Friday, May 28, 2010

Why I Love the German Language, Part 1

I can't tell you how excited I am to write this series, but, first off:


**LANGUAGE NERD ALERT!**


If you feel about languages the way most people feel about, say, integral calculus or spiny lobster fishing, you may want to skip this series. If, however, you, like me, view language as a fascinating extension of humanity, the medium through which all other subjects are understood, an entity which substantiates the very concept of knowledge, then you might want to stick around. Also if you have been sitting around wondering which European language to delve into with great passion and fervor. Then this would be for you, too.


German has gotten a bad rap. My personal theory is that the events of the 20th century made Germany the nation everybody loves to villainize, and snarky attitudes about the nation's language were thrown in for good measure. Although I suppose it may go back further than that. There is the famous quote from Charles V (1500-1558) that goes, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." Very funny, Charles V. What did you ever do with your life that was so great? But ever since, it seems that German is the perpetual bootay of language jokes. Mark Twain had some kind of love/hate relationship with German, for years making zinging remarks that bordered on the flirtatious, such as "I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it" and "I don't believe there is anything in the whole earth you can't learn in Berlin except the German language." Come on, Mark Twain. I hear that hint of longing in your tone. And then there's the Monty Python sketch about the funniest joke in the world, which, when translated into German, becomes a method of warfare because it makes Nazi soldiers laugh themselves to death. The sketch works so well, of course, because everyone knows how unfunny German actually is.


So, sadly, it seems to be universally accepted that German is a harsh, perhaps even barbaric, language. In fact, when I typed "ugliest language" into Google, its autofill feature immediately supplied me with the alternate "German world's ugliest language" before I even got to the search results. Sigh…. Still, the purpose of this series will be to convince you--yes, you!--that German is, in fact, an amazing language with many beautiful features. You may not want to listen to it while you're getting a massage, but I hope to surprise you with its aural and structural delights.


So without further ado, Part 1: Flavoring Particles!


Ah, flavoring particles. That little packet you sprinkle on your Ramen noodles. Or a set of untranslatable German words that defy classification and can change meaning from one usage to the next. How enchantingly hopeless for students of German! When I taught the chapter on flavoring particles to my German Conversation students, they looked at me like I was, well, speaking a foreign language. As in, you're telling me there's no literal translation of any of these words? How the hell am I supposed to learn them and, more importantly, pass the test on them? I told them they had two options: a.) move to Germany and immerse yourself for approximately four years, or b.) flashcards. (Kidding.) Even when I gushed that English actually does have similar words to German flavoring particles, it apparently wasn't fascinating enough to make a difference at 8:30 in the morning when you're hung over from a frat party.


Flavoring particles, to give an approximate explanation, are used primarily in spoken German to add emphasis or reflect the speaker's mood or attitude. I'll give you a reasonably equivalent English example: the word "even." We throw that word around in a lot of different ways beyond its function as an adjective or a verb. "I don't even know what you're talking about!" That sentence doesn't actually need the word "even"; it's just there for emphasis. Or take "just." "I just wish I could bring myself to part with my Vanilla Ice memorabilia!" That sentence doesn't need the "just," but it adds emphasis and reflects the speaker's existential despair. So these strange little particles do also float around in our English atmosphere, they're just a little more predictable and less frequent than in German. Some German flavoring particles (which include aber, auch, denn, doch, halt, ja, mal, nur, and schon, as well as some other outliers) may actually already look familiar to you if you've had even an introductory course in the language. You might recognize aber as the word for "but" or ja as the word for "yes." This, unfortunately, is the part where we pull the rug right out from under you. Because when you see a sentence like "Das ist aber schoen!" you'd want to translate it as a kind of protest, like "But that's pretty!" when in reality, the aber functions here to add emphasis: "That's really pretty!" A similar dilemma with ja. German instructional materials always make these really genuine but ultimately lame attempts to contextualize each individual particle. For example, here is how Wikipedia (I know, not a reputable language learning source, but go with me) explains the particle ja: "Ja indicates that the speaker thinks a certain fact should already be known to the listener and intends his statement to be more of a reminder or conclusion." Thank you. We'll all be sure to remember that when we're fumbling for our passports in a crowded airport.


