Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chocolate Covered Brownies and Purposeful Living

The fact that I found clip art for this means I wasn't the first person to make this mistake.

I do not know what possessed me to volunteer to co-lead IC's brownie troop.  Normally this is exactly the kind of thing that I avoid like the plague.  There is so much about it that seems to scream at me that I should not do it.  First of all, my volunteer application has not yet been approved, and since my background is less than perfect, I'm not sure that it will be.  I had to divulge my deepest secrets to another mom who seems to have it all together, who I'd only just met, and then to a professional employee of the local Girl Scout council, and finally on an online form for complete strangers to read.  I shook while I typed every one of those emails.  Tonight I had to lead a meeting that involved corralling seven girls in an echoing kitchen, and baking. I don't consider myself skillful at leading, working with children, or baking, and a room that echos gets on my nerves when it's quiet, let alone filled with seven and eight year olds.  Next I had to lead the push to promote our fall fundraiser.  Thankfully the head leader was able to talk to the moms about it while I did the baking with the girls, but I am also not good at promoting things or selling things, particularly things that I know people are only really purchasing because they like your cute kid and want to support his or her extracurricular endeavors.  Honestly, I've always wondered why more groups don't consider forgoing organized fundraisers altogether and just sending kids out to beg for money.  It's the same thing, and involves a lot less paperwork.

So thus far I have spilled my guts to complete strangers who I perceive as being better than me and who have the opportunity to judge my statements, I took on a leadership position when I am most definitely not a leader, I volunteered to work with children on a regular basis even though I usually find that raising my own is quite enough for me, I baked even though I have yet to get through a recipe without asking E's opinion on something or other, I worked in a loud room, and I asked people I don't know to spend their time selling stuff that no one wants and acted like it was a great idea.  We just finished our second meeting.  Lord, what have I done?

So we baked brownies.  I will now pause so you can either giggle or roll your eyes at this clever idea.....
It didn't go how I wanted it to go for a number of reasons. I totally underestimated how long it would take these girls to work on a recipe together, in part because our first meeting was attended by four mostly quiet little girls, and this meeting brought seven, a few of whom seemed to bring out the hyper in each other.  To make a long story short, my evening was filled with a lot of echoed screaming and giggling, and in the end each girl went home messy, carrying a hunk of chocolate sludge wrapped in foil, and an hour past her bedtime.  By the end the other moms were begging for it be over, IC was crying in the corner because she hadn't even eaten dinner, and the head leader's cousin/babysitter was pretty ticked off.

In the past five years I have endeavored to live a rhythmic, unhurried life, and to keep my family moving at a pace that gave them space to be truly thoughtful about their choices and day to day activities.  When I write it that way it sounds boring and a little silly, but I made the decision to work this way purposefully.  Keeping open space in our schedule allows us to have more times when we find ourselves at home, together, with no obligations hanging over our heads to pull us apart.  I think that my children are enriched by deliberately having some time when they aren't doing homework, or chores, or extracurricular activities.  Creating blocks of open time allows me to remain purposeful during the busy blocks of time because I can slowly and thoughtfully examine how I spend my time and know that the time investments that I make are fulfilling my ultimate purpose: to love God, and grow closer to Him.  In Matthew 19:26 Jesus said, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  Many people interpret this verse to refer specifically to the pursuit of wealth and retail therapy on all of its various levels, and rightfully so.  But I think that most people, when they think about it, would also admit that they treasure their time at least as much as they do their money.  I've always felt that time is of the essence in my life, and for some reason I've always felt hurried, not just in the day to day moments, but also on a larger scale.  Weeks after I started college, I couldn't wait to graduate, weeks after getting married, I couldn't wait to have children, and as soon as I did that I was ready for them to grow up.  A major cause of this is my concerns about my health and genetics, but it's also caused by my acceptance of the common societal ideal that our value is based on how much we can produce.  Yet I know for a fact that that is not how God defines my value, or the value of my children.  I desperately want to teach them that our life's focus should be on our relationship with Jesus Christ, not on how much they can get done, and when I talk to them about how Jesus loves them and how God wants to have a relationship with them, I'm right on target.  But when I get frustrated with them and myself because we simply don't have time to accomplish everything that our schedule is asking of us, I am failing at this.

