The Accolade of Hardship

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No sooner than one day after my recent wrestling match had ended, (you may read about it here: https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/blessed-brokenness/), I was the lucky recipient of another seriously challenging morning with my daughter. Due to an additional infraction involving the use of her very favorite iDevice, she was informed that it was to be gone from her life for many days. Reception of such earth-shattering news in the life of this teen didn’t go so well. As I have now learned in the classroom of my life, the brain wiring of persons with ADHD may process emotion differently. Sometimes, one strong emotion may flood their brains so much so that it crowds out any other information which might allow the person to modulate emotion and the behavioral response to it. On Tuesday, this meant that there was severely intense anger leading to some severely intense and negative behaviors. In the moment, knowing that it is harder for my girl to process emotion didn’t actually help things. By the time I made it to the car to start the drive to school and work, I felt as if all of my emotional energy had been spent for the day, and it wasn’t even 7:15 a.m.

Days like this often times find me heading to morning Mass, a place where I experience quiet, time to reflect and listen, time to regroup and be fed. Right now it is the Easter Season in my Church. It began on Easter Sunday and lasts for 50 days. Our daily readings regale us with so many interesting stories of what life was like for the followers of Jesus after His death and resurrection. Most of these are found in the Book of Acts. So this past Tuesday, we were all listening to one such story of the disciple Paul and how he was stoned by the crowds, dragged out of the city and was left for dead. As a person who is quite overly dramatic, at least in my own head, I could kind of relate to Paul. I too was feeling beat up. And like me on this particular morning, he wasn’t beat up to the point of being actually dead. His friends gathered around him, got him up and took him into the city to continue doing the very thing that just brought him to death’s door. I could relate to this too, because at 2:15 p.m. every day it is pickup time. In approximately six hours, I was going to have to re-engage with my kid, with the uncertainty as to what more might unfold.

The very next words in the story about Paul seemed to me as if they were almost shouted from the pulpit, which they weren’t. But they jumped out at me and resonated more loudly than the rest.

“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships
to enter the Kingdom of God.”

After hearing this, I think I almost laughed out loud, which is entirely not cool at this part of the Mass and is akin to one’s cell phone ringing loudly during the priest’s homily. These words, they were strangely comforting. I mean, I hate hardship as much as anyone else, but on this very hard morning, which I had survived without losing my cool, I thought to myself, “Awesome! At least I am headed in the right direction!” The rest of that day, and every day since, I keep hearing those words repeat over and over in my head and in my heart.  

Friday night found my daughter and I attending the eighth grade graduation at her school. She wanted to say goodbye to these kids in the grade above hers, who she has shared daily life with for the past eight years. This was an incredible class of twenty kids. They were leaders, in the classroom and on the playground. Their reputation as good, solid, smart kids was well earned by their behavior, their demeanor, their respect of their elders and the way in which they treated the younger students. It was good to gather together to celebrate their commencement. When it came time for the part of the ceremony where special accolades are awarded, I had no idea what strong feelings of protectiveness were about to flood my being.

Over and over, the same four to seven kids were called up to receive award after award testifying to their academic superiority, and justifiably so. They are brilliant. They tested in the 99th percentile in our state; four earned the highest overall scores of hundreds who took the entrance exam for a local Catholic high school and these four received a full year scholarship to go there. This one earned the best score in a math competition held for the entire group of eighth graders enrolled in public and private schools in this town. These other ones received a composite score of 85% overall in national standardized testing. All of these students worked hard and achieved excellence. They earned these accolades. But I couldn’t help thinking, what about the rest? What are they feeling right now?

What about the boy whose smile and positive spirit could light up even the darkest corners of a place without joy? What about the girl who volunteered to be outside school every single day, in the heat, in the cold, in the sunshine, in the rain or in the snow. She memorized the names of every single student in the school, from kindergarten up, and as she opened their car door when they arrived at school, she greeted them by name, as well as the parent who was dropping off their child. What about the girl who is the oldest of six, who helps with her younger siblings at home, while maintaining an “A” average, but isn’t recognized in a class with many who maintain an A+ average? What about the ones who struggle academically, the ones who are challenged to overcome obstacles of hardship every day and never quit? What about them? These children, they too are extraordinary in their own right. Each and every child deserves accolades.