By now you're probably wondering what opioid narcotic I was on when I said I intend to show beauty and appeal in the German language. I admit that figuring out flavoring particles can be murder, even to an experienced speaker of German. (I still don't get how to use halt.) But it's a lot easier than it looks on paper. Because these words are intended for emphasis or attitude, it's actually pretty easy to determine how the native speaker is using them because you can frequently already tell from their tone, their body language, etc. what type of statement they're trying to make. And like we saw in our English examples, these words usually aren't technically necessary to establish meaning. They're more just for fun, to make things interesting. As you get used to hearing and understanding them in context in spoken German, you can begin to make attempts of your own.


And you want to know why I really love these funny little words? It's their fluidity, their flexibility--the ability of a word to slip into something a little bit more comfortable and show up where you don't expect it. The ability in your speech to add emphasis without having to just get louder or more profane or add gestures. It's all possible within the language itself, with an intricacy that defies unraveling. Plus, how awesome is it when your language is so unique that it possesses words that cannot be translated into any other language? I think that's beauty right there.


So bring on the flavoring! It may even be biblical: "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:6). May we all find that perfect balance in our speech, whatever the language.



Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Surprised by Resonance: How I became (and why I remain) Catholic


*As requested by some, here is the story of my conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism.*



The "how" of my conversion is not really all that different from anyone else's. I went to some classes. I walked in a line down a church aisle. I said some words. I let a man in white grease my forehead. And *poof!* everything changed and I became Catholic.


Except that it wasn't like that at all. Or at least, I could never really reduce it down to any matrix so simple. The decision to become Catholic was the most painful and agonizing of my life. And yet also, as it unfolded, the most surprising. You may know the C.S. Lewis book Surprised by Joy. There's a Catholic volume of conversion stories that gives that title a tweak: Surprised by Truth. I think I would call the story of my conversion Surprised by Resonance.


Having lived for 26 years as an Evangelical Protestant, my faith and my identity were as interwoven as the reeds of a Chinese finger trap. And just as binding. Mostly, I mean that in a good way. Since family heritage carries an enormous weight with me, it means almost more to me than I can say that on both sides of my family, I have at least 300 years of Protestant history. (It helps that my parents are fourth cousins. Somewhere back there the branches of the family attach back to the same trunk…) For all I know, my great-grandparents sixth removed were Luther groupies excommunicated with the best of 'em. In addition, my four years of education at Wheaton College conditioned me to view the universe through Evangelical eyes--a perspective I genuinely cherished. The world was my Protestant oyster. So when Anthony began to do some reading about the Catholic church a few years ago, it seemed merely like an interesting intellectual diversion. When he actually began to suggest we might eventually become Catholic, things got a bit thornier. Like um-excuse-me-who-is-this-heathen-I-married thornier. And then when he told me he actually believed we would definitely one day join the Church, I just got pissed.


I had SO many arguments with the Church's teaching. So many reasons I would never in a zillion years even consider linking myself with such a messed-up institution. They pray to Mary! They baptize infants! They worship statues! Plus, I couldn't recall ever having met a Catholic who legitimately appeared to have a thriving personal relationship with Jesus. This really did not bode well.


At the time, however, both Anthony and I knew we were at a crossroads because we needed to find a new church. For many reasons, it was time to leave the Protestant church we had attended together since getting married. So a few times we tried going to mass at St. Timothy's. Just to check it out, I told myself. But gradually, as we continued our church search, the Evangelical churches we visited just seemed to evoke the same negative reactions in us. We felt so done with the Evangelical culture. For both of us, we knew the church-shaped hole in our souls just could not include pandering to contemporary culture via a Jumbotron, branding, and cooler-than-thou leaders. And every time we visited St. Timothy (or any other Catholic church) we were refreshed by the lack of those things. It was simple people being addressed by simple leaders in a simple format. I also began to find a few of the Church's teachings and practices refreshing in their sensibleness. The idea that there was an establishment that could claim authority to interpret Scripture seemed on the one hand slightly pompous, but on the other hand, extremely practical. No more tomato-tomahto. There is someone to settle the debate. I am reminded of the Apostolic Christians, the Protestant denomination of my family's heritage, who experienced what I like to think of The Great Mustache Schism of 1911 over whether it was biblical to wear a mustache. (Yes, I am serious.) The Catholic church does not permit such ridiculousness.


