Sunday, October 2, 2011

Terrible Things

This morning in worship I told a story about myself as the Time for All Ages.  I don't do that often, but the topic of the service was growing up UU, and since I did, it seemed like the right thing to do.  Here it is:

When I was 8 years old, my parents decided to separate, and eventually, divorce.  My parents separating was a terrible thing to have happen to me, even if it was the right thing for my parents to do.  Some of you have had a terrible thing like that happen – some of you never have.

Sometimes when something terrible happens our minds make it so we don’t remember a lot about it, and that happened to me.  I don’t remember a lot about being 8, or about my parents separating.  But I do remember some things.

One thing I remember is the day that for hours and hours, everyone in my house was crying.  My mother was crying, my father was crying, I was crying, and my two brothers were crying.

And I remember going to stay at my grandparents’ house, with my mother and brothers, where we would continue to live for the next 5 or 6 years.  Even though that was one of my favorite places to be, because things were different, it was strange, we were all unhappy, and nothing felt right.

And I remember that the next morning was a Sunday morning, when my grandmother usually went to the UU Church of the Restoration in Mt. Airy to decorate the altar.  That day, she took me with her.  My grandma and grandpa had been taking my brothers and I to church there every week for most of my life.  But I don’t think I had ever gone early with her to do the decorating before then.

The church was different early in the morning before anyone else arrived, even the choir director or the minister.  That church is made of stone and dark wood and stained glass.  It was so very quiet.  It was dimly lit.  My grandma was there but she was not asking me to talk to her about what was wrong or think about it or anything.

We took out a beautiful cloth to put on the altar.  We found some dried flowers to put there.  We got some candles and put them in fancy candle holders. 

I felt safe, and at home, for the first time that terrible week.  And at that moment, when I finally felt safe, I knew that I would be okay.  Maybe not everything would be okay or the way I wanted it to be.  But I would be okay, on the other side of the terrible thing that had happened to me.  And I knew that I was loved and accepted, both by my grandma and by something bigger than either of us that I could feel in the big, dark, cool building around me.

And it may be that being part of a UU congregation can give you something of that same feeling: that there are places that are safe, where you can be at home, even when things are difficult or terrible at home or at school (or work) or out in the larger world.  It may be that growing up UU will help you know that you will be okay, that you have the resources to make it through even something very terrible, no matter what.  It may be that being UU will help you to always remember that you are loved.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Trust and Parenthood

I am not a very trusting parent.

In some ways this is true. 

I have never left my children with a babysitter.  I think they have gone somewhere or stayed somewhere without me or my husband or one of their grandparents about 5 or 6 times in the seven years since our oldest was born – and about half of those were during a time I had a broken ankle and couldn’t drive. 

I don’t accept advice from experts – medical or familial – about my children without lots of questions.  I am a skeptic if you are suggesting I do something to fix something about one of my kids.

I know some of this distrust, this possibly excessive self-reliance, comes from my family history.  I’m the child of a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.  Maybe especially because the abuser was a family member, not a stranger, the idea that it’s hard to know who is trustworthy is deep rooted in the family I come from.  I also see a link between my distrust of authority figures and the religious tradition I come from.  In Unitarian Universalism we value the inner voice of conscience and each persons’ search for truth and meaning – more than we value the external voice of any kind of authority or the narrow path to a received Heaven.

In other ways, however, it is not true that I’m a distrustful parent.

I do trust myself.

I do trust my children.

I do trust the Universe.

I trust – but I verify.

I trust myself to be the best mother I can be to these children.  I adapt.  I change, I grow as a mother.  I don’t know how to do everything right.  I don’t have all the resources I want or even sometimes need.  But I do the best I can at the time.  This doesn’t mean I never have regrets or mess up.  I do, all the time.  But I keep trying. 

My oldest child is a highly demanding person.  Somehow, that’s not what I was expecting as a very new mom.  I sort of thought I’d have a calm, quiet baby who’d let me get things done.  I remember this moment in the shower in the first few days of his life when I just said to myself, okay, this is not what you were expecting, that’s okay, this is who he is, get on with it.  And that was that.  I did get on with it.  I enjoyed him as a baby and I enjoy him now.  I trust myself not to get stuck on expectations that are not in line with reality.  I trust myself to keep being able to do that mental shift to deal with what is before me now.  But I check in with myself about it all the time.  Have I got stuck?  Am I adapting?  What do I need to do differently?

I trust my children deeply.  They mostly know when they are ready to do something, and when they aren’t.  They mostly know their bodies and what they need to eat and how much they need to sleep and when they need to play and when they need to be quiet.  Mostly.  There are times they need some help figuring these things out, or when what they need or want isn’t working with what other members of the family need.  My job as a parent is to help them with the negotiations, with resources and ideas about what to do differently.  There are limits to what they know and can figure out because their experience base is limited.  I set limits and boundaries and, because of who my particular children are, do a lot of conflict resolution.  I occasionally suggest getting help with something I think one of them is struggling with in some way.

