Thursday, November 6, 2014

Shampooing his sister

            On one of the first evenings after our then-foster (now adopted) daughter Teenasia came to live with us, second grade Jacob was at the dining room table, working on his religion homework, preparing for his upcoming First Communion. Bill was upstairs giving four-year-old Liam a bath and I was at the kitchen sink, holding wriggling 16-month-old Teenasia, wrapped in a towel, trying to wash her hair in the kitchen sink. I found I couldn’t hold her with one arm and wash her hair with the other.
            “Hey, Jacob. Do you want to sit there and learn about your faith, or do you want to live it?” 
            Jacob looked up, intrigued and put his pencil down.
            “I’ll live it,” he said, smiling and walking over.
            As I held tightly to Teenasia so she wouldn’t bump her head on the faucet, Jacob took the spray and wet his new little sister’s hair, then added shampoo. As he worked the suds around Teenasia’s head, he looked into her eyes and narrated the process.
            “You need to have clean hair. The water won’t hurt you. We’ll put a cloth over your eyes when we rinse. If you’d stop trying to get away, this would be easier,” he said.
            Soon, Teenasia, distracted by Jacob’s voice and interested in what he was doing, slowed her movements, smiled at Jacob and relaxed in my arms.
             Teenasia, now 13, has been washing her hair on her own for many years now and I’m not sure Jacob, now 19, even remembers that night. But for me, the evening has come to encapsulate what I believe to be true about the connection between faith and service: We need to know when it’s time put down the religion book and get to work. Going to church, joining a prayer group, reading books on spirituality cannot be ends in themselves. Faith and prayer must lead to action. Yet, propelling a family from a weekly hour at church to a life focused on service can be complicated.
            When toddler Teenasia and then toddler Jamie joined (and re-joined, in Teenasia’s case) our family as foster children, our boys could absorb service to others by osmosis. Part of both the goodness and hardship of foster care, they learned that reaching out to others doesn’t guarantee everything will work out fine. Their pain in having Teenasia placed back with her biological father twice—once at age two and again at five—gave them an early glimpse into a world of child welfare and social services that was completely unknown to most of their suburban peers. At the same time, Jacob and Liam came to understand, possibly more than some kids, the profound joy that comes with living the Matthew 25 Gospel—when I was hungry, thirsty, sick or naked, you fed me, gave me drink, took care of me, and clothed me.
            Now that the girls are older though and living the same cushy suburban life as the their brothers, with sports practices, homework, vacations and too many clothes, it isn’t as easy to demonstrate a daily commitment to service as a family as it was when we were fostering. For awhile, I was very concerned about this. I’d stare at the huge dry erase calendar in the kitchen to find more dates when everyone was available to go to serve dinner at St. Ben’s meal program; last year, I tried (and failed) to find a family vacation that could also be a service trip. But as I’ve attempted to orchestrate service into my family’s life, something else was happening. The kids were growing up, and as they’ve gotten older, people outside of the family are inviting them to service, and they are responding. Jacob chose to go on a service trip to Appalachia instead of a fall break Florida trip with friends; Liam went to an orphanage in Guatamala with ten Dominican students a few months ago. Jamie and Teenasia, while younger, seem to be on the same trajectory. They’re eager to help, and opportunities are arising that I had nothing to do with.
            What I’m seeing now, as a parent of older kids, is that that just as they have joined sports teams and clubs apart from me, their call to serve others is more likely to take place outside of the family as well. As with everything, Bill and I were our children’s first teachers, their first coaches—the coordinators of their first service trips—but it is gratifying to see them moving beyond us. Their call to service will be different than Bill and mine.
            And I’m enjoying being a witness and they put down their pencils, close the religion books for the moment, and live their faith. 
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Friday, October 31, 2014

What will she be for Halloween?

What will she be for Halloween?