Little by little, more and more of the Church's teachings appealed to me. Especially when I realized how many of my perceptions of what the Church taught were misinformed or flat-out wrong. I enrolled in RCIA in the winter of 2008 with the private caveat that this was still not a commitment. Just a little recon mission. In truth, I continued to feel this way basically up until Holy Week when I was scheduled to be confirmed. I still disagreed with the Church about so many things. How could I affiliate myself with an institution I took issue with so much? How could I perjure myself by repeating the statement of confirmation, claiming to believe everything the Church teaches? I kept hoping that since I was nine months pregnant at the time, Elliot would be born on Good Friday and I would thereby miss the Easter Vigil and have another year to think about it. Except I knew I couldn't agonize a whole other year about this.


I remember praying about it all in my backyard one afternoon when Gabriel was napping. In one sense, I felt a wifely duty to submit to my husband's desire to become Catholic. (In our premarital counseling, I said that if we ever came to a complete impasse in our marriage, I would be the one to submit--except that I didn't believe we would ever reach such a situation. *Pause for laughter from married people.*) But as I prayed, I felt the Lord very gently tell me that He wasn't asking me to submit to Anthony. He was asking me to submit to Himself. That this was actually His will for me. It wasn't my will for myself. Let to my own devices, I never would have made the choice to become Catholic. But that day of Holy Week, I felt an assurance that this was what God had for my life. To this day, I don't know all the reasons why.


It does, however, begin to unfold. As I said earlier, my journey into Catholicism has been one of surprise. I am still often surprised at how I find myself resonating with the Church. Like Dante's vision of heaven, the Church now seems to me a rose that continues to open with levels of beauty and unexpected truth (and I suppose, in its earthly humanness, the occasional thorn). The Catholic perspective on the dignity of life and incredible, God-revealing nature of our bodies just reverberates with truth. The depth of symbol in the mass is nearly heartbreaking. Catholic compassion for and service to the poor and needy outdoes any other church I have ever been a part of. (I'd be happy to share more with you personally if you'd like to email me--and I plan to write about many more of these truths on this blog.) In the end, I do also still disagree with the Church on many points. I do not hide that fact. I will never feel comfortable with any devotion to Mary, though my respect for her has grown immensely. I don't believe in Purgatory--just don't see a biblical basis. But I have decided to give the Church my respect and submit myself to its membership. After all, it does have 2,000 years of scholarship filled with millions of the greatest minds and spirits ever to walk this earth. I am only one mind, one spirit, with only 27 years of earth under my feet.


Lastly--and ultimately--the reason I am Catholic comes down to this: Jesus Christ established a Church on Earth. No matter its failings, it has stood the test of time and exists to this day in a form descended unbroken from Him. Where that exists on earth, I want to be a part of it.



Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dear Kitty


It's a sad day today--much sadder than I realized it would be. When my mom called yesterday to say that she was finally going to have to put down Daisy, her ailing cat of fifteen years, I knew it would be a rough few days for her. But I had no idea I would feel affected in any significant way. I'm not an animal person. I haven't lived with my mom for six years. I rarely even interact with the cat when I go to Mom's. But it's funny how a little creature who I always considered background, like the furniture or dishes, seems to be leaving such a hole in my heart by her absence.


