Sunday, December 7, 2008

December, 2008-- Bring on the Christmas carols

Bring on the Christmas carols.
            Those who know me well may find a disconnect between how I feel about music during December and my relation to it the rest of the year. I’m not a particularly musical person. I don’t play an instrument can’t carry a tune. If alone in the car or at home, I am much more likely to put on National Public Radio than classic rock or contemporary hits. As a kid, I never bought records or tapes, and unlike many of my friends, I didn’t have a poster of Andy Gibbs on my wall in fourth grade. As a young adult, I rarely bought CDs and my apartment as a twenty-something, was one of the few I knew without the ubiquitous CD tower next to the stereo. I’ve downloaded exactly 13 songs off iTunes, and all of them were purchased for the purpose of background music for one of our family slideshows. If I need music downloaded for a party, I put my 13-year-old or husband on the task. It’s not that I dislike music—I love to dance and do have a few favorite bands (U2; Midnight Oil; REM.) It’s just that music isn’t something that I consciously approach on a daily basis-- except during Christmas. During the Advent and Christmas season, I cannot get enough carols. On the radio; on cheesy Christmas CDs; from the Pandora Web site, which figures out what music you like by having you click “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” after a song— I love it all.
            In thinking about why I like Christmas carols so much, what I discovered is that the carols, played during a season that is undeniably a lot of work, tell me what I should be thinking of while I am doing that work. They bring me to a better place. While I know others who get cynical and bitter about all the work of the Christmas season—cleaning, cooking, baking, decorating, entertaining, I can be lulled into a spirit of peacefulness—if not full blown joy—by simply listening to “Away in a Manger” as I peel 24 potatoes for the upcoming family dinner.  Here’s what I take away from some of my favorite carols:
            Little Drummer Boy: If the Drummer boy can play a drum for Jesus and be satisfied with that, I can be happy with what I’m doing, too. Am I a faultless mom? A flawless writer? Are these potatoes going to be the most delicious my guests will ever taste? Certainly not, on all three counts. But by in large, I do my best for Him. I play my life for Him. Pah-rum-pah-pah-pum. “The Little Drummer Boy” reminds me that whatever I offer is enough.
            O Come All Ye Faithful: First, triumphant is an outstanding word. Try saying triumphant without straightening your shoulders a bit-- it’s impossible. Seldom are we invited to the feeling of triumph. It seems a word reserved for winning the Kentucky Derby or medaling in at least three events in the Olympics. Yet this song dares to begin, “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. This song is telling me that I’m welcome to feel joyful and triumphant simply because I’m faithful. I’ll take it. And now I’ll write 17 more Christmas cards even though it’s already 11 p.m.
            Do You Hear What I Hear? It’s the questions in this song that capture me. Whether it’s the Night Wind speaking to the Little Lamb or the Little Lamb asking the Shepherd Boy, everyone’s running his or her observations about that first Christmas past someone else. Regardless of how obvious the miracle is, we still need to ask each other, “Do you see what I see? Do you know what I know?” And this is why faith must involve community.
            What Child is this? I never hear the word “lap” in church. It’s not in the first or second readings, the Psalm response or the Gospel. It’s rarely in the homily. Yet, “lap” is a word I—and every mother I know—uses every day. There’s something about the juxtaposition of  “What child is this, who laid to rest, in Mary’s lap is sleeping,” with the line a few moments later in the song, “This, this is Christ the King.”  Christ the King started his life in a lap. And in some ways, this is the point of the feast of Christmas—to point out just how ordinary and human Jesus’ beginning was.
            An ordinary beginning— a young family not sure exactly what they’re getting into, but understanding God is leading. Angels guiding; stars shining; night wind questioning. And two thousand years later, we’re still singing about it.

