Friday, February 26, 2016

Home Is Where...

Home Is Where the Heart Is I Get Called a Bastard

A few weeks ago, both big boys came home from school with Kindness and Caring awards. Each month or two, their elementary school highlights a character trait (respect, responsibility, perseverance, honesty, etc.), and at the end of the month, two children who best exhibit that trait are selected from each class. The boys have been honored with character awards before, but never in the same month and never kindness. And since there may be nothing in this world I desire more than to raise kind and brave children, I shed many grateful tears over those awards.

The irony is, however, that a few days later I received an email from someone who told me what an awful mother I am, specifically pointing out the hateful way my boys sometimes talk to me, although, the emailer conceded, they had never done the same to him/her. Not surprisingly, there is a bigger story surrounding this message delivered under the guise of constructive criticism, but this part of the email, at least on the surface, was actually all truth. I can count on one hand the number of times my boys have spoken rudely to anyone else, but they have said some truly horrifying things to Mister and me. (Where is the baby book that includes in its list of milestones items like The First Time Your Child Called You a Bastard?)

It may surprise my emailer, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When my boys are home, they have to be reminded constantly to pick up their dirty clothes and clear the table and hang up their backpacks and jackets. They forget to say “please” and “thank you” and eat like they were, honest to goodness, being raised in a barn. They balk when I ask them to empty the dishwasher. They gripe that it’s their responsibility to take out the trash and recycling. They sass me when they’re tired or hungry or if they think something is unfair or if the wind is blowing in from the south. They call me names and throw their binders when I try to help with homework. They behave so horribly sometimes that I worry about sending them into the world like this – so obviously works in progress – but send them I must – to school, to their grandparents’ homes, to their coaches, to friends’ houses.

And over and over, I am told they are respectful, courteous, exceptionally well-mannered, helpful, kind, brave, coachable, teachable, and generally just a delight to be around. My boys. The very same ones I worry about sending into the world. (The first few times their teachers offered descriptions of their behavior in class, behavior I hardly recognized as belonging to my children, I responded with puzzled looks. But I reminded the teachers of the boys’ names and provided a general description of their physical appearances, and the teachers insisted, each and every time, they had the right child. So I stopped asking.)

Despite all my worries that I have been raising boys who aren’t fit for public consumption, they are. Despite their providing numerous, daily indications to the contrary, they have been learning what I’ve been trying to teach them. Despite my certainty that most days we’re barely muddling through, they’re thriving. Somehow, we’re doing it.

And yet at home? At home, they can’t seem to pull their stuff together for more than a few minutes at a stretch. Why, for the love, can’t they act at home how they act out in the world?

Well, first, they can. It’s easy to see the misbehaving and miss the good stuff. How the “bigs” will bathe the littlest. Or how the littlest will accompany the “middlest” to find something in another room when the worry bullies are especially feisty. Or when the oldest finally – finally – put into practice the time management and study skills I’ve been working on for months. Or when they say thank you for dinner, even one that included peas. Or when they put aside competitiveness and congratulate another on a job well done. It’s there. It’s all there. I just have to remember to notice.

But the answer to why they let all the crazy hang loose at home?

Because they feel safe.

Don’t misunderstand, calling me “bastard” or yelling “I hate you!” or any of the myriad other horrifying things my boys have said to me (most of which I won’t risk embarrassing them with) isn’t without consequence. But that consequence isn’t to shut them down so forcefully and completely that they actually fear doing it again.

Because when my boys act up, they’re trying, if inartfully, to communicate something to me. Sometimes, it’s as simple as “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired.” But other times, it’s bigger stuff.

My brilliant therapist once told me that anger is always a secondary emotion. Anger may be a way we react to embarrassment, guilt, grief, unfairness, remorse, fear, frustration, or other emotions. But there’s always something deeper. The trick is figuring out what the something is.

I don’t think it’s fair I have to take out the trash and recycling when he gets to play.

I miss Daddy.

I made a mistake, and I feel deeply remorseful.

I try so hard, day in and day out, and I feel like all the recognition goes to my brother.

He’s been pushing my buttons all day long.

I got caught.

I don’t want you to leave.

I’ve been adulting all day and just can’t even hold it together for one more second.

Oh, wait. That last one was about me.

We all do it, right? Whose kiddos and spouses and others nearest and dearest too often get their leftovers? Mine do. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. And I do it because I know that I can screw up over and over and over (and over) again, and they’ll still love me. My mother forgives me for being less than patient with her and welcomes me back eagerly for visit after visit. Mister will give me the space I need or tell me to cut out my nonsense, whichever is appropriate, and want to sneak upstairs with me and lock the door five minutes later. When I snap at the boys and forget to apologize, they still snuggle in for bedtime reading and assure me I’m the best mommy in the world. I don’t feel the same confidence the rest of the world will react with such graciousness. And neither do my children. They have some of the best teachers and coaches and friends a mother could hope for, and I am deeply grateful. But home is just different. Home is the ultimate safe place. The place where they never have to wonder if love is unconditional.