I suppose if I dig a little deeper, the reasons for my sadness begin to come into focus. Daisy has been a constant in the life of my nuclear family for fifteen years, even as that family itself was fractured. That little kitty has been with my mom through the darkest days of her life. As a result of the insidious double life of my sociopath former step-father, in the space of four years, my mom went through a divorce, four moves, the loss of two homes, and other losses too numerous and painful to recount. For myself, those years were marked by witnessing the stuff of my childhood get tossed out or carted off with each wave of my mom's necessary downsizing. In her defense, she always gave me the opportunity to keep things myself, especially if it was rightfully mine. ("Do you want your old dollhouse?" Yes. "Do you want the plaster model of your teeth from when you got braces?" No.) In the end, though, so many things just had to go. Let me tell you how bizarre it is to be shopping at Savers and realize you're looking at the pink juice glasses you drank out of every morning for a dozen years. Or how odd it is to watch a Mexican family walk into your living room during an open-house garage sale and heave your couch--the one you've slept on, done homework on, and made out with your boyfriend on--out the door and into their battered pickup. Each of these material losses always brought feelings of grief, of course, but also a certain insecurity. When the physical reminders of an era are gone, fear creeps in and whispers that you have lost contact with that time forever. I imagine myself in a lifeboat that can only hold so much--the materials and realities of my current daily life--but on either side of the boat are ropes that attach to boxes. Inside the boxes are memories and reminders of former times. And every time I saw things from my past let go, it was like another rope pulled and unraveled and snapped, the package drifting out to sea, leaving an empty space on my boat's perimeter. (And then every time I shouted, "WIIILLLSON!!!" Okay, no. No, I didn't.) So now that it appears that the waves of downsizing the past have calmed for the time being, I realize that the loss of one little striped kitty who seemed as natural as the dishes or the furniture means so much because the dishes and the furniture are already gone, supplanted by smaller, cheaper versions of themselves.


I also begin to realize that I trusted Daisy in a strange way to be there for my mom in her singleness--as much as a ten-pound animal who needs someone to clean her litter box can support a human being. Like I had taken her aside and had a little heart-to-heart, coaching her on how to be a good listener and intone the right meows when Mom had a hard day. Now that she's gone, that simple companionship for my mom will be no longer. And then, too, I'm going to miss her for my own sake because she was just a sweet, kind little presence in my life for more than half of my years.


I wish I could have a heart as tender as Gabriel's. He cried openly as he petted Daisy goodbye this morning. I wish I could tell my tears they are not foolish for being shed for a cat. Daisy, wherever you are, you were a good kitty--a gestalt kitty, more than the sum of your whiskers and tail and paws. I place you in your little box like Schroedinger's cat on the side of my boat and release you out to sea.



Friday, May 14, 2010

Burnout is Funny!


And now for a little departure from the generally serious nature of this blog...


You know you've been there. You're driving down the street at night when you notice a lit sign with burned-out letters. Sometimes it's enough to give you a little chuckle or point out to your passenger, like, "Hey, Fry's ood and Drug. Think they sell good ood there?" Yuk, yuk. Then there are those times when you're rooting for just one more letter to burn out to make it really classic. Like the Wireless World sign at Stapley and Southern that for months said "Wirel orld." Curse that extra L! WIRE LORD would be so much more awesome. And then there are the burned-out signs that are camera phone-worthy, true comic jackpot. My personal crowning glory of burned-out signs was some years back as a grad student at ASU. At the corner of University and College, the Campus Corner sign's first three letters burned out, revealing "PUS CORNER." YESSSSS!


So without further ado, here is my top ten list of East Valley signs I'm rooting for to burn out just perfectly. If by "perfectly" I mean "to satisfy my sophomoric sense of humor."


1. Golden Spoon --> Old Poo (or Golden Poo--equally amusing)


2. OAsian Noodle Bar--the top half of the L is all I ask.


3. Big O Tires --> BIGOT


4. Port of Subs --> Pot of BS


5. Giant Hamburgers at Lindsay & Broadway --> please, please, can this someday proclaim "GIANT HAM URGES"?


6. Don't pretend you've never wanted the first five letters of Eyeglass World to burn out.


7. Or the G in Black Angus.


8. Check 'n Go --> HECK NO (which is what everyone should be saying to this place anyway)


9. I would mention one for Inside the Bungalow, but they don't actually have a lighted sign.


10. With all these frozen custard places popping up, you'd think one of them would have the decency to let the "cus" and the top of the lower-case "a" burn out. It would distinguish them, don't you think? Anybody can sell frozen custard. It's the frozen turd niche market that really needs exploring.