I woke up Saturday morning, unable to stop pondering my experience of the night before. Why did all of this bother me so much? Over the past 13 years, as I’ve grown into my role as a mom, I’ve come to recognize that many things in this world which seem to incite passion within me, lead me back to the raw desire to protect and advocate for my child. And upon further reflection, this is exactly where the passionate response led me-to what I affectionately refer to as my “Mother Bear Response”.

Most days of parenting offer us all a glimpse of our children, in all of their glory and in all of their imperfection. And on most of those days, with a love that God has placed in my heart for her, just as she is, I stand in wonder and awe of her soul. I think about the miracle it is to me that someone who is faced with such hardship in accomplishing things which come so simply to me, perseveres day after day and never throws in the towel. I think of someone whose academic performance, which seems average in a class of super smart kids, is brilliant to me, because it comes at so high of a cost. I think of someone who if judged merely by scores on an entrance exam, standardized testing or math competition would seem so ordinary. This reminds me that I need to begin to prepare her now for next year, for that day when she is gathered with her classmates on Graduation Day. I need to teach her that just because she doesn’t hear her name called and just because she isn’t asked to step forward to receive an award, doesn’t mean that she isn’t extraordinary in her own right. I need to remind her that because of the hardships that come with being her, and the way in which she navigates them, she is and continues to become someone who is actually quite extraordinary and empathetic.

In the year ahead, I need to retell to her the stories of the things she does that humble me and find me thanking God for the gift of witnessing her life each day. Like the night when at the school Christmas Program, in her quiet, fearless way, she sought to be next to the girl who had just found out the day before that her dad had been killed in a tragic accident. Not being one to avoid such sadness, the concert found my daughter holding this girl’s hand, trying to comfort her as they sang Christmas Carols together. Like the Palm Sunday afternoon when she wove a palm into a cross to give to her Papa Ed in the nursing home. Even though he couldn’t speak, when she walked into the room, his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. She showed him the cross, told him she made it just for him and pinned it on his bulletin board. Little did we know, it would be her last gift to him as he died a short time later.Or like the day at school when she unknowingly hurt the feelings of a kindergartner, by winning the prize stuffed fat cat in the Magazine Drive. When she eventually found out this girl was crying because she was disappointed that she didn’t win it, my girl searched for a duplicate fat cat on the internet, bought it with her own money and gifted it to the young girl.

As Graduation Day for the Class of 2015 grows closer, I must remember to tell her that no matter what she witnesses that night, it does not define who she is or who she isn’t. No matter how much the ceremony shines light on the goodness of some, goodness that is rightfully celebrated, it doesn’t mean that her goodness doesn’t exist. While she will never fully understand in this life why it is that by some of the standards of the world she may just seem ordinary, I must remind her that she is extraordinary. Though the road to extraordinariness is one that requires frequent navigation of obstacles and difficulties, I must remember to tell her that God has deemed her worthy to travel on this way. He has called her by name to come forth and receive the accolade of hardship; a gift to be used to travel to her ultimate destination at the end of her life, the Kingdom of God. Like it says in the Book of Acts, its entrance exam requires undergoing many hardships, but the good news is that I have no doubt this is one entrance examine she will most certainly ace.

Blessed Brokenness

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For some reason, even though Mother’s Day was a week ago, just this weekend in my Facebook feed was a video about mothers, produced by Pampers. It features very sweet mother-child moments, along with thank yous from moms to their kids for the ways in which they have taught them and made them better women. Towards the end the screen reads, “When you were born, I was born. And a love that transformed me forever was born.” It struck me as oddly paradoxical. You see I have spent the entire week wrestling with the experience of death to my ego, triggered by a heart-breaking experience with my girl.

After eighteen years of marriage, I’ve learned that if I want holidays to look anything like the way I dream them up in my head, I must communicate my wants. It took me a long time and lots of frustration to figure out that no one in my house was born with the magical power to read minds. Wow, so simple a lesson, but such a hard one for me to learn! So a couple of weeks ago, with Mother’s Day approaching, I proudly took an assertive stance and let my husband and daughter know that all I wanted for Mother’s Day was some help with the weeds overtaking our yard, yet again. It was decided that we would tackle this on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, since it would give us the longest stretch of time to kick some broadleaf-weed-butt without any of life’s other interruptions. Friday night found me at the local home improvement store stocking up on a myriad of weapons whose labels all promise to take the life of even the nastiest of lawn invaders. After reminding my spouse via a text and my daughter with a verbal reminder of the plan for the next day, I settled in for a good night’s sleep, dreaming of how together, our little family would become powerful conquerors of the evil found spreading, by the minute, merely steps away from our front door.

