Mindfulness and the modern mom

Last September, I took a two and a half day course in mindfulness (an updated version of this one). It was my first real exposure to mindfulness. We spent two days talking theory, technique and doing limited practice. Then the half day was spent in near complete silence, meditating.

As with most multi-day training seminars, I took a couple key ideas out of the seminar, vowed to practice and become proficient… and had completely fallen off the meditation wagon about six weeks afterwards.

Then a colleague gave me a copy of “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story” I like to think this was because she had an extra copy, and not a statement of my usual zen perceptions at work but… probably a little of column A and a little of column B. I worked my way through it this week.

The sarcastic “there are studies that back this up” version of mindfulness is, I think, a needed and necessary intermediary technique. As Dan Harris so eloquently lays out, lots of the talk of meditation is wreathed in a religious Buddhist understanding – or perhaps more accurately in the a western idealized & exoticised understanding of Buddhism. Meditation is a work that bespeaks hippies, patchouli and the prefix “transcendental”. (Or at least it was – it is being resurrected by books and courses like I’ve encountered.) I’m a scientifically-minded Christian (not an oxymoron), and deeply skeptical of patchouli. Still, the studies on mindfulness are compelling. And just as I see no conflict between God’s creation & scientific method, I don’t think that the Christianity that exploded across continents from the more rigid roots of Judaism would throw away a useful spiritual technique just because it wasn’t invented in Israel.

For those unfamiliar with the basics of mindfulness, the concept is to stop and pay attention to your own thoughts. This is done with meditation. In it’s simplest form, meditation is the practice of trying to create space between you and your thoughts. Usually you do this by focusing on your breathing, and every time your mind wanders (near constantly) you notice that it has wandered and focus on your breathing again. I’m told that over time, with practice, you eventually are able to respond to your thoughts with intention, instead of a near autonomic reaction. There’s all sorts of benefits ascribed to this sort of mindfulness, from blood pressure to managing temper to happiness.

I’ve thought quite a bit about how the stopping and listening is missing from my spiritual life. I’ve come to realize that what I loved about our Good Friday was just this. It was so long, so dark and so quiet. We had to do the hard work of sitting, quietly, by ourselves, and praying. In fact, apparently I was the only one who loved it, so we’ve switched to a less rigorous service that didn’t require sitting and praying for 60 minutes. But what is prayer but this kind of listening? Does God really need us to tell him what it is that’s on our mind? (Pro tip: God knows. Jesus said so. (Matthew 6:7&8 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”)

So if Jesus spent an entire night in the garden of Gethsemane praying, and he wasn’t rehearsing his finest arguments to God about why this whole “dying on a cross thing” was a terrible idea… what was he doing? What did that prayer look like? I suspect that there are few options other than perhaps this quiet listening and self reflection. If we still that inner voice, what is it we might indeed be able to hear? Perhaps the still soft voice of the Holy Spirit?

I think it is not impossible.

In meditation practice, it’s very clear that what you’re supposed to be doing is not thinking. It’s also clear that it’s nearly impossible to stop thinking. So the meditator is encouraged to forgive yourself and just start over and try again. While that advice is intended for within the meditation, perhaps it counts for the act of meditating, too. I’ve been distracted away from meditation. Instead of recriminations, perhaps I should just forgive myself and start over again, from the start. And see what might appear in whatever space it is I can create in my mind.

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What about you? Have you ever tried meditation? Have you managed to keep it up? Does your spiritual practice contain something that isn’t meditation, but looks shockingly similar to it?

Church Camp – a love letter

My first church camp was Camp Ghormley*, up on White Pass in Washington State. I went in maybe 1986 with my church youth group. I was young – Thane’s age perhaps. I remember loving the songs around the campfire, the way the bark on the pine trees fit like a puzzle, the deliciousness of a 5c green apple Jolly Rancher, and that our youth director (in one week) fell off the zip line and hit his head (blood everywhere) and slid down the railing of a cabin in tight shorts (extensive and embarrassing splinter removal). His name was Clayton, he had a Texan accent and a funny tick of jerking his head to his shoulder. We tried really hard to keep him out of trouble, but it took more than the combined powers of our Church youth group to work miracles like that.

There are no photos of me at Ghormley. Cameras were expensive. I certainly wouldn’t have given one to a kid to take to camp. So all I have are vague memories and well-memorized camp songs.

