The Meaning of Life: a letter to my son

Last year, seventh-grade parents were given the assignment to write their children a letter explaining the meaning of life.  Seriously?  Why not just write the cure for cancer?  Or, solve the problem of world peace?  Or do ninth-grade algebra? The meaning of life?! 

Of course, the best teachers challenge us.   As it turns out, the question is worth answering.  I am sharing my letter because at times I need to be reminded of its message.  Maybe you do too.  

Dear Alex,

I have been asked to write you a letter explaining the meaning of life.  But seeing that only moments ago I spilled hot coffee down the front of my shirt, I am not sure I feel qualified to answer such a poignant question.

When we are children, we see the world in solid colors.  There are no shades or variations of pigments.  We learn basic colors early and life seems pretty simple.   As we grow older, things get more complicated.  There is no longer just the color blue but countless shades of it.

We have a lot more choices, but the right ones aren’t always clear.  A spectrum of possibilities exists as to what one’s life may mean.  That’s the beauty of life and the mystery for you to uncover.  I can’t tell you what the answer will be for you, because I am still learning what it is for me.

In some ways, the answer seems obvious, and I am tempted to spell it out.  But I resist the urge to give you a one-word solution, to pick one color from the few that existed when we were younger, to oversimplify, give away the secret, the magic formula, the profundity of life’s meaning, because of that word itself, love.  Love would be the easy answer.  God’s love, family love, married love, love of others, merciful love, eternal love, and unconditional love will be the answer many times over if you live life well.

I could do this, and I wouldn’t be wrong.  After all, love is as true as the color red. But it would be too simplistic, and life is many things, yet I have never known it to be simple. Read more

Practicing What I Preach

Sometimes I look at my life, and I don’t know whether hypocrisy or irony is screaming louder.  I write about mercy,  because I believe whole-heartedly in its power to change lives and, in a broader sense, the world.  That is not hyperbole.  It is a truth that exists regardless of whether we acknowledge or believe it.

Despite my enthusiasm, doing works of mercy sometimes feels like a struggle.  You would think in my zeal, I would embrace them with a “Woo-hoo! Here’s another opportunity for me to serve!”  But often my “woo-hoo” sounds more like, “woe is me.”

Frequently the service we are called to do is organic, and, like the produce in the grocery store, organic always costs more.  It has always felt easier to serve when I plan for it, choose the capacity, and have had a shower.  When someone else’s misfortune interrupts my plans or to-do list, it can be frustrating.

Recently, I took my mom to the doctor, because she was sick.  I tried to be peppy about it despite my manic Monday mentality.  My mom was pleasant and chatty on the way to her appointment, and, instead of gratitude for her attitude, I begrudged it for being better than mine.  After all, I was the healthy one.  Why wasn’t I bubbly and bright?  Maybe she should have been driving me around! Read more

Parenting: Instructing Mama

The work of mercy that most embodies parenting is to instruct the uninformed.  Only it took me a while to figure out that maybe it was me, the mama, who needed the most instruction.

From the earliest days of motherhood, when I frantically thumbed through pages of parenting books in the dark of the night in a desperate attempt to find a way to coax my son to sleep, I felt more clueless than confident.

No matter how many books I read, I could never get my son on a nursing schedule, sleep schedule, or a mama-really-needs-a-shower schedule.  I had friends who were more successful with following the instructions, and, of course, I resented their efficiency and ease.

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Mothers: Strong as they are soft

I keep seeing ads for Mother’s Day with petal pink letters in frilly font and slight women wearing flowing flowering frocks.    It’s like advertisers think mothers dress in doilies, cover their heads in bonnets with perfectly tied grosgrain ribbon, and smile demurely all day wearing pink champagne tinted lip gloss.

