Monday, June 27, 2011

The very worse grandma ever

Hal and I just spent a week taking care of our three young grandchildren while their parents led a group of middle schoolers on their annual trek to Washington, DC.

I approached the week with both fear and anticipation. We had planned a list of fun activities and a menu of meals we hoped would please as well as nourish. We knew the behavioral rules and household routines their parents follow and determined to lovingly but firmly carry these out. I had even asked a group of close friends to be praying for us during the week. (Am I wimpy, or what?)

All this preparation and prayer helped. But I am again impressed by how challenging it is to raise children. Especially little children. They can be tough critters.

One of my tasks became combating the perception that the role of grandparents is to be on continuous call to entertain, to engage in a non-stop marathon of sword fights, hide-n-seek, I-spy, story books and movies, bike and scooter races, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, X-box (I don’t even need to try and lose), drawing dinnosaurs, making tents in the living room, trips to the park and on and on and on. Not to mention the special needs of our three-year-old autistic grandson who loudly repeats every demand until he knows without a doubt he holds your full attention.

I simply did not have the energy to keep up the continuously fun-loving grandma facade. I found myself mentally repeating, “You are an adult. Respond like one.” The low point came early in the week when I caught myself in the middle of a fight between the eight- and five-year-old, yelling at them to “stop all this yelling!” At that moment I felt like the world’s worse grandma.

But that was not the norm for the week. My mature self did eventually kick in. Hal and I were able to support one another and find balance, to be ourselves and the grandparents these kids needed.

Many highlights brightened the week, like the morning Paige and I spent building a fairy house. Her idea, this was to be a refuge for fairies from the rain, hidden under a bush and behind a rock. We traipsed all over the yard gathering moss, leaves, pine cones, petals—anything that might make a cozy fairy house. We then made and posted signs saying, "Fairy house, right this way ---->", in case it was too well hidden.

At one point, Paige turned to me—totally serious—and said, “I have to tell you something, Grandma. Fairies aren’t real.”

“Oh?” I responded, waiting for what would come next.

“But I think God could make some fairies if he wanted to.”

“Yes, he probably could,” I replied.

Long pause.

“Don’t you wish he wanted to?”

Yes, Paige, I do wish that.

And I wish God would make me into the perfect grandma. But that may be a long-term project. And by the time the project is complete, you’ll be all grown-up, with new needs and other people in your life.

In the meantime, I’ll do my best to support Paige’s mom and dad, with a new appreciation of just how challenging their role is.

The kids were glad to see their parents at the end of the week (perhaps not as glad as we were!), but I was encouraged that Paige asked me, “Do you have to go now, Grandma?”

            The challenge of X-box  
          Peter, a blend of innocence and mischief  
Living room tent

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Confessions of a lapsed contemplative

For years contemplative prayer has drawn me, like the vision of a mountain stream on a hot city day. I’ve read the right stuff, from the classics (Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing) to the moderns (Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, Richard Foster). I’ve gone through the disciplinary paces, practiced the helpful techniques—repeating slowly the name of Jesus, even doing breathing exercises to control my brain waves.

I believe the books. I accept the testimony of the saints that this is all real. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to work for me. At least not on a consistent basis. Not that I haven’t had moments of ecstasy. I have. But they are short and seem to come about once a decade.

Perhaps my expectations are too romantic. The idea of simply being in God’s presence, without words, basking in the glow of divine love—well, who wouldn’t want that ?! But even as I ask the question, I imagine any number of my friends who would think this is supremely silly. Maybe not everyone would want it. But I do.

Perhaps my imagination is the culprit. It has always been active, mostly giving me pleasure, but sometimes giving me fits. In a typical attempt at contemplation, I begin by praying for God’s protection and invoking the Spirit’s presence and help. Then I begin to “center down.” But hardly a minute passes before the most mundane, funny, or downright irreverent thought comes to mind, and without realizing what’s happening, I’m off on the trail of an interesting tangent. I’m reconstructing a frustrating conversation I had the day before (my imaginary remarks are always more brilliant than the stuff I actually say), or getting a head start on worrying about next week’s deadline. Suddenly I realize, Oh no! I’ve done it again! I quickly offer my tangent up to God, try hard not to feel guilty (as the books tell me I mustn’t), and again begin breathing the name of Jesus. But within minutes I’m mentally composing a poem about frogs to send my grandson for his birthday.

I’m currently taking a contemplative break. By that I don’t mean I’m on a spiritual retreat where I contemplate for two weeks. I mean I’ve put my devotional guidebooks back on the shelf and, for the time being, am sticking with more active ways of prayer.

