Motherhood as Visionary

“True visionaries are true believers.They have the courage of their convictions because they have convictions. They transform others only because they themselves have been transformed by the power and majesty of their beliefs.And steeled by their beliefs, they can willingly persevere in seemingly impossible quests to repair the world.” — Chris Lowney, HEROIC LIVING:DISCOVER YOUR PURPOSE AND CHANGE THE WORLD

I’ve been feeling my age lately — for several years, actually. I don’t have the energy I once had, need more sleep, need more time to sit quietly and reflect, am less  willing to exhaust myself by multi-tasking. Even working full-time seems onerous some days.

Sometimes I tell myself I’m just exhausted. It’s been a long and lonely life. I’ve worked hard but have little to show for it — in terms that our society sees and values. I have to remind myself that what I accomplished is significant, if not entirely tangible. I raised two girls by myself, with no child support and little family support. By myself, despite being deeply wounded by life, I  gave them healthy enough roots and strong enough wings for them to grow into remarkable young women. By myself.

I did this because Ioving them transformed me. At 60, I can still remember seeing my oldest for the first time and wanting to give her the world. I knew that I could only do this if I went before her and set an example, created a trail that she could follow. She was born on February 18; I started college in June. I was going to teach her the importance of education by getting a college education myself. I was not going to be a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do parent.

Of course, having had a mother with an eighth-grade education and a dad whose educational endeavors didn’t extend past high school, I didn’t understand a great deal about the college experience. I’ve heard that studies have been done on the challenges faced by first-generation college students, but they didn’t exist when I was young. I just bumbled into the experience, learning as I went. I didn’t realize, for example, that I should not accept a financial aid package that included three different student loans because repaying them concurrently would  be impossible. I simply trusted the financial aid folks knew what they were doing and were doing what they could to help me. I didn’t realize that a college education only leads to a higher-paying job if you prepare for a profession that garners a decent income. I trusted advisers who  assured me that just getting a degree would make a difference in my earning ability.

The lessons were hard ones, and ones for which I’ve paid dearly. But, I don’t regret learning them. I’ve seen both of my daughters graduate from college with honors, and build careers. They’ve had other lessons to learn, but my desire to teach them the importance of education gave them a foothold to go further than I found possible.

And I stopped the cycle of violence in my family, which I consider to be especially remarkable because, in addition to the physical violence I experienced at home, I was sexually molested when I was 12, and wakened in my bed by a couple drunken strangers who took my virginity when I was 18. Today, domestic violence is a crime and rape crisis centers exist to help women whose sexual encounters are not consensual, but I grew up in a different world — one that didn’t acknowledge the toll those experiences could take on a women’s heart or psyche.

The world was starting to change when I was a young mother. One day, when I went to class with a choker of bruises that I hadn’t been able to hide with clothing accessories and make-up, a classmate who was earning a degree in counseling took me to the women’s crisis center. There I learned that (a) the abysmal mess I kept making of my life was an expression of my woundedness, and (b) my girls would repeat the same patterns if I didn’t address those issues in order to provide them with an emotionally stable home and to set a better example than my mother had set for me.

Because I did not want my girls to face the same demons that terrorized me, I worked with a gifted counselor for nearly five years. I faced with as much courage as I could muster all of the experiences I had locked in boxes and tried to shove to the back of my emotional closet. There were many nights, after my girls went to bed, when I would pull out my journal and write until the pain was so visceral, I thought I would die. I would rock and cry and rock and cry until I was too exhausted to do more than sleep. I will always love my counselor for walking  through those dark years with me, and I will always be grateful to her for helping me to find my way to a place where I could function with some degree of wholeness.

Her work enabled me to raise girls whose lives reflect none of the self-destructive patterns that characterize the lives of those of us who have been wounded by violence. While one of my daughters remains single, I have watched the other marry a truly good man and I have seen the way in which their relationship continues to grow. I see his commitment to her and to their marriage, and my heart aches with joy because she experiences every day something I have never known and will never know — love. She has no idea how hard I worked to do what I could to ensure her heart and mind were not scarred in ways that would make it difficult to have a healthy relationship.

I wonder sometimes how I managed to juggle the life I lived while raising those girls. I often worked two jobs in addition to cooking, caring for our home, going to the laudromat weekly with five or six loads of dirty clothes, and trying to carve out time to paint, an activity necessary for me to keep body and soul together. In reading Chris  Lowney’s book, I remember. I wanted to build a better life for my girls than I had, and that vision strengthened me. I may not have repaired the world, but I did persevere in what I believed was important.

I raised two amazing women by myself.

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Serpent in Paradise

Why was there a serpent in paradise?