So now that I've exposed my juvenile side, I want to hear from YOU! What are your favorite burned-out signs, real or hoped-for?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Pill vs. The Chart



Long before Anthony and I ever became Catholic, we had what I like to think of as symptoms of Catholicism. I recall my first Catholic symptom started in early 2006--not a physical craving for the Eucharist or magnetic attractions to holy sites, but a strangely strong aversion to using birth control. Anthony and I had been married for two years and until then had never had any second thoughts about my being on the Pill. In our experience, it was one more thing to check off the pre-wedding to-do list: go to the doctor and get a birth control prescription. Duh. Why would we do anything else? So for two years I had faithfully noshed through those little pink compacts, the wheel-shaped dispenser spinning away the time like hands on a clock. But somehow at the dawn of 2006, we both began to do some thinking about those daily pills. Why was I taking them, after all? Why did we so badly want to prevent pregnancy that I would insert hormones into my body every day? As we considered it, we realized that there was no particular reason not to have a child. We made enough money. We were healthy. We had a place to live with a little extra space for a little extra person. We always knew we eventually wanted children. There seemed to be no logical answer to the question, "Why not now?"


In addition to the logical aspect, we had both begun to feel a personal spiritual conviction about the matter, which at the time seemed almost bizarre. We had never heard contraception denounced from the pulpit. In my four years at a Christian college, it had never once come up. And the Bible never mentions it--right? What could be wrong with it on a spiritual level? I mean, we didn't want to become like those cheerful idiots who, when asked how many children they want, say, "As many as God gives us!" What delusionoids! That's why God invented the Pill, dummy! ….Right? I mean, God is in control, but you can't leave everything in His control…right?


That was the question that stopped me cold. Control. Birth control. Control of my body through those little pills.


It was like I had made a commitment to God that went something like this: "Lord, take my life! I surrender all! Do with me what you will! It's all in Your hands! I'll follow you anywhere!" **


**(Subclause persuant to above declaration: reproductive rights are excepted and are sole property of the declaring party.)


Here was this (rather important) piece of my life that I had not truly submitted to God's will, God's control. So in March 2006 I stopped taking those little pills--and promptly got pregnant the very next month. I was thrilled, terrified--I was only 23. Would I be ready? A Christmas baby! I was due December 24th. We bought a cookie cake from the mall and had "Surprise, Grandma and Grandpa!" written on it in frosting to share the news with Anthony's parents. We drove to Texas for my friend's wedding and told everyone there our exciting headline. Three days later I miscarried. In the ER, the doctor told me that since I had just come off the Pill, my body wasn't ready to support a pregnancy. The Pill thins the uterine lining, she explained, so that it often isn't thick enough for the embryo to implant correctly. I have since had to reconcile with the fact that if I had not been on the Pill those two years, I probably would have delivered that child.


Fortunately, since that one miscarriage, fertility has never been a problem and we are now the parents of two children. And since that one miscarriage, that feeling of conviction about birth control has never gone away. Shortly after Gabriel was born, at my doctor's hounding, I tried the low-dose Pill even though I felt wrong about it. After one week of artificial hormones, I began having excruciating pain that turned out to be a melon-sized ovarian tumor, resulting in the surgical removal of my ovary. If personal conviction wasn't enough to set me firmly against hormonal birth control, I'd say mind-bending pain and emergency surgery did the trick.


