The Joy Found in Dying

Okay, I admit the title I chose for this post may be a bit too dramatic. In the interest of full disclosure, (although I am currently overdue for my bi-annual mammogram) to the best of my knowledge I am not at this exact moment physically dying and truly I cannot speak as to whether or not I will find joy when that process in my life is ongoing or imminent. The dying in which I find joy today is the death of perfectionism, the death of my best laid plans, the death of my high standards for others, the death of my fierce and stubborn ego. This process is ongoing, obviously, because on many days, I am still a perfectionist, think my plans are the best, have impossibly high standards that no one can meet and let my fierce and stubborn ego try to lead the way. But every so often come moments or hours or even days when I encounter a surrender within myself to the One who created all things. In those times a sense of deep joy rises up within me and a sense of refreshing relief washes over me like a rushing stream of fresh cool water on a hot and oppressive summer day.

One of the best gifts I ever gave my daughter is one that keeps on giving to her every day (bonus-it gives to both me and my husband too). Last October on her 18th birthday we signed up for the monthly subscription to Spotify and made it a family subscription, so our little trinity could enjoy our vastly different tastes in music and experience sweet family harmony. Randomly I will remember an artist or album I loved in my youth or young married days, (before the lost years when kid tunes suddenly dominated like 10 years worth of music time while driving in my car) and when I search for it, without fail I get my instant fix. The other day I was riding my bike along the river and just such a random artist popped into my head, Lauryn Hill. Remember her from Sister Act 2? Remember her singing Joyful, Joyful or the 30 second scene of her way-too-short rendition of His Eye is on the SparrowAnyway, I had a hankering to listen to her voice. I cued up the playlist Lauryn Hill-Miseducation and heard a song that days later, still will not leave me.

It amazes me how God makes His presence known to me most often in ordinary ways and through ordinary means-so ordinary that I probably miss Him a lot. But I decided to hop off the bike, sit on the edge of the river by the dam and listen to the words of a song I had never heard before. To Zion which is on her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a gospel inspired mom anthem (written about her firstborn son, Zion) featuring Carlos Santana on the guitar. It is powerful, filled with the naked and raw emotion of a mother’s experience of welcoming new life into her world.

Now the joy of my world is in Zion…

I’ve never been in love like this before…

And I thank you for choosing me

To come through unto life to be

A beautiful reflection of his grace

For I know that a gift so great

Is only one God could create

And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion

Lauryn Hill

This song and its words have been haunting me for days because God knew I needed to be reminded of the gift so great that is mine in my daughter Sadie. She is my firstborn, my only and the greatest catalyst for God to put to death in me the things that keep me from being who He made me to be.

Almost from her beginning it was clear that she was not going to fit into any of the boxes prescribed by the orderly, polite society to which I aspired to be a most perfect citizen. And eighteen years later, unabashedly she continues to refuse to be boxed. While I still wrestle with the chains of being pleasing and apologetic to all in my world—friend, foe or stranger—she lives unapologetically, fearlessly living her truth, free from the need to please others at all costs to the self.

Her high school graduation was at the end of May, but she didn’t walk with her class. Despite weeks of me begging, bribing and cajoling for her to just pass the class she needed so we could be done with this school thing, true to form, she did things her way. No box for her. A couple of weeks earlier, in a moment of connectedness, she shared with me her sadness over the impending consequence of another round of summer school, but then reframed the situation by naming her truth out loud. “Mom, I am so proud of myself. I never thought I would actually graduate this year. I assumed I would have dropped out of high school by now or that I’d end up being a Super Senior (fifth year senior). But the reality is I will graduate this year, just a little bit late.” 

