What happened during Lent

We’re eating Easter dinner when Uncle Ken looks across the table and asks me a question.

“So Tricia, I was wondering how your decision to give up the internet until noon went?”

I pass the pile of mashed potatoes to my right and wonder how I should answer. I’m glad he’s asked the question (it means someone else besides my mother has been reading my blog) and that he’s sincerely interested, but I’m not entirely happy with my answer. I would love to humbly describe how consistent and disciplined I was through Lent; how I blazed through all 40 days with unwavering commitment. Instead I fumble awkwardly saying something like I tried my best and I made it most of the time to 10:30 am without checking my email or blog…

As far as strictly observing lent, I failed. But in spite of my weak resolve, or maybe because of my weak resolve, I learned a few things. Perhaps failing is the point of Lent.

I learned that my impulse to reach for the mouse and hear the clacking of the keyboard is stronger than I thought it was.

I learned that checking emails isn’t as life changing as I think it will be. The mornings I spent at home writing were the worst. Checking my clock every ten minutes to see if I could finally open my email built anticipation with every passing moment. When the time finally came I would eagerly type my password only to be greeted with subject lines that read Don’t miss the next West Jet promotion! or Your inbox is 99% full. In a slump of disappointment I would close it and wonder what I had been waiting for in the first place. What kind of news was I hoping to find? How fulfilling could a digital message be?

I learned that starting my day with stillness instead of search engines makes a difference. Like re-setting a cheap watch or tuning a violin, my perspective seems to need frequent upkeep. If I let it go unchecked everything starts to spiral inwards until all I can think about is the little universe of Tricia: the salsa fermenting in my cupboard, the next job I have at school, our summer plans, the unwritten chapter of my book, who I will invite for supper, the shirt I need to buy for my daughter… The more my world shrinks, the more suffocated I feel. But it’s a drowsy suffocation; like sucking in fumes inside a closed garage.

Somehow being still and reading the story of Jesus or prophecies told to a tribe in the Middle East provides release. It opens the garage door a little. Before I am totally inebriated with myself I read a verse, pray for someone, or sit quietly to listen and my narrow world of self begins to expand. It’s a slow, creaky process and not nearly as dramatic as I would like. But it’s a start. A crack to let in the Light and fresh air. I read the following passage yesterday, and I think it helps to explain what I’m trying to say.

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you have have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the riches of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live
(Isaiah 55 1-3)

Thanks for asking the question Ken…

Tricia

PS. Here are more pictures of our week with family in Indiana:

Grandma taught both girls how to sew on their own!

Grandma taught both girls how to sew on their own!

...and they actually produced wearable skirts (with a little extra help)

They actually produced wearable skirts (with a little extra help)

Susie, me, and Belén (with her homemade skirt) rollerskating. We decided tying roller skates was much better than freezing our fingers at the outdoor rinks where we live.

Susie, me, and Belén (with her homemade skirt) rollerskating. We decided tying roller skates was much better than freezing our fingers at the outdoor rinks where we live.

Belén, cousin Simon, and Aunty Anne working on the eggs

Belén, cousin Simon (pondering the meaning of life), and Aunty Anne working on the eggs

Easter eggs, decorated with white crayon before getting dipped in colour.

Susanna’s favourite moment with cousin Lucy

Aunty Anne finally gets a chance to hold her own baby!

And of course, cutting wood…

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Grandpa going strong!

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Wasn’t surviving junior high once, enough?

“She’s not invited??”
Kelly shakes her head, and I can almost see her wince.
“And all the other girls can go?” I say, trying not to sound like a whiny teenager.
“I know. It sucks,” Kelly replies.
I laugh it off lightly and say something like that’s life or it happens to all of us, but I can feel my insides start to curdle.

As soon as I get the chance, I tell Stan the bad news: there’s a party and it’s going to be great and all my daughter’s friends are going… but she’s not invited. I’m grateful another mom gave me the heads-up before my daughter comes home with the news. Days before she finds out, I start planning something extra special to make up for her disappointment: a family sleepover.

For the rest of  the week the girls excitedly discuss the sleepover, which basically boils down to our family sleeping in our house–the way we’ve done for the past eight years or so– with a few twists. There will be a supper out, a movie with popcorn, and the girls can sleep in the guest bed and stay up talking as late as they want. Originally, I was planning to spend the evening with some other women, but I call to cancel. If this sounds to you like a lame attempt by a desperate mother to fix things, you’re absolutely right.