I guess I should be glad they think that.  Maybe they don’t notice that my flowing hair is tied back in a rubber band because I haven’t washed it, the dew on my skin isn’t from sprinkles of rose water but the sheen of oil on my face that I didn’t have time to powder, and my tinted lips are from biting them in an effort to avoid saying something regrettable. Read more

Teen Parenting– and a trashed manual

My son will become a teenager on Black Friday. Could there be a more ominous sign than that? While hoards of shoppers are waking up at 3 a.m. to suffer through lines and duke it out for deals, my sweet baby, ever so dear, will be entering the darkness that often accompanies the teen years.

As if he is already rehearsing for the big day of black, my house has recently been filled with a cacophony of slamming doors, woeful sighs and whispers under the breath that I am pretty sure do not include any sweet nothings. It sounds like a coarse symphony that does nothing to evoke my sympathies.

I called a friend a few weeks ago and in a prayerful plea, asked in the name of all that is holy, all that is sane, and all that is merciful, to lend me every parenting book she owns.

She brought me five.

The small stack of books sat in my office and my younger son asked me why I had so many teenager books. Before I could even formulate a response, he answered his own question — obviously remembering his brother’s upcoming birthday.   “Oh yeah, it’s going to be a long seven years…,” he said prophetically.

Seven years? Why do the terrible twos get all the notoriety? That’s one measly year and they are still small enough to be restrained.

As I read, I began strategizing, thinking of systems to implement and solutions to employ. I realized that, if necessary, doors could be unhinged. He would inevitably realize that not loading the dishwasher would be to his disadvantage.   And, I felt hopeful that discussions could be facilitated without anyone actually dying.

Ah, I was going to be the most brilliant teen mother ever.

I started writing a sort of manifesto for the teen years. I clicked away at the computer thinking to myself that I was doing the holy work of writing the instruction manual for parenting that I always wished I had.

Although my business interests have never evolved passed retail and at that, only on the paying side of the cash register, I had ultimately written my first business plan.

It read like a contract, with caveats and consequences included for clarity. It featured equations for various if/then scenarios and it clearly proved that my naiveté is boundless.

I actually believed that what I had written would be embraced – that is until I proudly emailed a trusted friend with the teen manual, which I intended to present to my son. She is tactful to a fault, so when she suggested that my glorious parenting plan would evoke a middle finger response I was stunned.

Really?

I reread my work. It was so beautiful. It had italics and bullet points and fancy words like parameters, privileges, outlined and occasionally.

I guess I could see where it was kind of bossy pants-ish, but it did include a smiley emoticon and an I love you.

I signed it not with the slang, Yo mama, but with the sincere, sweet, your mama that was so obviously me.

Later that night, with my two-page, single-spaced manifesto by my side I sat down and spoke with my son. Maybe it was because I was lulled by the soothing sound of the dishwasher that my tween ran without my mention, but I was uncannily calm. We talked about grades, basketball and ways he could earn extra money.

We didn’t hold hands, or hug or do anything that would invoke Norman Rockwell to paint us, but we talked. I didn’t boss or dictate either, yet I didn’t digress from making my expectations clear.

When we finished talking, he kissed me goodnight and there I sat – the manifesto, a mostly-read parenting book and myself.

I thought about ripping up my beautiful plan I had written about how the teen years would unfold in our home, but I didn’t have the energy to be so dramatic.   I simply folded it into a little square to put in the trash.

I guess what I realized is that maybe the reason children don’t come with instructions is because parenting isn’t meant to be precise. It might be insightful to read some books, or even to write your own plan about how you intend to parent, but often intentions and plans don’t really have much to do with raising children.

Like the rest of us, children are unique and, like it or not, have plans of their own. They will make their own path in the world and it’s our job to guide them as they do. It is a delicate balance between letting go and holding on. Sometimes it’s letting pieces fall where they may, and sometimes it means picking up the pieces and starting over again.

