Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Theological Miscommunication

During church my children try to whisper, but often forget. Even when they remember, it is usually a stage whisper so that everyone around us can hear their thoughts on our faith.

“Mom,” Henry asks, pointing at an icon of Jesus on the cross, “What’s this guy doin’?” I promise that he has actually seen this icon before, and we have, indeed, talked about this important moment upon which our faith hinges.

“Hey Mom,” Luke says, trying to get my attention from across the carpet. “What is that box?” he asks, pointing at the fancy wooden box up on a front table that holds donations. “Is God’s heart locked in that box?”

When someone’s cell phone rings, Henry says, “Mama, what is that?” I try to mouth “cell phone” at him since I am several feet away, but Henry doesn’t hear correctly and asks, looking puzzled, “It is mother earth?”

On Holy Thursday, the day that we commemorate the Last Supper, Henry strikes up a conversation with an acquaintance: “Excuse me? Today, one of Jesus’ friends frayed him,” Henry says, forgetting the word “betrayed” that I had used to explain this holy day to him. Perhaps I should have considered a more concrete, child-friendly word. But somehow, I can’t bring myself to tell my children that Judas was “mean to Jesus.” I already have problems with the cartoon-illustrated children’s bible that they own and love.

I’m realizing, like my friend Nancy pointed out in the comments section of my last post, that my children don’t care that much about church itself yet, but care that it is something that is a part of our family routine. They see us valuing our faith, and so they follow along. We, as their parents, are the most god-like presence to them, which is wonderful and scary at the same time. Because clearly, if I wanted to, I could teach them that mother earth frayed God and placed his heart in a locked box.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Holy, Holy Friday

Today is Good Friday for those of us in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We call it Holy Friday. For reasons that I can never quite remember involving the moon and the date of Passover, our Easter, which we call Pascha, can fall anywhere from the same day as to a month and a half later than Western Easter. This year it is the latter.

Over the last six years, my practice of Orthodoxy has been challenged. My kids came into the picture and changed everything. Before I had children, it was easy for me to be Orthodox, at least on the surface. There are a lot of services, but they are beautiful and nourishing and follow a lovely rhythm and pattern. I enjoyed church for the most part, and found it fairly easy to attend regularly, participate in services and church life, and, all in all, to be a "good member" of the church. As I said, my children have changed all of this. To be precise, they have smashed it to pieces.

Attending church is a burden to me now. I do not enjoy it at all. I like visiting with people at coffee hour. I am glad I am able to take communion. I am happy that I am exposing my children to church. But I am not able to pay attention--I can't listen to the words or appreciate the beauty of the services. I am in the back, sweating as I chase Henry around or attempt to hold nearly six year old Luke. I am asking Luke no, please not to sing his own version of the trisagion hymn that involves the word poop. I am instructing the children on how to pop the whole cracker in their mouths so it doesn't make an annoying crunch that makes everyone turn their heads in the middle of a quiet moment. I am running Henry upstairs to the potty at regular intervals. Craig is there, helping, of course, and thank goodness for that. But still.

I know that this isn't a new story. Every parent in church is struggling with his or her kids. I just always wonder if everyone else feels so overwhelmed and saddened by the prospect of yet another wrestling match with their children during church. It isn’t even that my kids are so bad. Their behavior is what is to be expected from energetic, spirited boys ages two and five. It is me: I can’t let go of the notion that I should be enjoying myself in some way, and that I should be contributing to the prayerful ambiance in church rather than detracting from it.

As if ambiance is really what the spiritual life is all about.

I don't know how, exactly, the experience of this struggle with the practice of my faith is affecting my interior spiritual life. I know it is what is required of me right now. But I don't know how nice I'm supposed to be to myself when we take our kids to services only on Sunday mornings, and only three out of four Sunday mornings at that. Am I supposed to be gentle and kind with myself? Or am I just a big, big wimp who is backsliding in her faith because things got a little tough? I really don't know. I haven't had, or haven’t made, a moment to really reflect upon it. I think my practice has been so meager that I'm afraid to delve into my interior life for fear of what I might find.