That’s the question that popped into my mind this morning while I was writing in my journal. I’d been documenting some problems at work, noting not only what has happened but also how I felt about it and my brothers’ advice. Suddenly, there was that question.

The situation at work upsets and alarms me. An employee who is failing to do the work assigned to his shift has begun threatening me. He doesn’t know that until now, I have stood between him and the door. When the manager was talking about firing him, I suggested retraining and closer supervision instead. Needless to say, at this point, I am regretting that.

The employee, instead of being grateful he’s still employed, has become hostile because we expect him to work instead of read while on the clock. He began, on the night he was told he would be retrained, to bully me, telling me that nobody liked me, that I had no people skills, that I had no business working at a job involving people, that I should quit. About the third night I heard this, I told him he had no business accepting a paycheck from an employer if he wasn’t going too do the work for which he was being paid.

Since then, the verbal assaults have escalated. When I told him to stock the beer cooler, he threatened to go to the owner with all of his co-workers and demand that I be fired. When I told him the floor wasn’t properly mopped, he threatened legal action, saying I was creating a hostile work environment. He went on to write  the manager a note about my “foul attitude and harrassment.”

With the most recent attack, I felt in danger physically even though he didn’t actually threaten to strike me. The extreme response to what was an appropriate evaluative remark from a supervisor, though, set off warning bells. “This man,” something inside me said, “is an abuser nearly at the breaking point, watch out.”

I didn’t say a word in his response to his vitriolic tirade, but I did notify the manager. The manager just laughed — not at me, but to indicate it wasn’t anything about which I needed to be concerned. I am concerned, though; the disproportionate response to a normal workplace remark terrifies me.

I have been around abusive people. I know that when an abusive person is ready to snap, provocation is totally unnecessary. An abusive person will find an excuse to strike out at the selected victim — and the victim is selected. An abusive person doesn’t lash out randomly, like an angry person who snaps at everyone and anyone. An abusive person will often be charming and even professional with everyone except the selected victim. The abusive person will collect all the little frustrations and irritations life offers and unleash his response on one person.

I am afraid of being that person with this man. I was writing about these feelings in my journal this morning, and noted that fear has slipped into my consciousness like the serpent in paradise. Suddenly, my mind was off on a tangent. Why was there a serpent in paradise?

God creates right and left in the first book of Genesis, declaring what he has made to be good. Then he creates man and woman for one another,  placing them in the Garden — with an enticing serpent. I’ve often wondered if the serpent was incredibly beautiful — Whitney Otto writes in the novel, “How to Make an American Quilt,” that beauty makes us want to listen — or if Adam was the strong, silent type and Eve was just lonely for conversation. Really, why talk to a serpent?

But, this morning, the question changed. Why was there a serpent in paradise?

I’ve heard — I’m thinking this came out of Anthony Hopkins’ mouth when he portrayed C.S. Lewis in “The Shadowlands”  — that God wants us to grow up, that he allows suffering so that we can grow up. I suppose that answer would make as much sense as any other in response to my question. We do, after all, learn from experience.

In Adam and Eve’s case, the learning curve must have been rather steep. One day they were in paradise; the next they were on their own.

Maybe the answer is a little subtler and a little deeper than that. Maybe God wants us to grow up AND as we grow up, to develop fully into individuals created in his image and likeness — individuals who are creative, as God is creative, and capable of building community. After all, Adam and Eve ran around naked as a jaybird — a 20th Century idiom, which replaced the 19th Century idiom, naked as a robin, both of which are strange since birds have feathers — until the serpent entered into their lives. Then the spark of creativity which God placed in them lit the fire of their imaginations and they clothed themselves.

If I am going to theorize in that direction, I must ask myself this question: why this serpent at this time in my life? Why this fear of this man at this juncture? How can I grow more fully into the image of God in this situation? What is God attempting to spark in me?

I wish those were rhetorical questions. They aren’t. I don’t know the answers. I will have to live my way into them. But, oddly enough, just knowing God is at work in this in some way comforts me. That has to be a good starting point.

Simple Gifts

Getting my home in order has been my priority for the last couple months.

Step One, initially, was to finish unpacking. That became Step Three when I decided (a) to set up an office after moving boxes out of the dining area in my apartment, and then (b) to rearrange so what was to have been my guestroom became my bedroom.

I currently sit at what was my niece’s dining room table in a previous incarnation (and has become a generous desk for me, complete with office organizers and blotter). From that, it can be deduced my office has become functional. My bedroom walls are lined with paintings, a bookshelf is nestled in a corner filled with books and memoriabilia, and I’ve been using my prayer desk regularly, which indicates work on my bedroom is also finished.

