Friday, August 26, 2005
Personally, I am also a little relieved that he won't be riding the school bus. On the two mornings he went to public school, he returned to inform me that two little girls had kissed him. On the bus. (Older women, no doubt -- second grade or so.) I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet -- and take comfort that this kind of thing won't be encouraged at his new school.
He wasn't thrilled at the prospect of having to start a new school twice in the same week, but all apprehension vanished as soon as he saw his teacher: tall, blonde, pretty, and gentle. He forgot to be mad that he wasn't in the class with the dinosaurs (the other K class makes a papier mache replica at the end of each year), and threw his arms around his new teacher's teeny-tiny little waist. "I like you!" he declared.
She giggled, delighted. "I like you, too!" she replied. And in that moment, I liked her as well.
So I'll have to drive carpool for the next eight years. It's worth a little peace of mind.
Monday, August 22, 2005
The next day, my family makes themselves scarce as I set the table and, at the strike of two, light the Advent wreath. The doorbell rings, and my heart skips a beat: decade-old friendships are about to renew themselves. The five of us seldom gather more than twice a year (we celebrate birthdays together each summer over Tex-Mex); however, these gatherings are a priority. Praying, talking, eating, laughing… as the chapters of our lives turn from one page to the next, we have supported one another in good times and bad, and especially in times of waiting.
Katy is first; this year she brings fruit salad. The tenth of thirteen siblings, she is the anchor of our group, the one who always shows up for any crisis to tend to practical needs – painting a nursery, tending a sick person, and remembering an anniversary. This year she and her husband have another exchange student, a boy from Germany.
Denise is next, bearing her signature baklava. Many single women would hesitate to take on her financial and emotional commitments: She has adopted a girl from Ukraine and a boy from Kazakhstan. Though she has never been pregnant, she knows the joyful, anxious waiting that accompanies a familial addition. I admire her courage, and her determination not to put her life on hold until she finds a spouse.
Lilian, a nutritionist, arrives with a savory salsa dip and pictures of the son she and her husband adopted from Guatemala. This year there are also photos the girl they will soon retrieve from another Guatemalan foster home.
Patty’s specialty is muffins. “How can I pray for you guys?” she wants to know. A veteran
auntie and accomplished flautist, Patty recently moved into a new home with her little dog, Buddy. Her solitude is a mixed blessing; the burdens she carries are real, but so is her faith. Hers is a life invested in other people.
This year we celebrate because my waiting is over. After three long years, the adoption for our foster children has been finalized, and we have the piece of paper that affirms what we have always known: We are truly a family. I pass around pictures from the baptism and talk about my studies at the seminary, which have slowed considerably since the children arrived. But that’s OK, too… as someone once told me, “Anticipation is often the greater part of pleasure.”
The Gift of Waiting
The last crumb disappears, the last drop empties from the teapot, and my friends depart for another year. Favorite teacup in hand, I settle myself to await my family’s return and think about what a blessing I have in the friendships of these four women.
In a sense, a woman’s life is about waiting: In childhood, we wait impatiently to be “all grown up,” to have a measure of freedom from parental constraints. In young adulthood, we wait for the phone to ring… for exam results… for the time we will be truly on our own. Later, we wait for first love, first homes, first children… it never ends. In the name of “liberation” we may strike out on our own and grab what we want by any means necessary. However, the results seldom satisfy, any more than a Christmas gift inspected on the sly increases our enjoyment of it when at last it is opened: The waiting is part of the gift.
When the Waiting Hurts
At times the waiting is anxious, even painful. About a year ago we hit a snag in our adoption process: Relatives of the birth parents expressed interest in adopting our children, who had been with us two years, since the baby was six months old. Outwardly I tried to remain calm; inside I was in turmoil. We were at the mercy of the state, without recourse if they decided to take these precious children from us.
The wait became even more intolerable when my sister-in-law – the only member of my husband’s family who was consistently kind and supportive of our decision to be foster parents – announced her decision to move to Arizona. The closest members of my own family live hundreds of miles away; I had never felt more alone.