Saturday morning arrived with perfect weather and the promise of a major task being accomplished by late afternoon. As we prepared to go to battle, our darling daughter remained asleep and by the time we had just about finished the job, she woke up to begin her homework. My self-pity started creeping in, but I tried to flex. I told myself, “Self, she is a teenager after all and needs her sleep-cut her some slack”. So I adjusted my expectations, as I have worked hard to do in my adult life and offered her Plan B. “Since you didn’t make it outside today, all I want for Mother’s Day is to not have to nag you about finishing homework.” She responded, “I am not making any promises.” Instead she said, “I have to make you breakfast in bed. It is what I do for you every year!” Since my favored hour of waking is sometime around 4:30 a.m. and hers is averaging somewhere around 11:00 a.m., I mentioned that this old tradition doesn’t work so much anymore because by the time she wakes up, I’m just about ready for lunch. She seemed saddened by this, but accepting.

Flash forward to Sunday morning. I woke up feeling proud of myself for expressing my needs so assertively. I thought about how much I’ve grown since my first Mother’s Day when I had unfair expectations of how the day should play out, without ever having communicated any of it to my husband. I went about my normal morning routine, happy to be so evolved as a mom, patting myself on the back for being so awesome! When afternoon approached, my one and only child finally woke up and started to play on her favorite electronic device. About a half hour later I ventured into her room, frustrated that she hadn’t started on her homework yet. Without looking up from her game, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day and kept on playing. That was it. There was no hug, no handmade card and not even the one thing I had asked for, the gift of doing her homework without me being involved. And then it hit me like a wicked, hard punch in the gut: self-pity. It took my breath away. It flooded every recess of my heart, soul and mind. I couldn’t shake it. I felt such a searing sense of pain, a sense of under appreciation, as if I was completely irrelevant. I prayed for the grace not to lash out in my pain.

Some logical part of me realized just how stupid I was being. Why was it that I was putting so much pressure on one single day to be a perfect representation of my daughter’s love for me? Why did I believe, on some sick level of my subconscious that if she didn’t get the expression perfectly right on this one day, it was an indication of how meaningless my efforts to be a good mom are? Was she only trying to respect my request for no breakfast in bed? Just days prior to Mother’s Day, we were driving home from school when she asked for my jacket that I was wearing. Since I wasn’t cold, I took it off and handed it over. She proceeded to take it into her hands, hold it up to her face, inhale deeply and exclaimed with such sweetness, “Mmm, Mama smell!” I must admit that at the time, this utterly melted me. In the mother-teen daughter dance, it was an extraordinarily tender moment, a glimpse of the many we had when she was younger. Oh, but the pity and the hurt wouldn’t let this loving moment be enough. Nor would it allow any of the 13 years of accrued moments-times when I knew beyond a doubt that she loved me, be enough. Sadly, this wrestling continued for days and wreaked havoc on me. I felt so completely broken; depleted of life and energy. This pain had way too much power, I hated it being so unresolved and so raw. But then I remembered something I had read from the Franciscan, Fr. Richard Rohr:

Don’t get rid of the pain until you’ve learned its lessons. When you hold the pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. And then you will be an instrument of transformation for others.”

-Adapted from The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered (MP3 download)

This weekend, as my family gathered for Mass, I found myself captivated with the Breaking of the Bread unlike ever before. It was almost as if I was watching it in slow motion. In my faith tradition, at the celebration of Eucharist the priest holds up a large host of unleavened bread, which we believe has become the very Body of Christ. As he prays, he breaks this larger piece into many pieces and distributes them into the containers that hold the smaller hosts we are all to receive. As I watched the big host being broken, I saw how first, as one piece, it could only serve as food for one. But then it was broken and it became food for two. These pieces were again broken and now four could be fed. Over and over, it was broken; what was food for one had now become food and nourishment for sixteen.

At that moment, my eyes were opened wide and I recognized God anew, in this Breaking of the Bread. Through the searing pain I had been uncomfortably sitting with, a new light shined forth. It dawned on me that it is in this very state of brokenness where real transformation can happen and we can be used to nourish others. What if the more we experience brokenness and invite God to transform it, the more we too can become bread for those on the journey? What if this pain was truly a gift given to me to help me to grow into a better woman? This was the very moment I had longed for all week. A deep peace returned to me, replacing the self-pity and sadness that had flooded my being.

