Monday, May 8, 2006

May, 2006 Cleaning the kitchen

I would be a much more spiritual person if I didn’t need to clean the kitchen.
We belong to two parishes, and both these parishes offer excellent adult education programs on matters of faith. Both offer various types of prayer groups. Sometimes the programs are in the evenings, other times they’re on weekends. They’re offered in all the church seasons of the year.
And Bill and I hardly go to anything.
We haven’t always been like this. In college, I went to just about every spiritual or social justice program Marquette University offered. As young adults, Bill and I attended Theology on Tap religiously. We stayed after church for the Advent and Lenten series. We joined the home-based discussion groups. We were Involved in Our Church.
Now, we go to church on Sunday, and I’m very active in the kids’ school, but we no longer do much in terms of our own continuing spiritual education. And I’m blaming the kitchen. Okay, not just the kitchen. I’ll also blame the laundry and the sticky floor and the school papers that breed and multiply if left alone for more than 12 hours. And I’m blaming the kitchen and laundry and the floor because I don’t want to blame the children.
The truth is that each successive child has made it that much harder to leave for an evening or weekend afternoon. It’s not just a babysitting issue — although that’s part of it. A bigger problem for me, is children make everything take longer. When Bill and I were first married, we could clean up the kitchen after dinner in 10 or 15 minutes. Six o’ clock dinner, with a seven o’clock program at church? No problem.  There were only two plates to clean and a pot to scrub. The floor didn’t even need sweeping. We had two adults to do this tiny bit of work, uninterrupted. That same job, eleven years and three children later, takes three to four times as long. Not only are there more dishes, there’s one fewer adult to do the work, as someone needs to restrain the two-year-old from “helping” too much. The parent left to clean, while having the help of the seven and 11-year-old, is simultaneously cleaning, teaching young boys to clean, and often re-cleaning after the young boys. The floor that didn’t need sweeping after the two-adult dinner, sometimes needs a bulldozer after the two-adult, three-kid dinner. And after spaghetti, the walls near the high chair need to be wiped down or repainted. 
The kitchen-cleaning example can be multiplied by every chore in the house — there’s more laundry, more toys to pick up, more papers to sort — and less time to do everything. And I’m not a person who needs a dust-free, bookshelf alphabetized environment— anyone who has seen my home knows I’m far from being a perfectionist. I don’t go to church programs not because I’m afraid of imperfection in my home— it’s because I’m afraid an hour or two away from it will tilt us into chaos.
And yet, even as I write this, glancing across the hall at the boys’ room, where their drawer is so jammed full of unfolded underwear, it won’t even close, I know I’m talking about something that is and is not an excuse at the same time.
This past Advent, after feeding the family frozen pizza for dinner one night, I actually made it to a women’s night of reflection at church. As I eased myself into the chair, I mentioned to the woman next to me, also a mother, that I was able to “extract myself from my life,” and make it to the program. She nodded in recognition.
Jesus made it pretty clear that one of the requirements of discipleship is a willingness to extract ourselves from our lives. He asked Peter to put down his net and follow him. He told Martha to stop worrying so much about preparing the meal, and sit down and talk with him. Jesus expected different things of both of these people, and I think he bases his expectations partly on where they were in their lives. I’m aware that at this point in my life, God isn’t asking me to completely stop my work and go to a meaningful church program each evening. God is the one, after all, who saw fit to lend me these three children to look after during my stay here — and that includes the spaghetti flinger.
But I think God is asking me to do more than I am doing. Bill and I have both noticed that while we had more time to give to spirituality in our twenties, a little time of grace and reflection goes a longer way now that we’re in our thirties. It’s almost as if God recognizes that we have so little free time and rushes to meet us where we are. Jesus, in fact, wasn’t asking Martha to stop working for the rest of her life — but rather just  to give him a little time for that evening.

For me, the challenge is in recognizing when Jesus is at my door— in hearing him tell me to put down my work. The challenge is finding a balance between entering into the pace of life with three children, and extracting myself from that life. The challenge is giving God that opportunity to rush to meet me.