One of the craziest parts of this little drama is not my daughter’s reaction, but the reminder that I have to grow up all over again. Honestly, wasn’t surviving junior high once, bad enough?

I tend to be overly optimistic about the future, and having children has proved to be no exception. Somehow, in an idealistic corner of my mind, I imagine my girls will breeze through life unscathed. Not only will they be the prettiest, most popular, smartest, most athletic, most musical, kindest, and wisest of all girls everywhere, but everyone will be in unanimous agreement with this. Somehow, I secretly hope they will escape the life the rest of the world gets trapped into. A life including pimples, stringy hair, lost games, bombed performances, crumpled tests, and lonely nights. A life that cultivates empathy.

I know, I know. Empathy is right up there with poetry, as far as evidence for a Master Designer. (Really, what is the evolutionary advantage of feeling deep down in your gut for someone else, especially strangers that don’t carry your genetic material?) But sometimes I feel like empathy is over-rated. It stinkin’ hurts.

I remember my dad’s eyes when I suffered my first heartbreak. He looked so sympathetic I almost forgot my own thwarted romance and started to feel sorry for him instead. It struck me that my story pained him just as much, possibly even more, than it pained me. An unfathomable idea for an 18-year-old daughter; clear as an absent invitation for a 35-year-old mother.

But our week wasn’t just about being left out. Hardly. In fact, it culminated with a birthday of our own…

Susanna helping prepare the birthday lunch

Susanna helping prepare the birthday lunch

These strawberries were thrown into a backpack and jostled around for a few kilometres, at -20C, before they made their debut.

These strawberries were thrown into a backpack and jostled around for a few kilometres, at -20C, before they made their debut.

There’s something about arriving at an empty shack in the woods with an open door and a crackling fire that makes you feel lucky, even if you knew it was going to be there all along.

There's something about arriving at an empty shack in the woods, with and open door and a crackling fire that makes you feel lucky, even if you knew it was going to be there all along. Here Susann is signing the guest book beside our friend, William.

Susanna is signing the guest book beside our friend, William.

Happy Birthday dear Daddy... (In case you were concerned, the strawberries made it just fine.)

Happy Birthday dear Daddy… (In case you were concerned, the strawberries made it just fine.)

This puppy followed us all afternoon, making Belén very happy.

This puppy followed us all afternoon, making Belén very happy.

Our friend Shanon, heading for home, with two of the kids in front.

Our friend Shanon, heading for home, with all three kids in front.

William and Susanna

William and Susanna

Have a great week. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much,

Tricia

“I’m never going to have my First Communion…”

“The thing is, mom, I’m never going to have my First Communion.”

We’re in the middle of a rushed breakfast, and haven’t been talking at all, until Belén interrupts the slurpy silence.

Belén holds her cereal spoon in mid-air and looks up to see if I understand the gravity of the situation. I stop brushing Susanna’s hair.

“Do you want to take communion at the school?”  I wonder if she feels left out when her classmates line up in front of her, tipping their heads back with open mouths to receive the body and the blood. All she gets is a wave of the hand and a blessing.

“I can’t, Mom! I need my First Communion! And I need to show pictures of it! And I think I even have to talk with the priest, or something.”

“Well, you have had communion in our church. Maybe you should tell the teacher that.”

She looks at me in a way that says Come on, Mom. She knows, as well as I do, that any communion she’s had doesn’t count.

“Yeah,” I agree with the expression on her face, “Churches can be funny that way. The people who run them decide what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to do it, and if anyone doesn’t do it the same way… well, then… they’re out.”

Belén asks her next question with total confidence, trusting me for the correct answer:  “Which one is right? What church does God like the most?”

I know there are many thoughtful and sincere parents who hope to foster a tolerant world view in their children by “letting them choose for themselves”. I wonder, though, if this really works. Is it possible for these little creatures, who seem to crave cut-and-dried answers, to kick back throughout their childhood and wait until they have collected enough evidence to “choose for themselves”? Or do they sponge up all the cues and existential explanations they can get, along the way to their so-called “own decision”?

“Mmm… Well I’m not sure what to say, except that I know God is not Catholic. And he’s not Baptist, or Mennonite, or Alliance either, ” I say, listing some of the churches in our town. I go on to talk about how all of this division is distracting and misses the points and makes God sad–when Belén interrupts me with a good bit of common sense.

“Well, we can’t ALL meet in the same church. There wouldn’t be room!”

