Fighting desire with desire – the parenting version.

zooRecently I listened to a podcast by Rob Bell, or as he likes to call it, a “Robcast.” I’m way behind on his episodes because I started listening way after he started putting them out and I am going in order, because that is the way I do things. So, this one was from 2015 and entitled: “This Episode is Sugar Free.”

The theme of the episode was how to deal with cravings or desires for things we know are not healthy for us. So, while it started with the idea of foods we know do not fuel our bodies well, it also covered everything else as well, like addiction and unhealthy behaviors.

One of the things he said stuck with me. Don’t fight desire with will. It’s an unfair fight. Desire is much stronger than will. We have to fight desire with a bigger desire.

Now I’ve heard this idea before and totally adopted it into my understanding, even if I don’t always implement it. We can’t successfully become healthier by focusing on the negative, the things we can’t have. We need to focus on the positive, the things we can have.

But as often happens these days when I am deep in the role of parent, I started to wonder how this should apply to parenting. I feel like I am always giving my kids negative directives and answers when they ask for things they want that I know are not healthy for them. I haven’t spent a great deal of time helping them develop the ability to replace their unhealthy desire with a healthy one. We had just had an outing to the zoo, where everything had been happy and exciting until the one request for a bag of cotton candy was turned down. Suddenly the cotton candy became the one thing in the world that my nine year old really really wanted. Everything, EVERYTHING, now seemed to hinge on wether or not he was going to get cotton candy. Or if not cotton candy, some other special treat. Now, part of this was my fault because I didn’t have the fortitude to turn down the cotton candy idea right away. I played with the idea, or maybe they have kettle corn. I really like kettle corn. We could get a bag of kettle corn. But then it turned out that the supposed kettle corn was really just regular old butter popcorn and now there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted, so the treat idea was shut down entirely. So, yes, I realized that my indecisiveness and my own weakness when it comes to sweets led to some of the difficulty. But I also realized that even though I talked with my kids about how their disappointment should not be the thing that determines their attitude about the outing in its entirety, I didn’t really talk about the positive things they could use to fight their desire for cotton candy.

In thinking this through I wondered if it would work. Especially with my younger kids who are so focused on the present. Most of the positive desires we work for are long term, out in the future, not right here and right now. I wasn’t sure they’d be able to grasp the concept or be willing to even play with the idea. But if I wasn’t even giving them the option, how were they going to develop this positive thinking muscle that they will need later when mom is no longer there to say no, you can’t have five donuts for breakfast.

I received another chance at this on Monday. I was out with that same 9 year old. He is often the one who gets caught up in obsessive desires that end up ruining his whole outlook on an outing. It was just the two of us and we were heading back to the metro after an appointment in DC. The first time I took him to this part of DC I also took him to Starbucks and he bought a pastry and a bottle of watermelon juice, which was apparently the greatest juice EVER. Now, every time we go, he asks about stopping to get that juice.

In order to save money (once I realized that riding the metro was already adding up to a large chunk), I have stopped planning on taking him out to eat something and instead have tried to get creative with packing meals and treats instead. Today we had had “lunchables.” Not really, I just packed crackers and salami and cheese and cucumbers. I had even put in sliced apple and peanut butter for “dessert.” He really enjoyed the meal and now we were heading to the metro to hurry home.

As we passed Starbucks, he asked, as he usually does, if we could stop so he could get the amazing watermelon juice. I said no, we needed to get home and also I was trying to save money. As the disappointment started to set in, I decided to ask him. “What do you want more?”

I explained how when there is something we want that we can’t have or isn’t good for us, it is helpful to think of all the things we want more that we can have or are healthy for us.

Do you know what he said?

“A good attitude.”

That’s what he wanted more. He wanted to have a good attitude and a good experience on the outing. And then he went on to say how he really liked the food I had packed and enjoyed that meal. And just like that he left the desire for watermelon juice behind him and proceeded on with his day.

As we entered the metro I pondered how often my kids exceed my expectations when I give them the opportunity to try.

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This is happily ever after.

ceremonyI remember once a very long time ago, looking over at John and asking him if we would always be as in love and happy as we felt right then. We weren’t married yet. I think we were engaged. For us there was never much difference between dating and engaged. We started our relationship both knowing where we wanted it to go. Or thinking we knew. In my mind, the ultimate dream was getting married. But in that moment of questioning I glimpsed the life that was beyond that beautiful wedding I envisioned. A life I hoped to live with this young man beside me.