Saturday, May 6, 2006

May, 2006: Silence those tounges

This past Sunday, two-year-old Jamie seemed especially calm during Mass. I don’t know if it was the Superman fruit snacks I brought along or her newfound ability to draw circles, but I found myself able to attend to the liturgy in a way I haven’t in awhile. And, very oddly for me, what jumped out was the Psalm response.
            I know I’m not supposed to play favorites with parts of the Mass, but I do. I most look forward to the homily and a good one will stick with me for a week or more. My husband and I still talk about several excellent homilies that are now years in the past. Besides the homily, the Eucharist, the Gospel, the Sign of Peace, the second reading and songs — probably in that order—tend to speak to me the most at Mass.  Too often, I regard the first reading, Psalm response, and various other beautiful prayers as transitional parts of the Mass that propel me toward my more favorite parts. Most Sundays, if you would ask me what the Psalm was, I’d probably stare at you blankly. But this past Sunday, Psalm 137 leapt out at me. “Let my tongue be silent, O Lord my God, if I should ever forget about you.”
            To me, that Psalm is laden with meaning, on so many levels. The first thing that came to mind as I sang the words was the difference between my husband and me. Bill is a quiet person. While not shy, he will never be the one to dominate a conversation or a meeting. I’ve never heard him interrupt someone he was speaking to. He is careful about what he says and what he doesn’t say. “You rarely get in trouble for what you don’t say,” he observed once. “The more you talk, the more likely you’re going to say something you regret.”
            I, on the other hand, am a talker. I will talk anywhere, and with anyone. I hope I am a good listener, too, but I know no one would describe me as quiet. I love the spoken word just as I love the written word. I have yet to meet a form of communication I don’t like. E-mail, phone calls, letters, cards, talking while doing sports or doing dishes, chatting at a bar or at a church potluck. I love it all. And perhaps that is why this Psalm struck me so. “Let my tongue be silent O Lord, my God, if I should ever forget about you.” In those words is an admonition for those of us who have the gift of the gab: be careful what you talk about.
I once read that there are three levels of conversation — the lowest level is having a conversation about things, the middle level is having a conversation about people and the highest form of communication is talking about ideas. The Psalm reminds us that if a spirit of the holy doesn’t underline that which we talk about, we have no business chatting at all. This doesn’t mean that we must always speak of lofty ideas— much of life involves talking about when the brake pads should be changed—but our conversation should not lead us away from what is good.
            The other reason the Psalm struck me was because of something I’ve been saying to my boys lately. I have little patience for them being critical of each other, tattling on each other or complaining about what I made for dinner. My catch phrase as of late has been, “If it’s not positive or neutral, don’t say it at all.” After explaining what neutral meant to Liam, I’ve had a lot of success with this phrase. I use it to cut off conversations before they even begin. A boy glances at his broccoli with a look of horror. “If it’s not positive or neutral, don’t say it,” I will tell him, taking a bite of my own broccoli. When one of them comes in from outside with a look of rage because of a foul on the basketball court or a bad pass in football, I use the phrase before he can say anything. “If it’s not positive or neutral….”
            The phrase doesn’t always work , but I have found it cuts down on negative comments. Hearing the Psalmist say the same thing to ancient Israel that I say in my 2006 kitchen is reassuring to me as a parent. My advice for my boys is thousands of years old. It is so sage that it is in the Bible. Maybe not the exact words, but the idea.
            Finally, the Psalm strikes me as a perfect beginning to any meeting. Most meetings I go to (other than those at work)  begin with prayer. To say, “Let my tongue be silent O Lord my God, if I should ever forget about you,” is the most powerful way to begin a meeting that I can think of. It is a prayer that invites God to help us speak, and it is a prayer for the courage to be silent.
            As a talker, married to a quiet guy, with two talkers and one quiet guy as children, I’m holding onto this phrase. I think it speaks to all of five of us. The quiet among us understand its wisdom intuitively. We chatters need more reminders. “Let my tongue be silent O Lord, my God, if I should ever forget about you.”

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