Saturday, December 22, 2007

December, 2007: My daughter, the Virgin Mary

I am living with the Virgin Mary.
            Mary, in case you were wondering, is three feet tall with tangled ringlets pulled back into a ponytail, tied with a bow. Unlike traditional portraits that show her in blue, my Mary tends to wear her St. Monica uniform jumper, which is red plaid.  On weekends, though, little Mary has a more relaxed look, with jeans and a t-shirt. While for centuries Mary has been known for her serene, patient smile, my experience is that she is alternately sweet and sassy, and we are working on curbing her bossiness. Most importantly, though — and this is what makes her Mary — is that she rarely, if ever, is without baby Jesus.
            My daughter Jamie, 4, announced she was Mary last week after her kindergarten Christmas program. Her K4 class had sung Mary Rock Your Baby, My Lord, and all the little girls in the class were given baby dolls to hold and rock during the song. Jamie came home from the program, picked up her own doll, told me it was Jesus, and has been in character for four days straight. This has made my Advent.
            Jesus’ manger is a light blue plastic rectangular laundry basket. Jamie lined the basket with every baby blanket in our house and drags her manger around behind her, baby Jesus wrapped snugly inside. Anyone who comes to the house is invited to visit the manger.
            “This is Jesus,” she told her older brother’s friend Mac, as he watched the Packers game at our house Sunday. Mac, who is 12, and has no little sister at home, didn’t quite know how to respond, but being the polite kid he is, he nodded, reached into the laundry basket and patted Jesus on the head.
            Jamie believes “Bethel” is a verb, and uses it as such. “I will Bethel him, Mom. Don’t worry baby Jesus, it won’t hurt when I Bethel you.”
            This morning, while I was working on the computer, Jamie tapped me on the elbow. “Baby Jesus needs a bottle,” she said. “Will you Bethel him while I go get it?” I glanced at baby Jesus lying in his laundry basket manger in the hall.
            “What exactly does ‘Bethel’ mean, Jamie?
            “I’m Mary, not Jamie,” she corrected. “You just carry him. That’s how you Bethel-him.”
            I picked up Jesus and brought him into the office. Jamie nodded, satisfied and went to get his bottle.
            Baby Jesus comes with us everywhere. At the post office, Jamie had the good fortune of having the woman in front of us ask her what her doll’s name was.
            Jamie told her. I’ve never seen so many people smiling in line at the post office. Jamie sang him Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on the way home in the van.  As she sang, I decided that there was no reason the star of royal beauty bright couldn’t also twinkle.
            There are some theological inaccuracies to Jamie’s days with her little Savior. For one, Jesus’ gender is relatively fluid. Some days, he’s a boy, but when Jamie wants to put a dress on her baby, Jesus simply becomes a girl. This agitates Liam, 9, who has no problem with Jesus sleeping in a laundry basket, eating plastic food or being brought out in the cold with no jacket (or even swaddling clothes). Hearing a feminine pronoun applied to Jesus puts him over the edge, though.
            “Jamie called Jesus ‘she’ again,” Liam hissed to me before dinner yesterday. I looked at him. It was clear he thought his sister was being heretical. Long college discussions about why we should use inclusive language swirled in my mind. I had no response for Liam.
            “Jesus is a girl,” Jamie bellowed from the next room. “You can see that she’s wearing a pink bonnet!”
             Another moment I couldn’t bring myself to correct occurred one evening, when Jamie curled up with baby Jesus and told him that soon, when he got a little older, he would be adopted. Jamie, who was adopted out of foster care at 20 months, thinks that adoption must be the high point of every toddler’s life. What could I say? Even if I could have broken the news to Jamie that Mary didn’t adopt Jesus, how would I explain why Joseph is called the foster father?
            While Jamie has mastered the main points of the Nativity story, some of the subtleties still elude her. While holding Jesus and talking to him yesterday, she tried to explain the story to him.
            “And, guess what, baby Jesus. God is your . . .” she paused, unsure. “God is
your. . . special friend. Is that right, Mom?”
            “God is Jesus’ Father,” I said.
            Jamie’s eyes widened at this news.
            “Jesus!” she squealed, holding the baby up so she could look right into his eyes. “God is your Daddy! Yes, that’s right, honey, God is your Daddy!”

