protection for this family member from me, from my harsh criticism, and for all the ways she has to put up with me. Instantly, the ugliness of her behavior melted away.  Love flowed in as effortlessly and forcefully as water past a newly released dam.  The lesson was clear:  trying or wanting to change others is not loving.  Relationship 101.  I should have remembered that.

With my semester project behind me, I still had to face final exams – Holy Week.  The testing was as intense and stressful as I remember from my college days.  My trying-to-be-more-loving self, now humbled, met with an endless stream of themed challenges:  Loving the Self.

When one has minored in Too Much all her life, and received High Honors in it, she is loathe to dump that ‘accomplishment.’  But if one wants to also claim proficiency in Love, Too Much must go.

Self-critics came out of the woodwork like an infestation of pests that had met with a fumigating spray.  Each had a label – too weak, too loud, too intense, too shy, too bold, too scared, too broken.  ‘Too’ was like a gong clanging in the background of my mind, and often in the foreground.  The world, including my dear family, was more than willing to help me see my too-muchness.

My final exam felt less like a test and more like an unguided trek across dangerous terrain in extreme weather.  And all I brought was a flashlight.  Fortunately, I spotted some encouragement along the way.  There was this from Tama: You do not have to be perfect to lead.  Someone needs what you have learned from your struggle.  And this one from Glennon:  Maybe I am who I am for a purpose.  Maybe I’ve been wasting my energy trying to be different.

As I contemplated the many gurus I admire, it occurred to me that they had their own ‘too-muchness.’  Mother Theresa was described as impatient.  Look what her impatience did for the world!  Gandhi was intolerant (of poverty and oppression) which may have stemmed from his intolerant character.  And Einstein was rebellious.  Need I say more?

We are flawed characters, us humans.  But so lovable.  So deserving.  So valuable.

I rose on Easter Sunday wondering if I passed my Love class.  Did Jesus wonder that when he ascended to Heaven?  Was he worried that maybe he could have done better, saved more people?

I may find myself enrolled in Love Class again next semester and the one after that.  I’ll take it as many times as I have to in order to excel.  And I’ll continue to teach it too.  Because we teach best what we most need to learn.

Unsticking the Stuckness

oh-the-places-youll-go“I feel stuck,” she whined.  “It feels like everyone is moving forward without me.  This one is dating, that one is achieving, and I….I am going sideways.”

Principessa is in the Waiting Place –  that frustrating place in the Great Balancing Act of Life.  I remember when the Waiting was a place I loathed.  I too, was a teen itching for excitement and forward motion.  These days, as a parent, the ‘nothing is happening’ place is a welcome reprieve from the ordinary chaos.   It represents safety and calm.  Not so for an eager teen teetering on the edge of the nest.  She is percolating with frustration and worry.

I ask Principessa to look at the bare-limbed trees outside.  They are resting.  Months ago they dropped their leaves in order to preserve energy for the Spring revival.  The trees didn’t worry when they lost their leaves because they knew that their season to shine would come around again.  They just had to be patient.

But it’s hard to believe in seasons when you’re a teen.  NOW is where it’s at.  I. Want. It. NOW.  Which is just another version of ‘I’m not enough as I am.’ Whenever I hear this ‘not enough’ story, (including from myself,) I follow with the question, “Not enough for whom?”

We could spend a lifetime chasing ourselves with a stick, slinging accusations and pointing out failures, which is essentially what we do when we entertain self-criticism.  We think that comparison keeps us motivated to achieve.  We are convinced that without ‘not good enough’ we are in danger of falling behind.  In truth, the only purpose it serves is to keep us in a perpetual state of anxiety.

Long ago I read this bit of wisdom:  Perhaps the question is not, ‘How can I be who I want to be?’ but rather, ‘How can I want to be who I am?’  Loving the self is tricky business.  Contentment is often confused with complacency or vanity.

I remind Principessa to stay in her own lane and keep her eyes on the road.  If your attention is on the person who’s passing you and you’re worried about falling behind, who’s driving your life?

My words of wisdom barely hold the teen tears at bay.  In a final attempt at rescuing Principessa from herself, I gather her in a cuddle and begin to read to her for the first time in many years.

Somehow you’ll escape

All that waiting and staying.