Looking back on our first years of marriage, it almost feels like a dream. Life was, in many ways, shallow. I didn’t see it then. I struggled with the same things all newlyweds struggle with. And I struggled with the responsibilities of a household. We married young, neither of us had learned to really live yet. I felt myself consumed with household chores, meal planning, and eventually motherhood. I struggled almost constantly with a feeling of unfulfillment. I was trying so hard to be the wife and mother that I thought I was supposed to be.

And I hurt. I hurt because the breathless feeling that I used to feel about my husband seemed to be slipping away. The love notes he used to slip into my backpack disappeared. Sometimes the plans he had dreamed changed and I felt like he was breaking a promise to me. I didn’t understand how his mind worked, how he had to explore and dream and look at all the options. I retreated to spending lots of time with my family. It was there that I felt truly myself. I wasn’t mom or wife. I was just Miriam. When I interacted with John I would often slip into a pretend version of myself. Apparently even my voice would change, this was pointed out to me by my sister when she would hear me answer the phone when John would call. But I didn’t know how to do it differently. He didn’t understand the all-consuming task of motherhood and I didn’t understand the stresses of his work or really what made him tick. I think that the transition to parenthood was just as much of a shock to him as it was to me, but we didn’t really talk about it.

John watched me slip away from him. He says now that he felt he was losing me to the caricature of “preschool mom.” And ironically, I was striving really hard to fill that role. I was trying so hard to be “that woman.” The one who had dinner on the table and a clean house when her husband came home from work. The one who was always available sexually for her husband even when she really didn’t feel like it. The one who suffered silently when she just needed her husband to say how much he appreciated her and all that she did. The one who submitted alway, obeyed often, and settled for a life that was valuable because of who her husband was. And constantly I felt like I was failing.

It wasn’t bad. We had plenty of happy moments. Sometimes I opened up and was honest to my husband and cried the tears of pain that needed to be cried and he comforted me. Often we dreamed together and made plans. I started to learn more of who he was, but I think I neglected to learn more of who I was. I tried so hard to be someone I thought I was supposed to be, that I lost sight of the woman that I was. John and I had been best friends before we got married. Looking back now, I think we knew each other the least during those first few years of marriage. It was as if marriage destroyed our friendship and it has taken us a long time to begin to build that back.

Over the last few years I have been on a journey to discover myself. I have stopped trying to be someone else, and instead am exploring how to be myself. I began to truly see myself as someone existing completely separate from my husband, someone who has the choice every day to decide my journey, someone who has the right to speak up, someone who can be honest when I am not that person I thought I was supposed to be. And it was when I began to see myself that way that I began to be a better friend to my husband. We cannot truly love someone if we do not love ourselves. Love seems so much more powerful to me these days. Instead of feeling breathless in John’s presence, I feel full of breath. Fully alive.

I told him yesterday that life is not roses and daisies. It still hurts, a lot. Sometimes even more than it did when I was trying to ignore the pain. But it is real, I am real. If I could go back and answer that question I asked so long ago: “Will we always be as in love as we are right now?” I would say this: “No. Thankfully no. We will be more. But it won’t feel like it does right now. It will be deeper. So much deeper. This relationship will take more from you than you know you have. And it will give to you more than you could ever imagine. One day you will look back and realize that this is real life. Not a fairy tale. And you will be grateful for the pain and joy and dreams and tears and struggle. Because you will love, truly love this man. And when you wonder if it is possible to love him any more than you do right now, you will hope that you have enough life left to find out.”

How must we then live?

image11 years ago, I woke to find my infant daughter Emma not breathing. It took awhile to accept that she was gone. I did cpr, John called 911. The paramedics worked on her in the ambulance. The doctors worked on her in the hospital. But there was no sign of life, no response to our urgent attempts to breathe life back into her little body. And so we let her go, once we knew she had already gone, we let her go.

One thing that was excruciatingly hard to accept was the fact that I wasn’t there with her, holding her in my arms as she passed from this life into the next. The pain of this part of the story came back up for me again just last month. My grandma passed away on January 2. She was in the hospital, and my grandpa was there, but he was sleeping at the end. grandmaHe feels so bad that he wasn’t holding her hand. And as he shared his pain at not being able to be there for her, I remembered that I shared in that pain. Even while knowing how hard it will be to let go, I think it is natural to have the desire to be as close as possible to our loved ones when they approach death’s dark door.

But we can’t go through that door for them or even with them if it isn’t our time. Even had I been holding Emma’s body in my arms, there would have been a point where her spirit would have left me, where she would have had to go on alone. Death is a door we walk through alone.