            Jesus looked pleased.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September, 2007: Coaching cross country

I am now a cross-country coach. Three times a week, I run three miles with 21 St. Monica middle-schoolers. We run up hills, around trees and through the wooded paths of local parks. I had run cross country competitively in high school and college, but a serious injury to my ankle in the middle of college left me unable to run with any kind of speed. While I used to live and breathe competitive running, the injury relegated me to recreational running on the streets around our house, and in the fifteen years since college, I hadn’t thought too much about cross country.
            But now, thanks to Jacob, who likes to run and needed a coach for his team, I’m back in the cross-country world. This time, though, I’m looking at the sport from the perspective of adult and coach, rather than adolescent and competitor, and I have found that I’m startled by what I see. While Robert Fulgrum boiled his life lessons down to a kindergarten classroom, I am discovering something similar: Everything I needed to know, I learned on a cross-country course.
            Cross-country taught me that in life, very few people are the best in their field. Beating everyone else is actually quite rare. Unlike most sports, a cross country meet doesn’t end with one winner and one loser. Most meets have ten or more teams, with as many as a hundred or more runners in a race. At the start of the race, there are usually fewer than five runners who have a shot at winning the whole thing. With so many competitors without a chance of winning, success in cross-country is defined differently than it is in other sports. To succeed in cross- country is to beat your own best time. I remember once, as a new (and slow) high school runner, my coach being more excited about the minute I chopped off my time than he was about the varsity boy who came in third. Cross-country taught me to compete against myself—to not worry too much about the line of runners either in front of or behind me. They had their races to run, I had mine, and we came to the starting line with different abilities and goals.
            Cross-country taught me not to be afraid of pain. Running fast for a short distance is fun. Running fast for a long distance is counter-intuitive. The body sometimes screams to stop. But cross-country requires runners to meet the pain head-on. Runners learn how to embrace pain and how enter into it. Cross-country taught me no worthwhile goal is met without some pain.
While pain in cross country is physical, I believe that my years running in the rain, in below-zero temperatures, and sometimes even while sick, allowed me to transfer the embrace of physical pain to the embrace of emotional pain when I’ve needed to. Three times my husband and I have had to give back foster children we had come to love. Looking back on those experiences, I recognize that in my pain, I nevertheless found a rhythm. I somehow found my place within the pain — to hurt in the last quarter of a race is to honor the first part of a race well run. Likewise, the hurt Bill and I felt in giving back our foster children honored the love and good times our family had with those children.
            Cross-country taught me I won’t always have a fan base. High school and college kids do not flock to cross country meets as they do to football games. The most important parts of a race often happen in the middle of the woods, where there may not be any spectators. Cross-country taught me about doing your best when no one is watching, because even if no one else knows you slowed down, you know it.
            Cross-country taught me that there are uphills and downhills and you rarely have one without the other. It taught me that there’s a time to work hard and a time to coast and use gravity. Cross-country taught me about faith. Most of the time, you’re running along not able to see the finish line and you just have to believe that it’s there; that at some point, you’ll be able to see it.
Cross-country taught me that if you fall in the mud or slip in a stream, it’s really not such a big deal, because the race is long enough to allow for a mistake or two.  Cross-country taught me that while a strong start and a sprinting finish are helpful, more crucial is running hard for much longer middle portion of the race.
Most importantly, cross-country taught me about commitment. In the bang of the starter’s pistol are a hundred runners’ unspoken promises to finish the race.
            I doubt that the middle-schoolers I coach will see their cross country races as any sort of metaphor for life. I didn’t see the connection myself until I stepped away. The ten- to fourteen-year-olds I coach will be thinking that all they’re learning is how to run uphill, how to make it through a side ache, how to slice a few seconds off their personal record. They’ll be thinking that all they’re learning on the cross-country course is how to run a little faster each week.