With that comment, the road of logic in my mind makes a hair-pin turn. She’s right. We can’t all fit in the very same church. And maybe this is okay, and doesn’t “make God very sad” after all. As far as I can tell, from bush-whacking through the boreal forest, or a even a handful of pencil crayons, the Creator is absolutely giddy with diversity.

A package, containing these pencil crayons (and holder) arrived in our mail box not long ago.  Thanks Aunty Janelle, the go on like butter.

A package, containing these pencil crayons (and holder), arrived in our mail box recently. Thanks Janelle, they go on like butter!

Our conversation ends as abruptly as it began and I go back to braiding Susanna’s hair.

Perhaps I have an over-inflated mother ego, but I think I’ve got quite a bit of influence on these two little lives and can’t pretend other wise. It appears they have quite a bit of influence on someone else too; their mother.

***

Some January pictures: we went skiing yesterday and LOVED the spike in the temperature.

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Many of the steeper runs hadn’t been groomed; there was powder up to my knees in spots. I had a feeling it was supposed to be exhilarating, but I felt clumsy and old trying to maneuver my way down… so we kept to the handful of runs that were semi-packed.

Our front yard is pocked with forts and specialty stores that sell pine cones.

Our front yard is pocked with forts and specialty stores that sell pine cones.

Only four more January days left!

-Tricia

A dark night

The screams slowly pull me from my sleep.  My heart jumps when I realize I’m not dreaming and the shouting is just outside my bedroom window.  I get on my knees and peer through the cracks in the blind to see a dozen kids; some are pushing each other in the middle of the street, others are streaming outside of the rental house (the one just across the street from our house) to watch the fight.

Even though it is at least -25C tonight, I see that one of them is bare chested.  He’s shorter than the rest and starts swinging wildly at another boy.  The cries escalate again when the half-naked fighter lands his punch.  Other figures block my view as they squeeze in on this pair of bodies who ricochet between them.  A moment later I see the shirtless one on the ground, his skin grinding on the hard ice and snow.  I look at my alarm–it’s 2:23 am–and wonder if I should call the cops.

I don’t.  I’m tired and just want to go to bed.  I think the police must be weary of drunk/high trouble makers too and I figure things will work out on their own so I lay back down to go to sleep.  Only now I can’t.

The darkness magnifies the drama.  All I think about is that boy’s skin scraping along the snow.  Then I think about his mother and wonder if she is worrying about him tonight, too.  Next, the couple I know who lost their twenty-year-old son a couple of years ago on a cold night like this, comes to mind.  Too drunk to find his own way home, he stumbled around outside until he froze to death.  I imagine the sounds the quiet man I know must have made when he recognized the stiff body as his own son’s.  For a moment, lying on my back staring up at the ceiling, I usher hysteria and crushing pain to my bedside. My mind runs away from me unbridled; galloping through this terrible empathy.

Then, of course, sleep only taunts me as she dances farther away.  I think about the sickness, filth, violence, and hate in some of the lives around me: the angry child who has heard too many blow-outs between her parents, the exchange student who tried to poison a local host family, and the father who has lost his daughter because she will not forgive him.  After I think I’ve chewed through enough sorrows, I fall asleep only to be woken up moments later with the same disgusting pieces in my mouth.  I gnaw through them again, spit them out and the cycle repeats itself.

The world, it seems at this hour, is a terrible, God-forsaken place.  In my stupor I feel almost hopeless.

Almost hopeless.

Almost.

I realize then that almost hopeless means to feel a great need.  A desperate need for a way out; a light in the darkness.  Suddenly, lucidity breaks into my nightmare and I am longing for, hoping for, and betting on Christmas.  That it actually happened and that it means something.  That a God-made-flesh kind of intervention changes this cosmic tragedy into a story that is true enough to make grown men go weak in the knees and the rich give all they have to the poor.

Near morning I finally fall into a heavy slumber.  By the time I get up, the terrors of the night seem odd and even distant.  In my waking hours I am apt to see beauty–snapshots of God–just about everywhere.  I notice the harried post master, who after nearly losing her patience with a stubborn and difficult client blushes when the crotchety old lady leans over the counter and tells her she really is a lovely person after all.  Grabbing her face on either side, the old woman’s wrinkled fingers rake through the postal worker’s stringy hair.  They share a clumsy and unexpected hug in front of a long line of waiting customers.