Last year, we attended even less Lenten services than we did this year. And when Holy Week came around, the week leading up to Pascha that is filled with services every day, we didn't go at all. Finally, when Holy Friday arrived, I decided to load the kids into the car that afternoon and fight Chicago traffic so that we could attend the Vespers of Holy Friday. During this beautiful, solemn service, the icon of the crucified Christ is removed from the cross and placed on a shroud. The priest and his helpers process around the church holding this aloft. Then, one by one, the members of the congregation prostrate themselves before this shroud and icon. Luke loves the drama and beauty of all of these services surrounding Pascha, and, traditionally, so have I. And so even though Craig couldn't come with us, and even though I was in charge of two little boys, ages one and four, I was hoping that the challenges would be worth it.

I underestimated the Friday afternoon traffic, and we arrived late. The four parking spaces in the back of this downtown Chicago church were, of course, taken. Signs on the street in front of the church posted that there was to be no parking from 4-6 pm, that cars would be towed. But I hoped that the service--which started at 2:30--would be over by then, and I figured that I could slip out a few minutes early if I needed to.

Of course, I didn’t have a working watch, since I hadn't replaced the battery that died in my watch right after Luke was born. Did I mention that having kids has introduced chaos and inefficiency into my life?

So I didn't have a watch, and the service was progressing. I was rather exhausted and sweaty, my usual state during church with my two boys. But as we approached the burial shroud portion of the service, my heart felt content. Both the boys were enraptured by the drama. We were kneeling; the choir was singing a burial dirge. I had a moment where I was actually able to meditate on the words that were being sung by the choir. I felt that God was rewarding me for struggling to make it here, that a still, small voice was saying to me, You are okay, you are loved, you are trying.

And then I heard a disorienting voice in the back of the church speaking loudly once, and then louder still, pulling me out of my moment of meditation. "Cars are being towed!" said Fr. John, the other Fr. John that was not serving. Standing beside him was his wife and my good friend Jenny.

Everyone was confused as to what he was saying and why he was talking loudly during this solemn moment of the service, and so he spoke again, even louder over the sound of the choir: "Cars are being towed out on the street. If you are parked out there, you must move!"

Someone shot a sharp look at Fr. John. Someone else said "shhhhh!" I realized that I needed to leave or I would be stranded in downtown Chicago with two little boys and no car. I was in the front of the church and so, while the priest who was serving continued with the procession, I made quite scene gathering my toys, diaper bag, and children and then rushing out of the church.

When I made it out onto the porch, Fr. John and Jenny grabbed my kids and said, "run!" I saw the tow truck driving toward my car, alone on the street. I rushed to it, hopped in, and pulled around the back of the church where all of the spaces were still taken. Of course. Because who would come to the Vespers of Holy Friday and leave before the procession with the shroud?

Fr. John and Jenny came around the back of the church and agreed that all I could do was head home. And so we drove home, me crying for the futility of it all.

But I guess it wasn't futile. There was the effort. There was the moment of peace. There were my children's rapt faces. And there was the kindness of two people who, for all appearances, weren't acting like a very good priest and priest's wife, shattering the solemn and prayerful ambiance of the service with such mundane and worldly concerns.

This Holy Friday I hope I can focus on my inner life, leaving the surface behind. And I’m carting my kids to the Vespers of Holy Friday again today, trying to leave my expectations behind. Well, I guess I have one: I expect I won’t get towed, since our parish in Columbus has ample street parking.

Monday, April 21, 2008

My Two Publications

Last week an essay of mine was published on LiteraryMama, an online journal of "writing for the maternally inclined." I'm very excited, since it is my first publication since a poem of mine appeared in Highlights for Children Magazine when I was six. My poem back then:


Lots of leaves
Falling from the trees
And sometimes a little breeze.