You’ll find the bright places

Where Boom Bands are playing.

You’ll get mixed up, of course,

As you already know.

You’ll get mixed up

With many strange birds as you go.

And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

Kid, You’ll move mountains!

I felt Principessa’s body lighten.  “I never understood this book when I was little.  Now I do.” she said quietly, then leaned in for a kiss.

Thank you, Dr. Seuss, for getting the job done.  You were a genius!

How To Be A Parent

babyA young mother-to-be said with despair, “Only three weeks left to figure out how to be a mother!”

Oh, sweet new momma, I am still trying to figure that out fifteen years later.  I don’t mean to scare you, but this is the truth.

You will find your groove, yes, and figure out the basics like which type of diapers you prefer and where to find the sales on baby food.  But even if you become a mother twenty times over, uncertainty will remain.  Because just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the rules change, or the kids change, or you change.

You will make more mistakes than you’re willing to count.  Like, for instance, letting your six year old eat the party favor that you swear is white chocolate but is actually decorative soap.  (Yes, I did that.)

You will realize after several hundred of these foibles that a sense of humor is an essential item to pack in the diaper bag.  And it is precisely these times that earn you a notch in your parenting stick.  These falls from grace won’t guarantee that your next act will be seamless, but they will remind you that you can do the hard job of parenting AND live to tell about it.

If you are a ‘good’ parent you will never enjoy the smugness of certainty.  You will doubt every major and some minor decisions, feel guilty about others, and learn something new every day.  Early on you may learn that you shouldn’t play airplane with a baby who has just eaten lest he spit up in your mouth.  (That was husband, not me.)  Later, you may learn that you are not above ditching your child in a grocery store when she shouts, “Why is that lady so fat?”  And you will be anointed with humility when your little one declares aloud in church, “Mommy, you tooted!”

I wish my gift to you could be a key to the Parenting Answer Box.  But in my heart I know that if there was such a key to be given, it would ruin the whole experience.  If you had all the answers and didn’t crumble in despair once in a while, you’d never know the sweetness of vulnerability.  Just when you think you can’t go on, your little one reaches up to wipe a tear from your eye and says, “I wuv you, Mommy.  Pwease don’t cry.”  Renewed afresh, your heart fills up and you rise from the ashes.

When we stop banging on the door of certainty, demanding reprieve from the worry and fear of parenting, we realize that we are not alone.  Looking around, we find ourselves amidst the stories of millions of parents before us who stood exactly where we now stand, unable to break through the barrier of doubt.

There is no pot of gold at the end of the child-rearing rainbow.  And the treasure is not what you think it is.  It is not an honors student who never got arrested, never sassed his parents, and never skipped out on chores.  Nor is it a perfect parenting record that is envied by your fellow retirees.  The gift is simply this:  THE EXPERIENCE – good, bad, or otherwise.

Some day you will look back and wonder how you survived.  You will also continue to question your choices long after the children are grown.  But with any luck, you will have learned at least, to abandon blame and shame in favor of forgiveness and gratitude.  You dared to take on the title of parent in the name of love, despite your humongous fears, and did the best you could.

Don’t Give Up On Me Now

I get upset, maybe irrationally so, when things break – which they do at an alarming pace in our house.  It’s difficult to pinpoint which machine failure causes the most angst for me.  I was equally annoyed when the toilet handle broke as when the refrigerator committed premature suicide.  So I wouldn’t claim that the impending death of my car was more dramatic than any other loss, until it threatened to take me, and my daughter, with it.

At eighteen years old, failed breaks in my beloved first car were a great story.  With no proverbial ‘life’ to flash before my eyes, it was just a bit of excitement in the day.   Not so at 43.

I knew something was amiss; three different warning lights on the dashboard told me as much.  What they failed to indicate is when the car would fail and how badly.

In typical triage-style parenting, husband and I deemed a trip to the mechanic a low priority, pushing it out a week while secretly hoping the warning lights would disappear.  You know, the old ‘if I ignore it, it will go away’ trick.  But our over-used SUV wasn’t willing to accommodate our busy schedule and decided to self-destruct mid-week while I – not my risk-taking/thrill-seeking husband – was driving our nine year old to dance class.