And I do trust the Universe.  In a sense, that is.  I don’t believe the Universe will magically make everything that ever happens to my kids turn out to be for the best.  I don’t like it that they will experience pain and suffering, I do fear (like all parents) that they could be hurt or killed for no reason in a thousand different ways.  But I do believe that it is possible for them to learn and grow from the bad things that will happen in their lives.  If they choose, these things can be made into meaning.  A humanist at heart, I believe that the human struggle for life and happiness is a thing of beauty and a passion worth participating in.

Trust, but verify.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

But awe is present in these events, too

Queen Maya Devi giving birth to the
Prince Siddharta, the future Buddha.
Sculpture from Nepal, in the
Musee Guimet, Paris
“Japan has moved eight feet,” I say.  And, “the Earth moved four inches.”  I do not say, “Thousands of people are dead.  Millions of people’s lives have been completely disrupted and will never be the same in any way.  Your lives, all our lives, will be different than we thought they would be ecologically, economically, forever.”

I do not believe in raising princes, but I cannot figure out how to tell them the truth.

I know about theories of child development.  I know these particular children, my children.  They are four and seven years old.  What they know about Japan – animé, that their uncle lived there for a semester abroad, that Mama visited as a teenager and stayed in a house with a view of Mt. Fuji – is all fantasy and theory.  Not real.  My four year old looks at a slideshow about the disaster with me and chortles with a kind of glee at the destruction.  “No, it isn’t really funny,” I say gently.  “All those houses and cars might have people in them,” I try.  “Well, I want to see the pictures, but not have anyone get hurt,” he says, with the air of someone offering a reasonable compromise.

How can I make something so far away concrete and therefore comprehensible to a four year old?  How can I explain something so vast and incomprehensively complex to the black and white, right versus wrong sensibility of a seven year old?  He needs to believe that good will always defeat evil, because his own mean and aggressive impulses so often seem stronger to him than his ability to reason and his desire to show caring and compassion.

My own and others’ feelings of grief and sadness and fear wash over me this morning like the tsunamis rushed the beaches and towns.  I, too, struggle to grasp the enormity and reality of what has happened far, far away, even though I am long past the concrete stage of human development.  So these waves are (also like the tsunamis) unpredictable and quickly over, leaving tumbled thoughts and empty spaces behind.  I see my friends and colleagues post “thinking of the people in Japan,” and “so grateful my cousin/colleague/friend in Hawaii is safe” on-line. It is tempting to try to fill the empty, chaotic places left by this event in my heart with similarly facile, easy expressions of gratitude for the well-being that I did nothing to deserve.  Or at least, to put on that face in public.  But I suspect that those friends and colleagues might be masking some uneasily submerged anxiety.  Like me, they may be wishing to hold on to the insular, falsely comforting sense that there’s nothing wrong here

Instead, I take a deep breath and try for something deeper, something more whole.  I want to be really grateful today that my family has a safe place to stay.  That our car runs.  That there is food in the stores to buy, gas to pump, that we mostly have the money to pay for these things.  That when we are sick or hurt we can go to the doctor or hospital to be cared for, and even have medical insurance to pay for some of the cost.  That when someone dies we have the time and resources to mourn them.  That my children have enough toys to fight over (morning, noon, and night.)  That even our worst fears and secrets are for the most part problems of abundance, rather than scarcity or abundance.

I want to be grateful today that I have so many choices. 

I want to recognize that because I was born and live and parent in this particular place and time, through no fault or virtue of my own, I have one very particular choice: the choice between surrendering to despair or to awe.  When we look at the pictures and hear the numbers and imagine the pain, despair is present.  But awe is present in these events, too.  How can an entire island nation move eight feet?  How can the earth shift on its’ axis four inches?

I want my children to know that there is suffering in the world, so they are ready for suffering when it comes (as it will, one way or another) to them.  But they have to understand it in small ways in their own bodies and minds and spirits before they will be able to understand it on the scale of a catastrophic disaster.  They have to learn to show compassion to themselves and each other and their always imperfect parents before it will make any sense to them to practice compassion on a global scale.

I forgive myself for my smallness and inability to hold awareness of the suffering far away and my own grief and sorrow for more than a few brief moments at a time.  Like my children, I have so much to do.  For now, I let the kids go, to be in their own concrete, righteous world.  I nurse the baby, and let her catch my few tears.  She is young enough to simply let all of this grief, awe, and busyness be.