Kindergarten Lesson #3 – Both/And

It was bound to happen.  Working with kindergarteners (and a few in early elementary), I was bound to get a runner.  Actually my runner is a sweet little guy who is really more like a three year old in a five year old body. Thankfully his body is also small for his age.  But, gosh, he’s fast.

My fifty year old body discovered a couple of important things today.  One, I pee when I sprint.  (Ok, that isn’t new-news, but it is definitely *bad* news.)  The other more salient learning is that this empty-nester’s mother instincts are still strong when children are in danger.  This was good to know.  I caught, I held, I counted to five while we both caught our breath and I realized that it was tears that filled my eyes.  At the end of the day, as we walked happily hand in hand to the bus, we were best buds and I’m glad of it.  Three year olds scream and bolt and jump on your last nerve, and then the cuddle into your arms and share the very essence of the sacred.  This little guy, in a five year old body, brings it all.

I am relishing the sweetness as I nurse the weariness tonight.  I have no doubt he will be doing double time over the next few months, catching up in his new school and soon his behaviors will be more age appropriate. This three year old drama will come to an end, but so too will the three year old charm. All too soon he won’t think it’s cool to hold a teacher’s hand (though thankfully many of my little ones still do). Soon he won’t try labels like “princess” and “mom” when he forgets my name, but for today he does and even as I correct him, I smile.  In between the tantrums and the chase, he plays a mean game of dinosaurs (and by “mean” I mean “good”), shares noteworthy drawing skills, and has made a new best friend in the class.  He’s a runner, yes; he is also a charmer.

Nursing the both/and tonight, I’m struck that life is built this way.  We build scrapbooks with the high points, but even if we don’t take pictures we know that every peak is paired with a valley.  And though we revel or despair at the extremes, foundations are built with the solid ground in between. Perhaps it is important to note that, though I’m compelled to write about the drama, most of the day was pretty routine with colors and toys and waiting in line.

Tomorrow is a staff work day and the kids will be having a three day weekend.  I will miss them (really) but I am also glad for the break.  It’s a both/and, which is a win-win.

Today I am noticing, today I am giving thanks, today I am saying a prayer of safekeeping for a precious little one over a long weekend.


Note:  This is the third in a new series entitled “Kindergarten Lessons”, reflections on my work as a classroom aide with young children who have emotional and behavioral challenges.

 

April 25, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

This is a random google image, but these two bear striking resemblance to two of ours, Little Guy (sleek and black) and Bogey (elder statesman).

Those who share the burdens – cats that keep watch all through the night, spirit that meets us in the restless dawn, and partners who make the morning coffee; things that make the way sweeter – peanut butter granola bars, unexpected child-sized hugs, warm sun with a raincoat tucked under my arm; reminders of what matters most – a sluggish spring that comes even so, truth that can be heard even in a whisper, and the grace to revel in that which is good.

 

Please note: the weekly practice of sharing gratitude on Thursdays (TILT) was inspired by my friend Jill Stratton who teaches about “Joy and Flow”.

An Uneven Balance… to Church or Not?

Unchurched as a kid, churched for the entirety of my adult life until three short months ago, and now sitting as a newcomer in the dechurched crowd, I have some thoughts about TR Luhrman’s popular op-ed in the New York Times, The Benefits of Church. While I don’t so much disagree with any one of his points, and have made all of them over them the years, they did not lure me through the doorways of a sacred meeting space this past weekend.

One of the highlights, though, of my weekend was spending an evening with a friend from my former church home. Honoring the “hands off” rules about clergy severing ties upon departure, I don’t see many friends from the old days, so it was a treat. The invitation had come from her, the event was unrelated to church, and the evening was delightful. She asked me about church, do I attend now? The truth is complicated. We’ve attended with the Quakers some (love) and occasionally at a church nearby our home that’s in our denomination (also very nice), but on the whole, no. I am not actively attending anywhere. Following her inquisitive look, I volunteered my non-reason, “I have reservations about the institution.” At which point she, without skipping a beat, burst into laughter. “We’ve had this conversation, before I joined the church, when I said that to you!” Unspoken was the next line, that I had convinced her to give organized religion a try. And now it was I who had walked away. We laughed at the irony.