All of us will reach that point. Life is temporary. But until that moment we live and we don’t live alone. I feel like traditional Christianity often puts an emphasis on our life after death. That it is at the end of our life that we truly begin life anew. But lately I find that I want to focus more on the life that we have been given now. Every day we awake with the gift of breath in our bodies is a day that we have been given to live.

This morning as I reflected on Emma’s death, remembering that day with an oddly comforting sense of nostalgia, I wondered what I will feel when I reach the end of my life. When I look back on the days, months, years of my life, what do I hope to see? What is it that I want to be able to say? And I think, that when I reach death’s door, I want to pause and look back to see all the relationships both in my past and present and say: “I have loved well, and thus, I have truly lived.”

Wind.

This morning, shortly after I woke, I heard the wind. The house is surrounded by it. It rushes around the corners, whistles through any metal it finds till it vibrates and sings, and pushes the cold in through every little crack it can find. Walking to preschool this morning left Dietrich with hair that stood on end and an attitude of disgust. “I not like that!” was his reaction after finally reaching the protection of his school.

Everything is being pushed around by the wind. Most stand their ground, even if they obviously don’t like it, like the little squirrel I can see out the window, trying to determine how far out on the branch he can walk without being blown off. But not everything can withstand the wind. A large evergreen tree, though apparently healthy, lies wounded on the ground. It gave in to the wind gusts sometime in the night, falling with a heavy crack that Will described this morning.

Some days I feel like I’m trying to function while being pushed around by the wind, just like the little squirrel, his tail bent over backwards, his little claws clinging to the branch. This morning was one of those days. Mondays are my day off, my weekend, set aside for self-care, whatever that may look like in any particular week. This Monday in particular felt extra special because it’s the day after my birthday. My birthday was spent throwing Elise an elaborate mystery birthday party, which I enjoyed, but also was a huge gift of my time and mental energy. So today was supposed to be a day just for me. I woke this morning with pain, pain I’ve been having in my neck since Saturday morning. Something is out of place and even though the subsequent days haven’t been as bad as the first morning, it is still annoying. Plus I seem to have come down with yet another cold, right after finally recovering from the last one. When I went to wake kids up for school, I remembered that Will won’t be going to school. Yet again he will be staying home for a sick day, this time for possible pink eye. I guess a doctor appointment will be on the schedule today. There is a lot of anger, frustration, and stress surrounding this one little thing because it brings up the fact that we are still waiting to hear back about our health care application for the kids.

My morning was spent making phone calls, searching for paperwork I couldn’t find, and generally feeling sorry for myself. And once I start dealing with the frustration of one thing, it feels like every other single thing that lives on the list of to dos in my head starts calling out for attention. I suddenly feel like there is no possible way that everything that needs to be done will ever get done. Why in the world did I think that I can rest today? I need to do that, and this, and that other thing. And while I’m at it, I might as well just give up on ever having time off again. If I were really doing all that I were supposed to do I would be working from morning till night every single day. Yes, I know, crazy, but that’s what happens when I start to feel emotional and stressed. The uncontrollable circumstances felt like the wind, blowing me about, changing the course of my day. Yet, I don’t want to be like the tree that was taken down by the wind. If I’m going to survive this windy day, I need to stop letting my attitude be controlled by the circumstances and choose to approach this day the way I want to. Despite the fact that I now have two doctor appointments interrupting my day, one for Will’s eye, and one for my neck, and despite the fact that my day will not be spent alone as I had originally hoped, I still have the ability to make this day my own. I need to stop expecting Monday to fit into the dreams I have for it, and instead live my Mondays with a spirit of Sabbath no matter what the day’s schedule brings. Because the truth is that as parents, life rarely follows the plans that we have made. My choice is not whether or not there will be twists and turns in my path, but how I choose to walk them. Today I am choosing to walk them with my head held high, attempting an attitude of gratitude and a spirit of loving sacrifice. I admit that at times today there will be, as there have already been, tears in my eyes and a pang of self pity in my heart, but even while recognizing those feelings I am choosing not to let those rule my day. I may look a little bedraggled by the wind, but I will not fall. And just like the little squirrel who realized his limitations and turned around, returning to the safety of the tree trunk, I will make space for self-care in this day too.

Waiting.

Last Advent, I gave myself a blog challenge. I attempted to find beauty in the everyday and share it all with you in pictures. It was a good practice for me. I find that being intentional about something in our daily lives encourages reflection, processing, and really just thinking. Things that get kind of lost in the busyness of everyday life.

