Friday, January 21, 2011

Crumbs All Over

Yesterday a six year old boy refused to sit down on the back seat of my car because it was too dirty. The word he actually used was "gross." This, to me, does not seem like a good sign that my life is in order.

I have pretty much been sick since January 3, or my toddler has been sick, which means the first two thirds of this month have been lived in almost total isolation. The sad fact of being a mother of small children is that most of your friends are the mothers of small children too, and they don't want you and your germs around their precious offspring, who will keep them up all night if they get sick.

So, Livie and I have been at home for weeks, and armed with the Martha Stewart Living January issue and a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, I have been launching a slow but steady attack on my house. Three years ago we had the cottage-cheese/popcorn ceilings of our condo scraped, and even though the workers draped the whole house in plastic, there was a film of plaster dust (asbestos?) on everything: the food canisters, the toys, the books, the mixing bowls. Well, in the beginning of January, my house was not much worse off. Underneath Christmas was five weeks of dust. And in the kitchen, five weeks worth of powdered sugar and flour that was constantly flying around the air during Christmas baking. It was like my whole house had been rolled around in a Shake-n-Bake bag of breadcrumbs.

So, the cleaning attack. Each day I have done some form of reorganizing or cleaning. After a good wipe down of all horizontal surfaces (I thought), I did the kind of things that "never" get done. I put new contact paper on the kitchen shelves. I grouped my spices in flavor clusters: Indian (tumeric, coriander, ginger), Italian (marjoram, rosemary, oregano, basil), etc. Everyone's underwear drawer got organized (except Hubby's which is always neat already, but he only has one kind and color of underwear). Still, cleanliness and order do not yet reign.

The more I clean and reorganize, the more dirt and disorder I'm finding. The depths of filth which I am plumbing apparently has no bottom. I pick up the clutter and find a dirty floor. I dust the mantel and see it needs painting. I vacuum the curtains, and then I see the grime on the blinds. I spelunk deeper and deeper into the abyss of my home's disarray. The grossness discovered by my first grader's boy friend on my backseat -- it was mostly cracker crumbs -- had only been unearthed the day before because I brought in all the toys and sweatshirts from the car. If I'd just left them there, he could have just sat on a nice clean (relatively) pink hoodie.

This is why I don't often clean on this level: it only shows how far I have to go. Now here comes the metaphor (you new it was only a matter of time). Today, as I wiped under the bowls in my kitchen island, I thought that psychological and spiritual housecleaning was exactly the same. You quit gossiping, and then you realize you're just not saying judgmental things aloud -- but they're still in your thoughts. You stop criticizing your spouse, and then you realize you need to go even further: you have to find something to affirm. You vow to be more caring to your friends, and then you remember that Jesus told you to love your enemies.

Have you ever been saying a prayer of confession, and thought you just had little crumbs of wrongdoing to flick off your soul, and then these larger, juicier morsels start presenting themselves? Last year I was on a personal journey to say "thank you" to God more often, but by the end of the year, I started realizing I needed to spend a little more time on "I'm sorry." The great news is, confession feels good, even better than cleaning the lint from under my couch, and God is always faithful to cleanse me of my sins -- so much more completely than I clean out my car. And a side benefit is, it gives me a lot of ideas to blog about. The well of my human frailties, oddities and shortcomings is as deep as my home's supply of dust and clutter.

So I'm off to ponder my need for spiritual housecleaning while I wipe crumbs out from under my kitchen hutch. Perhaps I'll be finished in 2012.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hush, Day 2

I tell you, any more imposed silence and my self-awareness will become too much to bear.

I have been without my normal voice for about 30 hours now, and one full evening with my husband and kids was enough time to teach me a major lesson.

I discovered last night after my posting that I have nominated myself Family Moderator. Between the kids. Between the kids and my husband. Not a role I want, actually, when I think about it. But last night there were a dozen times that I wanted to intervene in everyone else's conversations. I'd interpret my three year old's stories for my husband. Then I'd try to explain my husband's motives for what he was saying to my six year old. I tried to correct the way Jeff was helping Sophia with her homework. And I wanted to jump in at the first sign of conflict between my daughters.