Barbara’s impending departure caused something to snap inside me. For about a week my husband watched helplessly as I paced the floor day and night, bursting into tears for no apparent reason. Finally, I sat down at my computer and typed a note to “the Girls,” confessing that while I did not feel up to seeing them, I wanted them to know what I was going through.
Less than a day passed before each of them found a way to remind me of their love and prayers. One of them bravely ignored my “no visitors” directive, and came – not to rescue me, but to wait with me. Later, my sister called and convinced me to go and see my doctor: She recognized the depression symptoms, and knew what it would take to get back on track. Within a few weeks, my mood lifted.
Later, I worked up nerve to ask my mother if she had ever felt as overwhelmed with life as I was feeling just then. “Oh, when I get down I just sing hymns until I feel better,” she shrugged. Having lived with her for the first eighteen years of my life, this facile response was dissatisfying. Although maintaining our spiritual connection with God is important, I had learned that stubborn isolation and manufactured cheer does more harm than good. Like Peter sinking in the water, each of us needs a hand up at times.
In times of adversity, women are in some ways stronger than men. God gives us inner strength to wait not with passive resignation but with confidence in his goodness. He gives us intuition that helps us to nurture those who need our care, body and soul. God enables us to sense him at work even in the darkness, and gives us the ability to persevere and to intercede even when a task is thankless or an intention seems hopeless.
However, my encounter with depression taught me that there are times when these hidden, womanly spiritual gifts are meant to operate not in solitude, but within the context of community. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” St. Paul tells us (Galatians 6:2).
When Waiting Heals
My little circle of friends supports one another in our struggles: the oppression of abortion or devastation of miscarriage, the shame of childhood abuse, the dissolution of a relationship, the death of a family member, the struggles of married life. When a need surfaces, we instinctively draw a circle of love around it, tending not just to the symptoms but to the whole person.
- First we tend to bodily needs: the jar of soup at the door, a painted nursery, an hour of babysitting so Mom can nap, or sheer presence when it is needed most – be it a wedding or a wake.
- Next we support her soul – intellect and will, memories and emotions: a helpful book, a listening ear, a practical suggestion for an unresolved dilemma, conversation that moves from the trivial to the issues closest to the heart.
- Finally, we care for her spirit: a commitment to pray for specific intentions, and to ask the hard questions when her life veers off-course. As single women, we would find each other at Mass, increasing our sense of solidarity as together we drew close to the heart of God through the sacraments. Another time, a friend’s courageous question drove me to a confessional prior as I prepared to marry. Because of her, I received the best wedding gift of all: healing from the past, and a clear slate for the future.
A Gift of Spiritual Friendship
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel…” In a few weeks we will celebrate this most precious of all gifts: God as one of us. Through Mary’s faith-filled assent, the eternal Word of God fulfilled centuries of promise, coming to reconcile all of humankind with our Creator. This Advent season of joyful expectation, do you find yourself waiting physically or emotionally alone? Are you struggling to find peace, or healing from an old wound? Are you getting so caught up in the needs and wants of others that you neglect your own? Remember the Blessed Virgin who, upon hearing of the task entrusted to her, did the most natural thing in the world… She set off to share her news with a kindred spirit who would listen with faith and understanding. In good news and bad, we all need this kind of spiritual friendship. What can you do this Advent season to renew – or even initiate – one of your own?
Monday, June 06, 2005
We have deliberately kept the children uninformed about the delays and aggravation that we have experienced in this process, not wanting them to worry or feel insecure in their relationship with us. Instead we made the date of their baptisms the day that we celebrated the adoption. They seem to understand on some basic level that things have been settled.
No sooner had Father Dave finished pouring water on Christopher's head, he threw his head back (sprinkling everyone behind him in the process) and crowed, "I'm BAPTISED now!" His face positively lit up... and a few days later I heard him tell a classmate, "I got baptized, and now I don't get bad dreams anymore -- they all got washed away!"