With that in mind, I have been wondering how to approach this Advent season. I want to be intentional with my life and Advent seems like a good time to start working towards that, even if it is just in little ways.

img_4678My thoughts Sunday as we walked to church across our color-filled campus, enjoying the sunshine and breeze even despite the cold chill in the air, were on waiting. Not just waiting, but how to wait well. How do we wait in anticipation, rather than boredom? How do we welcome the holy into our everyday lives so that we live in the present while also working towards the future?

The homily Sunday echoed a lot of my thoughts, pointing out the importance of preparing ourselves for Jesus now, welcoming him into our lives now. We can’t just wait for some future time, the kingdom of God is here, now, present within and among us. That is what I want to focus on this Advent, the balance of living intentionally in the present while also looking towards the future.

I hope to share some of my processing and thoughts with you here in the blog. Please share your comments as well as you discover the holy in your every day, the beautiful in the commonplace, the tension in the waiting, or anything else that you find causes you to think this year.

“See me.” Lessons from a toddler.

seemeEven though Dietrich is not the most verbally adept 3 year old, he often surprises me with his correct usage of pronouns and plurals.  But obviously he is 3, so some of his phrases, though logical, are not actually grammatically correct. One such phrase: “See me.”

That phrase has really stuck in my head lately. The correct phrase would be: “Look at me.” But how often do we look with our eyes, and fail to actually see. And it started me thinking. How do we see people, truly see them. Not just what they look like, the clothes they wear, the things they do, but really see the person.

Even in my closest relationships I tend to look at people through the lense of self-interest. For example, if John does something because he is stressed, my first mental response is to think about how his stress affects my day, instead of first recognizing his struggle, his needs, his sorrow, his passions, etc. When my children misbehave, I immediately think about how their actions reflect on my parenting abilities and what people around me must be thinking about me, instead of noticing why they are upset or confused or looking for attention, etc. I’m not saying I think we should all unselfishly try to meet everyone’s needs while ignoring our own. But I do think it would be good to get out of our own head enough to recognize the humanity in the person next to us.

If it is so hard to see those that we live near, those we share lives, history, and love with, is it actually impossible to “see” strangers for who they are? What would it look like to go about my day and actually see the people around me?

A few weeks ago I got off work and had time to kill before the bus came, so as I often do, I started walking down the street towards the metro, planning on catching the bus at a later stop. I had almost reached the end of my walk, when a man stumbled across the street in front of me and disappeared into the drive of a hotel. It was like a blip in the normal smooth traffic of people and cars. No one else seemed to notice even though this man walked as if he were falling.

As I passed the hotel drive, I glanced into the covered space, wondering if I would be able to see him still. He was there, but not walking. Instead he was lying on his back with his head on the curb, feet stuck out into the driveway. I kept walking, but then I stopped. This wasn’t normal. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, if he was just drunk, or if there was something else going on, but I couldn’t just leave him there. I turned around and entered the driveway and walked up to the man on the ground.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Are you ok?” He groaned and sat up, but there was blood on his head. I repeated my question and the man assured me that he was fine, even though his confusion and his body language told me otherwise. “You don’t look ok,” I said. “Can I get you some help?” He said he had fallen down, and then asked me if he looked like he had hurt himself. I told him about the blood on his head and that I thought it would be best if we called an ambulance to make sure he was ok. Thankfully at that point a man who had been standing a little ways away in the designated smoking area came over and asked if he could go in and ask the hotel to call for help. I agreed and I stayed with the gentleman. The hotel called for help, the man who had stepped in stayed and waited with me. This man had actually seen the older gentleman enter the drive and stumble into one of the brick pillars, which is why his head was bleeding and how he ended up on the ground. While we talked, the injured man sat cross-legged on the ground between us and kept wiping blood away from his sweaty forehead. He repeated himself often, and didn’t seem terribly coherent, so I wasn’t sure what to say to him. Later I wondered if it had been really rude to talk about him as if he weren’t there.

It didn’t take long before an ambulance pulled up and the paramedics entered the drive. The first one knelt down and addressed the injured man by name, asking him what had happened. The man said: “I fell down.” And the paramedic’s answer made it clear that this had happened before. The witness gave his report and we were allowed to leave. I walked away, but felt so uneasy. I actually turned back around after getting a few yards down the road, returned to the ambulance where they had already loaded up the man in the back and mentioned to one of the paramedics that I had seen this man before he hit his head and his behavior was not normal. “Yes,” he replied. “We pick him up all the time. My partner just picked him up yesterday actually.” There was nothing more I could do, but as I walked away I felt sad. Here is a man who is picked up by ambulance so often that the paramedics know him by name. Yet, nothing is changed for him. I “helped” him today by stopping and making sure he got help, but I didn’t truly change anything for him. It was all so incredibly sad.