In fourth grade, we moved from the town with the big Presbyterian Church (it was PCUSA at the time) and to a town where on some Sundays the folks on the “Great War” honor roll were more plentiful than the folks worshiping in the pews. There wasn’t a youth group (there were four of us though!) but there was still Presbytery church camp. After a break of a year or two, I went to Buck Creek (now defunct, I’m afraid) where I went backpacking for the first time in my life. Even though we got rained out and were poorly kitted, I was totally and completely hooked on backpacking. We slept under the stars, back at the field at Buck Creek, and the Perseids were in full blossom across the sky and I could not shut my eyes. From then on, I took every possible opportunity to do backpacking camp. I loved the backpacking. I loved nature. I loved the songs, and the sense of worship. It’s still one of the most holy things for me.

So when Grey was like in 1st grade I started looking up the Presbyterian Camps in the area. Our church had a relationship with Camp Wilmot, so it was a short search. The very first summer he was old enough, he was signed up. But as I followed circuitous GPS directions into the “parking lot” (eg field area) I was struck by serious doubts. He was so little. He was so clearly uncertain, and nervous. And so was I, I realized. I knew *no one* at this camp. No kids. No grownups. Nothing. I was going to leave my beloved first-born child in the wilderness in the hands of strangers.

First year dropoff

I drove away anyway.

Around Thursday I got a letter. It was short – two sentences. They were both dedicated to how amazing Anthony’s BBQ chicken was.

When I picked him up he was tired, happy to see me, and ready to come back again the next year.

He wore that shirt all week – it was in every picture

The next year, he talked no fewer than four of his friends into coming to camp with him. (I think he’ll do very well in sales, if he chooses, as a career.) Where he’d been alone and afraid the first year, he was in excellent company and confident the second. And he remembered his favorite “camp shirt” as well.

The “latrines” photo has become a favorite of the parents. We threaten to hold their candy money hostage if they don’t cooperate.

Last year he was ready to do both sessions. He’d originally claimed that he didn’t need to be picked up, but called on Thursday asking for a day at home. They don’t go to bed until like 10 pm there and they’re up at 7, which is a short sleep ration for a kid his age. Also, I think he missed the cats.

I’m not sure where Matthew is in this one

This year is going to be the epicalest yet. Today I drove a packed car up to New Hampshire with a wild game of poker in the backseat (Grey: “I packed poker chips!”) and a friend in the front seat. This year he’s going to do a full two weeks. On the second week, his brother will head to camp for HIS first ever sleepaway camp (and Adam and I will be childless! Craziness!) And he and his Camp Wilmot compatriots have been talking about the awesomeness of the camp all year. This year, a total of ELEVEN kids from our town will make the trek up to White’s Pond to experience Anthony’s BBQ chicken.

There are so many incredible and wonderful things summer camp does. It gives us all practice in living without each other. The role of a parent is to raise a child who doesn’t need us. Camp is an excellent experiment in structured self-reliance. No one made Grey change his shirt, but he came home happy and healthy. He packs his own bag. He knows things that we do not know. I think it’s a grievous thing to send a person to independence for the very first time when they are an adult, and there is no safety net. Summer camp is how you practice for college. It’s also a place for children to have deep meaningful thoughts, and begin to stretch the muscles of what *they* believe and what *they* think and what’s important to *them*. Some of my greatest moments of faith happened at summer camp. I can only pray that my sons find the experience meaningful and moving too.

It also plays an important role for we parents. I am more than halfway through the raising of Grey. Thane is only a few years behind him. Who are Adam and I, when we are not coparents? What interests do we share? What bonds have we strengthened? In the week our children are learning to kayak and kyrie, we can also remember the love we have for each other.

It’s hard to walk away from your kid, like I did that first year. It’s hard when your kid walks away from you and doesn’t look back. But it’s good and right that they practice doing just that.

Week 1 latrine photo
We decided to take our OWN latrine photo
Goodbye, boys. God bless.

If you’d like to follow along with all the info we get on camp, you can follow “Camp Wilmot’s Facebook page. If you’re suddenly dying to send your kid, you can still register for week 2. And if you happen to have a truck that will pass registration and which you don’t want anymore, that’s a tough capital purchase for a scrappy summer camp. They’d be incredibly grateful for the donation!

* If I’d known about this at the time, my campfire ghost stories would’ve been epic! “But upon his sudden death in 1948 (he was stricken fatally ill at the camp as he was preparing to begin a week of camp for children) members of the church moved to have the camp named after him.”

The end of the season

After a long, cold spring, the summer has finally arrive with heat and humidity. The daylight lingers so long that you forget it’s time for your kids to be asleep. This last week was a week of closings.

Edwin Hubble readies his “Famous American” presentation

School ended on Friday. Today we’ve spent time spelunking through backpacks, throwing away pencils stubs and uncappered markers, while saving previous mementos and projects in folders marked “Thane – Second Grade” and “Grey – Fifth Grade”. Those folders will get no more entries. Monday they begin the adventures of summer camp, and kick off what will be an extremely busy summer for them. (Actually rather more relaxed for Adam and me!)