I held Sarah in my arms when it was her turn for the water. I had practiced sprinking her for several weeks, so she got used to it. I could hear some family members (who shall remain nameless) laying odds as to whether she was going to burst into tears. Indeed, the storm clouds seem to gether in a little knot on her forehead when the first drops hit. But I held her closer and looked into her chocolate-brown eyes and whispered, "Sarah, today is your baptism day, your birthday in God's family, and in ours!" The clouds dissipated immediately, and her face broke into a cherubic smile.
I wish I could say their behavior changed drastically after the rite was completed, that somehow the moodiness and streaking stopped on the spot. But I still have to chase Sarah around the house to get her reclothed several times a day, and Christopher still has unexpected bouts of anger and sadness that not even a long cuddle session with Mom and a popsicle will fix instantly. But they are growing up quickly, and I've decided to entrust the process to God, and do what I can to help them make good choices every day, until they become habit.
Dear birth parents, this weekend you were often on my mind. I remember (painfully) the day one of the social workers came out of the family visiting area to find twelve-month-old Sarah playing on my lap. "I can't believe that woman had that fourth baby after all she had to deal with with the first three."
Instinctively I pulled Sarah a little closer and covered her head with her lovey, trying to keep the harsh message out. "If not for this fourth baby," I retorted, "her older siblings might not have a home today." It was true... when the antics and misbehaviors of her two older siblings got to me, it was only the prospect of losing Sarah that helped me gut it out. And so I am grateful to you, birth parents, for having the courage to give our children the best gift of all: life.
Monday, May 02, 2005
When God makes parents
He places a special hole in their hearts.
One place for each child He wants to send.
Sometimes that child grows out of love,
safe and warm under his mother’s heart
until he is ready to meet the world.
But sometimes God sees two people
With holey hearts and empty arms,
And says, “Hey! Let’s make a family!”
So the angels spread out, searching high and low,
and east and west, for just the right children.
Then tenderly, carefully they guide them home.
These children have two real mothers:
One carried them in her body, one carries them in her heart.
They have two real fathers, too: one gave them life,
And one teaches them how to live.
Christopher and Sarah,
Since the day your angels led you to us,
We have waited and waited to call you our own.
Now our hearts are full, and our arms are, too.
Thank you, God, for our “forever family.”
Monday, April 25, 2005
But then, poor dear had had a busy weekend. Both kids had cherubic (albeit schmutzy) smiles, and he looked as though he had not slept in the last 48 hours. So I just smiled and gave him a hug.
It's a good thing I don't go away more often.
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
This Easter is especially poignant with the passing of our dear Holy Father. I've already spilled enough virtual ink on that subject, so I'll spare you a recap here. (If you haven't read the reflection, and would like to, go to my saintscholasticasociety blog.)
No, today is about the little monsters. We took them to Walt Disney World this year, for what I had hoped would be our first "real" family vacation after the adoption was finalized. Unfortunately, the state did not cooperate... They are still dragging their feet on the paperwork. We took the vacation anyway, and tried to ignore the fact that it rained buckets two out of the three days we visited the Mouse.
Of course, rain isn't a bad thing, not at WDW. If you go prepared, it means shorter lines and less waiting. Just bring your poncho, grab a cup of hot chocolate or a pretzel, and do a little people watching -- or keep going (lots of the rides have covered waiting queues). Oh, and be sure to have a complete change of clothes waiting for you in your backpack, locker, or car. Have fun!
In life (as at WDW), much of your experience is about attitude. It's choosing to find joy, instead of dwelling on the rainy bits. It's like the old hymn says...
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Traditionally, Lent is the forty days before Easter when we contemplate God's goodness, and His unfathomable sacrifice: Not only did he come to earth and walk among us; he died in the most gruesome and painful way possible, in full payment for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world.
Explaining this to a three-year-old, however, can be a bit tricky. As we were on our way out of church the other day, Sarah pointed to the life-size crucifix that adorns the "cry room"/day chapel wall. "Jesus died on the cross?" she said to me, her brown eyes wide and concerned. "Did Jesus cry?"