My walk is not intended to be an indictment or a permanent estrangement, simply the expression of a need for space to breathe. Lurhman is right about all of the benefits of living in community. At the end of the day, we need each other. We need to belong.

But here’s the challenge for the church of 2013. The current structure of the institution is not viable. A couple of years ago, following the challenge of a several colleagues, I invested several months in studying the math and it comes up short (just like they told me). With the expectation of weekly programmed meetings, the related staff and facility costs become self-defeating. The Achilles heel that many churches are now facing is decades of deferred maintenance in buildings constructed a half century (or more) ago. These costs are often astronomical and literally suck the life from the community. The church I served had a bare bones budget and truly pulled rabbits out of hats financially, but still the average annual family contribution needed was more than $2000 … even before the additional “capital” appeals! The cost of “church” as our parents practiced it is simply not sustainable for our children. Not surprisingly, the seed of most church fights is about money and the drama engendered in the struggle undercuts whatever benefits Luhrman identifies.

To be sure there are successful exceptions and for a time I believed that I was leading one. Maybe so. But as we attempted to shift our reality into a more sustainable model, increasing our base while holding our overhead, we ran into trouble. The choices we were asked to make affected our routines and our assumptions and were more acceptable in theory than practice. The lure of the familiar trumped the desire to chart a new course. Moving an existing congregation into a new and sustainable reality is a tough sell.

There are other alternatives worthy of note. The mega-church models (e.g. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church) are still making headlines and there are many that appear to be successful across the country. These churches appeal to economies of scale (c.f. Henry Ford’s assembly line, applied to religious experience). Whether or not they fulfill the community needs described by Luhrman is questionable, but they rely on a small group (cell) structure which is worthy of consideration and may well tend the need. On the other end of the spectrum are renegade groups trying house church models, meeting in school cafeterias, and other non-traditional venues that drive costs down. These too appear to have some success, but these efforts tend to have a more temporary presence.

All the while, the spirit that we seek is as close as our next breath. At some point the trappings necessary to garner new members and save the institution were impeding my access to the breath that I had encountered and to which I was attempting to point. When that happened, the need to exit was both clear and critical. To simply attend another institution is to ask another professional to do what I discovered was ultimately life-defying. So for today, I practice breathing on my own and with sojourners I encounter along the way.

I am intrigued with religious expressions who gather and breathe in configurations which are not so institutionally cumbersome. I am moved by the home-based celebrations in Judaism, the meditation of Eastern traditions, the volunteer leadership of the Quakers, the pithy wisdom of Buddhism shared in tweets, the access to religious study on the internet and spiritual challenge offered by non-sectarians like Krista Tibbett.

Inasmuch as Luhrman is correct, I know that community will be important for this sojourn to find health. But increasingly I am suspicious that community outside the church will be easier to find than sustainable health within.

Kindergarten Lesson #2 Compassion

It’s the stories that I can’t tell that keep me up at night and flash like neon lights to awaken me before the dawn.  These are the stories of the children who’s families of origin have (for any number of reasons) failed them, the children for whom our social safety net isn’t safe, the children for whom charity burns in the absence of justice.  Their hearts are pure but their brains have been filled with too many chemicals, too much hate, and too many lies.  They stand in line with blank stares or they bounce out of line with fists bared or they beg for praise to fill a void that can never be filled. These are the children with whom I will spend my Friday.

What I love about this group of children is their embodied reminder that, despite our assumptions and underneath our judgments, we are all the same.  We come in different sizes and shapes and colors and backgrounds, but every one of us is hungry in the morning, every one of us is looking for a place to belong, every one of us has anxiety about the dentist (yesterday’s learning!), and every one of us has breath… breath that connects us with life beyond our own, power larger than ourselves, hope.

In the steady stream of adults, staff and volunteer, who move in and out of their lives each day, the children are really pretty unmoved by new faces and I’ve slipped into the routine pretty much under the radar.  So in this din of sound and emotion, I was taken with the children’s tone when they heard that Miss Nancy was coming to visit.  There was a sense of awe that surpassed excitement. Miss Nancy comes weekly, just because.  She brings interesting foods to taste, stories to share, and experiments to try.  More important than the bags she brings, however, is the smile.  Miss Nancy’s smile is genuine and grows with each interaction.  Her smile is infectious and shared by children and staff alike.  After an hour of treasured Miss Nancy time, with the children in rapt attention for an unspeakably long period of time, we had all encountered the healing power of compassion.