So now that we would like to have a stretch of time until baby #3 (if indeed baby #3 ever comes along) and we still would like to have…ahem…marital relations, it turns out there's this handy dandy way the female body tells its owner when it's fertile and when it's not. No, your body doesn't come with a user's manual, but I like to think of its signs and signals as a monthly puzzle or treasure map. If you keep your eyes open and your mind attuned, you can pretty readily crack the code of your body's language. And by abstaining on the days you are fertile, you maintain respect for God's design of your body in a way that taking a pill to change your monthly hormones does not. This process is known as Natural Family Planning (NFP). So where I once relied upon The Pill, I now rely upon The Chart. I record my daily waking temperature, as well as other physical signs, on a chart that, upon first glance, would probably remind you of one of those multi-axis logic puzzles from elementary school. ("Jane is not wearing a red hat. Neither Fred nor Myrtle went to the birthday party.") Actually, this chart is a left-brainer's dream. By the end of the month, it's a work of art. If you have an analytical bone in your body--and I believe most women, deep down, qualify for Analyzers Anonymous--it's a small delight to craft this representation of what your body is telling you. And in the end, wouldn't you rather be keeping track of what your body is telling you about itself than pumping chemicals into it to tell it to do exactly what you want it to?


A few other notes: the Pill has side effects, no matter how your doctor or anyone else may minimize them. So even if you feel no personal conviction on the matter, usage puts you at risk for numerous problems such as breast, endometrial, uterine, cervical, and ovarian cancer, tumors (personal experience! not cool!), blood clots, high blood pressure, and a host of other super-fun health issues. Side effects of NFP? None--except maybe increased communication in your marriage and a better understanding of your body. One other thing to chew on: divorce rates for couples who practice NFP are between 2-4%. Divorce rates for those using the Pill? Roughly 60%.


There are so many other reasons I could state for not taking a spin on that little pink wheel. Here is a very informative website that lists several. I mostly just want to share my own story about getting from there to here in the hope that you, whoever you are, might open your mind to a new possibility. God put in you the ability to create life. Is there anything more powerful in the human experience? Fertility is a gift, and as someone has said before me, it's the only healthy function of our bodies we take pills to suppress.



Thursday, May 6, 2010

Feel Free



I never did much babysitting as a teenager. I too quickly tired of taking care of other people's children for such little compensation and always ended up in some stew of righteous indignation when the kids even brushed the edge of disobedience. I remember writing off one family down the street because their kids once hid my shoes. What little babysitting I did was mostly for my cousins, who are close enough to my own age that they were more like friends. We would spend the evening being royally silly and then I'd first sing "How Much is that Doggie in the Window" to put April, the younger, to bed, then make up a story to tell Ashley before tucking her in as well--the switch on her bedside lamp looked like the head to some ornate key, unlocking the dark into her room. Then I'd slip down the stairs, relishing the grown-up feeling of the quiet house and "the kids" in bed--that combination of responsibility and independence. After sneaking some sweet snack from the pantry, I'd park myself on the couch and turn on Letterman. Practically joined the ranks of adulthood, I thought, here at the age of fourteen. And on the really late nights, when Uncle David and Aunt Linda stayed out past Letterman, with nothing left to do, I'd let the clacky rhythm of their grandfather clock punctuate my sleepy thoughts. Then of course came the awkward drive home with my uncle, after which I always promised myself that when I had kids of my own, I'd always take the babysitter home myself.


Babysitting in college was also a one-gig affair. My junior year, looking for extra cash for my trip to Germany, I responded to an ad at the career center for nannying one day a week for a six-year-old and a two-year-old. At the time, I thought it awfully odd that the mother didn't actually want to leave her house while I was there. She lingered in the basement, doing I never knew what, or ferreted herself away in her bedroom. The only time she left the house was to pick up the first-grader from school, which meant that I felt perpetually watched, worrying about what she thought of my babysitting skills while she listened from another room. I can remember having a conversation about this situation with my mom in which she said, "There's something wrong with a woman who can't handle taking care of her two kids on her own." As the weeks went by, however, her children began to wear on me, too. Claire, the two-year-old, was as stubborn as they come and a screamer to boot. Once, when I felt too tired to play with Jonah, the six-year-old, and told him I would just watch him play robot dinosaur airplanes, he wheeled around and snapped, "But that's what my mom PAYS you for! You HAVE to play with me." So eventually, when this woman left to pick up her son and the two-year-old was napping, I would daily lie down on the floor in their formal living room and scrawl into a spiral notebook these words: "I AM NOT A MOTHER. THESE CHILDREN ARE NOT MY PROBLEM. THIS IS NOT MY LIFE." I have a real life, I thought. I am not beholden to anyone. I am free.