Since I was too quiet to make myself heard above even the smallest fray, I had no choice but to sit back and self examine. And you know what I discovered? I use my voice for the purposes of control! I believe on some level that I know the best way for every person in my family to talk to one another, and I'm out to correct every little misunderstanding.

Let's just assume for a moment that this latent feeling is correct: I am the expert in family communication and understand each of their motives well enough to explain them to other people. What possible benefit can it actually be to my family if I perform this service? Am I not actually disempowering them? How are they supposed to learn how to understand one another if I am always there to interpret? If my family members are miscommunicating with one with one another, letting them experience the natural consequences would be the best way to "teach" them to find a better way to talk.

And then, let's consider the much more likely scenario that I am NOT a communication expert. Now I'm really doing damage among those I most love, imposing my perspective on their ways of expressing themselves.

Whew. Can any other women (moms or otherwise) relate to what I'm saying here? Try imposing your own vow of silence at a family function or just an evening of getting the kids fed and bathed, observe your own impulses, and get back to me. It would help to know I'm not alone with this controlling tongue of mine.

The lovely side of this discovery is that the Family Moderator role actually wears me out, though I didn't even realize I was playing it. I think I'll hand in my resignation immediately. When my voice comes back, I'll try counting to five before I intervene in a family conversation. Maybe I'd better pray my laryngitis lasts a little longer -- just to strengthen my resolve.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


I think the good Lord may have just told me to "Shh!"

The December rains have ravaged our home phone line. On December 31st I finally got through to AT&T to complain about the severe static disrupting my conversations. They plan to be out to repair it by January 12. In the meantime, I was planning to endure the crackle and just talk louder.

But yesterday, our phone went out all together. Jeff forwarded our calls to my cell phone and I checked my minutes. I was already 88 over the monthly allotment for my mobile. I immediately betook myself to the Sprint store, where I purchased 200 extra minutes for the next three days. Then today, I bought 100 more just in case.

Three hours later, I lost my voice. The cold that I caught on Monday, has today, Thursday, won victory over my vocal cords.

Who is Amanda if she cannot talk? Well, at the moment, she's a frustrated woman in a baggy sweatshirt and slippers (which she wore both to Target and to pick up her daughter from school). She is also discovering -- in just three hours -- what a nit-picky sort of parent she is.

I can't tell you how many small instructions I've tried to give my three year old in the past hour. Put your shoes on. Take your shoes off. Don't eat the booger. Put down the stick. Get out of the middle of the street. Wash your hands. Come down off that wall. Don't eat that other cookie. Get in the car. Get out of the car. Don't push that cart into the man in front of us. Don't touch the toilet seat. Don't climb in there -- there might be spiders!

Problem is, smart little cookie that she is, she's ignoring my whispered commands. Recently she's started covering her ears when I try to correct or discipline her. Imagine her joy that now she really can't hear me!

The downside for both my girls is, though, that they both desire reflective listening from their mom. Neither of them will say anything past a pleading, "Moooommmm," until I've responded with something like, "Yes, Beloved," or possibly, "What now!" And then throughout their stories and requests, I must give many, "oh really's" and "mmm hmms" to show them that I'm still listening while I'm driving or doing the dishes. So at this moment, my mothering duties are significantly stunted.

Yet, there must be a lesson here in my forced silence. All joking aside, the verse in the Bible that has always been most challenging to me is in James: "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry." Truly, I do like to listen. But I am much more predisposed to talk. In fact, even when I am listening, in my desire to show what a good listener I am, I'm likely to reflectively listen too enthusiastically, until I have switched roles with the other talker -- accidentally!

So if I can embrace this possibly divine shhing I've received, it will be good for me. I shall practice listening here at home, and show I am doing so with my body language rather than my voice. When the girls talk to me, I bet stopping what I'm doing and turning toward them would work even better than a "yes, Beloved," spoken over my shoulder from the kitchen sink. Oh wow. I just learned something already.

