Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Happy with What I Have Done

One night at dinner, Olivia made a departure from her usual grace. Instead of "Thank you for my family and friends, everything I have and the bunnies and birds," she said this:

"Dear God, Help my mom to be good to her kids and happy with what she's done. Amen." 

I honestly don't remember what kind of day we'd had, or what prompted this petition on my behalf. I jumped up from my chair and wrote it down immediately so I wouldn't forget a word of it. Because it's exactly what I would, or should, be praying for myself on a daily basis. 

The Hypocratic oath that doctors take begins with "First, do no harm." And pretty much every fair-to-good mother I know took the same oath the moment she looked in her baby's eyes. "I will try, dear one, not to do you any harm." And pretty much every mother I know is aware that she has done her child harm. We will pass some of our issues down to our kids, no matter what.

But in the meantime, we will also be good to them. I'm good at kisses, stories, food, band-aides, explaining the unexplainable (or attempting to), building their vocabulary, and  doing creative projects. I'm trying to be good at boundaries, modeling kind and gentle words, and teaching them to be responsible. The toughest part of being good to my kids in this second way, however, is that it doesn't immediately feel good to them. It therefore might have been a day of boundary setting that prompted Olivia's prayer.

This week I told my husband that I appreciated how hard he was working at his job and everything, but he actually liked his job whereas I hated being a housewife. Hormones may have been involved at this juncture. I don't actually hate housework. But there are elements of being a housewife that I hate.

I know I've said it before in this blog, and also dozens of times to my friends, but it's hard to be "happy with what I've done" just about every day at four thirty, because the house looks like I've done nothing.

Meanwhile, my young charges who have been kissed and fed and taught all day are often now tired and cranky and pushing every boundary I have set. The only way to be happy with what I have done in that moment is to remember I'm playing a long game and hope I come out on top in 15 years or so. And I'm tired and hungry too at 4:30 so I'm not likely to be so philosophical. 

What helps me, oddly enough, is Louisa May Alcott. Every year, I reread Little Women around the holiday season. The novel was published in 1868, but it is so full of truth that it resonates to my core. It is also simple, wholesome and good, and its heroine Marmie, is the sweetest mother possibly ever penned in fiction, based on Alcott's real-life mother. I want to be Marmie when I grow up. When I read her little lectures, I feel that my role as wife, mother and homemaker is beautiful, even transcendent. Here's one of my favorite, given after her four daughters have tried a week of all play and no work, which went horribly awry. 

"Don't you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, to bear and forbear, that home may be comfortable and lovely to us all?"
"We do, mother, we do!" cried the girls. 
"Then let me advise you to take up your little burdens again; for though they seem heavy sometimes, they are good for us, and lighten as we learn to carry them. Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone; it keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion." 
"We'll work like bees, and love it too; see if we don't!" said Jo. 

So far, I've never delivered such an eloquent lecture, nor had it received so enthusiastically by my little women. More typical of my lectures is what happened yesterday: I tried to teach the girls to help me carry the little burden of laundry folding. They ended up putting panties over their faces like luchador masks and running around the house twirling pajama pants above their heads, eventually spilling a whole glass of water on half of the laundry and the living room rug.  

But with my mind filled with Alcott's prose which extolls feminine virtue and housewifely arts, I still feel hopeful that my attempts are at least honorable, if not yet successful. And I continue to pray that I will do good, and be happy. Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Light Bringer

Then suddenly, Harold remembered. He remembered where his bedroom window was, when there was a moon. It was always right around the moon.
~ from Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

"Mom, the moon is following us!" cried Olivia from the back seat. A brilliant white moon was in the sky a week or so ago, and my five year old daughter watched it from the car window, certain it was racing alongside us as we drove home. I remember my eldest daughter thinking the same thing years ago. Even further back, I remember my younger brother and I believing that the moon was journeying with us. Like Harold in the classic children's book, who with his childlike perspective finds his way home by drawing his bedroom window around the moon, we had no problem thinking the moon was in the sky just for us.

I've explained to both my daughters how far away the moon actually is and the concept of perspective. But neither of them understood it, just as my brother and I didn't...and as I don't really clearly understand it either.