So I guess the question now is, am I failing to follow this concept of deliberately living at a slow pace and creating space in my life by keeping margins of unscheduled moments in my schedule?  I've struggled with that in these last few weeks, as we run from the bus stop to soccer practice to cub scouts, and then home for dinner and straight to bed.  I struggle with it even on the nights where (praise the Lord) we don't have any extracurricular activities, because even then I have my time filled with preparing fundraiser materials and answering emails and uploading photos and making sure we have parent-teacher conferences scheduled.  My Tuesday morning ladies' Bible study is about to begin reading Breathe by Keri Wyatt Kent, a book that I suggested, and the book that first introduced me to this idea of living slowly and deliberately.  I am very conscious of the fact that as I am about to tell my friends that this is the path I've chosen, my life does not really reflect that.  Yet while I know that the rhythm of my life is running at a frantic tempo right now, and I know that it may be necessary to make some changes to this simply so that I can endure it, I am not outside what God would want for me.  After the brownie meeting tonight I felt frustrated but a friend reminded me that sometimes the moments that seem the most disastrous are in fact the most memorable.  I am co-leading IC's brownie troop because my mom served as my Girl Scout leader for four years, and continued working with other Girl Scout programs for years after that.  While my relationship with my mother has always been complicated, I knew even then that she was doing it for me, and I valued that, even during those early adolescent moments when I wished that she would butt out.  This is an investment in my relationship with IC, and this in particular is something that will create memories for her and I alone.  In this she can know not only that I did this for our family, but that I did this for her.  

Keri talks in her book about living in a rhythm of activity and rest, and that is what I am doing. "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  Right now life is crazy, but I know that it isn't going to last forever.  Soccer season will end in November right in time for IC's birthday, and then Thanksgiving, and then of course Christmas, but a moment will come, probably sometime in the first week of January, when I am going to stop, take a deep breath, and know that nothing right then is more important than resting, being still, and thinking about the goodness and mercy of Christ.  Remind me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blogging By Moonlight

This must be what writing a boring blog after the kids go to bed looked like in 1901.

On Thursday it will be one month since IC and DJ's first day of school.  E started his classes for this semester a week after them.  Surveying everything that has changed since then, I think that I am finally starting to see all of this come together into that magical comforting place I call a routine.  I am a very regimented person, but unfortunately that is not the type of life I live, as much as I try to make it work that way.  I am a homemaker, which is a term I prefer over "stay at home mom" because it sounds more active and intentional.  My job as such is to serve as the manager for the day to day needs of four other people, each with a great difference in what those needs actually are.  The problem is that my desire for routine leads me to try to set things up for myself so that I can take care of each one's needs proactively, but three of these four who I care for change on a daily basis, and change their lives completely every few months. I've mentioned in the past that I have really struggled with finding any sort of comfort zone with my husband's schedule ever since he started nursing school a year ago.  The difficult part about E's life and IC's life and DJ's life is that they are always changing.  It takes me the full sixteen weeks of E's semester to get comfortable with when he's here and when he isn't, and to know how I should react to both.  Then, of course, the semester ends, and it changes again.  IC's and DJ's changes revolve around the changing seasons of after-school activities.  Currently I am trying to figure out how to balance our weekday evenings: Mondays- no activities, but double homework to prepare for Tuesday; Tuesdays- get dinner on the table before kids arrive home, pick up kids, feed them dinner, straight to soccer, then bring IC and HT home while E takes DJ to cub scouts; Wednesdays- 1st and 3rd of the month- allow E to care for kids while I attend church, 2nd and 4th of the month- take IC to brownies, every week it's double homework to prepare for Thursday, etc. It makes my head spin.  I'm realizing though that there are a few things that I can rely on that will probably be present everyday.  Everyday, E will get up as soon as the first child wakes up, even if I offer to let him sleep in like a bajillion times.  Every night E will claim he has to stay up and study when instead he will fall asleep on the couch and accomplish nothing.   

In all of this I always put my own desires about how to spend my time last.  I am not whining; I do this by choice.  It is simply easier for me to know that I am caring for my family if I know that I at least can be the flexible one, even though I am the last person you would describe as being flexible.  None of my plans are ever set in stone.  I am not a martyr, because I do my best to keep careful track of my most pressing needs and when necessary I will take care of them.  I don't skip meals, I catch a nap or sleep in when I'm feeling sleep deprived, and I chat on facebook or attend a church event when I need some social time.  But if those particular boxes are filled or close to filled, I move on and continue to manage everyone else.  