Riding home my girl just happened to mention to me that she wrote me a poem for Mother’s Day. WHAT!!?? You can imagine just how surprised I was. “It is about your Mama smell. I had to write it for an assignment for Reading. Do you want it when I get it back?” I told her yes, of course, I would love to read it! And I smiled, thinking about how that Pampers video, it is oddly paradoxical and true, after all.

When you were born I was born. And a love that transforms me forever was born. Thank you Sadie.

Heaven is Breaking Through

Effortless. That is the word that comes to mind when I am witnessing my girl functioning “in her zone”. Time after time, these glimpses captivate me; they draw me into something bigger and deeper than can be seen at first glance. Maybe this is due to the fact that the rest of her life, the part that requires immense effort that sometimes isn’t even enough to succeed, serves as a harsh contrast to these moments of grace. But they still shine through, even on the darkest of days. They come, even when the burden of ADHD makes it nearly impossible to focus long enough to complete a simple math assignment. They come, even when the downward spiral triggered by unfinished assignments threatens to grab her and pull her underwater. When she is in her element, everything negative fades away and all seems right with her world; all seems to be as it should be. There is no struggle or fight or discouragement. There is only an opening within her to be the vessel she was created to be, freely receiving the grace and inspiration that is meant for her to experience.

One of the wildest things about being a parent is seeing how so much of who my daughter is has absolutely nothing to do with my husband nor myself, but everything to do with her Creator. I laugh at how the very things we fail at miserably, come to her easily. Case in point: when I studied Interior Design at the beginning of my college career, I nearly failed the class in Art which required me to pick up a piece of paper and pencil to draw. My entire grade was dependent upon my weak and feeble attempts to create art using this medium. My daughter, before being of eligible age to enroll in Art class, could draw better than I could at 18 and if she were to be graded by my college professor, would have received a better grade than I.

If you want to know the lyrics to any contemporary song from the 1980s forward, just ask my kid to sing it to you. She nails every word to nearly every song, no problem. A couple of summers ago, after hearing “Ice, Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice play on the radio, she took it upon herself to learn every single word. When her Arizona cousins came into town a couple of days later, she entertained them with her precise and perfect rendition. The funniest part of it all is that her dad is self-admittedly an epic failure at figuring out lyrics to songs. In our early days of dating, as we were driving and singing along to the radio, his imperfect renditions of lyrics would have me rolling on the floor laughing.

Some days, as I am supervising homework time, I will watch my daughter as she is engrossed in a reading assignment. Thankfully, she doesn’t notice me watching her, otherwise she would call me a “creeper”. Anyway, the reason I watch her is that she has this amazing talent I’ve always wanted, but didn’t get and I am super jealous. As she is reading, she will simultaneously braid her long, brown hair into several different, intricate braids. In the time span of say, 30 minutes, she will do five or more styles, without ever looking up from her book. When she finishes one, she takes it out and starts the next. She will do french braids and dutch braids, waterfalls and fishtails, five strand braids and upside down braids. Me? I haven’t even mastered the messy side braid, which is probably the easiest of them all. When I ask her how she learned to do these she just says, “I don’t know. I just do them.” Then I say in my head, or sometimes out loud, “Who are you and where did you come from!?””

There is a song by the artist Audrey Assad entitled, “Breaking Through”.  In its lyrics she sings of how some things may seem ordinary, but if we gaze at them longer or pay closer attention to the deeper stirring they cause within us, it is then that are able to see that they are more than just ordinary. They may be evidence that Heaven is breaking through.

Are these just some words that I say aloud?
Is this just the sun breaking through the clouds?
Oh, I know it’s more and I know somehow that
Heaven is breaking through
And it’s You, it’s You, it’s You, it’s You, You.”

As I sit captivated, watching the offspring of my imperfect self as she effortlessly creates beautiful art with a pencil and piece of paper, delights others with word for word renditions of rap songs,  weaves intricate braids without lifting her eye to a mirror,  I encounter something more magnificent than can be seen on the surface. Witnessing her in the zone reminds me that no matter how much she suffers the consequences of genes she inherited from me, no matter how hard her life is, no matter how many mistakes I make in my struggle to figure out how to be a good mom, the burden of who she is to become isn’t really mine to carry. She was created in Divine Love, made to receive Divine Love and meant to overflow with Divine Love. I feel it so strongly when she is there, operating in that sweet spot, the one place that doesn’t require effort, but only beckons for an openness to receive all that is to be given. Heaven is breaking through.