It was a very good school year for both boys. Thane is desperately in love with his teacher. He learned sign language from her, and felt valued and respected by her. He asked me a few weeks ago if he could fail second grade so he could do it all over again with her. (Sorry kiddo. Your grades are way too good!) I’d definitely been worried about sending Grey to Middle School. But he thrived in his classroom. He loved his teachers, learned a lot and has continued to grow in maturity and capability. Also, I think 5th grade is a fantastic time to learn what a 0 for not turning in your homework does to the ol’ GPA.

I’m always jealous at the end of the school year. The nature of my work is seasonless – the tropics of effort. I can’t help but thinking how lovely it would be to do work which both begins and ends.

This Saturday was also the last day of the soccer season. We require our kids to play at least one sport, and we can’t make baseball work. So that one sport has been soccer since Grey was wee. There have been quite a few years where one pondered whether it was a good idea. Grey used to have to be cajoled onto the field. Thane was apparently working on his PhD in falling down and didn’t like to get sweaty (sorry kid – it’s a requirement!)

Because of church commitments, I haven’t seen my kids play much this year. It feels like I’ve spent six months in non-stop committee meetings trying to find a pastor we want to hire. But I made it to all of this tournament. It’s really Stoneham at it’s best and brightest. The field is covered with children and parents. There’s a vast melting pot of colors, accents and levels of skill. Children in blue jersey as young as four to the teenage refs showcase sportsmanship and teamwork.

In it to win it

Best of all, though, was watching how much my kids have grown and flourished. Grey, the once reluctant player, was masterful in his defense. It was such a joy to watch him stretch his long legs, find his spots, challenge for the ball – and come away with it. In the tournament, he took two hard-hit balls to the his face. Where in prior years this might have been enough to keep him off the pitch entirely, this year he picked himself up and got right back into the scrum. I was incredibly proud of him, and grateful to his coaches.

Good luck getting past him!

Thane was equally wonderfully transformed. His team only had one sub, and was missing some of it’s skilled players, but managed to fight their way to the championship. They played back to back games. I couldn’t believe how well Thane read the field repositioning himself to be in just the right defensive spot. He did a great job stopping attacks and clearing the ball. He was focused, fast and good. I’ve never seen such a look of concentration and passion on his face. They ended up coming up short in the final game with a late goal by the other team. Instead of falling into sorrow, Thane cheerfully pointed out how fantastic it was that they got to play in a championship at all. I was delighted at the attitude!

Proud championship player

It’s not only the school year that is coming to a close. It’s also a chapter of our life on our street. We have an incredible neighborhood, where many of the families know each other very well. We have meals together, our kids play together all the time. We are deeply connected. This has been true for years now. But the time has come when our dearly beloved friend is being transferred to DC. We’ve known this was coming for years, but we’ve all been in denial. It’s getting harder and harder to deny, though, since they leave next week. Nothing will ever be quite the same – it never is. But this will leave a big hole in my life and community.

Love you forever, Stef!

Love you all the time!

Confession

I made a mistake this week. It wasn’t a huge mistake, but it was a mistake that had consequences and I had definitely made it. It was defensible. I could’ve explained why it wasn’t really my fault, or turned it around. But in that sinking-stomach moment words inserted themselves into my mind:

L I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.

C The almighty and merciful Lord grant you pardon, forgiveness, and remission of all your sins. Amen.

C I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.

L The almighty and merciful Lord grant you pardon, forgiveness, and remission of all your sins.

The words that showed up, unbidden, were “by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault”. I owned my mistake, I said I was sorry, I asked for forgiveness, and I promised not to make it again.

And then I thought about the role that confession had played with me in that moment. For those of you who are not born and bred Presbyterian, we have a confession in every worship service. Unlike Catholic confession, this isn’t a 1:1 where we talk about what we’ve done (or not done) and get a penance to help us atone. It’s usually printed in our bulletin and we read it aloud. Then there’s a quiet moment for us to privately share our own personal failings with God. Then the leader reads the “Assurance of Pardon” – we’re forgiven.

Sometimes this corporate confession can feel weird. Periodically the imagination of the pastor writing the bulletin fails to describe where my feelings of guilt lie. Sometimes, they nail me to the wall with how right they are. My sons has asked what he should do when he doesn’t feel guilty of the particular thing we’re confessing.