I came home, my brain in a muddle, wondering if there was anything to do that could actually help someone like that. I talked it over with John, who has passionate views about the social systems in our country and who immediately began lamenting the fact that our systems are failing, and this is just one of many symptoms. And I agree. Work does need to be done to change big picture things. John’s good at thinking big picture. But his response didn’t totally satisfy me either. It is sometimes easy to help one person and satisfy our conscience enough that we can ignore the big issues that we should be contributing effort to solve. But if we completely focus on the big picture, we lose sight of what makes up the big picture — individual people. And that is just as wrong. Even though it felt like I was the only one who actually saw that man when he walked past me that day, I know I didn’t truly see him. I know nothing about him other than what I experienced during those few minutes with him. I don’t even remember his name. I didn’t touch him. I didn’t even stay truly present with him while I was there. But maybe I saw him just a little more clearly than I sometimes do. Our lives touched for just an instance and the disparity between them caught me off guard.

I really don’t know how to “see” people. But I think it requires listening and presence. Those are two gifts I have the ability to give to anyone. I may not have the means to change their circumstances, but I can offer them these two things. I’m not good at it. I often respond in selfishness instead of in the kindness of listening and presence. But I hope to practice this more, to continue to train myself to see.

“See me,” Dietrich says. Next time he says this to me, I will get down on my knees, look him in the eyes and say “Yes, I do see you.”

Finding Home.

We’ve been in Alexandria now for 2 weeks. As John has mentioned a couple times, the next three years will mark the longest we’ve been in one house since we sold our house in Siloam about 6 years ago. Since then we’ve moved from house to house in NWA, then to Germany and back again, and now to Alexandria.If all goes as planned, we’ll be in Alexandria longer than we were in Germany, even longer than we attended Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam. It seems like such a long time in many ways, yet in others, very short.

IMG_4279Knowing this sense of a possible security of place for the next three years has meant that I have looked forward to settling in, making this place our home. It means buying furniture and decorating to our taste instead of living with whatever we happen to be given. But unfortunately, we still have at least 4 months before that happens. Right now we are house-sitting for fellow seminarians who are gone for the summer. We are so so thankful for the provision of their house. We love living here, but it does mean that most of our stuff sits in storage waiting for us to have our own space to put it. At the beginning of August we will move on campus. But because the family housing won’t be completed by then, we will be put in some sort of temporary housing until Fall break, when they hope the apartments will be done and everyone can move into their own place. So again, we will make do, live temporarily, get by without settling in.

IMG_4261We should be good at living this way by  now, but I feel like what happens, what has been happening for the last several years, is that we never truly live life the way we want because it is too easy to say: “We’ll make those changes, live the way we want to once we are in our own place.” When living in constant transition, you end up putting off lots of important things because it is easier. Perhaps this unexpected change in plans is a chance for me to practice living the way I want no matter how stable I feel. After all, even the 3 years in seminary is still a transitionary phase. If I want to live intentionally this 3 years, why do I feel I have to wait until my house is semi-permanent? That may be helpful, but I think perhaps I’m just making excuses if I can’t start making some changes now.

At the same time though, I want to give myself and my family lots of grace. Not only are we living in a temporary physical home, we are learning a new balance of work and living. We have never before had a time when I was working as much as I am now. We have never before had to figure out how to balance running the household to the extent we are now. When I get frustrated about how it’s going, John reminds me that it has only been 2 weeks. “This will take time to figure out,” he says. And he’s right.

In general it is going well, my main frustrations focus around the grief of letting go. Despite the fact that there are lot of household care things that I don’t enjoy and gladly would share with John, there are others that I have grown accustomed to being in charge of and that I am struggling to let go. The biggest of those being cooking, grocery shopping, and planning meals. I still do some, but I’m not home for several meals each week, so we are trying to figure out how to work it out with two of us shopping, two of us making meals, and two of us trying to live within a single budget. And of course it is all complicated by trying to learn to shop in an area with a much higher cost of living than Siloam Springs. What it will come down to is lots of communication. And some of those conversations will be hard, because if John and I have one thing we tend to “fight” over, it is meal planning. I know, that comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? But it’s an emotional area for both of us and we have different ideas of how to approach things.

So, I have come to the conclusion that this time of temporary housing will be a time of exploring what I want home to look like. I will take the time I would have been using to set up my house to explore my new place in my family, to sort out the balance of house management, to think through what living intentionally looks like, and to process a few of the parenting and lifestyle things John and I have been working towards changing. In short, I will take this time to set up our real home, the home that moves with us no matter where we go.