That’s what I thought, too.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

June, 2007: Getting rid of Tags

Liam has never liked tags. From toddlerhood on, I have been snipping off the labels of his clothing. Carter’s, size 3T; Healthtex, size 5; Gap, size 8 — they all end up in the trash basket.
When Liam first started asking to have his labels cut off, I resisted.
“Itchy!” he would say, his pudgy hand pulling on the back of his shirt. “Make go away!” But I hesitated. How would I know what size the clothes were, without labels? What about the friends to whom I passed the clothes when Liam outgrew them? They would have no idea of the brand or the size.
“It’s not so bad,” I tried to explain to two-year-old Liam. “You’ll get used to it.”
But Liam held firm, and eventually I cut the labels off — as much to curtail the whining as to stop the itching.
In the past six months, Liam’s demands for tag-cutting have slowed, but I’m thinking about labels once again. I’m noticing that within the Catholic Church, people are labeling themselves.
“I’m an orthodox Catholic,” a new acquaintance recently told me.
“That parish is known to be really liberal,” another friend explained.
“I’ve heard that parish is more conservative than Rome.”
“I’m a progressive Catholic.”
“They’re cafeteria Catholics. They take what they like and leave the rest.”
Interestingly, Jacob’s godmother would classify herself as a progressive or liberal Catholic, while Liam’s godmother would shudder at that label— and would say she leans conservative. And I would trust both these women with my sons’ lives —  both physically and spiritually.
From where I sit, with close friends on all points of the Catholic spectrum, I see a lot of Catholic beauty, manifested in different ways. Conservative or orthodox Catholics really know their Church. They have an incredible appreciation of the sacraments. I know one mother of four who takes all the kids to Reconciliation weekly. “It’s so good for all of us,” she says. These Catholics understand the value in Eucharistic Adoration — of sitting or kneeling quietly in the Real Presence of Jesus. Most families who consider themselves orthodox Catholics have taken the brave step of raising children outside of mainstream American culture. These Catholics tend to look for — and find — other families with similar values. They build community with these other families through home schooling or potluck get-togethers. While their kids may not be able to sing even one lyric of a pop song, many would have no problem rattling off the mysteries of the Rosary. I love that.
The Catholics I know who would consider themselves liberal or progressive are all about living the Gospel. They show up at meal programs with their kids, ready to serve. They take Catholic social teaching to heart and will often be found at voter registration drives, in prison ministry and building houses with Habitat for Humanity. Like their orthodox sisters and brothers, these Catholics also are raising children outside of the mainstream. They have kids who not only know the lyrics to a U2 song, but could also explain to you why Bono is lobbying for African AIDS funding and debt relief. The progressive Catholics I know bristle at the term “Cafeteria Catholic.” While they may not be in lockstep with Rome on every issue, they take seriously the Church’s teaching on primacy of conscience and look to Jesus’ example of not allowing religious tradition to stand in the way of what God requires. In their presence, you can feel the passion of the Holy Spirit. I love that.
But while I love these people, I dislike the labels. To me, the label “orthodox Catholic” implies that the person with the label is somehow “more Catholic” than the person in next pew. Orthodox Catholics might argue that they more closely follow “all” the teachings of the Church, but who among us can judge how we’re following the teachings compared to our neighbor? Perhaps an orthodox couple follows Pope Paul VI’s teaching on not using artificial means of birth control, but struggles with the teaching by Pope John XXIII on doing their part to work for economic justice. Perhaps an “orthodox” Catholic is so focused on political issues surrounding protection of the unborn that he or she misses other issues that are equally “Catholic”— issues surrounding education, poverty and immigration where the church’s stance is similarly unequivocal.
The label “progressive” can be just as divisive. While “orthodox” implies that perhaps others don’t follow the rules, “progressive” implies that the Catholic in the next pew may not be progressing at all. “Progressive” suggests that others are staying static or even going backward and too often includes a disdain for the traditional. Progressive Catholics are sometimes smug in their certainty that they are correct — that they’ve figured out where the church needs to go in the future. Quick to serve the poor and work for justice, they can be reluctant to slow down enough for the church traditions and sacraments that may give them the nourishment they need to do their work even better.
The problem with the labels is that they make it too easy for us to dismiss a whole category of people. When it comes down to it, while each of us may lean a bit more to one side or the other, we’re all muddling through life, as best we can, trying to follow the teachings of Jesus. There is so much we can learn from one another. How about a rosary in the car, on the way to the meal program? Twenty minutes of Eucharistic Adoration before a rally for better educational opportunities for the poor? Stopping for the Sacrament of Reconcilation on Monday, then helping with a job-training program on Tuesday. Certainly, there are those among us who do all these things. There are those among us who live out so many aspects of what it means to be Catholic that they are hard to categorize. Orthodox, conservative, progressive, liberal — no label really fits right now.

 Later, though, we’ll call them saints.

