Parent in training: a review of “Bless This Mess”

Amy Nee-Walker with her youngest child. Contributed photo.

My five-month-old just fell asleep. Now I have anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to “get something done.” This phenomenon of sporadic, indefinite hands-free time is something that’s hard for folks who are not immersed in parenting young children to understand. Even those of us who’ve been through it often develop a gauzy memory around that time and wonder why others who are currently in the thick of it have become such poor managers of time. Of course, parents of older kids are navigating the increasingly tricky terrain of appropriate discipline, sibling conflicts, peer pressure, academics … the list goes on and on, ad infinitum! Add being a Christian parent trying to make sense of how to raise children to be in but not of the world in modern society and how to apply that vague but familiar Proverb, “Train up a child in the way they should go …” (Prov. 22:6).

Enter “Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World.” As a frequently-floundering parent of young children and a former Catholic Worker (still pining for that fiery embrace of radical faith and community while muddling through mainstream living), theirs is a book that makes my heart quicken. Imagine Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution” meets Daniel Siegel’s “The Whole Brain Child.” Authors Ellen O’Donnell, Ph.D., a child psychologist, and Reverend Molly Baskette, a UCC minister, get it. They have been there as parents as well as professionals.

“Bless This Mess” cover photo by Amy Nee-Walker ( #PRHpartner @CrownPublishing)

My sister-in-law put it well: “This book fills a gap that I didn’t know existed.” Where else do you get such a marriage of Christian ideology and child psychology? In what other parenting books will you find the nonviolent principle of “The Myth of Redemptive Violence” paired with psychological concepts in moral and cognitive development in children? It’s a holy, welcome juxtaposition. “Bless This Mess” dives into questions not only of discipline and manners but vital issues of appropriate relationship to money vs. materialism, the transcendence and pitfalls of religious practice, the unavoidable reality of racism, sin and forgiveness and even the oh-so-difficult to discuss S-E-X.

All this wisdom is condensed into easily-digestible chapters with scientific studies, scriptural exegesis, and personal anecdotes to clarify the concepts and bring to life the applications. If this seems like a bit much for a parent on the go to absorb (or, in my case, a parent in the season of lactating on demand), every chapter ends with a recap of “Big Ideas” that gives bullet point reviews of the chapter. One of my favorite features embedded in each chapter is a breakdown of how to apply the information based on the developmental stage of your child. Whether you are parenting a preschooler, a high schooler or anything between, there is something to help you tie the information to the questions and challenges of your particular life phase.

Amy Nee-Walker’s eldest child. Contributed photo.

There is an element of the book that needled me throughout my reading. The authors vociferously name themselves as “progressives,” anticipating a reader who does the same. True as that may be, my life has been blessed; peopled with friends and family that span the political/religious spectrum. While many of them will feel attracted to a book custom-made for progressives, others will feel immediately excluded, especially because that terminology is the main feature of the introduction. Right from the beginning, there is political territory drawn to what could otherwise be a genuinely inclusive text. Rather than emphasize what camp they fall in, I would have preferred the authors keep their focus on what the content itself makes evident: here is a guide to parenting as scientifically informed and spiritually grounded beings, Christians who are aware of their place in a wide, varied and shared community. While the authors adeptly fill a gap in parenting literature, I can’t help but think they missed an opportunity to build a bridge. It’s hard to avoid the rhetorical shortcut that words like “progressive” and “conservative” offer to us as writers. Hopefully, creative solutions put forth by thoughtful people of faith directing their energy and insight into that problem can fill the gap.

Amy Nee-Walker’s second child. Contributed photo.

Of course, O’Donnell and Baskette are well aware that they are not perfect, either in book-writing (though it comes well-nigh!) or parenting. And they encourage each of us to recognize and accept our own imperfections, allowing ourselves AND our kids to be “good enough.” We cannot be perfect guides to our children, not only because we are imperfect beings, but also because we are walking different paths. Even though we precede our children in age and, hopefully, wisdom, our history does not provide an exact roadmap because each of us walks our own road. God has made each individual unique and set them on their own unique journey in the midst of this blessed, messy community of creation. Be that as it may, on this journey as a parent, I am grateful for the arrival of “Bless This Mess.” It stirred in me a latent spark to be not just a good parent and Christian and person, but one who is fully alive, embracing the mystery of each person with whom we are privileged to share life and responding to them with love.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear my baby crying!