Generally I'm perfectly content this way, but never for very long, because sooner or later something will start to itch.  Sometimes music calls me, and I feel as if I will never be satisfied with my life again until I can start taking voice lessons again or sing with a professional choir.  Other times it's travel, something I have never done.  Lately I've been getting the itch to move again; thinking that if I don't get out of this city and experience a new place, like, tomorrow, I will never be able to go on.  Today the writing bug bit me, and it's itching.

My women's Bible study group labored over the choice of a new book to read this morning, and happily they chose a book that I suggested, Breathe by Keri Wyatt Kent, who is one of my favorite authors.  I was excited about it, although of course there was the necessary side dish of guilt ("Did I push it too much? What if everyone hates it and it's a waste of their time?").  Anyway, I hadn't checked out Keri's facebook page or website recently so I took a quick glance and ran into something kind of new and that's when the bug got me.  Keri and twelve other female writers have founded the Redbud Writers' Guild, a group dedicated to "fearlessly expanding the feminine voice in our churches, communities, and culture".  My heart was clicking my internal "like" button a million times when I saw it.  I read through a few pages of blog posts from the members, all so different, yet all so thought-provoking and reflective.  Oh the joy that would be mine to belong to such a circle, to have my words read and respected with the likes of these.  And then I noticed that one can actually apply to join this sacred circle.  My heart was dancing. A writer! Me! I want to join! Ooo, Ooo, pick me, pick me!

Stop, deep breath.  You are a lowly blog writer who has a whopping eight followers, only one of whom it not a personal friend (and thank you to that one, you give me hope!). You write your blog at around midnight on the nights you even get that far, and you fight to stay awake while you do it.  You will never be eligible for this.  I looked at the membership application, and it is pretty certain that I do not have the prerequisite experience for this group.  There was a large space where one was to list all the books and articles she has published in the past.  Although the button at the top of this page does say "publish", I doubt that a free blog is what they have in mind.  I have never published so much as a classified ad.  

No matter, I will have to start small and dream big.  That's the advice I'd give one of my children.  Figure out how I get there from here.  Take the first step, write the blog, and explore ways of getting it out there.  But where?  I'm not even ready for that question yet.  The bigger question for me is when.  Maybe I want to write because I am imagining these ladies sipping tea on their porches and typing on their laptops while they listen to the birds and smell the flowers.  I don't even drink tea.  I don't even have a laptop, now that E has commandeered the one we own for his schoolwork.  I write on an iMac that is situated between the kitchen table and the Jumperoo.  Yeah, I am so not a writer.  Just like I was never a singer, or a missionary.  So many intentions, so much time spent gearing myself up to take the first step, but questioning in which direction I should go.  

But I'm not ready to stop believing that any of these things could happen to me.  Heck, all of them.  I did sort of manage to bundle them all together in the ethnomusicology program I was doing.  But how do I break this down so that I can know what God is trying to tell me with all these desires to do things that right now seem so vague and beyond my reach?  What is it that I really want to do?  

I want to speak (or write) words that someone will hear or read, and it will change their life.  I want to look someone in the eye and offer them the love of God, like a gift wrapped up and given just for them.  I want to do things, say things, and write things that will shift someone's perspective so that they will think deeper, see God's love for them clearer, and love themselves more in the process.  I want to offer someone mercy and encouragement, even if I will never completely understand their situation or their struggle.  I just want to love someone.

And just like that, just as I type it out, I realize that I do that everyday.  Maybe it's not on the scale that I dream of, and it's not in the format that I would like to speak from, and maybe I don't succeed all the time.  Maybe I need more practice.  But I do all those things.  I do them when I explain to IC that the reason she must try the Trader Joes potstickers I made for dinner is not only because she will be rewarded with a restaurant trip on Friday, but also because eating a variety of healthy foods is essential to her body feeling healthy so that she can do all the things she wants to do.  I do them when I button up DJ's cub scout uniform while he's changing his clothes in the car, and I tell him that I can't wait to see all the exciting things he will learn and do this year.  I do them when I hold HT after he suffers yet another bump on the head from his overly eager efforts at learning to walk.  I do them when I remind E that he will make mistakes as a nurse, and that yes, his mistakes could kill someone, but that even then he needs to be able to go on and still know that he is good at what he does and that he does it out of a God-given desire to care for others.  There's four people right there, over and over again, in one day.  I'm not saying that this satisfies all these itches that I keep getting, but it does tell me that one day I will accomplish grander things, because right now I have these four people to practice on.  And most of the time, these four people seem pretty happy, and feel pretty loved, so maybe I'm doing a good job.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What I Want To Do When I Grow Up by Melanie