            When Jacob, now in college, was about ten, he was a nurse shark for Halloween. He wore scrubs borrowed from a family friend in the medical field and fashioned an ominous fin sticking out of his back. He carried a blood pressure cuff and created a medical nametag that said “Nurse Shark.”  The next year, he dressed all in white and pinned a large orange circle to his mid-section. He wore horns and carried a pitchfork—a deviled egg. Looking back on photos of Jacob each Halloween, the theme was playing with language. It seemed to start as far back as second grade when he taped a two-liter Coke container to his face and went as a bottle-nosed dolphin.
            Jamie, 11, an avid gum chewer, went as a bubble gum machine last Halloween, and Liam, our techy kid, was a robot early on. Bill and I don’t like to spend much money on Halloween costumes, preferring to allow the kids to scrounge something together from the way-too-much stuff we have laying around the house. Through the years, I’ve been amazed at how each child manages to pull off a costume that speaks to his or her interest and personality. This year, Jamie is an iPad, probably because as the youngest in the family, she isn’t allowed much device time. If you can’t have your own iPad, you might as well be one for Halloween. Liam (still the family tech support) helped her print out large-sized versions of the app icons to glue on her foam core board.
            But it is Teenasia’s costumes that have somehow been the most poignant to me. Once she graduated from the small child stage of costumes that I chose (preschool Jamie and Teenasia as bumblebees and little Liam as the beekeeper) and could choose them for herself, Teenasia has often dressed as African American women she admired. She was Harriet Tubman in third grade; a dentist in fourth grade; and Gabby Douglas, the Olympic gymnast, in fifth grade. She took a year off last year in grade six to be a birthday cake (she loves her birthday more than anyone I know), but this year, she is back to her admirable black woman theme, dressing as Tiana, the strong princess who saves both herself and her prince, from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.  
            Teenasia’s Halloween costumes speak to me, not only because I love the end result, but because I watch Teenasia’s process of choosing a costume. It’s not easy and this year, in particular, she was struggling to find something.
            “We have that witch costume in the basement,” I reminded her one night as she looked through photos of Michelle Obama, trying to decide if people would know who she was if she wore a suit, pearls and heels. “You could be a witch. We could get some green makeup.”
            She would have none of it.
            Teenasia’s annual search for Halloween costumes is a reminder to me of the challenge of finding black women role models for girls—either real or fictional. As inspirational as Harriet Tubman is, Teenasia needed to reach back to the time of slavery to come up with her. When Teenasia dressed as 2012 gold medalist Gabby Douglas, everyone knew who she was—partly because there were no other black women gymnasts in that Olympics. And until late 2009 when The Princess and the Frog was released, not one of Disney’s many princesses was African American.
             Clearly, this isn’t a just a Halloween issue. Every time I take my girls to a kids’ or family movie, I am disappointed by the lack of diversity on the screen. Few kids’ books feature African American main characters. Too often, the minorities in films and on TV have token supporting roles, rather than meatier main ones. The causes of this are deep, complicated, and go beyond casting decisions. Of all the difficulties we, as a society continue to face in the horrific long aftermath of slavery, it may seem petty to complain that the first black Disney princess arrived on the scene just a few years ago. But the lack of fictional diversity is symbolic of the work that still needs to be done in the real world.
            Yet, at the same time, I’m thankful Disney’s Tiana arrived at all, however late she may have been. I’m thankful for the progress we’ve made, and the men and women who continue to work for change; who continue to be a voice for the voiceless and advocate for the marginalized. I’m thankful that my daughters were born at a time when schools, corporations and the government are all recognizing and discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion—even if we haven’t figured it out all the solutions yet.
            This year, Teenasia will be Tiana. She’ll wear a tiara, a green gown, and she’ll carry a frog. She’ll be the beautiful African American princess who went from waitress to frog to restaurant owner. And this Halloween, my prayer is that as Teenasia grows out of trick or treating and costumes in the next couple years, she will grow into the belief that in real life, she can become whoever she wants to be. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

View from the Middle

It’s a non-milestone year for our family. No one is graduating this year. None of the four kids is new to his or her respective school. No one is being adopted, baptized or receiving their First Communion. Bill and I have been at the same workplaces for about a decade each, and while we’re thinking of buying a new couch for the family room, we don’t have any other exciting home-improvement projects on the horizon. He and I, out for our twenty-first wedding anniversary (another non-milestone year, when compared to twenty or twenty-five) reflected over dinner how intensely “in the middle” we are.
            “If only we knew somehow, that this was all going to turn out, this would be so much easier,” Bill said.
            I understood exactly what he meant. In the early days of marriage, when we were in our twenties, with pudgy toddlers and early careers, anything was possible. Age 40 seemed impossibly far off and I couldn’t quite imagine having a child who could speak in full sentences, let alone one who would actually finish high school, make it to college and live a couple hundred miles away. Even into our early thirties, each year brought new possibilities—Bill jumped out of his marketing career and went back to school to become a teacher; we leapt into foster care; we built a deck on the back of our house with help from our still-childless friends and a brochure from Home Depot.
            Now, fifteen years later, having surged past the once far-off age of 40, we are deep into the family life we began as early-marrieds. With four kids ages 11, 12, 16 and 19, the question marks in our marriage have shifted from ourselves to our children. Each question has a different child as its center. Will Jacob find a major that can lead him to meaningful work?  Where will Liam go to college? Can our parenting of Teenasia make up for her difficult early years? What will Jamie’s strong personality look like in adolescence?
            We are in the middle of parenting and middles are difficult. When I ran cross country in high school and college, the middle was the most challenging part of the race. Adrenaline carried me through the first half mile, and sheer will brought me to the finish, but the middle of the course — with hills and woods and sometimes streams to jump over--  that was where the real work was. The middle was filled with tactical decisions—if I pass now, will she pass me back later? If I pick up speed now, will I have enough energy to finish? The importance of tactical decisions is true with parenting in the preteen and teen years, as well. Do we address the messy room or let it go? If I put more energy into the relationship, will it pay off, or will I collapse from fatigue? Do I give the second reminder, or allow natural consequences to prevail?  As with cross country, the middle of the parenting course requires both endurance and faith. Bill’s question from our dinner is the question of every runner who has passed the water station but can’t yet see the finish.  We know our position now—the question is how will it affect the outcome? The only way to answer the question is to keep running hard, keep parenting as well as we are able.

            We are in the middle. We’re sweaty and breathing hard and we’ve got mud splattered on our legs from the last puddle we couldn’t quite jump over. But we’re running together, Bill and I, through the middle of our marriage, the middle of our parenting. If the first half of the race has shown us anything, it’s that we’re loyal teammates. And as the course veers up a hill or into the woods, we’re ready for it, because we’ve been training together. Sometimes Bill leads. Sometimes I do. And sometimes the course is wide enough that we can run side by side.