To be sure there is an inevitable sense of powerlessness that is as heavy as the sorrow.  Yet as the children rush to correct each other, I hear myself reminding them that we can only fix our own problems.  So for today I will try to stay on my side of the street because it is from where I stand that can find the roots of compassion worthy for this day.

Today is Friday and as I sit at my keyboard holding the stories heavy in my heart, I feel gratitude for this place in life.  Gratitude for the opportunity to sit on the floor with a child and look at letters, gratitude for a chance to talk about place values with a classroom of children momentarily engaged, gratitude most of all for the genuine smiles received and shared this week.  

April 18, 2013

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

Serenity

Waking to the sound of thunder and feeling safe, being in a new place and uncertain about what I’m doing yet knowing who I am, the feel of land beneath my feet after a long time at sea; antibiotics and steroids and good doctors (Micah’s on the mend), once in a lifetime opportunities to see and hear and taste and touch (Wynn’s wonderful adventure), and the simple joy of watching a young-adult offspring meeting challenges with grace (kudos to Amber); smiles that emerge unbidden and children who inspire them (love, love, love the children), the miracle of breath that never leaves us, and quiet morning routines with my beloved.

Please note: the weekly practice of sharing gratitude on Thursdays (TILT) was inspired by my friend Jill Stratton who teaches about “Joy and Flow”.

Kindergarten Lesson #1

Quite by accident I was left in the room alone with the gathering children.  I say by accident because I’m simply a floater, not yet fully trained, and quick to name my place as the extra.  Ready or not though I was the adult in the room and the children were gathering.  The dispute was territorial and it had all the markings of an irascible showdown not unlike we see in the struggle for Jerusalem. And there was really no place to hide.

Seth had been displaced from his desk.  The classroom has 12 desks and when the 13th new student arrived on Monday, Seth drew the imposed hospitality card.  A rather easy-going child who is apparently quite mature, it was probably the path of least resistance.  With his desk given to the new student, Seth spent a displaced Monday on the couch.  This was Tuesday morning, the new student was already settled in Seth’s desk, and Seth had been relocated (again) to the rocking chair.  He was finding difficulty doing his work in a moving vehicle and was on the prowl for a more sustainable perch.

Dominique’s place was theoretically unchallenged but not unchanged, the borders had become malleable.  Not only had Seth’s nearby desk been populated with a bewildered new kid, Dominique’s buddy Josh to the north had been moved to the other side of the room following a Monday afternoon rumble.  In short, all the desks had been shuffled in an imposed attempt to change the social order.  Dominique’s place was uncertain and he reached for a boundary, pushing back and using the couch as part of what would be his new domain.

Seth longed to return to the couch which had been a comfort in his first day of exile but the previously open couch was now under Dominique’s control.  As the two boys each asserted their right to the welcoming space, the furniture between them began to move and fists clenched. My voice from the other side of the room might as well have been from a distant universe and I noted my instinct to run in the opposite direction.  Territorial disputes are always messy and collateral damage is inevitable.

As I approached the two boys, neither was in the mood for a rational conversation with a teacher.  Dominique was in control of the disputed territory and with Seth demanding cessation, Dominique solidified his hold.  Seth may not by typically aggressive, but displacement reaches to core instincts and his are strong.  This was a standoff.  In a miraculous moment, Seth allowed his eyes to connect with mine and his ears to hear my invitation. His better instincts prevailed, he lowered his fists and backed away in exchange for (an albeit temporary) seating at the teacher’s desk.  It was a face-saving prize, not a long-term solution, but the crisis was temporarily averted. With Dominique’s land grab aggression isolated, he could be reeled in and a sentry (read: another adult) placed on the couch to hold the space for Seth’s eventual return.

As I consider a territorial dispute in a therapeutic elementary classroom, I am struck with the transcendent nature of our human conflicts. The description could just as easily have been one of Israel and Palestine or any other number of international skirmishes.  Our need for place (the assurance of shelter) is fundamental, if Maslow is to be believed, and as we continue to push and pull and redefine the borders we will face unrelenting angst.