            Merry Christmas.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

November, 2008 Cosmic Collisions

            Our family went to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago yesterday and saw the feature Cosmic Collisions. Unlike many planetarium shows, Cosmic Collisions is not a soothing lay-back-and-gaze-at-the-night-sky kind of experience. Instead, Cosmic Collisions grabs visitors and hurls them through time and space to explore the hypersonic impacts that drive the continuing evolution of the Universe. To borrow from the show’s promotional booklet, “This new space show focuses on the full range of collisions, from catastrophic planetary impacts and the merging of massive galaxies to the continual explosions occurring in the center of the Sun and the incessant barrage of small ionized particles in the solar wind ricocheting off Earth’s magnetic field.”
            In other words, it was a show with lots of light, noise and power. I knew my boys would love it; I was less sure of the little girls. What I didn’t expect was the show’s effect on me. The colliding planets, smashing stars and entire galaxies swirling into each other all reminded me of foster care.
            While sitting in my extremely comfortable reclining chair pondering this connection, I did at the same time feel a bit of alarm that I could watch a show whose reach included trillions of stars, billions of years—indeed the enormity of the universe and existence itself—and yet somehow make an analogy so it was all about me. But I put this concern aside because there was nothing I could do about it and I also had to keep an eye on five-year-old Jamie who was whimpering next to me each time a collision seemed imminent.
            “Look! Fireworks!” I whispered in a fake, happy voice as an asteroid seven miles wide crashed into earth sixty-five million years ago.
            In our nearly six years of being foster parents, collision has been a theme for Bill, me, and our foster children. Our current foster daughter, T, has been back and forth between our home and that of her biological father three times. Every time T has been detained from the custody of her parents and brought to our house, two worlds have collided. When abuse, neglect and dysfunction meet with stability and purpose, the meeting point is necessarily a crash because the two ways of living are traveling in opposite directions.   
            Yet the theme of Cosmic Collisions was that every crash, despite the initial destruction, eventually brings about something new. When a Mars-sized body collided with a young Earth four and a half billion years ago, the resulting debris formed our moon. That seven-mile asteroid Jamie was (rightfully) afraid of heated our earth to 500 degrees for an entire hour. This, scientists theorize, caused the extinction of most life, including the dinosaurs, but it also allowed for the remaining life to evolve into today’s world.
             When you’re in the middle of the crash, it’s hard to believe that something good and new is forming. The debris of foster care orbits our family-- endless court appearances; visits from social workers; upsetting behaviors by Teenasia; strained relationships with the biological parents. Yet, yesterday’s show taught me that collision is the way of the Universe. And because I believe God authored the Universe, I must also believe that collision is of God.
            God is not afraid of crashes—witness the spectacular collision between Jesus and religious authorities and the change it eventually ushered in.
            To be a part of God’s Universe then, is to see the collisions in our lives not as travesties we should have been able to swerve around, but rather as the inevitabilities of belonging to a universe that requires collision in order to expand. We are called to both collide and to become new because of our collisions.
            As Teenasia nears her one-year anniversary this third time around, it was a collision late in the show that gave me the most hope. On the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, I watched as two small stars began moving closer and closer together.  Complicated gravitational forces were bringing them toward each other and suddenly the two separate stars touched. The new, rejuvenated star shone so brightly, I could hardly believe it was only a combination of two stars—so different and beautiful did it appear in the night sky. Different and beautiful. Both stars had changed for the better because of the collision.

            And I couldn’t even see the debris.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

October, 2008 Rice Bowl Day

Twice each year, St. Monica School has  “Rice Bowl Day.” Instead of the normal hot lunch, children are served a simple meal of rice, bread and water and students donate the money they would have paid for hot lunch to Catholic Relief Services. On the way to school, I was explaining the day to Jamie, our five-year-old, and she was having trouble understanding that some people did not have enough to eat.
            “In some places in the world, a child might only get one bowl of rice to eat each day,” I said.
            “Why? Why don’t they have a refrigerator with lots of food?”
            “Because their parents don’t make a lot of money and they can’t afford a refrigerator or electricity,” I said. “All they can afford is a little rice.”
            “But we have a refrigerator.”
            “And a lot of rice. We should give our rice to them.”
            I agreed and told Jamie we were also donating some money to help buy rice. I dropped her off at school and she left the minivan satisfied, thinking probably that the problem was solved. As I drove off, I couldn’t help but reflect on the instinctive sense of justice that children have—we have food; you don’t; we’ll share ours. To Jamie, there was nothing complex about the idea of food distribution. It didn’t occur to her to question whether or not our family had responsibility to feed children we had never met. She recognized that we were accountable for the simple reason that we had food and they did not.
            Helping children to move beyond their immediate circle in response to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor,” requires parents to lead the way. Our children take our cue in all things—but perhaps most of all in terms of determining how they see themselves in relationship to others.  A girl in my son’s class recently told him that she believed poor people were lazy—“If they’d just work harder, like my dad does, they’d have enough money,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to help them.”  I very much doubt that this little girl came to her opinion about poor people on her own. Rather, she was either directly instructed by her parents or picked up bits and pieces of enough conversations to draw this conclusion.  In either case, I feel sorry for her—sorry that she was robbed of a generosity that comes naturally to children; sorry that she was robbed of a compassionate world view; sorry that she will grow to connect suffering with personal fault.  
            Even among parents who do feel a call to see all people as “neighbor,” however, it can be difficult to stretch children’s vision. For a while, our family was volunteering one Monday a month at the St. Vincent de Paul meal program on the south side. I knew our time there was valuable for our family. The program—filled with people of all ages and races—taught our kids that there is no one “look” to poverty. It taught them about our belief that we have a responsibility to serve. For Bill and me, serving at the program provided a monthly kick in the fanny. It reminded us that we had absolutely nothing to whine about —that as stressful as our life might seem occasionally, our stable jobs, heated home, full pantry and functional family are out of the reach of many. Yet, as much as I appreciated what the meal program was teaching all of us, I am sorry to report that we no longer go regularly.  Why? Often, there’s a different reason each Monday—from sports practices to homework to general over-scheduling. And I recognize that whether we like it or not, we are allowing these reasons not to go to St. Vincent de Paul to quietly teach our kids that just about everything else has priority over serving the poor.