Why, then, have I made so little progress on my unpacking? The blithe answer would be: working at a convenience store, standing on my feet for nine hours a day, exhausts me. When I have time off, I don’t feel like unpacking.

A more honest answer would be subtler, and has its roots in a book I read nearly 30 years ago: THE ZEN ENVIRONMENT: THE IMPACT OF ZEN MEDITATION by Marian Mountain. At the time, I had given up on Christianity.

My ex had come home drunk one night, angry because I wouldn’t leave sleeping preschoolers home alone to join him at the bar, and grabbed me around the throat. He slammed me up against the wall and … well, I survived, but I had bruises from the encounter. The next day I went to my pastor to talk about what had happened, and he told me my husband wouldn’t abuse me if I submitted myself to him.

By the time our conversation had ended, I decided that Christianity and I were parting ways. I would not believe in a God who would put children at risk to keep a self-centered drunk happy. Period. Non-negotiable. But, I was — as I am now — spiritual by nature, so I began to search for another belief system I could embrace.

Zen became my practice for a while, primarily because of  THE ZEN ENVIRONMENT. The worldview reflected by the author was one which offered a way to live which appealed to me by being wholistic.

In an early chapter, she wrote: “The work of taking care of our environment also means taking care of ourself…. When you take good care of yourself, you will take good care of your environment; and when you take good care of your environment, you will also take good care of yourself.”

In the following chapter, she elaborated further: “Taking care of our environmment means getting rid of the old self, the false self, to make room for the present reality. Suzuki Roshi [a great Zen master and teacher] once gave a talk in my old hometown in which he said, ‘When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them.'”

Mountain writes about accomplishing the “housecleaning of the mind” by actually cleaning one’s house — ridding oneself of what is unnecessary. My problem is that I’m not quite sure what is unnecessary at this point.

I have donated to the library dozens of books and DVDs, and  have sold others. One of my brothers — sooner or later — will be picking up the doll furniture which my dad made for my fourth Christmas and which I have carried with me from home to home, even after my children had outgrown dolls. Another brother, I think, is coming to get my parents’ dishes since they need to be used if they are to have meaning for next generation, and I’m not likely to be hosting any kind of family event.

My quandary results from my inability to recognize my true self at this juncture in my life. This is not a new experience for me. I’m a multi-faceted person with the ability to do just about anything I decide to tackle — whether I’m especially interested in the task or not.

(A guy I dated for a couple months once dismantled his bike in my living room because he believed he should be able to do maintenance on it himself. I ended up putting the bike back together for him just so I could have my living room back.)

After a search for self which occupied the better part of a decade after high school, I found myself when I became a mom. Later, that identity was enlarged when I felt called to be an artist. For the last 10 or 15 years, though, I’ve been like  a tumbleweed, blown on the winds of circumstance. I worked as a journalist, became more involved in the life of the church, became a compulsive scrapper (one who makes scrapbooks), and moved four times.

These days I’m intensely grateful God worked through all of this to draw me into a more intimate relationship with himself, but I’m struggling, too — struggling to discern what he would have me DO. I’m a task-oriented person.

He created me. He should know this, and — as far as I’m concerned — should show me.  Certainly, he could get a message to me if he wanted. Angels seem to be quite effective, at least according to Biblical accounts.

But, I have to concede, maybe I’m afraid of the message. Tonight, when I picked up my devotional, I found a meditation by Pope Benedict XVI. He wrote: “I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that via pulchritudinis — “way of beauty….”

How many time have I said that for me painting is an act of prayer? How many times have I talked about the union I feel with God, the Creator, when I create? Have I not — every time I talked about the 7-day silent retreat I gave myself as a 50th birthday present — extolled the wisdom of my spiritual director in encouraging me to spend time each day working on a pastel painting as part of the retreat experience?

At the end of the meditation, Pope Benedict wrote, “Dear friends, I invite you to rediscover the importance of this way for prayer, for our living relationship with God…”

Could it be that simple? Several weeks ago, I grabbed my backpack and headed out to the park where I did a pastel drawing. I was filled with joy. And, lately, I’ve been thinking of my aborted art career more often than usual. Could God be trying to tell me something?

Hope wars with the fear of disappointment within me, and that’s why — I strongly suspect — I’m dragging my feet when it comes to unpacking. I need to decide whether to unpack my art supplies — though I did give my easel away when I moved since I hadn’t painted in years — or I need to get rid of them.

What if it’s simply hubris to imagine God is calling me back to something that was once so central to my identity? But what if I’m turning my back on a blessing he longs to pour into my life?

Sooner or later, I will have to find out, won’t I?