But you know what? Admitting we’re wrong, that we made a mistake, this is a hard thing to do. It feels like it’s getting harder and harder. When’s the last time you heard someone say that they were wrong, and they made a mistake, and ask you for forgiveness? When’s the last time you heard a leader in politics or civics say that they were wrong, and that they made a mistake and we should do something different than they said before? I do not, however, think this is because people have stopped making mistakes.

Maybe what we’ve stopped doing is practicing and admitting we’re wrong. I don’t know of a secular spiritual practice of confession that practices being wrong. And my incredibly informal research has led me to understand confession is not a regular part of most evangelical Christian worship services. It turns out that it’s really hard to do things you don’t practice. Without that litany in my head, would I have been ready to admit my fault? How much harder would it have been? What is the cumulative price we pay for not being in practice admitting we made a mistake?

In one of those fun synergy moments, recently one of my friends at work started up a project designed to address this exact same phenomenon. He’s hosting a Fuck Up Night. The premise is that a group of people get together to hear a handful of entrepreneurs talking about their biggest mistakes – the times where they were wrong and did the wrong thing, “by their own most grievous fault”. The reason this is so valuable is because without understanding what we did wrong last time, we can’t learn and do it better next time. We have to get past pretending it wasn’t a mistake, or trying to shift blame, in order for that learning to happen. (The Failure Institute has a lot of research on that.)

Maybe the vaunted Protestant Work Ethic was less important for economic success than Protestant willingness to admit we’re wrong, in public, in front of everyone, and ask for forgiveness.

I make mistakes all the time. In thought word and deed. By my fault. By my own most grievous fault. By my own most grievous fault. I admit it to God and the whole company of heaven, and to you folks who are reading me right now. And I ask for mercy and forgiveness.

What about you? Do you have a regular practice of admitting you’re wrong? Is a confession a part of your past or present? When is the last time you said out loud that you were wrong and it was your fault? What would happen if you did – at work, in your civic life, or in your relationships?

Daydreams of time

What would you do if you had more leisure time? I’m sitting outside on a glorious Sunday afternoon, cool in the shade and warm in the sun, listening to the sort of rock music meant for summer. I’m edged in a short hour between my Pastor Nominating Committee meeting & follow up emails and when I need to leave to catch a plane for Chicago for work for the next few days.*

Real life: Sunday morning soccer

My life is filled with meaningful and joyful work, almost all of which requires me to sit at a computer. Funny that, isn’t it?

But I’ve lately been having fantasies of what I’d do if I actually had real blocks of unencumbered time in which to do stuff I wanted to do (as opposed to the stuff I already decided to do – I’m a lover of novelty!). I’m quite sure I’d end up filling those hours (if not quite a packed as they are now…)

Real life: Counting the proceeds from our “change drive” for Heifer in my Sunday School class

My fantasy life isn’t what it once was. This may be partially because so many fantasies of youth have come true. I am married to a guy I totally dig, and who seems happy with me. I have two happy, healthy children. I’m working my dream job. I have a D20 tea mug. Hard to improve on this.

But lately I’ve been daydreaming a lot about writing, and history.

Real Life Saturday: foraging in the Fells

Anyway, a recent fantasy has to do with being an author. I have wanted to be an author since I first realized that a) you had to have a job b) writing books was a job. Unfortunately, I have never written a book. This puts a damper on one’s authorship. But I’ve recently come to imagine what series of books I want to write. I always wanted to write fantasy novels a la Tolkien. But it turns out I’m terrible at it. As I’ve sunk into true belonging into this amazing town I live in, though, I’ve discovered all this phenomenal history, and remarkable stories. You’ve heard me talk about this before, but it seems like every few months I find out something new and amazing about the town.

The most recent discovery came when I did a tour of Lindenwood Cemetery only to learn that Stoneham was *apparently* a hotbed of the Spiritualist Movement.

Mind you, not everyone was a fan of spiritualism.

So my latest brilliant idea is to write a series of mystery novels, loosely set in the history of Stoneham. It would start with the naked sailors & wolf attacks of the early 1700s. It would wind it’s way through the blood and suffering of the Revolutionary War. We’d get Jacob Gould’s murder, of course. The Spiritualists would follow. Perhaps then the Civil War and the Underground Railroad. That would be followed by the pugilists on Spot Pond & the mysterious “Where Shute Fell” marker in the roaring 20s (even the cursory research for this post points out that the marker far predates the prohibition prize fights!). We’d dedicate time to the great Pan Pacific Race, where Stoneham was wrongfully denied it’s place in history by cheating.