            But Jamie’s determination that there’s enough rice to go around and my son’s classmate’s dismissal of the needs of the poor have stirred something within me once again.  I’m looking at our family’s dry erase calendar with a little more intentionality than I have in the past few months. I have no illusions that our family’s service at St. Vincent de Paul is going to change anything substantial in the lives of those we come into contact with on our Mondays there. Indeed, the best we can hope for is that guests of the program will feel that there are six more people in our city who think it’s important that they get a scoop of stew and a glass of cold milk that evening. The substantive change I’m going for is the one that happens in the hearts of those who serve. Every ladleful of corn given out, every piece of bread buttered, every cup of coffee poured is one more opportunity for my children to consider who they are, what they’ve been given, and what they’re called to do for the greater world. Just as participating in school sports lays the groundwork valuing exercise as an adult, I have to believe this program lays the groundwork for adult choices that could indeed bring about true change. Eventually, the goal is a shorter and shorter line at St. Vincent de Paul and other meal programs around the city. But for the leaders of tomorrow to make this happen, they first need to see the problem as children. One Monday a month. Easier said than done. But we’re going to try again.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September, 2008-- The Five Love Languages

When it comes to snacks, each of my children has a different preference. While none of them would turn down any offer of a brownie, chips, ice cream or strawberries, if they were given a choice among the snacks, all four of them would choose something different. Jacob, the oldest, leans toward chocolate and sweets, while ten-year-old Liam goes for the salt and crunch. T, our foster daughter, would choose ice cream over anything, and I have repeatedly seen five-year-old Jamie turn down cookies and cake in favor of fruit.
            The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell (Northfield Publishing, 1997) is built around the premise that every person has a primary “language” which they use to both express their love, and through which they best receive love. Just as each of my children enjoys all snacks but has a favorite leaning, the authors assert that everyone needs healthy doses of all five of the love languages, but that we feel most fulfilled when someone is “speaking” to us in our language. We each have a “love tank” that is best filled when someone speaks our primary or secondary language.
            While the words “skillful lover,” can hardly be uttered without a wink and a nudge, we as parents need to become skilled at loving our children. Knowing the best way to fill their tank can be an important first step. Here are the five love languages:

Physical touch: These are the huggers. They want to sit on your lap and cuddle on the couch. Jamie’s primary love language is physical touch. Yesterday, while Bill was reading the paper at the breakfast table, she curled up in his lap, pressing her head in the space between his chin and chest. She sat there, not moving, for about 10 minutes, and then ran off, happily, to play. “It’s like charging a phone,” Bill said when she left.

Quality time: Kids whose love language is quality time feel loved when they are getting you all to themselves for awhile. Jacob, 13, has quality time as his primary love language. Jacob’s tank is filled when Bill or I spend a half hour with him alone. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing together—I have had Jacob thank me profusely for taking him to buy index cards—he so enjoyed just running the errand together. It’s fortunate that he is allowed to stay up an hour later than his siblings—he uses the time to pepper us with questions or tell us stories about his day. This is also Bill’s primary love language. Every time we are able to leave the kids and go for a quick run together or out for a bite to eat, all is right with the world.

Gifts: Six-year-old Teenasia  has been back with our family for about 10 months now. This is her third round with us as a foster child, as the court keeps sending her back to her biological family. At first, it was hard to figure out what T’s love language was, because it seemed like she needed all five of them constantly. I remember telling Bill in the early days of her time with us that it felt like she was a vacuum, sucking out my very soul—so needy. While this is still somewhat true, I can also now notice that she is extremely appreciative of small gifts. People whose primary language is gifts feel that a thoughtfully-chosen gift indicates that someone was thinking of them even when they weren’t there. They don’t need diamonds and baubles, but they want a physical object to remind them that they were on your mind. Jamie’s birthday this past August was one of Teenasia's most difficult days with us. I think it was because all those gifts for Jamie and just one token present for Teenasia made her wonder about our love for her. I gave Teenasia a fortune cookie yesterday that I had leftover in my purse. You would have thought it was a certificate for a new bike.

Acts of Service: This is my mom’s primary love language. She is constantly doing things for other people. When she babysits, it’s not enough to simply watch the kids. Often I come home and the laundry has been done and the family room is uncharacteristically clean. People whose primary love language is acts of service feel most loved when someone thinks to do something for them. My good friend Amy, a mother of three, also has this as her primary love language. She says it can be a difficult language for a mom to have because while she can express her love to her family very easily through service, sometimes the family doesn’t reciprocate quite enough. While they may thank her or speak appreciatively, it’s not until they actually do something (like remember to put their socks away) that her tank is filled.

Words of affirmation: “Fantastic job cleaning your room,” goes a long way for kids with this love language. They lap up compliments and never tire of hearing you tell stories of their successes to grandparents and friends. The more specific and genuine the words of affirmation are, the better. This is both Liam’s and mine. We spend a lot of time complimenting each other. Liam’s secondary love language is “acts of service,” so on Wednesdays, when I make him a hot breakfast, he is so full of words of affirmation for me he can hardly chew his waffles.