But the thing I like most about fall
Is the crackling noise the leaves make.

You can see how my writing has changed since then by reading my essay HERE

That Second Child

Henry always does what Luke is doing. Henry learned to ride a scooter when he was about a year and half old. And now, at age two (okay, three in June) he has learned how to ride a "big boy bike." Potty trained. Biking. Now if I could ever get him to stop nursing . . .

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Lazy Parents' Guide to Potty Training

My parenting philosophy is this: take the path of least resistance. Is it difficult to wean your child? No problem! There is this great thing called child led weaning that I dig. Does your child wake up five times a night? Do you pass out when you lay down to comfort your child? That's okay! There is this traditional practice called the family bed that I think I recall might have a great deal of research in its favor. Of course, the verdict is still out in our family regarding whether these practices are actually easier in the long run. Henry, nearing age three, still nurses. Luke still wakes up many nights. And don't even get me started on Henry's supposed night weaning, since, a year and a half of sticking my guns later, he still seems to think he can convince me to nurse him during the night. We'll just call him persistent.

But potty training. Our kids--both of them--have been a breeze to potty train. And our method is this: We don't put them on the potty at all unless they ask or we happen to think of it, which is about once a month. We start this at about age two. Then, around age three (Henry 2 years 10 months, Luke 3 years 2 months) we get sick and tired of paying for diapers. We get sick and tired of changing diapers. We tell the kid in questions that when the pack of diapers runs out, there will be no more diapers. And you know what? With both kids, they have been almost instantaneously potty trained. Luke had virtually no accidents. Henry has had a few here and there, but he basically has it down.

So we have parenting bragging rights: we are really, really good potty trainers. Everyone has a gift, right? Maybe we should become potty coaches. I think it helps that we don't own anything nice and we aren't afraid of bodily fluids winding up on our stuff.

And we can honestly say that our kids are really easy . . . to potty train.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Some Ramblings on Language

“Well, I never!” says Henry, angry with me because I want to do an exercise video before I let him watch the DVD he checked out from the library.

Where, exactly, did my two year old learn to express his anger with the words and intonation of a prim schoolmarm?

And then later, in baby talk—angry again over something I’ve now forgotten—he says, “Me never! Me never!” Bratty baby meets offended 50’s housewife.

Both Luke and Henry seem to try on phrases, ways of speaking, and emotions conveyed through language. Luke is often in a sullen 80’s skater phase: “Duh!” he says to Henry, “You freak! I’m like, totally awesome dude!” But then, moments later when surprised, he says, “Goodness gracious!”

“Crimeny!” they both proclaim.

Much of what is reflected back to me is my own attempt at trying to clean up my mouth. After both boys (Henry not even two) went through a phase of yelling “Dammit!” I became more aware of my own ways of expressing frustration.

“CRAIG! Gosh darnit! Crimeny!” I yell. “Why didn’t you do these dishes like you promised?” Really mad, I yell, “For goodness sakes!”

As Luke approached age two, I often discussed the idea of the terrible two’s with my friend Nancy. She wondered if Luke would have as many tantrums and troubles as some children do at this age since he already had an enormous vocabulary.

But Luke did have tantrums, huge ones that sometimes lasted for the better part of an hour. And now as I remember that time, I think it was because Luke experienced such intense emotions, and no possible words could ever describe them. And this is true even to this day.

“Look, Mom,” says Luke. “This is my barrage of bombs,” he declares about the pile of small dirt balls he is creating. So articulate and creative, this son of mine!

But later, when I force him to abandon the plans he has made to drag a table and chairs half a block out to the small grass island in the middle of the court we live on so he can play a game he has devised called “Arctic Circle,” he turns purple, screams, wails “Ma ma!” He kicks the wall and yells, “I’m going to kill you!”

Sometimes “goodness gracious” just isn’t enough. Really, nothing is. And so I cuddle down with him and read him a book, because there are no words that will solve this problem.