Hands of Children. Photo by Amy Nee-Walker

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Bring on the boredom: the paradox of the path

Years ago, at a family gathering with cousins and aunts and uncles rubbing shoulders and shaking hands, I uttered words for which I was shamed and even scolded.

We were in the hills of Iowa at my uncle’s pig farm. He was the eldest uncle. His children were at least a decade older than me, if not two. The toys that lingered in the farmhouse from their youth were minimal and seemed outdated. Although I loved my cousins, they had nothing new to offer me either.

“Mom, I’m bored!!!” I whined loudly, as if my pronouncement meant that everyone ought to resolve my discomfort.

My mother said nothing. Instead, she nodded and returned her attention to the nearby adults. Likely used to my outbursts, she knew when it was appropriate to correct my behaviors, when a response was necessary.

An aunt who didn’t know me as well chimed in. She was the wife of my uncle, the pig farmer. “No one is allowed be bored here! There is always something to do!” The tone of her voice and the scowl on her face told me that I had committed a mortal sin for allowing myself to become bored, and, even worse, to complain about it.

Ever since, I have struggled to hush her judgement.

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

My calendar has been crammed with all sorts of activity lately, all of it great. Yet, the buzz of service has me feeling spent. My mind and soul feel clogged by distraction and jumbled by excessive input. Although what I am going through has cramped my contemplative and creative style, I suspect that the pace I’ve been keeping lately is much more like the one most Americans maintain. It’s an accidental act of solidarity for me–a Franciscan sister with the privilege of poverty and prayer–to enter into the frenzy of noise and commotion that defines modern life for so many.

And, in this visit to the place of a-lot-is-going-on and every-screen-and-electronic-device-is-adding-noise, I have discovered that the spirit is inviting me into the sacred space of boredom, a place that my aunt shunned and I was taught to fear in my youth.

In his essay,  James K.A. Smith, “In Praise of Boredom,” (Image Journal, Issue 99) writes. “In a world of incessant distraction, the way out might look like learning how to be bored. A little ennui could go a long way; it could be the wardrobe we need now. We need to learn how to be bored in order to wean ourselves off distraction and open ourselves to others and the Other—to make ourselves available for irruptions of grace.”

I agree. Boredom is beautiful. It’s a grace to enter into the sacred spaces where we not sure how to be with ourselves or what to do. The opportunity of being uncomfortable in the moment and of feeling lost in open space, allows a chance to listen deeper than the complications and distractions offered by our screens and devices and the repeated human habit of seeking pleasure and comfort. Instead, in the cracks and pauses, we can become open to the Spirit stirring in our hearts and minds. We can lean in to the loving presence of God. I have come to believe that boredom is actually essential to healthy spiritual living.

“Sunrise at Marywood” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

A few years ago, I packed up my high school classroom and moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Here, I’ve been on staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center and savoring the quiet and beauty of the Northwoods, while helping to offer retreats, programs, and good hospitality. Before I arrived, I heard a repeated concern that I would be “bored” in the woods, that it could be too tough for me. It’s laughable now, of course, because my life here has been anything but boring, but I can understand how city-dwellers might make such an assumption about rural life.

In a few weeks, I will be packing up again, moving back to Chicago to begin an internal FSPA ministry: living alongside our novices as a finally professed sister. And the paradox of the path of my life is that I anticipate that entering into this new phase will actually allow me to be much more bored than living and serving at Marywood. For this boredom, and the graces it could open, I say, “Bring it on!”

On parenting, poverty, and privilege

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Nicole’s youngest daughter, Adelina, washes clothes at a pila. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

It’s been two months since our family abruptly said goodbye to the mission we were serving in Honduras.