{Insert overused movie cliche here.}
So, have I had writer's block for four months? If by "writer's block" you mean two kids plus a baby, a husband that's always hanging around, an insane summer and not a lot to say that's intelligent, then yes.  My mind has been consumed by the needs of the moment for months, and the thought of tackling any sort of higher level thinking has brought me nothing but exhaustion.  Even now I'm struggling with what to say here, but the writing bug is back.  There's a portion of myself that enjoys being completely invested in my children, not just in the sense of caring and loving but in time spent.  That portion of me still gets excited when late August back-to-school time is getting close, and looks forward to buying new composition books and pencils. Somewhere in all that excitement I realize that in a way I'm jealous of my children, barely scratching the surface on living their lives and heading off everyday to spend their time learning new things, surrounded by their friends.  I have the personality of an eternal student; I am never satisfied unless I'm studying something. The trouble is the practicalities -- being a student doesn't exactly pay much.

I have been been married for nine years, and I have been a homemaker the entire time.  I didn't really plan it this way, but the whole concept of choosing a career has always scared me.  I mentioned once in a previous post that just from casual observation it seems like my generation has a fear of relationship commitments, yet I have continually sought out deep commitments in every relationship I have, to the point that I think I intimidate people, because friendship with me seems too complicated.  Yet, as invested as I am in every interpersonal relationship I make, I have never been able to settle down and choose exactly what it is I want to do with my life.  Reading that would come as a surprise to anyone who knew me when I was eighteen; at that point in my life I acted as if I knew everything that was set before me, and my life would simply be a matter of connecting the dots.  But, while I was able to fool even myself much of the time, it was only an act.  I majored in music, and while it's true that I am unfulfilled without music in my life, I really only chose it because I had confidence that I was good at it, something I couldn't say for any other subject I enjoyed.  E had a similar experience when he chose to go to music school.  While he was probably quite sure that he would be successful at many different subjects, he had talent in music, and as we have both observed, when a person has what others perceive as "natural" talent in an art form, the people around that person tend to believe that that individual should pursue that natural talent to the point of excluding any other abilities or inclinations that are seen as more common.  More on that another time.

My initial college major was music education, but truthfully I never intended to be a music teacher.  Like Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland's Opus, I thought of teaching as something to "fall back on" if performing didn't work out.  My plan was to begin school as an education major, and then re-audition as a performance major after benefitting from a semester or two of college-level vocal instruction.  For those of you unfamiliar with music school vernacular, a degree in "performance"= the expectation that one will become a professional musician.  Everything changed in my first semester though. I realized really quickly that I was mediocre at best compared to the other sopranos at the exclusive conservatory-like school that I'd chosen mainly because it was just for singers.  E came along in the middle of that realization, and my sudden dive in self-esteem probably played a big part in making me just crazy enough to agree to marry a man eight years my senior who I'd only met a few months prior.  Falling in love changed everything, as it tends to do.  From that point forward my only real goal was to finish college so E and I could get married and raise a family.  I did graduate, in fact I took accelerated and summer courses so I could get done faster, and only completed a degree in "music".  Again, for those of you unfamiliar with the vernacular, "B.A. in Music"= "not good enough to perform, uninterested in teaching, not serious enough to do any more work".  So I finished school a year early, and was married and trying to conceive a baby before my degree came in the mail.

After almost eight years of parenting now, I know that this is not really what I want to do with my life either.  I know it just as well as I knew that I didn't really want to be a teacher, but that I'd be one if there wasn't anything else out there for me.  Parenting has become what I "fall back on".  And truth be told, I am no better a parent than I would have been a teacher.  I don't really enjoy it all that much either.