I do not forget the two moms in the minivan who I saw only for a moment; both of them throwing their heads back in a fit of belly laughter, with all of their kids strapped into the rows behind them staring at their mothers’ bobbing heads.  Hilarity in the ordinary.

I pause, after the elderly man waiting at the library tells me the doors are still locked but that it should open soon.  Late for work with no time to wait, I soon rush off, but not before he looks at me with a twinkle and comments sagely, “It’s a good time to take a rest, you know.”

That day, on my way to the school, I decide unhurried time and patience are also the mark of Beauty.

Most often I see God infused into my life through the people I am in love with.  Yesterday, while we were all watching a home video, Belén looked up at Stan seriously and made a proposal.

“Daddy, do you think it’s fair if I get Susanna’s head and you get her body?”

“What exactly do you mean by that?”

“Well,” Belén replied, all business, “If I get to touch and cuddle her head, you get the rest of her to hug.”

At this point Susanna, being a major stakeholder, jumped into the negotiations.  “Mommy get’s my cheeks,” she added firmly.

When I remember vignettes like these I know that despite brushing up against terrible desperation, I am not empty-handed.  I have seen, heard and touched the likes of what can only be from God; a loveliness that repels despair.   The awkward hug at the post office, the moms in the mini van, the old guy at the library, and Susanna’s cheeks are all from this Source of Light, who gives good and perfect gifts.  Gifts that point me to a reversal more astounding and earth-shattering than any equinox.  A reversal that saves us from our darkest nights full of stupid, hurting teenagers, parents crazed with grief, and daughters who reject their fathers.  And so, this is why I’m banking on Christmas, that it really happened, and that it still makes a difference in January, on a cold night at two in the morning.

Sincerely, Tricia

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We made these lanterns for Christmas, but they still seem like a good idea in January.

Whew… that was a long one.  I just read a long post the other day on someone else’s post and made a mental note NOT to do the same.  But I guess I wrote this as much for myself as anyone else, this time.

Grades and zebra stripes

Report card time is here.  Have you noticed the posts getting thinner and sparser?

I love teaching; standing in front of the class and seeing the students’ eyes light up, listening to them talk animatedly about what they are reading or writing, watching a semi-depressed child spring to life in drama class or one who can barely read, whoop everyone else in gym class, but I hate marking.  My mother tells me all teachers feel this way, but I find it especially odious.  (Perhaps like all parents think their children are especially cute.)  What makes the task so hard for me is that it has never been easy to see the world in black and white.  And, slapping a percentage on a report card is a very black and white task.

I recently told someone, “I see the world in zebra stripes.”

I thought I was being terribly clever.  The person I told this to didn’t quite get it, or maybe they got it but didn’t gush enough about the analogy to satisfy me.  I was trying to communicate that there are other possibilities to consider when analyzing different perspectives.  Some see the world in black and white, others see it in shades of gray, and still others see it in zebra strips–where the black lies, black as ever, next to pure white; neither colour diluted.  The first example that comes to mind to illustrate this is my view of God: a Creator so devastatingly beautiful and powerful, before whom we can only tremble, combined with the other stripe of  His/Her extravagant grace and compassion.  And then that view triggers even more zebra-stripe responses.  I have to ask myself: how do I live a just and principled life and at the same time practice a ridiculous amount of grace towards myself and others?

Talking about God is just one arena for figuring out how we understand the world and communicate that understanding.  There is also politics, ethics, child-rearing… and report cards.

The one bright spot, for me, in this whole process of attaching numbers to children is the speech I am preparing to deliver before I hand out the report cards.  I think I may take the students to the chapel, since we’ve never done that before, to lend an air of seriousness to my sermon.

I imagine I will need to admit, right up front, how I detest the whole business of marking.  Then I will need to explain why.  I will confess that some of them have gotten the wrong grades.  (Gasp!  Can I admit that?).  Quite likely, in their heart of hearts, they will know if the mark is too high or too low.  And hopefully some of them will have marks that are just right.  Regardless of how they feel about their marks this term, I want them to understand they will be assigned grades all their life, not in the form of report cards of course, but judgements that other people make of them.

To cultivate a resilience to the harmful effects of all this measurement they will need to be able to rely on their ability to evaluate themselves and listen to their intuition.  They will know if they have done their best or still have more to give.  As it is a Catholic school I might remind them that there is only One who does understand them; the One who knit them together in their mother’s womb.  And, since I am certainly not the One, they have to be wary of calibrating their worth from a pile of numbers I, or any other teacher, spin through a rubric, regardless if the result is 99% or 49%.