We left because our five-year-old daughter came down with dengue fever, a nasty mosquito-borne illness that becomes even nastier if contracted a second time. In someone who has already had the illness, a second exposure can result in internal hemorrhage, shock, and death. The risk of these outcomes is greatest in young children.

As parents, we didn’t want to take that risk.

I’m pretty sure no parents want to take that risk … But many simply don’t have a choice in the matter.

Poverty in Honduras is both stark and pervasive. According to the World Bank, 66% of the country’s citizens live in poverty and one in five rural residents live on less than $2 every day. Our family felt called to international mission work because we wanted to accompany these beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

In college, I would have said we wanted to be “in solidarity with the poor.” But as a 34-year-old mother, I know better.

Because we could leave.

If we ever felt like the risks of our mission became too great, we could simply pack up our suitcases and go … which is precisely what we did. As soon as our daughter recovered from dengue, we bought four one-way tickets out of Honduras and flew home to the United States, away from the risk of a secondary infection.

I know this was the right decision, and I don’t feel guilty about it, but I do feel angry and sad that most of the world’s mothers don’t have the same option. They can’t simply buy a plane ticket and fly away from whatever threatens their children, whether it is dengue fever or gun violence or political instability or “just” diarrhea (which is the leading cause of death globally in children my daughters’ age).

Options are privilege. Nothing makes that clearer than living among people who don’t have any.

I open a full refrigerator, and I think of all the families in Honduras who eat just one simple meal of tortillas each day. Their bellies are never truly full. I research school districts in areas to where our family might move, and I think of the many children throughout rural Honduras who lack access to basic education. I read a story about victims of horrific crimes in Honduras, and I think about the luxury of avoiding violent Honduran neighborhoods and never going out past dark (which our program ensured).

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Kiara (left) and Adelina, Nicole’s daughters, experience the beauty of a Honduran beach. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

I think about all of my options. And I think about my privilege.

I have yet to meet someone who has challenged our family’s decision to end our mission in Honduras early in order to protect our daughter’s health. When I explain the situation to people, they usually respond with something like: “Of course you had to come home — you were being a good mother!”

And yet …. the official policy of the U.S. is to treat mothers at the border (many of whom are Honduran and all of whom are trying to protect their children) as though they are criminals. We rip their children from their arms and lock them up in dehumanizing, traumatic conditions. We violate international human rights laws and — more fundamentally — God’s laws.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor …” (Zechariah 7:9-10)

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Children and adults in the Finca community walk the Stations of the Cross, honoring the sacrifice of Jesus, during Lent. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

When I hear the heartbreaking stories of families separated at the border, I try to imagine what it would have been like if my daughter had been ripped away from me as we boarded our plane to fly home. I try to imagine what it would be like to be treated as a criminal for following my most primal maternal instinct: to protect my children.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to imagine.

That’s because I’ve never run out of options in the way families at the border have. We left Honduras out of an excess of caution: my daughter might get dengue again and dengue might progress into hemorrhagic fever and we might not be able to get her to a hospital in time to treat it. We left Honduras because we felt it was too risky for our daughter to continue living there.

So why am I congratulated as a good mother for fleeing a potential health risk while others are condemned for fleeing far worse?

I’m pretty sure it has to do with the privilege of fleeing that risk on board a comfortable Boeing aircraft, rather than on foot at a dismal border crossing.

And I’m also pretty sure Jesus has something to say about this contrast in privilege:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
(Matthew 5:3-6)

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge recently returned with her husband and two daughters from mission work in Honduras. They spent nine months living and volunteering at a children’s home/school/medical clinic called the Finca del Niño. You can read more about their family’s experiences in Honduras (and donate to their solar energy project!) at www.lifeonthefinca.com.

What’s whiteness got to do with it?

“You don’t dismantle white supremacy by ‘learning about other cultures.’ You dismantle white supremacy by deconstructing whiteness.Benita Grace Joy

benitagracejoy-meme
This meme, shares Annemarie, “… deeply resonates with my own experience.”

I saw this quote the other day. As any good meme does, it deeply resonates with my own experience.