Now, I'm still a novice parent, but even I knew this was not the time to delve into the gory details of a crucifixion. "Jesus cries when we do bad things. That's because when we sin we get dirty inside, and God can't be with us the way he wants to. God can't live in a dirty house."
"Yes, Jesus died. First he came to earth to show us how to get close to God again. Then he died for our sins, so one day we can live forever with God."
Miraculously, this seemed to satisfy Sarah.
Today, five-year-old Christopher wanted to know why we had to go to church in the middle of the week. "Today is the first day of Lent," I explained. "We do things during Lent that we don't do at other times of the year. For example, we might give up something we really like, to thank Jesus for giving up his life for us. We might do something for someone else, to share God's love with him or her. Tonight we will go to the church, and the priest will put a dot of ashes on our foreheads."
"Ashes are like a bit of dirt, and they remind us of how sin makes us dirty -- but we are made clean because of Jesus' sacrifice, through the sacraments."
What I did not tell Christopher was that Lent is also a time for a self-check, to see how far we've progressed on the road to holiness. To be honest, I still have more than a few significant "speed bumps."
So this Lent, I resolve...
To turn off the television, especially during the day when I like to have it on for "noise." Instead, I will practice the art of silence.
To simplify my world, a la "Fly Lady," by sorting through my house until everything we use has a place, and everything else is sold, given, tossed, or stored away.
To walk a little, every day.
To whisper every time I am tempted to yell. (Christopher's counsellor assures me that it will be easier to communicate with my kids when I am the calmest and slowest-speaking person in the room.)
To pray each night with my family.
A tall order, I know. Talk about a "virtual makeover"! I'll keep you posted.
Saturday, February 05, 2005
Like most people without children, I assumed that training a toddler to sit through Mass would be a snap. In reality, the idea is more like fool’s gold: glittering with promise, but without any real grounding in reality. If our children are our visas to heaven, that particular stamp in the passport must be worth more than a few weeks of humiliation. That thought got me through a few rough weeks, until another epiphany hit: I am more like my children than I care to admit.
Christopher and his sister Sarah had been living with us about a week when we took them to church for the first time. Six-month-old Sarah spent most of the time dozing on Craig’s shoulder. Two-year-old Christopher, however, was clearly out of his element; he clutched my thigh and howled each time I tried to take my place behind the piano. Earlier that week he had lost one foster mother; he was not about to lose another one without a fight. Somehow we got through that Mass, but it was obvious that, at least for a time, the ensemble would have to make a joyful noise without me.
We had heard good things about another parish, one closer our new house, and decided to check it out the following week. Christopher still refused to come within arm’s reach of my husband, the gentle giant. So I suppose it should not have surprised us when we went forward to receive the Eucharist, and Father Will reached out his hand in blessing, that Christopher responded with an emphatic “NO!” and a surprisingly accurate left hook.
“Brat,” I heard someone behind us mutter as we beat a hasty retreat to our pew.
Later, we introduced ourselves to the priest, and explained that our foster son did not yet understand that a man could reach out to him in kindness, rather than anger. Fortunately Father Will has a good sense of humor … which he got to exercise again the following week when Christopher bid the priest good-bye by grabbing his vestments six inches south of the equator, the highest place his two-year-old hands could reach.
Becoming parents – even by proxy – gave us a new perspective on parish life. Gradually we encountered a range of philosophies about “good” Catholic children and their parents, including a plethora of unspoken rules and expectations guaranteed to keep someone scowling at all times. Here are just a few of our favorites.
The “Saintlies.” The Saintlies seem to have extended family (usually very large extended families) in almost every parish in the U.S. During Mass, even the baby sits like a bit of statuary, while the older children have thigh and pectoral muscles like steel bands (from the daily genuflecting and clasping of hands). The youngest knows the Rosary in eight languages; the older ones amuse themselves by diagramming Father’s three-point homilies. Mother is perfectly coiffed and serene, Father golfs with the bishop. The Saintlies are exceedingly nice, and visitors can always find a seat immediately behind or in front of them: “Regulars” tend to avoid the Saintlies, whose perfect deportment make “regular” kids look doubly grubby.