Sitting as the center of attention at her last IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting of her high school career, surrounded by her teachers, her case manager, the school psychologist and her parents, she listened as they pointed out all of the positives they see in her character—her creativity, her great personality, the ways she understands the material unlike other students, her educated and informed perspective shared freely in class, her high level of intelligence. Yet they also expressed that they were confounded by her grades, because she tests high, but her grades don’t reflect this because she doesn’t turn in much homework. In the midst of all of these adults encouraging her to change her ways so she can just graduate, once again she refused to be put into the box we all want to squeeze her into. Instead courageously she declared aloud “I will try my best, but the school system wasn’t made for people like me. It isn’t set up in a way that encourages people with brains like mine to succeed with ease. It’s made for people with brains that society deems “normal”. To be honest, society in general isn’t made for people like me.” NEVER would I have been so brave at 18. And thirty one years later, on the verge of 50, still I am not so sure I could be.

Our entire journey has kind of been like this—me trying to keep together a neat and clean and perfect life, struggling to stay in our lane and keeping up the status quo. Her life, as God so perfectly created her, challenges my efforts every step of the way. And THIS is exactly one of the reasons I have so much joy today. I wonder who would I be today without her beautiful life confronting the worst parts of myself? Who would I be if I didn’t have reason to find my voice to stand up for a child who wasn’t getting the support she needed to succeed in school? Who would I be if I hadn’t walked with her through the perils of an anxiety disorder and witness its ability to render her completely unable to function? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to be flexible when her overly sensitive sense of touch deemed it necessary to try on 10 different outfits before finding one she could tolerate for a day of school, making her late time and again? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to accept that the only way she could sit through an hour of church was to spend most of the time drawing intricate mehndi designs on her hands with a Sharpie? Who would I be if I didn’t aspire to unconditionally love the girl God created her to be–fearfully and wonderfully made–yet so different from me, so different from many? Insufferable, intolerant, unkind, judgmental–that is who I would mostly be if it weren’t for her.

Watching my child suffer all these years from the ever present effects of living in a square peg world as a person with inattentive type ADHD, an anxiety disorder and a sensory processing disorder has also changed me profoundly. It probably didn’t make it any easier for her that we live as a middle class family in a predominantly white and affluent suburban Chicago community and she attended a private elementary school focused on superb academic performance. And yet, somewhere deep in my heart, I do trust that God plants us where we are meant to be in order that we might grow into who we are created to be. Unfolding before me every year of her life are glimpses of the soul He created. These glimpses—they surprise me and catch me off guard; they are intertwined with the less inspiring angst and messiness of teenage development. Oh but when I take notice of them, they humble me and send me to my knees in thanks for what He is forming within her. They restore hope and remind me that I am not the one in control, but only a supportive companion on the way. The constant struggle to hold her head above the water has smoothed her hard edges and cracked open her big heart to the suffering of others. It has strengthened her character and made her a fierce advocate for the plight of the marginalized.

It seems that every year she has invited me deeper into an entirely different relationship with those living on the periphery of life—and I have to admit that I haven’t always been a willing participant. Without any hesitation, she invites into our little home the souls who others might consider misfits, but she calls them friends. The outcasts, the traumatized, the bullied, the mentally unhealthy, the cutters, the motherless, the homeless, the rejected, the abandoned. She has brought them all home to shelter them and allow them to be welcomed, loved, accepted, fed and more than a couple of times, she has given up her bed so they could sleep in it for the night. One by one, these children she has brought to my door have become priceless gifts of life to me. Most look a lot like her—uniquely beautiful, but easily cast aside for not fitting into the confines of polite society. One by one their souls have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them. One by one they have smoothed out my hard edges and cracked open my heart. They have strengthened my character and made me a fierce co-advocate for the plight of the marginalized alongside my daughter. They have halted my march in the lane of the status quo where I sought to find a sense of security and control. Together, she and her friends have propelled me into unknown terrain where I have encountered Christ more intimately than ever before.