At the heart of my struggle is a longing for intimacy with God, a desire to hear his voice as part of my everyday experience. And, thanks to God, contemplative prayer is not the only way this happens.

God speaks in many ways, both ordinary and extraordinary. He even uses my imagination. Part of my growth has been learning to recognize his voice.

A few years back God spoke to me through a dream that seemed anything but spiritual. I dream a lot, mostly weird stuff I forget as soon as I wake up. But every once in a while God speaks through a dream.

In this particular dream I gave birth to a little girl, and she was beautiful. About four months old at birth, and healthy. But what a pooper! As I was holding her in my dream, admiring her, she started doing her thing, filling up her diaper. She about doubled in weight (which is only possible in a dream). I handed her to Hal who willingly cleaned her up. He then gave her back to me, naked, and she started in again.

In the dream I remember feeling that all the poop was just a necessary part of having a baby. It was inconvenient and definitely messy, but quite natural. Our little daughter was worth all the inconvenience involved in raising her.

As I told this dream to my sleepy husband, he said, “Nancy, God is telling us something important.” He interpreted it to be a message about the ministry we were still in the process of beginning in the university. Essentially what we had given birth to was very good, but a natural part of the birth of anything (whether a masters program in missions, a book, or a baby) is the mess. I think God was encouraging us to put up with the messiness of the process, faithfully clean it up, and go forward.

It seems I’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous, from basking the in silent fullness of God’s presence to dreams of baby poop. The point is that God speaks to his listening children, and the messages take many forms. Some are sublime. Some are hilarious.

I’m still drawn to contemplative prayer, and I still hope that someday I’ll get it right. Meanwhile, speak, Lord. I’m listening to whatever you want to tell me, however you want to say it.

(Adapted from the archives, but just as true today. Originally published in Quaker Life, 2002.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Invocation of the Holy Spirit

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday. Although we Quakers don’t follow the liturgical calendar, this has become one of my favorite days. And we did focus our attention on the birth of the church in yesterday’s worship service.

I am posting here the Pentecost prayer from the Celtic Daily Prayer book. The prayer is entitled, “Invocation of the Holy Spirit.”

Most powerful Holy Spirit
come down
upon us
and subdue us

From heaven
where the ordinary
is made glorious
and glory seems
but ordinary,

bathe us
with the brilliance
of Your light
like dew.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Coming to terms (or not) with an automated world

I love the library in our town. It’s one of my favorite places, whether I’m accompanying my grandchildren (50 books are the limit; 50!), or going by myself with no specific book in mind. Browsing, we call it. A good word.

Since this is a small town, I usually run into someone I know. I come so often, the librarians are familiar faces. One is my friend. So, in spite of the encouragement to be quiet, the library has become a social watering hole as well as a place to get books. That’s all good.

This past year our library introduced an innovation that favors efficiency in checking out books—an automatic scanner. As the librarian showed me how to use it, she told me that I would never again have to waste time standing in line, never again have to have a person wait on me from behind the counter. The scanner does it all, in much less time, automatically spitting out my list of checked-out books, plus due dates. Nifty. Quick.

I tried it and felt that glow of accomplishment I usually get when I can make a machine work for me (which doesn’t always happen). But something in my spirit hesitated, and I’ve been pondering my hesitation ever since.

I’m thinking of the grocery store I usually go to and the new, efficient scanner for those who do not want to stand in line and have a person wait on them. I’m thinking of the efficient e-tickets and the automatic check-in at airports, especially handy if I’m running a bit late. And of course, online shopping saves time and interaction with slow people, who can be grouchy at times.

Some aspects of this I like better than others. I am one of those weird women who hate malls, so the online shopping bit is great, as long as I don’t need to try on something. And who likes waiting in line in any circumstance?

Well, sometimes I do, actually. If I’m not in a hurry, striking up a conversation with the stranger ahead of me feels good. Even talking with the checker, if he’s not having a bad day, can be stimulating. If he’s in a grouchy mood and I’m not, being pleasant is a challenge I enjoy taking on. (Can I make him smile?)

So…I’ve decided not to use the library scanner, even when the desk is empty and all the librarians are in the back room binding books or whatever it is they do when they’re not waiting on people like me who won’t use the scanner. That means I may disturb someone, making her come out from the back room just to wait on me. That may be selfish on my part. Even so….

There’s something good about having a real live person at the end of my library visit.