Maybe parenthood could best be described as prayer – a combination of something we hope for, ask of, praise, repent, and offer thanks. It is an active petition that is said every time we discipline, praise, share affection, or just sit and talk. The prayer does not end, like love, it endures time, tantrums and even teenagers. It is an offering of the best of ourselves so that someone we love can become the best of their selves. It is sacrifice, surrender, forgiveness, and humility.

Parenting may be described as more gut-wrenching than glorious, but it is no doubt the most Holy work we can do.

While my son may turn 13 on a day dubbed Black Friday, it’s no coincidence this falls the day after Thanksgiving. After all, he has been a blessing everyday of his life. He is a prayer and a gift.

Of course, I know the teen years won’t be easy, but I can’t help but feel excited about all that awaits.  The spectrum of joy, discovery and promise that lies ahead is sure to be anything but black.

 

Want more on parenting, you might like: http://mercymatters.net/2014/10/20/5-things-i-learn…ooler-about-life/

Change: taught by a middle-schooler

I don’t think I ever learned in school a fraction of what I learn from my children. Childbirth alone was an education – even with the epidural.  From their birth on, my boys continue to enlighten me as they change. Recently, my 7th grader switched middle schools and in doing so taught me a few new lessons about life.

  1. Change is okay. You know that song by Davie Bowie, Changes? Ch ch ch ch changes – turn and face the strain… Well, first off it turns out I have been singing it wrong my entire life. Who knew? I thought it was “strange” not “strain!”

After all, change is strange. My son had been at his school since pre-school and only had two more years left before he would graduate to go to high school. He loved his friends. He did well academically. I did not see any reason to change.

But he did.

He was open to the experience of an academic magnet school, to be the new kid, to start over.

Starting down a new path is probably one of the bravest things we can do. To risk the unknown is scary. To walk away from the safety, the comfort and the convenience of our situations to try something unfamiliar can be daunting. But by allowing the possibility of failure we also allow for the greater possibility of success.

Ch ch ch ch changes…

  1. Listening is really important. While we did not consider the magnet option until the beginning of the summer, I could hear the need for change throughout the past school year.

 

Only I didn’t listen.

When he talked to me about being bored at school, I thought he was just being a typical adolescent. I was not as open or as patient with him as I should have been. I thought the problem was with him. Rather it was with me.

We all go into situations and conversations thinking about our own point of view, and often are not very open to hearing anything, which doesn’t support that. However, listening to another perspective with the intent to understand is often more enlightening than interpreting conversations into our own viewpoints.

  1. Pigeonholes are for desks, not for people. I assumed my son would never consider leaving his school because I thought I knew him.

 

After all, he is my child and we have spent a considerable amount of time together.

I would have told you that he would NEVER switch schools. And, that he would be traumatized from that kind of change.

But I saw him from my own perspective, which is colored from my own experiences. I would have been devastated to switch schools at his age so I assumed he would have too.

One of the greatest things about life is that we can start over. We don’t even have to wait until tomorrow. We can start anytime we want. We tend to get stuck in our labels and in our self-defined regimens. Worse still is that we pigeonhole others.

We fail to see the multi-dimensions of our neighbors and ourselves. I am a mother, a Christian, a writer, a friend, a wife, however I am not singularly any of these things and together I am more than the sum of these parts.

Free yourself and the people in your life from the constraints of what you think you know. If you want to change, then change.

Fly free, little pigeon.

  1. Fight for what you want. Once I realized that my son needed something different than what I planned for him, I dedicated myself to making sure he had it. It wasn’t easy. There were forms, rules, bureaucracy and waiting lists. So, I made phone calls to guidance counselors, principals, county school administrators. I showed up uninvited and unannounced – I asked questions and asked for prayers (from the people working in the public school office no less — they probably prayed that they would never have to see me again.) I did everything I knew to do that remained in the bounds of sanity.

 

But the truth is, it was out of my hands once I turned in the application. Still, I couldn’t be complacent when my child wanted this so badly; when he felt like it was what he needed.