Shortly after calling husband to report increasingly squishy brakes and the possibility of visiting the mechanic sooner rather than later, I went careening through a stop sign, avoiding a crash by sheer luck.  Not wanting to panic Peach, I restrained my reaction, opting instead to unleash my fury on husband when I arrived home.  Thankfully, he is a seasoned husband who wasn’t hurt by my insinuation that this was somehow his fault.  (He’s a big fan of the rhetorical question: If a tree falls in the woods and the husband is nowhere near it, is it still his fault?)   Of course it is!

I awoke the next morning with virtual whiplash from my virtual accident.  Ah, the power of stress.  In retrospect, I should have had the car towed to the shop.  But I opted to drive it, sans passengers, tempting fate once more and nearly killing myself and the car in the process.  (I’m pretty sure the mechanic would wag a finger at me for driving my automatic transmission like a stick shift in lieu of brakes to slow down.)

Regular readers may notice a trend.   I prefer barreling through life at full speed, trying to squeeze 30 hours into every 24-hour day, foregoing common sense and self-care.  (You might recall me ignoring a warning last year that my online calendar was going to explode from all the conflicts.)  I recognize this self-destructive pattern, and yet I persist.

I envision a guardian angel assigned to me at birth, rolling its eyes and grumbling about a future of futile attempts at keeping me safe from myself.  In my dream, he is chasing after me, barely able to keep up until, at last, I pause just shy of running into traffic like an oblivious toddler.  The sight of my breathless angel fuels the game of cat and mouse and I take off once again, confident he will follow.

Last night my dream took on a more serious note in one of those vivid, sweat-inducing dreams that stays with you long after waking.  I was driving distractedly when the road spontaneously disappeared.  My car launched into the air and landed in a river.  After escaping the car, I had an emotionless thought that the car could be replaced, but I was hysterical about the loss of my smart phone – my second brain that contains all my contacts and appointments.

I woke with the feeling that perhaps it’s time to turn over a new leaf.  No more ignoring of warning signals that are trying to protect me.  No more getting irritated at policemen that pull me over for speeding.  I will ‘hear God on the whisper’ so He doesn’t have to yell.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll slow my life down enough so my guardian angel can catch a break.

Make-Believe Manners

When a new friend invited my clan to dinner, I was excited – for five minutes – until I realized how unfit my three meal-time barbarians were for communal dining.

“Listen up!”  I announced in my most authoritative voice at dinner that night.  “This is serious.  We have a dinner invite.  We need work on manners!”

Not sharing my sense of urgency, kids returned their focus to animated banter, interrupting each other with mouths full of food and greasy hands gesticulating their point.  The color drained from my face and panic set in.  What will the neighbors think of us?  Two minutes of this animalistic feeding frenzy and they’ll send us packing with a ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

“That’s it!” I shouted. (Ironically matching their primal behavior.)  “You need to shape up.  Starting right now, you are all enrolled in Manners Boot Camp.”  My voice assumed a  drill sergeant tone.  “I want to see a fork in every hand.  No fingers on food.  Sit up straight.  Close your mouth when you eat…”  The list of instructions was lengthy.

The more I pestered, the worse it got.  Littlest one was paralyzed with confusion and teens indulged in a game of mockery, competing for Most Uncivilized.  “We know this stuff, Mom.  We just don’t do it at home because it doesn’t matter.”  Unconvinced, I soldiered on.

One night, son queried, “Will you be telling the neighbors that we’ve been practicing for a month just to eat at their house?” Not likely. “And neither will you,” I threatened.  “I’d like them to believe you’ve been groomed well since birth.”

As we pulled into the neighbor’s driveway I couldn’t help but give a final review of manners material. A collective symphony roared back at me, “WE KNOW! JUST STOP!”

Nervous smile plastered to face, I ushered my students to the front door where they exchanged cordiality seamlessly. Phase One – check.  Hostess took drink orders and received ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ on cue. Phase Two – check.

Onward rolled the seamless evening with children playing and adults conversing.  Nary a warning glance was needed from Mom.  Dinner passed without incident….until dessert. By that point we had all relaxed enough to let our guard down and didn’t see Tom Foolery sneak in the back door.

I turned my head just in time to catch Prankster son mocking aristocracy with pinkie in air, pursed lips, and feigned British accent raving about the ‘delightful’ meal.  After dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin, he waved it ceremoniously in the air, fanning it out into a single sheet in order to be tucked into his shirt collar as a bib.