At home, the boys know if they speak rudely or scream something hateful or sass me, I will take the time to figure out what’s at the root of it all. Sometimes right then if they can turn it around or sometimes after a snack or sometimes after a cooling off period in their rooms. They learn that speaking to me disrespectfully is wrong not because I punish them swiftly and harshly for the disrespect but because I treat them with respect – because I take the time to figure out what’s REALLY wrong, address the underlying issue, and then remind them how they could handle the situation better next time. That doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes hear some sharply spoken words about how to and how not to address me (especially when the root cause is something superficial). That’s just not the whole of it.

So although my emailer intended the comments as scathing criticism, I refuse to see it as such. I’m far from a perfect parent (for starters, I’m too quick to anger and wash sheets far too infrequently), but the observation is a compliment. Yes, my children say things to me that are wildly inappropriate. But they almost never do the same to anyone outside our home. Because they know two things: Speaking disrespectfully to others is not okay, and home is safe.

And that isn’t a sign I’m doing something wrong in my parenting. It’s a sign I’m doing something right.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Send Me a Sign

The other night, Bubba asked Mister to teach him a new card game. Apparently, the only card game that came to mind was a game of solitaire I used to play with some regularity and that Mister remembered only half way. I’m not sure that’s exactly what Bubba had in mind, but that kiddo will do just about anything his daddy suggests.

This version of solitaire is easy to learn and almost impossible to win. There is zero skill involved, no strategy, just utterly mindless play. I’ve played scores of times, maybe even hundreds (perhaps, I shouldn’t admit that), and have won precisely once. One time.

I was fifteen, and it was the summer before my junior year of high school. I was at my grandma and grandpa’s home several states away, where we always spent two weeks in July. I was playing solitaire when the phone rang. It was my best friend Shelby. Now, Shelby and I talked every day when we were home, but she had never called at my grandparents’ house. In fact, I didn’t know anyone knew the number there, most certainly not her. But there she was on the other end of the line, telling me that our dear friend Tori had been in a terrible car accident and was in critical condition. She was going to require brain surgery, and no one had any idea if she would pull through.

I wanted to rush home – to do what, I don’t know – but I couldn’t, of course.  So in an effort to settle my shaking hands and swirling mind, I picked up the cards again. I needed something mindless to do. As I shuffled, I prayed. I don’t remember most of it, but it was probably a jumble of Help and Please and No Not This.  I do remember how the prayer ended. I asked God to show me through the cards if Tori would be okay. Let me win if she’s going to live.

I won that very game. And Tori lived.

I struggle with prayer. I haven’t always, but as my faith has grown and evolved and, I hope, matured, prayer has become harder and harder. I feel perfectly comfortable going to God in prayer. I believe He is there and listening. I even believe in the power of prayer. I just… don’t know what to say. Some of it, I’ve got. I pray the Lord’s Prayer. I ask for forgiveness. I pray for comfort and guidance. I say thank you. All good. But what about other requests? Is it okay to pray for healing? Safe travels? What if, as it was suggested to me years ago, you tack on “if it’s Your will”?

I don’t know. But I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea that it’s okay not to know. Of all the miracles and mysteries of my faith, prayer is the one I have the hardest time wrapping my mind around. To me, prayer is the ultimate mystery.

But I do know that in many of my most desperate moments, the one prayer that forces itself to the front of my mind, the one fully-formed, if brief, prayer is Send Me a Sign. And that He has.

The day I prayed for God to show me if Tori would live was the first time I remember praying for a sign. But it wasn’t the last.

My grandma died this past summer. She had been in failing health for years, with her health more rapidly declining in recent months, so it wasn’t unexpected. Still, one can never be fully prepared for news like that.

I was on vacation with Mister and the boys. The news came at the beginning of our final week away. We started making mental preparations while we awaited news of the dates for the visitation and funeral. Ultimately, the visitation was planned for the evening before we were to leave (packing night), and the funeral was planned for the morning we were to begin the seven hundred-mile drive home. The logistics of my getting to the funeral (a three-leg flight) and of Mister packing up and driving out with potentially minimal help from me were overwhelming. Yet, somehow, we got it done. Travel plans for me easily fell into place. Mister decided he and the boys would leave a day early and drop me by the airport on their way home. There were a lot of moving parts, but they all lined up beautifully.