And so I was. Free to spend my summer in Germany, free to stay up all hours laughing with my roommate. Free to make each and every minute decision of my day and my life for myself and no one else. Free to walk away at the end of the day from those two children who made me crazy.


Interesting how time and experience change everything.


If you know me, you probably know that I now stay at home full-time with my two little boys, Gabriel (3) and Elliot (1). The difference between babysitting and mothering is a bit like the difference between being a substitute teacher and being the real teacher. I would know because I've done both. I cringe at the thought of ever substitute teaching again, whereas I would readily consider teaching my own class again. It really is different when they're "your own." Your ultimate adoration for your own children is the fuel for the Supermom Jet-Pack. So as a mother, I am far more able to handle the tantrums, the constant clean-up, the poop (and so very, very much more I never encountered in babysitting), BUT...I still have that resistance, that gut-level desire to say sometimes, "THIS IS NOT MY PROBLEM. THIS IS NOT MY LIFE. I AM FREE."


There was a time when I kept on my desk a framed photograph I took in Flagstaff. It was a three-step stoop to a little shop somewhere downtown. The steps were painted wildly in neon colors with whimsical designs, and the top step proclaimed simply: "FREEDOM." I loved the idea of being daily reminded of that beautiful ideal. Freedom. But then I found that the more I looked at it, the less I saw it. It seemed commonplace. It lost its grandeur. Then it began to seem a little ironic, caging that word in a frame as though I could catch it, pin it down, force it into my everyday life. I can't. In the course of my life, and especially since becoming a parent, the feeling of freedom seems to come and go. Sometimes I feel it when I run listening to Todd Rundgren and every step feels like it leaves a footprint, my mark on the earth. Sometimes I feel it when I make contact with creativity through making a necklace or writing a poem. And frankly, I don't feel it when I'm losing my self to another day of did-you-hear-what-I-just-said-listen-to-me-stop-that-you're-okay-shhhh! But I'm looking for it. I know that I am more than the sum of any given day's parts. Especially if that given day is comprised of peanut butter in the carpet and more Bob the Builder than I should have let Gabriel watch. I wonder about whether I can be a mother of young children and still feel some measure of freedom. Is it possible? Is it ridiculous to hope for? What does it mean? The search for feeling free would never mean abandoning my children, but I am beginning to open myself to new possibilities. After a lot of consideration, I think freedom means having some time away from them in the form of a part-time job. Freedom means allowing myself to create--even forcing myself to create when I think I don't have the time or energy because I know it returns me to the unique self God has placed inside of me. Freedom means letting go of unnecessary guilt for doing these things.


So, dear reader, what does freedom mean to you? When do you feel free?


While we're on the subject...

Having posted the last entry about battle scars, I thought I'd also share this poem from awhile back.


Scars


I’m not left-handed,

But I wear my watch on my right.

And people always say,

“A lefty, eh?”

like they’ve uncovered my secret—

aren’t they observant?

But what they don’t know

Or fail to see

Are the scars on that arm—

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—

The graffiti pain scrawled across my skin

To say,

“I was here.”

So long ago you’d think the details might be fuzzy,

That bone was split

(to say “I broke my arm” implies complicity, intent)

and, like the shriveled root

of some poor upturned tree,

protruded, jagged, from my skin.

And yet a mystery occurred:

In time, the jigsaw pieces

Of nerve and vein and bone

Fused back in seamless functionality,

As though their time exposed to air

Had no effect at all.