Teen daughter snickered, egging him on, and elbowed nine-year old Peach to join in the fun.  Unamused and preoccupied, Peach’s eyes grew wide as she declared with urgency, “I’m going to throw up!”

May Day, May Day!  We’re going down!

I shot a harsh glance at teen daughter which she understood immediately to mean ‘You and your brother regain control NOW!’  Daddy created a conversational diversion while I whisked pale-face off to the nearest bathroom.

“Did we pass?” asked a child when we arrived home.

“By the skin of your teeth.” I replied, and collapsed from exhaustion.

Silly isn’t it? This game of pretend we play.  ‘Look at me, a good mother, with good kids who have manners.’  Hah!  If the ruse could speak it would say something more accurate like, ‘look at me, pretending to have it all together.  Only a fool tries to cover up her family’s flaws. Everyone knows that real connection can only happen when people act as themselves, shortcomings and all.’

Yes, I know this, but press the right button and I am back in the third grade, wanting to be liked, wanting to be invited to the parties, and fearing that I’ll mess up my chances.  Truth is, that very fear is what could sabotage the deal. When we’re afraid to be who we are, afraid that we won’t be accepted, we act different. You know, like in an awkward way. That makes us, you know, like, stumble over our words and stuff.

The day after dinner, hosting friend dropped off our serving bowl with an encouraging note. Had a great time. Would love to have you over again soon.

Excellent.  Just not too soon, I thought.  I need time to recover from the stress of the first dinner.  Maybe next time we’ll try being ourselves and see how that goes.  How bad could it be?

Is This Goodbye?

handsDear Child,

We are standing at a crossroad.  Before us are two choices.  The first would keep us on the familiar path we’ve been travelling.  It’s the one on which we walk together, sometimes stopping to notice a wondrous bug or a rainbow, sometimes jumping in puddles or stomping on shadows.  This path is full of adventure that is meant to be shared and we’ve done just that.   We’ve held hands while skipping, chased each other in a game of tag, and collapsed in a heap at the side of the road laughing ourselves silly.  In everything, we’ve been together.

But now, the road is splitting.  I want to stay the course – the familiar one.  You are drawn to the other road.  You assure me it’ll be fun, an adventure like nothing we’ve seen before.  ‘I’ll go first’ you say, for the road is too narrow to walk side-by-side.  You beg and plead for me to drop your hand.  You’re old enough, you declare, to take the lead.  ‘Let me show you the way,’ you suggest.

You want your wings sooner than I’d like you to fly.  Fear tempts me to clip them in order to keep you close just a little while longer.  I even try to guilt you into spending more time with me – a weak move, I know.  Your earnest face reminds me that love does not hold on.  It trusts in the flow.  Real love is able to let go when it’s time.

I have been your human guardian this many years.  Now the time has come to trust the work I’ve done and to let you go on ahead.  It’s time you had your own experiences without being weighed down by my presence.  I will not be your ball and chain.  I will not stifle you.  But I may cry a bit trying to keep these promises.

We used to play that game, remember?  The one where you said, ‘I love you, Mom.’ And I’d reply, ‘I love you more.’  We’d debate back and forth trying to prove who loved whom more.  It was always a stalemate.  You’ve stopped playing that game with me, which makes me think that maybe I do win – that I do love you more than you love me.  Well, even if it’s not true, it feels that way when you barely glance in my direction or refuse to answer my questions with anything other than grunts and groans.  Deep down, beneath my insecurity, I know this is simply the way of it.  The natural evolution.  And you do love me, more than you’re willing to admit aloud.

This is an opportunity to be the kind of mother I can be proud of.  It takes all I have to shut down my protective instincts and loosen my grip on your precious hand.  I know that the moment I let go, you will slip away.

Perhaps you’ll return once in a while to check in.  If I leave the door open, you can pop in from time to time and share a story or two about your new adventure.  I’ll be here, following behind you a pace or two, in case you need me.  I’d follow you anywhere, my child.

Go then, quickly, before I change my mind.  And take my blessing with you.  May you find all that you need and enough of what you want.  And may you never forget that I love you.  More.

Love,

Mom

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