Meanwhile, as I was pondering the failed land grab by Dominique, Macy had arrived and discovered that her desk had been moved to the center front.  Macy is not known for impulse control and her reaction was swift as the desk flipped, papers scurried and children ducked.  Her hands now folded across her chest, her face in full pout, she dared any of us to respond.  Thankfully another adult had entered with Macy and I was not the peacekeeper called to respond.

Later in the day, I sat on the floor putting together a puzzle with some of the kids.  Macy and Dominique and Seth were all happily playing nearby.  I was aware that the disputed land on which I was now sitting wasn’t, quite frankly, great land.  There was a wrinkle in the carpet that made it impossible for the puzzle to lie flat.  Our frustration was great as we gathered the pieces and they jumped out of location.  Why would this corner have ever been the focus of such hot pursuit?

And then I remembered.  Land disputes are never really about the land.  What is at stake is identity, place, roots…. complicated and messy.  While I have no great wisdom to share when two interests have competing claims to one piece of real estate, what I can offer is compassion as I listen to the genuine cries of grief, the plea for justice, and the yearning for a place to call home.

Step 4 – a routine step on a not-routine morning

“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

The wisdom of self-reflection seems irrelevant at best on the morning after the terror that ended the 2013 Boston Marathon. Evil reigned once more, it seems, and we the powerless bystanders. Our emotions are charged and the inclination to personal moral inventories is not in queue. For all endeavors, there is a season and for those shaken by the senseless violence this is not the time to dive into a fearless search of self.

When the time is right, however, there is a quixotic truth offered in the spiritual wisdom of the 12 Steps. Specifically troubling, but profoundly wise, is the admonishment that our healing can only come when we begin to honestly face the stuff that is crammed under our beds and in the dark recesses of our closets. This invitation to soul-searching is no simple litany of confession and assurance nor even a sacrament of reconciliation, this is a pilgrimage to the deepest recesses of our being that parallels Dorothy’s odyssey to the Wizard.

A newcomer may find it odd, but the journey to self-awareness begins by listing the fears, resentments, and angers that we’ve collected over time. We have plenty of them this morning. Our listing is not to suggest that life’s calamities are in any way caused by us nor are we necessarily culpable for the bad things that have come our way. The fact is that bad things happen to people who are not deserving. Even so, spiritual guides across time and continents have discovered that if we are holding on to an injury, unintentionally allowing it to continue to shape and hurt our lives, there is a hook that is ours. Only when we look deeply into not only what happened but how we responded can we begin to unhook ourselves from the drama.

Our hooks will be varied but if we are honest with ourselves, we will find them. Often they surprise us. I was ranting about a Board meeting to a friend, and the friend invited me to “do a 4th Step” on the event. As I typed my frustration, I relived my angst as the Board’s leader moved from crisis to crisis dragging all of us on an emotional roller coaster. Empowered with muscle memory, I begin to look more closely at my response. My response was to reel, to be pulled off my game, to be deeply troubled in ways not shared by others. Why? The light began to dawn on a humbling truth: I too have a tendency to awfulize situations, to see and respond to extremes. My reaction to this leader was not so much about their actions as it was the way their actions evoking a truth about my own. While I could do nothing to change their attitudes, I could do something to begin to address my own. Curiously, as I held the nugget of truth about myself, I was less troubled by the other. Having removed the hook, their choices no longer had such a powerful effect on me.

Finding our growing edges by facing our fears and resentments is not to excuse others or to suggest that tragedies are somehow justified. Looking deeply into our own stuff is simply to suggest that we focus on the one person that we can change – ourselves. We cannot change what has happened in our past and there are many surprises yet ahead over which we will have little or no control. What we can change are the ways in which we receive and hold what others toss our way. An honest 4th Step, done all at once or in pieces or for the umpteenth time, will reveal to us the ways in which we are still holding on. And as my therapist is oft to note: You can’t let go when you’re hanging on. It would be nice to be free of the baggage without first touching it, but closest are never cleaned that way.