Let's be clear here.  It is perfectly acceptable to not enjoy parenting.  When I say that I do not particularly enjoy parenting, I am referring to the job of parenting.  The things that a parent must do on a daily basis, the stuff of life with kids, the practicalities that it seems like I'm always complaining about on this blog.   I am also only saying that I don't always enjoy parenting, not that I never enjoy parenting.  I love my children and value them far above my own life, which is why I do the job anyway.  They need me to do the job in order to fulfill the objective of childhood, which is to grow up.  What I'm trying to do here is define a separation between a parent's feelings about his or her children, and his or her feelings about the stuff they have to do in order to raise them.  For example, I love HT, I love watching him grow, I love watching him figure out how to walk, I love cuddling him, I love reading him books, I love his little face and his chubby belly, and I love imagining how simple his brain functioning is right now, and how complex it will be when he's 5, 15, or 21.  I do not love being bitten on the thighs because he is teething and wants my attention, I do not love changing dirty diapers, I do not love having to scold him for trying to eat cat food fifteen times a day.  But all of that stuff is just as much a part of parenting as cuddling and reading, and I find that there are really just as many parts of this job that I don't like as there are parts that I do.  Is it all worth it to give children that I love the care that they need? Of course.  But it's perfectly OK to not enjoy the job of parenting.  There are so many moms (and probably dads too) who seem scared to complain about the un-fun aspects of parenting, as if the fact that they don't like having spit up running down their arm means that they don't love their child enough.  Hogwash.  While there are some who are able to overlook the bad parts more than others, and many who won't admit to there being any bad parts, no one likes having spit up running down their arm.  Look at it this way, would you clean all those dirty diapers or get all those stained shirts or do all that scolding and demanding and disciplining for a kid you didn't love at all?  If your answer is no, then you're like me, whether or not you admit it.

I have spent most of my children's childhoods dreaming about what I will do as their needs decrease and they become less demanding of my time, energy, and mental capacity.  I've come up with a few ideas, but haven't followed through on any of them.  A year ago I came pretty close to committing to getting a masters degree in ethnomusicology, and even took four semesters of classes and began a thesis, but I never managed to shake the nagging feeling that I was just taking the courses to keep myself busy, and that in the end I would just be back to the same old choice -- teach the subject, or find something else.  There aren't any ethnomusicology factories where I could work.  I could pick a different subject, since there are a thousand that I would love to study, but they all lead back to the same place.  I think the part that I hate about this the most is that my parents told me this would happen.  When I came to them and told them that I was not going to get the education degree, and that I would be getting a B.A. instead, their immediate question was, "What are you going to do with it?"  I told them some lame story about how I could do anything with it because I had a balanced liberal arts education. It's what my advisor told me to tell them, and it's probably a script that liberal arts schools have written down for all advisors to memorize for when parents call concerned about what little Johnny is going to do with a bachelors degree in medieval glassblowing.  The truth was that I was going to do nothing with it except graduate early.  So here I am, investing a lot of time and energy into helping my kids find out what their interests and affinities are in different areas, all the while feeling like a hypocrite since I know that for most people, the interests and affinities they discover as a second grader have little to do with what pays the bills when they're in their thirties.

In the end, the fact that I even have the freedom to think about these things and to even consider making a decision that would lead to my actually acting on any of my interests or skills is a blessing.  I have all the freedom in the world to continue leading my charmed little life, sitting in my house in front of my computer for hours on end, loving on my babies and thinking about all the other interesting things I could do, and never do any of them.  Despite my parents' missteps, and despite my vague college degree, I have managed to come to this point having exactly what my parents did not have -- choices.  Whether or not my parents had a choice in their future employment is debatable, but I do not think they saw a choice.  My father is a farm owner because his father was a farm owner, and my mother is his wife because she fell in love with him when she was only 14, and she is a farm manager because my father is a farm owner.  It was really no different for E's parents. They worked a variety of jobs to put food on the table, and they did those jobs well enough to put two children through college, both of whom have now exercised the luxury of choosing a career to which they felt called.

Though admittedly much of my blogging is a transcript of my thought streams that I often hope will help make my decisions a little clearer, I now have no idea what I will do with my life, and I'm pretty sure that I will never see a day when I can tell anyone exactly how I'm going to occupy myself for the rest of it.  Maybe tomorrow I'll sign up for spring courses and start that ethnomusicology degree again, or maybe I'll never take another class.  Maybe next year I'll decide to put Henry in day care and start working at the Department of Transportation again, or maybe next year I'll still be sitting here blogging and playing facebook games in front of the computer until 2AM.  I do know that my children need me, even when I don't like what I have to do for them, and that that would be enough to keep me busy, if unfulfilled.  I also know that the lack of fulfillment is just a feeling, like any other feeling, and that in truth I have just as many moments of fulfillment as I do unfulfillment.  So maybe the real goal is to take hold of the fulfilling moments, and make those the ones I write about.