I might stop there, coming at that point to close to living remembrance to steal so boldly. Or it might be, in doing the depth and research of learning I would have to do to write these books, I’d uncover even more rich stories in the interstices. I imagine the books being threaded together by the lives of the people who span them. Silas Dean would show up often, in fact or in memory. Elizur Wright might be the hero of the Civil War book. Maybe there’d be two Civil War books – same time, two perspectives. Honestly, I might be a happy woman for decades just doing research until I felt like I knew enough to start writing. (Although given my personality, I’d probably start writing and then get sidetracked on the research.)

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Can’t you see my notebooks spread out before me, a look of concentration on my face? Can’t you imagine me hovering over the library’s microfiche machine? I imagine falling into long digressions with Dolly in the library, following heretofore unknown threads of history. Consider the hikes in the Fells to see _that spot_. The joy of unearthing just the perfect picture from forgotten archives. The maps that would need to be made and adjusted for each one of these moments in time. The cast of characters set and threaded through books.

For example, while I was writing this, Dolly sent me this picture of my neighborhood (Nobility Hill) c. 1900

Then imagine the books actually get published, to some degree of success. (Let’s be clear, this falls well into the realm of utmost fantasy.) Imagine the sectional in the library touting the local author! The tour of local sites by the Historical Commission! A book signing at the Book Oasis (where the patrons thrill to imagine the courage of the Underground Railroad travelers and conductors on the very spot where they now stand)! Imagine my sleepy town rising from the backwater of history to claim its place next to Concord and Lexington. (OK, probably not that much, but maybe people would have heard of it?) Imagine citizens walking past Silas Dean’s house with a sense of awe and ownership.

It’s a pretty good fantasy, as fantasies go.

So, you ask, what would it take to do it? The reason it’s a fantasy is because I have some idea what it takes, and I don’t have it. I’d guess it would take an hour a day, four weekdays a week. Then probably a 3 hour research block + an hour a day writing time on weekends. Obviously there could be breaks & vacations, but I find the momentum & continuity pretty critical to writing a coherent work. That’s time I simply don’t have. Last time I did Nanowrimo, my whole family felt neglected and left out. They’re my first priority, so that just won’t work. Maybe someday I’ll have that extra hour a day I need, but I don’t see that day anytime soon.

Until then, you’ll just have to continue to be my writing outlet, dear friends!
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What about you? What daydreams do you hold on to? What mighta-coulda beens while away your pleasant thoughts?

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*A friend commented how remarkable it was that I always took precisely the 10 – 11 hour on Monday mornings to write my blog post. Let me clarify – I write the post over the weekend and schedule publication. The timing is so that people actually read it, since posting on a weekend is a great way to have a readership of 10.

Nothing new under the sun

It’s Mother’s Day, and I’ve spent it in glorious sloth and catching up on some things that need to be caught up on. Someone praised my blogging on Facebook today, and I’m happy for the compliment. But then I find myself with another week coming, and another post, and not such great ideas.

This year’s lilacs

Or rather, I have some excellent ideas. I’d love to tell you about Mother’s Day, lilacs, and how much I love lilacs. Except I did that back in 2009. (Eight years later, the boys still roll down the hills at the Arnold Arboretum during the Lilac Festival.) Also, please note that in that post I whined about how hard it is to come up with things to write about. I also covered lilacs in 2010, 2011, 2012 and probably every year since then. Maybe I should start thinking of these posts as traditions instead of repetitions?

Yesterday at one point I had on my “Mirkwood National Forest” t shirt, had my “Not all who wander are lost” sticker on my laptop (the other laptop has a custom made “Gates of Moria” sticker and was reading Tolkien.

In an attempt to restore and rejuvenate myself, I’ve reread Tolkien for, I dunno. It might be the 40th time. I have my own “Editor’s Cut” of how to read the books if I’m in a hurry. I read them super slowly this time, to notice things that had previously escaped my attention. I did! It’s such a rich text. I love it more each time. This time I pondered a parallel between Theoden of Rohan and Roland of “The Song of Roland”. Both are killed by their own weapons (horse and horn), arguably because such characters couldn’t be bested by a foe and hold to the story. I also saw more clearly than ever some of the Christian allegory Tolkien claimed he was including. There is much of the Christ story in Gandalf’s death, resurrection, transformation & teaching. But I’ve also covered the topic of Tolkien pretty well.

Complaining about being busy is boring. Being busy is also boring.

My life is pretty awesome. The most I have to complain about is too much awesomesauce. There’s chocolate cake to celebrate tonight. And at any moment now I’m going to log off and start playing Civ VI like I intended to three hours ago.

May your remembrances of mothers and mothering bring you joy today. For those of you who do not have your mothers, may you find consolation either in memory, or in the memory of those who have served as loving influences in your life!