On this April morning when the sun is sluggish and even in the heartland we’re reeling from the Boston news, it’s important to note that grief is not a resentment. In the throes of grief, we ride the waves of emotions. Insofar as our souls are healthy, the emotions will wash over and beyond us. But many of us have craggy places that catch and hold drama, nursing hurt and making it to our own. As the news cycles turn, if we discover that we’ve continued to carry this piece, a loving friend might encourage us to do a 4th step on the Boston Marathon. Strangely, or not so, looking at the tragedy for where it touches our soul will hold an important key for our healing.

For today, let us simply breath in solidarity with those who are grieving.

What is a weekend?

“What is a Weekend?”

Never would I presume to find a kindred spirit in Maggie Smith’s larger than life portrayal of The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) from “Downton Abbey”, but as I catch a few minutes at the keyboard early on a Friday morning, I realize that just a week ago I had her innocence about the most enduring gift of the labor unions: the weekend.

On Monday morning this week, I went to work. I worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and will shortly get ready to go today (Friday). While I was at work each day I was engaged and busy, but I went in empty handed and left the same. Whatever I did or did not do at my keyboard before and after had no direct connection to my work. And now, at the end of the day, I will experience my first official weekend in more than 25 years.

For two and a half decades, I have carried sermons and articles and pastoral concerns in my heart and mind 24-7. Now I work from Monday to Friday, from 8am to not quite 4pm. Not only do I have no direct responsibilities on Saturday or Sunday, I also have no carryover or planning. When I leave work this afternoon, I will be 100% off until Monday morning. A weekend.

Although I missed sharing my Thursday TILT, I confess that I’ve had so little time to ponder that I didn’t realize I’d missed Thursday until I was celebrating Friday. The days have been short this week, but I confess to being both emotionally and physically wiped at day’s end. As the very rhythm of my life changes, I suspect that writing patterns will change in likewise dramatic shapes. In fact I wonder if writing will even be a significant piece of this next chapter of my life.

To be sure there is much to write. The sights and sounds and emotions of this week are larger than any I’ve previously encountered in an employment context. Taking care to protect confidence, there are no doubt still thousands of words that could be shared. And yet simply riding the wave seems to use the available space in my heart and mind this week.

Beyond that I can say that I am grateful for breathing lessons, for the comfort to stand in my own skin while bearing witness, for Bowser (TMNT character) that is “bad, but really he is good on the inside”; I am grateful for a loving wife to hold me at the end of the day, for a small group of spiritual sojourners with whom to share the journey,for an opportunity to explore the road less travelled; I am grateful that the pear tree blossomed without my aide but not without my notice, the rocking of the hammock still brings peace, and the sun keeps showing up whether we are ready or not. Mostly I am grateful for children who, despite the odds and conventional wisdom, begin each day with the intention for life.

And now, in a few short hours, the gift of the weekend! L’chaim!

a new day

Last night I chanced to hear a wise person share her story.  She talked of successes and failures and the challenge of finding her right sized place in the midst of life.  She named her struggle with ego, that even (especially) the business of offering service was prone to kicking her ego into hyperdrive and that in order to find serenity she need to keep her life, her world, her work smaller.  She scaled back the meetings, the connections, the functions.  She gave her life and calendar space.  And she found her right size.

The wisdom she shared was hard won and I heard not only the value but also the cost.  This is the wisdom that has been emerging in my life.  Gradually discovering that no amount of redefining boundaries was going to make a vocational-spiritual mismatch work, slowly facing ego’s cunning in words like “influence” and “responsibility”, coming to terms with the treacherous training wheels that our masks offer.  “Not my will but thine”, “not my church but God’s”, were common phrases in the business of leading a church, but the words are most often juxtaposed with the silent reality that the church’s health is co-mingled with the minister’s ego.  Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, but nonetheless co-mingled.

Some seasons I was on fire, some I was lying low, others I was feeling quite brave, still other’s I felt under attack. Constant was the sensation of being drug by my ego rather than by the spirit I longed to serve.  In part it’s the nature of church in a declining market, with fewer buyers there is steep competition and ministers must market both themselves and their communities.  As church becomes increasingly irrelevant on our cultural landscape, survival of the institution (and it’s professionals) skews the vision and commandeers the heart.  My experience was indeed personal and unique, but at the same time quite common and at points universal. What was ultimately true for me, though, is that in the emotional field that is now the church, spiritual health was at best elusive.