So I fought.   Often, it really isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about knowing you did all that you could. It’s about showing someone else that you believe in them; that they are worth it to you; that even if you don’t prevail, you persevered.

There is really no losing that kind of fight.

  1. Endings are really just new beginnings. I hate when things are over. I get nostalgic and weepy. I cry until my eyes burn and my head aches. I don’t know if that is normal, but it’s just what I do so I try not to beat my self about it.

So of course, this was no different.

But I realize he couldn’t embrace all that awaited him and remain where he was. He was indeed giving up a very special community of friends and teachers, a place where he had been loved and cherished, a place I knew he would miss.

Still, at the moment of his goodbye he was on the cusp of a new beginning.

Sometimes in life we have to let go of something so we can make room for something else– new experiences await, new friendships, new ideas. The possibilities are endless and they begin with an ending.

So those are the most recent lessons I have learned as a parent. I am all the wiser for what my son taught me and only hope to be so brave as “I turn and face the strange… ch ch ch changes”

I really think “strange” sounds better than “strain.” I think I am just going to keep on singing it wrong.

Sorry, David Bowie.

 

Often children are our best teachers.  What have you learned from your miniature-guru?  And, perhaps just as important, do you think strange makes more sense than strain?!  Ch ch ch changes… To read more on parenting: http://mercymatters.net/2014/11/25/how-to-parent-yo…-it-in-the-trash/

 

 

 

 

 

Confidence: the word you need right now

The transition from summer to fall is always difficult for me. September through December is jam-packed with, you know….everything.  It starts to wear on my confidence.  

Seriously, if I listed it all out, you would be breathing into a paper bag right now. I know because I just wrote about half of the activities here and had to run to the kitchen to look for a bag. Of course, I could only find plastic bags, which seems like a suffocation hazard. So, I decided it would be better to just delete that paragraph and save you all from hyperventilating and searching in futility for a paper bag. Read more

School supplies: the 10th circle of hell

Dante wrote about the nine circles of hell; but I discovered the 10th – school supplies shopping.

I admit, I used to enjoy it. After all, the limitless possibilities of a blank sheet of wide-ruled notebook paper are boundless. But, there is a downside to the scavenger hunt to find plastic folders with prongs, binders by the inch, and a pencil bag for the 72 mechanical pencils on the list. (Am I shopping for a small village or a 4th grader?)

School supplies shopping means summer is over. Read more

Bucket List or not?

My son asked me the other night if I had a bucket list. This struck me as funny at first.

After all, he’s eight– what the heck does he know about a bucket list?  He doesn’t even have all his teeth.  I am 40 and don’t think much about them.  Of course, I saw the movie and understand the expression, but I can’t say I ever bothered to make one.

Partly because when I make grocery lists, I inevitably leave them on the kitchen counter and when I get home I find they are only useful for checking off the items I forgot to buy at the store. I am not sure what happens if you lose your bucket list. Do you forget what’s so important for you to see or do, the way I forget to buy Q-tips? Read more

Simbang Gabi and Memories

My first experince with Simbang Gabi started like this: Mama tomato and Daddy tomato are walking along the road (presumably to shop for a new topsy-turvy for their growing family), when they notice that Baby tomato is quite far behind (probably from admiring the cute cherry tomatoes they passed.) Daddy tomato yells to Baby tomato, “Ketchup!!”topsy-turvy_enl

Get it?  Like Catch Up — ketchup?!

I didn’t get it at first because I am kind of slow (like Baby tomato).  Once my husband explained it to me though, I thought it was funny.  Of course, I added the part about the topsy-turvy and the cherry tomatoes to spice it up a little bit – salsa anyone?

The priest used the tomato joke to explain a tradition in the Filipino community that includes a Novena to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary in anticipation of Christmas, called Simbang Gabi.  It is nine days of going to mass and then celebrating after with food, traditional dance, and songs. The last day of the Novena falls on Christmas Eve. Read more