Post script:
The irony does not escape me that the first thing I did after I lost my voice was blog about it. Dear God, I must communicate or lose my mind, apparently. Perhaps tomorrow, I shan't allow myself to type either. But one step at a time.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Merry, Messy Christmas

"We have a shepherd down," my husband said from our daughter's bedroom on December 21st. After four days of rain, our neighborhood had flooded, our home phone's static crackle was so extreme I gave up answering it, and our exterior lights shorted out every night (thanks to Jeff's use of some interior extension cords most likely). On the morning of the fifth day, we looked out Sophia's window to our patio cover, where our plastic light-up nativity had been ravaged by weather. The angel teetered on her golden pole, Joseph was flat on his back, and shepherd was
face down on the slats, his head hanging over the edge.

Christmas is a messy business. Every year, Jeff and I do our best to make everything beautiful. We're manic decorators and I truly love our home in December, with every surface adorned with some nostalgic object that we've either made with our own hands or found and restored. I make fudge and bake cookies. We have lots of friends and their kids over. I try very hard to be organized and grease all the domestic wheels with prayer and solid planning because I like everything to be as "perfect" as possible. But no matter what, it's chaos: malfunctioning lights, too much sugar, too much stuff, not enough sleep.

I always ponder the ironies of the way we celebrate and the reason we celebrate. Any snag we hit in this season that interferes with our plans for frivolity always seem more upsetting than any snags we hit at other times of the year. We're trying to have half our year's fun crammed into one twelfth of the year, while all around us family members and friends are getting taken down by cold and flu viruses, as we wait our turn to catch something and abort our plans. This year, my niece actually threw up onto our kitchen table just as we were sitting down to dinner the week before Christmas.

But really, if ever there were a messy, outside-the-plan kind of event, it was the first Christmas. A teenage bride and her husband travel to the home of their ancestors and they have been so ostracized that there is nowhere to stay. It's not just crowds from all the people responding to Caesar's census that makes them end up in a stable; not even their third cousins here in their ancestral town will find a cot for Mary, who's nine months pregnant. She gives birth in a cave/stable surrounded by livestock. My hospital births were the messiest thing I've ever encountered, so I can't even imagine giving birth under these conditions. Soon after this ordeal, a group of excited and uncouth shepherds show up to see the baby. Mary is my hero. Talk about being able to roll with the punches; I was overwhelmed by visits by my first cousins after my child was born. She's got strange men in her cave. But what the Bible says is that Mary pondered (the implication in the original text is closer to "treasured") all these things up in her heart.

We clean up the Christmas story, at least as far as we represent it in our decorations. In our light-up nativity (which my three-year-old, endearingly calls our "activity"), Mary and Joseph are in clean matching outfits, looking worshipful, and all the shepherds and wise men are there at the same time, though in the real story, the wise men didn't show up for at least two years. We represent it as though it were a nice, cute, children's story, when it really is a crazy, harrowing tale.

I thought about all these things early in December this year, so the messiness didn't get to me as it has in the past. I did less damage control and more pondering. Our gatherings were less formal and -- at least for me -- more joyful. On Christmas day, when that same niece showed up with a double ear infection, her tired but wonderfully patient parents, and her 7-week old sister, I thought even more about keeping our expectations real at Christmas, as I sympathized with my beautiful sister-in-law and watched her keep up the magic for her family despite adverse circumstances. And I related to Mary a little more than usual in a wonderful, comforting way.

Now, on January first (this blog is late, I know), I'm imagining what Mary thought about after the first Christmas. After all the hype, the bright star, the angel, the birth, the strange visitors, the cave, was she, like I am, eager to get back to normal life? Was she just aching to get home to Nazareth with her husband and get the nursery set up, as I am taking down my Christmas decorations and feeling eager to get my nest back in order? But did she also fear things being just a little flat after all the excitement? She seems like a wise woman, so I think the pondering changed her permanently, and she moved into the messiness of real life holding on to her sense of wonder. I'm working on being a wise woman, so I'm trying to do the same. As Scrooge's nephew says in A Christmas Carol, "I believe Christmas has done me good," fallen shepherds, malfunctioning lights, ear infections and all.

Hope you had a merry, messy Christmas, and have a happy, wonder-filled new year.