Graduation Day found me beside her, up in the nosebleed section of the bleachers in her school gym. She asked me to go with her to watch her classmates walk, so that she could support them. I think it was way more difficult for her to be there than she had anticipated, but she stayed. One after one, students were called up to give speeches because they had achieved exemplary academic success. Their future plans and scholarships were announced. In his introductions, the principal speculated what incredible lives these students will most certainly lead. Through some tears, she continued to snap photos and cheer loudly for her fellow students. Without thought for herself, she showed up. Such a glimpse into this magnificence found in her young soul makes me way more proud of her than if she had passed that damn English class and walked across the stage to receive her diploma with the rest of the Class of 2019.

As I sit here at the kitchen table typing this post, I continue to grapple with this slow and painful process of dying. She is running a bit behind in her morning routine and summer school starts in 30 minutes. She is on week three of three with only four more days left. If she passes the class, she will receive her diploma in the mail come August. Waging war within me is the rising anxiety that she will be late today and the strict rules about attendance flash into my conscience and fuel my repeated reminders that I excitedly shout in the direction of her room. “Sadieremember only one excused absence is allowed for the entire session and tardies add up to an absence. Come on! Hurry up!!” God knows I just want her to be done with this leg of the journey. I want the finish line to be behind us.

At this exact moment, the One who created her, He who is all patient and has a great sense of humor, He crashes through to get my attention. My computer dings to alert me to a new email—it is one to which I subscribe daily. The subject title briefly flashes in the corner of my screen “Conscious Parenting—Giving Ourselves”. Seriously God!? I click the link and read:

Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister behind the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said once that “to love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

That moment when we say, I accept you—even though being with you is awfully hard right now—that’s love. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences—we don’t have to accept terrible behavior. But part of how we love our children is in choosing, again and again, to take the whole child. . .

Maybe, as our hearts overflow, we find that love can, naturally of its own accord, extend wider, until it encompasses caring for all things, and connection to everything—until our love becomes Love itself…”

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Today’s take away…surrender; let go; trust; love freely; allow Me to continue to stretch you into an incarnation of My love in this messy, chaotic world that is in need of being embraced as it is. For it is in dying that you will be born to eternal life.

Sadie, thank you for choosing me to come through unto life to be. You are a beautiful reflection of His grace. For I know that a gift so great is only one that God could create. And I’m reminded every time I see your face that the joy of my world is in you.

Photo credit: Sadie by Abby Hentz

The Long, yet Swift Road to Here

Sadie KindergartenSadie GraduationIt happened. In what seems like just a blink of an eye, my kindergartner is now an eighth grade graduate. Sure the road to here was long and winding. It was sometimes difficult to navigate and there were big potholes to avoid. Certain days the views were tranquil and beautiful and awe inspiring; other days they were chaotic and messy and disordered. There were tears of happiness, pure joy and pride along the way. Tears of sadness, frustration and disappointment clouded many days too. But now looking back, it was really quite swift and the middle part is mostly just a blur.

Some days it seemed like we would never arrive at the end of the road. Nine years of travel on the same path sometimes seemed like being on the Ohio Turnpike I used to drive on my way to and from college–same scenery, same rest stops, same old same. Other days, I didn’t want this path to end. It was so familiar and comforting, like the smell I encountered each time I walked through the door of the house in which I grew up. Its shoulders were lined with the faces of friends and those who became like family. In the rough moments they cheered on she and I; in the good times they celebrated with us. Yet among those faces were also some who didn’t understand us, who judged us, who were frustrated with us. There were some who gave her a label and would never let her outgrow it, no matter how much she changed or thrived or succeeded. They were the ones who especially made this place feel too small now.

Just as a baby in the womb is unable to move about freely at the end of its mother’s pregnancy, this place started to feel confining and unable to contain the very life it had nurtured and fed and kept safe for so long. Towards the very end, it became overwhelmingly apparent that she needed to transition to a bigger space where her growth will be allowed to continue. Yet, as obvious as this was, the unknown ahead remained terrifying.