Flighty Gidget and the Messy Marvin Brigade. At the other end of the ecclesial acceptability scale is a family that sits… well, let’s just say very close to our pew. Their three-year-old, the escape artist, once belly-crawled over ten rows of kneelers for a better look at a visiting priest. Big brother Marvin holds the record for Cheerio stacking on the pew in front of him… a record Marvin tries to break each week, with predictable results. (He gives himself extra points when cereal falls inside the collar of whoever occupies that seat.) Mom now puts a Dust Buster and tranquilizer gun in the diaper bag with the sippy cups.
Cry Room Commandos. You would think that the thick layer of glass would pretty well contain the cacophony. And it does – until one of them discovers that beating his plastic Rescue Hero against the glass during prayer time makes grownups turn and look at him with a decidedly un-prayerful expression. Ah, feel the power!
Chattering Charlie. Two-year-old Charlie is at that awkward stage: Old enough to understand the power of the spoken word, but not old enough to get the concept of whispering. Last week Charlie’s mother, who spends more time shushing and distracting her son than praying, told Charlie that his noise would scare all the angels away. He responded by gazing at the ceiling and giving a full-throated dinosaur roar. Charlie shares his mother’s musical ability, as evidenced by the chorus of “Amazing Grapes” he belted out in the middle of Father’s homily a new moments later.
Busy Bees Brigade. It’s understandable that a family of eight might on occasion have difficulty getting out of their coats and into the pew before the first notes of the opening hymn. However, this particular family has not heard the responsorial psalm since the first Bush administration, and subscribes to the theory that children should sit in the very front, where they can see – and be seen. See Mikey hit his brother. See Margie ask to be taken to the bathroom. For the third time. See little Patty, displaced from Mama’s lap by the latest stork-drop, pull her dress over her head and cast herself in the aisle.
Except for a handful of Saintlie clones out there, these true-to-life cherubs make us smile because most of us have been there at one time or another. We have weathered the Cheerios and coloring book phase of parenting, and (with a lot of prayer and just a pinch of luck) are headed for a different set of challenges, as our children embark on that perilous journey of spiritual adolescence, trying to figure out what they really believe, and why.
“Unless you become like a little child…”
My earliest memories involve the inside of a church. In the first thirty years of my life, I belonged to a variety of Protestant denominations (usually as the organist/piano player/choir director), graduated from Bible school, and went on a few short-term missions trips abroad.
The thing is, while my faith “broadened” as I stretched myself to handle each of these challenges, that faith did not grow much deeper. I had given in to a subtle yet all-too-common form of spiritual pride: I thought God wanted me to be more concerned about the souls of those around me than my own spiritual growth.
By the time I realized the true state of things, my spiritual batteries had nearly drained themselves dry. I floundered, a bit shell-shocked, without moorings or compass until, by the mercy of God, I found the peace I craved in the very the last place I ever thought to look: the Catholic Church.
And all I had to do was become a child again.
Take the music, for example. As a Protestant I had been involved in some form of music ministry since age twelve; “Great Hymns of the Faith” was second only to the Bible as my favorite book. So imagine my chagrin when I stepped through the doorway of the Catholic Church, and I didn’t know even one of the hymns they were singing. (And don’t get me started on liturgy settings.)
As a Protestant, I was “fluent” in Scripture. Thanks to the thorough formation I received at home and in church, I knew most Bible stories by heart (complete with songs and hand motions). As a Catholic, I was devastated to find that many Catholic theologians – including most priests I know – believe that the first twelve books of Genesis are better classified as “sacred myth” than “history.” Nothing in four years of Bible school had prepared me for that epiphany. As for the rest of the Old Testament, at Masses they kept reading from books that were nowhere to be found in my super-sized study Bible. Anyway, isn’t “Tobit” one of the Hobbits?