As I begin a new job today, I am keenly aware and deeply grateful that this job is just that, a job.  I will go to work and come home each day at specified hours, I will work as one among many and not be the person in charge, and my family life will be distinct from my professional one.  In all honesty, I haven’t had such a job for 23 years; in the fall of 1989, I “became a minister” and my identity and work life have been as one ever since.  Now retired from church work and in search of a right sized life, I am actually looking forward to a “job”.  More, I am hopeful that the unfolding new rhythms of my life will foster greater serenity.

The personal story shared last evening was empowering as it named these themes and pointed to a more sustaining spiritual path. The path is not defined (pro or con) by a particular professional identity but rather by looking for meaning beyond the traditional foci of human striving.  The path is defined by letting go of nouns, holding lightly the people, places and things, and finding ever deepening encounters with the sacred.  Hearing the path articulated and celebrated on the eve of this next step of my own journey was manna, the kind of manna that I’ve come to depend upon in this new land.

on the eve of a new gig

I signed a contract this week and begin a new gig next week as a Teacher’s Assistant at a private school for public school kids with behavior and emotional disorders. The school is actually bordered on the north by the house I shared with my Ex and on the south by the townhouse where I lived after leaving him.  Familiar with the skirt of the campus, I had never actually been in the school before I interviewed.  We live in a very small world with deceptively high walls.  And I’m about to breach them.

The job is pretty much ideal in terms of schedule (same as my dear one’s), supervisory responsibilities (nil), and benefits (jackpot).  The huge plus is that I get to work with kids and don’t have the responsibility of being the teacher in charge.  If I discover that I enjoy the academic setting and continue to want to teach math, the experience garnered  in this position will be invaluable.  The position is exactly what I could articulate as my objective as I started this search:  “an opportunity to bring focused attention to projects that enhance community.”  I wanted to find a position which engaged my time and talent (check), remunerated enough for our family needs (check), and allowed me to be ‘one of many’ (not in charge) in a position which is meaningful (check).

All of which is really good and feels very right.
All of which is also reflective of a major identity shift.

As I prepare to step away from the keyboard and into a classroom, I realize that the last of the familiar routines is shifting.  For more than two decades I have carefully crafted a public persona, and nowhere has this been more evident than at my keyboard.  My writing, my Facebook, my blogging, not to mention all of my public work in ministry, all work to build what amounts to a brand.  This is what I have left, what I am still leaving. And the transition is much more mind boggling than coming out and leaving a 20 year marriage. The very foundation of who I understand myself to be is shifting.  Rightly, appropriately, intentionally… but shifting nonetheless.

As I step into a new routine, I find myself wondering if my fingers will no longer find daily comfort at the keyboard.  I wonder if I will lose my writing and in so doing my voice.  If, on the one hand, the writer is indeed a part of the me that find root beneath the persona, she will have much new material and an important new perspective after a stint working with kids who’ve been removed from their neighborhood schools.  If, on the other hand, the writer was a part of the mask that I’d  developed, her silence will likely not be missed.  We don’t need more words pointing towards faux reality.  Simple truth, but emotionally laden.

Perhaps even more monumental in my post-church experience is the gradual but unmistakable change in the cultivation of friendships.  No longer coasting on faux-relationships handed to me at church (people that I loved dearly, but relationships predicated on professional roles), I am noticing that I engage differently (more authentically) in other arenas.  I hang around at the end of meetings because I am wanting to chat with this person or that.  I follow up with a person that I met through another friend (also a “late bloomer”) and schedule a coffee date.  And I’m noticing (which is in itself remarkable!) that friendships (the real kind) are not instant but begin in small and almost imperceptible ways. All I need do is show up, and keep showing up.

Today is a very good day, very.  Typing happy words, I realize that the emotions I have include both the welcome ones and the not so welcome.  I recognize discomfort, tension in my shoulders, the pull in my abdomen, tell tale signs of feeling unsettled.  At the same time, I feel an canny sense of peace, a spring in my step and a smile at my lips.  This new chapter that has been in waiting is now coming into view.

So before it begins, before I get in the whirl of activity and emotional fullness, before the remarkable becomes the routine, I want to pause and give thanks for the journey that carried me from there to here.  As Maya Angelou says, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”