Friday, May 11, 2007

May, 2007: I'm dating again

I’m dating again. A quick evening out to get ice cream. A bike ride through the park. Loosely held hands and affectionate glances. I’m not exclusive with any of the four people I date, and that’s what makes it exciting and fresh each time. What does my husband of 13 years say about my dating? He’s very supportive. Mostly, because he’s dating, too.
Bill and I have started a new tradition of scheduling dates with our children and each other. Like most good ideas, this one was born out of frustration. A few months ago, when we had our foster daughter living with us in addition to our own three children, we noticed that while we did a lot together as a family, sometimes we’d come home from an excursion tired and cranky. Jacob, 12 couldn’t tell us anything without Jamie, three, interrupting. Liam, eight, sometimes felt that it was hard to get through a few sentences without Jacob (the fact checker) clarifying his story for him. In addition, something about being strapped into their car seats inspired Jamie and our foster daughter, both preschoolers, to sing endless rounds of Old MacDonald.
One night, after an especially tiresome ride home (here an oink, there an oink, everywhere an oink, oink), Bill strode over to the family dry-erase calendar and started writing.
“What are you doing?” I asked with alarm. Our calendar was already too full.
“I’m writing down dates with the kids,” Bill said. “I’m afraid that otherwise, we’ll never get to talk to them.”
It was a bad idea, I thought. We could barely get the kids to the events we had already committed to — school, soccer, baseball, piano, swimming lessons — how could we add any more? 
My first date was scheduled for the following night, with Liam. It had been an extremely busy day at work. I was exhausted, and if truth be told, I was hoping that perhaps Liam wouldn’t notice his name on the calendar and Bill would forget about the new plan.
“I’ll clean the kitchen, you go on your date,” Bill said, after dinner. I paused and looked at him. I hadn’t realized dating excused a parent from kitchen duty. Perhaps this was a good idea, after all. 
I had received a laptop computer from work that day and Liam and I decided that he would be the first person in our family to try it with WiFi. We went to a local coffee shop and as Liam slurped his frothy drink, I sipped a decaf and together, we figured out how to connect with the shop’s wireless system so he could play an online game. As he played, he explained the game to me, and allowed me to try it, too. After a few rounds, we put the computer away and Liam told me what he was learning about volcanoes in school. Since our family fact checker wasn’t there, I couldn’t be certain that Liam had it absolutely right, but everything sounded reasonable, and it was far more than I knew about volcanoes before the date.
We both came home happy, and the kitchen was clean.
In the months that have followed that first date, the kids have come to anticipate when their dates are and make sure the date happens, even if the day is already packed with activities. Probably because we’re not a family prone to a lot of treats out, our kids are satisfied with pretty simple dates. Liam has clarified that for him, a date must involve “a special kind of food or drink,” but Jacob allows foodless dates. One of Jacob’s  favorites was when he and I went to a sporting goods store to buy the cleats he needed for baseball. Normally, an errand like that would be done with Jamie or Liam in tow. Turning it into a date, though, made it a time to talk to Jacob about baseball. I got to see his thought process as he tried on different sizes and styles of cleats. If Jamie had been with us, Jacob would have been trying on the shoes alone, and I’d have been chasing after her, rather than talking to him.
Dates can happen at home, too, we’ve determined, as long as there are no other family members in the room. Bill woke Liam up early one morning for a pancake breakfast date before school. Once, when we didn’t have time to get a babysitter for our date, Bill brought home Chinese food and he and I had the date in the dining room. The kids, having been on many dates by that point, understood what it was all about and played in another room without interrupting. “Mommy and Daddy are having a date,” I heard Jamie telling her doll, “so you’ll have to wait to talk to them.”
Newly acquainted couples naturally understand the value of time spent alone together, talking. We would question the seriousness of a couple who only spent time together while in a group. How can you really know each other if you’re never alone together? We would ask. But the same is true with relationships in a family, I believe. How can we truly know each of our children if we don’t spend time with each apart from the others? Jamie is a different person when she is allowed to be “Just Jamie” alone with Bill or me, and not “Jamie, the little sister” when she’s with her brothers.   Similarly, I am a different mom when I am — if only for a half hour--  the mom of just one child, not of three. I have a better sense of humor alone with one child. For once, I’m not a disciplinarian or a referee. I’m Mom, the companion, not Mom, the director. It’s a side of myself I’m happy to see — a side I suspected was there.

Thanks to my husband, I’m back in the dating scene. I’m enjoying the ice cream, the rides in the park and the excitement of learning new things about these people I love.