As a Protestant, I ran to the throne of grace several times a day with my laundry list of conveniences and wishes: a parking place, twenty thousand dollars for a missions trip, a miraculous healing for my eighty-two-year-old grandmother. As a Catholic, I came to understand – very slowly, as a child does – that in this world struggle is inevitable. So is sickness and pain. And even death. The redemption is not in how we avoid these things, but in how God equips us for heaven through these experiences.
Raising the Child in Me
And so, I can think back on my “Saintlie” days, and smile ruefully. Even the appearance of spiritual perfection is a lot harder to pull off with two rambunctious preschoolers. Now I simply try, with God’s help, not to give in to spiritual schizophrenia, a common malady among those of us who struggle to “keep up appearances” – even with hearts full of muck and old, self-inflicted scars.
As a child of God – a Catholic child, that is – I found secret liberation: There was no need to keep mending the tatters I’ve torn and muddied with all my sinful blunderings. In the sacraments, God has provided a place where my failings may be remembered and washed away in tears of penitence, my heart can receive the healing balm of absolution, and my soul is called to feast upon the Bread of Angels. Still a long way from perfection, as I linger in His Presence, like a child fresh from the bath, I savor that light sweetness and inwardly resolve to try a little harder to stay clean. Not for me – at least, not entirely. Certainly not to impress others. Simply to please Him.
Released from the false burden of superficial spirituality, I don’t have to flit from church to church like Gidget, or distract myself from reality like Marvin, even if I feel a twinge of discomfort. Discomfort, I’ve discovered, is not always a bad thing: It is impossible to grow by maintaining status quo. If I am offended by something I see or hear, I’ve learned that the solution is not switching churches. God is more concerned about my soul than my fickle sensibilities, and He uses people in my life (often the very ones who rankle me most) to bring to light my own shortcomings. I can shut myself off from my brothers and sisters in Christ, or open up trust them – and Him.
Prayer is the area in which, as a Catholic, I learned the truth of the spiritual principle “less is more.” The staccato supplications and intercessions, with exact specifications on everything God should and should not do before our next daily appointment, are (if not yet totally a thing of the past) fewer and farther between. In my second childhood of faith, I’ve relinquished my inner “Cryroom Commando” and “Chattering Charlie,” and found that letting go of overly dramatic and verbose forms of prayer (at least in public) has enabled me to tap into a deeply satisfying, prayerful silence. Charlie still roars from time to time, but I’m fairly certain I don’t scare the angels anymore.
As for the “Busy Bees…” well, let’s just say I’m a work in progress. Last week I noticed a certain announcement in the bulletin, calling for the fourth time for someone to fill in a needed spot on a church committee. I pointed it out to Craig, wondering idly if I should just do it. My mild-mannered husband sputtered, “Are you kidding me?” He was right. My Bible-teaching, hymn-singing, missions-minded self was overextended – again – in well-intended but ultimately misguided “service.” I was still learning to apply to my heart what my head already knew: God is more concerned about my fidelity to the “inner circle” of my vocation – my husband and family – than that I take on other areas of influence. Now is not the time to branch out; God is calling, “Sink your roots a little deeper.”
Have You Suffered a Child Today?
After corralling my two preschoolers through a typical Sunday Mass, I have a fresh appreciation for what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and do not hinder them, for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Devotion, like holiness, is not passed through the bloodstream, but “caught” gradually, over time.
Oh, sure, I’ve read those “How to tame your little monsters in three Masses or less” articles, but I’ve never believed them. I mean, God designed the family, the domestic church, as the means by which each of its members are sanctified, a process that must be measured in years, not weeks. In a sense, our children are our passports to heaven – and God knows that particular visa is worth more than three weeks’ humiliation.
So, if your particular faith community is one of those that believes nurseries are for wimps and delinquents-in-training, take heart. If the “cry room” is the only place you can get a moment’s peace each week, go ahead and cry. It’s only a matter of time before you can return those lessons in humility – by embarrassing your teenager.
Heidi Hess Saxton is a freelance writer and editor, foster mother and theology student. She and her family reside in Milan, Michigan, and she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.