During the last days in this place, its toll on her was costly. With every milestone nearer to the finish line, it reminded her that some of her hopes and dreams for the journey would never be realized. It reminded her that time with the people with whom she had shared her life the past nine years, for better or for worse, was running out. It reminded her that the place she knew, the second home she visited each day after leaving the first, would no longer be a part of her daily experience. Most of all, it made her face the reality that the transition to the bigger space gets closer with every minute of every day.

The bigger space will have exponentially more than ten times as many faces as this place. It will be bustling with potential; potential friends, potential experiences, potential successes, potential growth. Yet it is unknown and she, with her anxiety disorder unextractably intertwined with each one of life’s moments, instead sees it in her darker moments as offering potential loneliness, potential disappointment, potential failure, potential decline.

I too feel this anxiety encroaching on my sense of relief at crossing the finish line and my pride in her accomplishment of never quitting with the challenges of ADHD making academic life a most arduous feat. There is a pure joy that accompanies the experience of seeing a child rise up against the struggles of life and choose not to quit, even in the face of overwhelming odds of academic structures stacked against her success. On my difficult days, I draw strength from her resolve and determination. It is amazing. Yet the bigger space with its new doorways and new faces and new structures seems so alien. As her mom, I am feeling afraid that I won’t be able to guide her. It feels as if I am taking her to a foreign country where even I, the adult, am unaware of where to go, how to speak the language and even what currency to use.

The first day I dropped her off for kindergarten felt somewhat the same, but this place wasn’t so big and frightening. The faces were fewer and I worked across the parking lot, ever near to my beloved child. I could run over from work if she got hurt or was feeling sick or forgot her lunch. I could spy her in the hallways when I had business that brought me to her building. I could sit near her class and pray with her each week at school Mass. I could protect and love and advocate for her in a heartbeat. And each day, as we traveled to this place, we were together. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we cried. Sometimes we sang along to the same song on the radio, sometimes we fought with ugly words. The bigger space where she will go each day will be far away from where I go each day and we will no longer travel there together.

There is a certain fearlessness that lies deep within my girl, despite her multiple diagnoses. As the night of graduation drew near and the finish line was within sight, she was asked to lead the music for the Mass which preceded the ceremony. Without hesitation she accepted the invitation. In front of all of her classmates, teachers, friends, family and strangers alike, on her own, in front of the microphone, she led the entire congregation in song, beautifully, with grace and poise. Though she did not receive any special academic awards or outstanding student awards or other accolades reserved for the chosen few whose talents and hard work earn them such rightful recognition, she was given the opportunity to offer what she could. She did so in a way that was unique and magnificent. It was her chance to shine and she did not shrink from it. She crossed the finish line of the long, yet swift road to here with her head held high.

As I have aged and have learned to cope pretty effectively with my own anxiety disorder, I often commiserate on the opportunities I missed earlier in life because of my fear. So many of my friends, in their twenties, traveled to foreign lands with a positive anticipation and desire to explore that goes hand in hand with a healthy sense of adventure found in youth. They were expanded and changed and made better by the journeys on which they embarked. I, on the other hand, stayed in place, dreading any change that would upset my sense of grounding and foundation. Yet more recently, after reading the novel, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, I felt the desire stronger than ever to go on a crazy adventure, unprepared, but open to what might be. I recognize within myself for the first time a dose of the fearlessness which my daughter has embraced at a young age.

Reflecting on the long, yet swift road to here I see that we are in the waiting room of summer before we will be ushered into the bigger space. It has dawned on me that perhaps, the journey of the next four years on which we are about to embark is just the crazy adventure for which I have been longing. Now I have a choice to make: A) I can choose to stay in place, dreading any change that will upset my sense of grounding and foundation. B) I can tap into the fearlessness within and choose to stay open with positive anticipation and a desire to explore. The road ahead may seem foreign and I may feel entirely unprepared to travel it myself, let alone be her guide along the way, but it may be exactly what is needed to be expanded and changed and made better.

I’m going with B. I guess we’re gonna have to figure it out along the way and write the next chapter of the guidebook, together.