Now, I need to pause here, back up a bit, and mention that our family hiked a mountain the day I learned about the funeral arrangements. I was actively grieving at this point and overwhelmed by the travel logistics. I told Mister that I needed some space on that hike, and at one point I found myself with enough distance from the family that I paused and lifted my face to the sun. I was flooded with the unmistakable feeling that I was not supposed to go to the funeral and was to stay with my husband and boys. But that just seemed wrong. I mean, you’re SUPPOSED to go to funerals when people die. Especially when it’s your grandmother. So I made plans to go, and when the logistics worked themselves out so easily, I assumed I had heard wrong.

Which means I was honestly surprised when I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to take a quick shower before leaving for my flight and found that my flight was delayed four hours.

Four hours. That meant, at a minimum, I would miss that night’s visitation and family prayer service. At that point, I was just hoping to arrive in time for the funeral and some time with my extended family. Because Mister had already planned to leave that morning and drive me to the airport, I was able to reschedule my flight from a larger airport (with more options) five hours away that was on the way home.

When we left, it was immediately apparent why my flight was delayed and why it was hard to get re-booked. Fog. For the next five hours, the only time it wasn’t foggy was when it was raining. And this was the case from the mid-Atlantic through all of New England. We had no confidence that I could even make it out on my rescheduled flight. As we drove, Mister, who travels extensively for work, taught me all his tricks about how to figure out what specific plane had been assigned to my flight and to determine what other legs it was flying that day. We went round and round about my options until we arrived at the final decision point. If I was going to try to fly out, we would head straight to the airport. If not, we would exit right to bypass the city.

I had no clarity about what I should do. I desperately wanted to make it to the funeral, to say goodbye to my grandmother, to mourn with my family; but the weather was bad and not improving. I was already going to miss fully half of the events. I feared I’d be stuck at an airport hundreds of miles from home, husband and boys hours down the road, when I learned my flight was cancelled and that I’d miss the funeral, too, and would have to use my ticket just to fly home. How, for the love, was I supposed to make this decision?

And that’s how I found myself asking God for a sign, while sitting in the car at a gas station hundreds of miles from home.

I asked Mister for a few more minutes to think, and he exited the highway so we could take a break we needed anyway. We filled up the car with gas and used the bathroom and got water, and I was absolutely no closer to having made a decision. So I asked for a few MORE minutes and dropped my head and closed my eyes, and this is what I prayed:

God, I have no idea how I’m supposed to make this decision. I want to go and I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do, but there are SO MANY obstacles and so it feels like maybe I’m not REALLY supposed to go. But how could that be? How could it be that I’m not supposed to go to my grandmother’s funeral? What will people think of me if I say, “Enough!”? Shouldn’t I do every last thing possible to get there? God, can I ask for a sign? Is that a ridiculous, childish way to pray? I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW. But if you were ever to send me a sign, this is it. I need to hear from you in no uncertain terms what I’m supposed to do.

I sat there for another moment, thinking, “This is absurd. This is the stupidest prayer I have ever prayed. I know what’s in front of me. There is a propane tank display on the sidewalk and a giant poster in the window advertising soft drinks. This is ridiculous. WHAT AM I THINKING?!”

I forced myself to open my eyes because, well, eventually I had to, I reasoned. And the first thing I laid my eyes on were the words


Chills. Well, for one split second anyway. Because my next thought was, “Nope. Can’t be. I’m SUPPOSED to go to the funeral.”

God whispered to me on the mountainside, and when that wasn’t enough, I woke to half of the East Coast socked in fog and a delayed flight, and when I still didn’t listen, when I asked for a sign, He sent me an ACTUAL, PHYSICAL SIGN, and STILL I DOUBTED. (There may be no one who tries God’s patience like I do, y’all.) But finally, I turned to my husband and said, “You’re not going to believe what just happened, “ and we drove home.

I’ve told almost no one this story because I feared people wouldn’t understand. But if I’m serious about my faith, it doesn’t matter if my family judges (and truthfully, that concern is born solely of my own insecurity and not of anything they have done), if friends think I made the wrong choice, or if I fail to comply with societal norms. I, also, feared people would look askance when told I asked for a sign and got one. But the truth is that sometimes God gives me signs (even actual, physical ones), and sometimes He talks to me (which, lest you be concerned, sounds a lot less booming-voice-from-the-clouds and a lot more unmistakable-voice-from-within).

From this experience, I’ve learned that it’s possible to both desperately want something – something good and worthy – and understand it wasn’t meant to be. It is possible to simultaneously ache to be elsewhere and know you’re right where you’re supposed to be. And I know this because I asked, and He answered.  I prayed, and He responded with a sign even I, though I tried mightily, couldn’t ignore. Despite my muddled, if sincere, mess of a prayer, despite my complete bewilderment about how prayer works, it did.

And I learned it’s hard for even the biggest skeptics in your life (I’m looking squarely at you, Mister and Bubba) to ignore the mystery and power of a sign.