But clearer is the memory of being a child and accepting that God had a message in nature for me specifically. As a child, it was very easy to be thankful for the natural world, and to be pointed by it to the beauty and power of God. Olivia is very much in this stage of life and faith. The grateful graces said at our table almost always include two animal species at the end. "Thank you for the bunnies and bees...the butterflies and dolphins...the sharks and birds."

I still find that God speaks to me in beauty. But at this moment in my life, my gratitude has a shadow underneath it. I don't easily say "thank you" like a child.

My back yard is the place I go to meet with God. Over the summer, I was -- literally -- religious about getting up before my kids and sneaking out to my lounge chair with a cup of coffee and a Bible study book, which I sometimes read, and sometimes didn't. My view from that chair is very precious. I am tucked back against the fence under a canopy of a bower vine that flourishes no matter how I neglect it. Though I live in a dense condo complex in a flat, flat city, I have a huge view of sky, framed by liquid amber trees. Though I can't see the sunset because of how many houses are around me, from my "happy place" I can see the trees change color under the sunset's influence. When they are yellow and red in the fall, it's particularly breathtaking. In the morning, the sunrise breaks just behind them, and it is amazing how often my suburban sky is spectacular, an explosion of pink.

This summer, looking up in that sky, I often saw Venus, so bright it overshadowed even the sun. One morning it was so vivid, I imagined the sky was a stretched canvas, and Venus a pinprick, revealing what was actually behind the sky: brilliant light.

The ancient Greeks called the planet Venus "Phosphorus" or "Light Bringer" when it appeared before sunrise, as though it was heralding the coming of morning and Helios the god of the sun. I can see why they believed this, or pretended to. This summer, up early seeking God, I felt in my heart as though He was sending Venus to me, reminding me that He is light.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is 1 John 1:5:

"This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and declare to you:
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all."

I cling to this verse in this dark world, where God is sovereign and yet not fully enforcing his power, for how could he be when there is so much suffering among the innocent, so much injustice. Jesus came to tell us that the kingdom of God was coming...yet not yet fully here. And he showed the disciples that God was light: the embodiment of goodness and truth, and therefore to be trusted. 

If I was sitting anywhere else in my yard, I could not see Venus. Just from that one perfect vantage point from my chair does it peak over the ugly carport roof and between the trees. My child-like heart wants to say "Thank you, God for giving me this reminder of your light, sent just for me." But then my adult brain starts to analyze. Really? God ordained the construction of your condo complex so you could see a planet? Well, maybe not, but perhaps the placement of my chair? 

And then darker, and much more dangerous, my head asks the question: why would He send this light to you? The world is in darkness! God ordains a message of light to you and sends a tornado to someone else? My compassionate nature turns to a kind of codependence with the universe. No unearned gift (even from God) can come to me unless I can make the world right for everyone. 

How I long to just receive that "star of morning." How I long to enjoy the moon following me, perfectly framed by the car window. How I long to receive light and love without having to understand the way and the why it has come to me. And after all, is not the beauty of creation everywhere, and for all people? The star of Venus was not created just for me, but that doesn't mean that God is not speaking to me specifically through it.

In the Bible, God tells us to be grateful, to say thank you in all circumstances. He tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from him the Father of Heavenly Lights (James 1:7). And he tells us to be childlike, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to children. So in all my desire to both connect with God and make sense of the universe, is it possible that being simplistically thankful is the key to living in the light, and bringing it to others? 

It's Thanksgiving season, of course, and probably the holiday our consumer culture makes the least of, sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas. But I love it, for the reminder it brings. And I would once have said,  for the opportunity it gives me to teach gratitude to my children. But lately, they are teaching it to me. I made them a Thanksgiving wreath, with paper leaves that they were to add one day a time after writing something they were thankful for. They filled that wreath in three days, with entries like "gourds," "food to eat," "Grampy," "our house" and a few things I can't read in Olivia's kindergarten spelling. They don't ask why they have these things, or how exactly God provided them. They just say "thank you."

As I get back into my morning religious ritual in my backyard, I will add my own leaves. My view of the trees. The sunrise. Our house. My husband. Our children. The morning star. And the reminders in all of them that my God is all light and the giver of good gifts.