***

And now, for something completely different, a few pics of some changes around here:

She finally lost them!!

One of Belén’s closest friends went to see Justin Bieber live.  Belén wasn’t particularly sad about missing Justin Bieber but she felt left out of a good time.  We decided that something special was in order…

Belén opted for camping in our backyard.

Not exactly a Justin Bieber concert, but special nonetheless.

Good Words: Our Real Stories

I wish I had been in Nairobi, Kenya, a few Sundays ago to hear my friend, Kirsten, deliver her homily.

I knew she had been invited to speak at a church service, so I emailed her yesterday to ask how it went.  She attached the homily she had written with her email response.  I opened it up and soon after I started reading, looked at the little square that slides down the right side of my computer screen, to gauge how much I had left to read.  I was hoping there would be much more and didn’t want it to end any too soon!

Near the beginning of her text, she included this quote from Frederick Buechner:

“…we may tell stories about ourselves as well about other people, but not, for the most part,

our real stories,

not stories about what lies beneath all our other problems,

which is the problem of being human, the problem of trying to hold fast somehow to Christ when much of the time, both in ourselves and in our world, it is as if Christ had never existed.

…[we] tell what costs us the least to tell and what will gain [us] the most; and to tell the story of who we really are

and the battle between light and dark, between belief and unbelief, between sin and grace that is waged within us

all costs plenty

and may not gain us anything, we’re afraid, but an uneasy silence and a fishy stare.”

You can read more here.  I just ordered the book from my library!

*My own end of the week tradition: words in song or story that move me in some way.  I might type my very favourite parts in bold text, and I’ll always try to post a link below the quote so you can get more if you want it. Enjoy!

Hurting kids and a prayer

The other day I separated my class of thirty sixth graders into small groups for reading and discussion.  As I walked down the hallway monitoring clots of students sprawled out on the floor, I became distressed.  Some of the groups were engaged, focused and delving into the task at hand; others were way off track.  Two groups in particular were having real problems.  When I took one student away from his group to ask what was going on and why he wasn’t participating, this is what he said:

“I have these voices in my head, whenever I start to work.  They say, “You can’t do it! You can’t do it!”  And, I know the other kids all make fun of me…”

A few minutes later I approached the other group spouting angry accusations.  I interrupted their argument to mediate and soon realized there were five students pitted against one.  I could sense the frustration from all sides and was quite sure no one was entirely innocent, but when I saw the one lone boy’s lower lip tremble my empathy, and agitation, soared.

At this point I wasn’t sure what I could or should do so I called all the students back into the classroom.  By the time I had them hushed and settled, my emotions were duly keyed up and I was ready to finally teach.

“I’m going to tell you something that might be depressing, but here it is anyway: you won’t remember anything I teach you this year.  What do you think I can remember from my grade six teacher?  That’s right, nothing. NOTHING AT ALL.

“Do you think I honestly care whether you learn anything about summarizing stories or your discussion questions?  The answer is No.  I DON’T CARE.  I really don’t care.  One.  Single.  Bit.”

Part of me twinged when I said that line, wondering if I should have actually voiced it in front of my class, because it wasn’t entirely true; but I was mad and on a roll…

“Here is what really matters to me, that you become kind and gentle people…”

I went on to relate why I was giving the whole speech in the first place; I knew students were going to leave the school that day feeling badly about themselves and others.  Then I did something that felt strange, after attending public school for my entire life.  I prayed with the class.

Now I’m teaching at a Catholic school–so it wasn’t illegal–but it was transforming.  Since I’m not Catholic I have a hard time keeping up with all the prayers, Hail Marys and figuring out when to cross myself.  Half the time I forget about the many daily prayers in the first place.  But not today.

I started off with a somewhat self-conscious “sign of the faith”, and then launched into a free-style plea for help, for myself and for my students.  I wasn’t sure, when I started, what exactly I wanted to pray for, but the words “kind” and “gentle” surfaced again.  When I finished, the class was quiet and the energy palpably changed in the room.  Here is another way to put it: the Spirit of God filled the class.

If that sounds too weird for you, it’s okay; it felt extraordinary to me, too.  And, I know that tomorrow kids will continue to fight, put each other down, and get hurt.  I am not pretending it will be perfect from now on, or that anything I did was super-powerful.  I’m only saying that when I, along with a room full of kids, asked for Help, I got it.