Except, of course,

For scars—

That living tissue showing death,

A tattooed monument

To brokenness,

My coat of arms.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Battle Scars


Yesterday we had a little incident while I was on the phone.


It was my dad calling from Illinois...my dad who (sorry, Dad!) tends to be rather long-winded. The downstairs cordless phone had died, so there I was in our bedroom on the old-school this-was-awesome-in-the-80s, clear-so-you-can-see-al-the-parts corded phone. My dad had called to ask me what to get Gabriel for his third birthday next week. The birthday boy himself was jumping up and down on our bed yelling while Elliot (1) explored the floor looking for things to put in his mouth. The connection wasn't great between here and Illinois, so I was squeezing the receiver against my ear, holding the bottom part in the air so Elliot wouldn't hang up the call, and giving Gabriel the Gaze of Ice while pressing one finger against my lips. It was then that I saw he had the pasta scoop from the bathroom--


--Time out. Pasta scoop from the bathroom? you might be wondering. (Or if you have kids, you were thinking, Yes. Pasta scoop in the bathroom. Perfectly reasonable.) Um, don't you mean the kitchen? Maybe you keep a pasta scoop in the bathroom as some kind of bath toy for the kids? No, that would be the spatula we keep in the bathroom. The pasta scoop we keep in the bathroom is to fish out whatever items Elliot throws in the toilet when we happen to leave it open. Really, it's quite handy. I would recommend the Bathroom Pasta Scoop for any family with toddlers. Okay, un-time out--


and was banging it on the books on our bed. And then my "uh-huh"s and "hmm"s and "that's interesting"s stopped. Because I saw that Gabriel had jammed the metal scoop ice pick-style into my Bible. The Bible I've had since I was 19, the first one I ever bought for myself, the one that's been with me through thick and thin, the one that snuggled into my backpack those two summers in Europe like a warm blanket from home, the one I've cried over and rejoiced over and underlined till it's blue in the face. MY BIBLE. Ravaged like a dog attacked it.


OH. YOU. DID. NOT. CHILD.


In that moment, I seriously did not know what to do. Because my dad was going on about a couple he set up in college and how the bride got sick and was in the hospital and fell for an orderly and called it off and....I wasn't about to scream into the phone, "Dad, I have to go! My Bible's been attacked!" Don't want to get him all concerned about some jihad being staged in my bedroom. I did, however, manage to get the Bible away from Gabriel and get off the phone within a few minutes. I corralled Gabriel into my arms and tried to explain as calmly as possible the significance of the book he had damaged. I think I said something like this, "Gabriel. I want to talk to you. This is my Bible. This is God's book that He wrote. It tells us lots of stories about Him and all about how He loves us, and it's the most important book in the world. When you banged it with that scoop, you damaged it, and that makes me very, very upset. Please do not ever do that again." He looked very serious and nodded. At that moment, I was glad I hadn't acted on my first impulse, which had been to throw him onto his star-spangled toddler bed and spank the living daylights out of him. "I'll teach you not to hit my Bible, kid!"


But I was still so angry. Angry not just because of my Bible getting damaged, but about this whole (frankly) crappy week. I hit a guy on a bike with my car. I found a ginormous, terrifying brown spider in my kitchen. I got a bad haircut. My husband got sick. Both my kids have been having screaming fits. I lost both the iPod Touch and one of my favorite earrings. And it all just makes me feel really stinkin' sorry for myself. So this morning in the shower I was ruminating on all the reasons I was mad and focusing on how even my Bible is damaged. And suddenly, the Lord showed me something that totally changed my thinking about it. It was like He said, "Sarah, don't look at it as one more way your week went badly. The marks on your Bible aren't just tears made by the Bathroom Pasta Scoop. They are your battle scars, a symbol of everything you are weathering in your life of raising these boys. Every time you look at your Bible, you can be reminded that I see your sacrifice for your family and that you are surviving."


Lord, thank You for Your grace to show me the truth. Thank you for breaking past my wrong attitudes. Change me to see things as You see them.