As a white woman who chose to move to South America, originally serving as a Franciscan lay missioner, the temptation for years has been to reconcile my whiteness by learning about other cultures different from my own.

But the trouble is that although it may be less complicated to dabble in other cultures instead of deconstructing my own, it would do little in the way of addressing my own internalized racial superiority and the racist systems I participate in daily.

I have seen this dynamic in the experiences of short-term mission trips (domestic and abroad) so common in white Catholic culture. 

When observing another culture, rarely do we slow down enough to reflect on our judgments and assumptions and what they have to do with race.

It adds a whole other layer of reflection when we start to consider how our judgments and assumptions are influenced by our own internalized racial superiority as white people.

“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

While serving as a Franciscan lay missioner, I visited one of the Catholic communities in the United States that was financially supporting me. After listening to my brief explanation of our work and an expression of gratitude for their financial support, one womanCatholic, whiteapproached me and said, “I am just so glad that you are down there teaching those people how to share.”

I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. The kind of shock that comes with hearing an assumption made about your own experience that is so inaccurate it causes both rage and grief at the same time.

I let this woman know that, in fact, collectivity and sharing are much more integral elements of Andean culture in South America than they are in individualistic white culture in the United States. I let her know that I was learning how to share from the Quechua women I was accompanying in a way that I had never learned in my white Catholic upbringing.

And yet I have never forgotten that exchange, perhaps because it demonstrates how our internalized racial superiority as white people works. We as white people often make racist assumptions about people different from us, and it is so common to make these assumptions in our white Catholic communities that we don’t even realize that we do it. 

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“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

We may travel to another culture and bring back souvenirs and anecdotes about the intercultural experiences that we had, but do we also bring back a reflection of our own whiteness? Are we simply trying on other cultures during these service experiences or are we also deconstructing how the paternalism in our service is rooted in racism?

When I decided to continue to live in South America after finishing my formal service as a Franciscan lay missioner, one person’s reaction to my decision was, “I understood why you were there when you were helping people, but I don’t understand why you would stay.”

I have since wondered to myself, is it really that hard for white people to imagine that there is more to culture than our racist standards in the so-called “developed world”? How can we challenge the racist belief that living in another non-white culture is inherently a sacrifice?

How might we learn to stop centering our experience as white people as the only way to effectively live in this world? In our white Catholic communities, how might we confront the sinfulness in our own habits and lifestyles instead of scapegoating other communities and cultures?

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“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

As white people in the so-called “developed world,” we are the worldwide leaders in materialism, consumption, production of food waste and pollution. 

So when our white Catholic communities travel to other cultures and observe pollution and environmental decay, how might we flip the script? Instead of making racist assumptions about the failures of the communities receiving us, how might we reflect on the dire effects of the globalization of our materialistic lifestyles? 

When our white Catholic communities visit other cultures and observe material poverty and violence, how might we flip the script? Instead of raising money for a charitable cause invested in paternalistic solutions, how might we reflect on the history of colonialism and ongoing cultural genocide that has attempted to destroy so many communities of color around the world while ensuring the privilege and power we experience as white people today? How might we redirect our financial resources to organizations invested in social justice work founded and led by professionals born and raised in the communities they serve?

And when our white Catholic communities visit other cultures and only see suffering and despair, how might we flip the script? Instead of assuming incompetence and neediness, how might we open ourselves to hear the testimonies of resilience? How might we genuinely learn from different cultural values and practices instead of trivializing them? How might we allow the wisdom in cultures different from our own to challenge our own preconceived notions and way of doing things? 

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“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

Interacting with people of color and learning about cultures different from our own is not enough to absolve us of racism. Donating money to charities working in communities of color is not enough to absolve us of racism. 

In our white Catholic communities, our anti-racism work needs to also include reckoning with our whiteness, deconstructing our power and privilege and paternalism and our colonial history. In order to deconstruct white supremacy, we need to reflect on the assumptions and judgments we hold that are rooted in our own internalized racial superiority. How are you addressing these issues in your Catholic communities?

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

Rejoice with me

 

The Giving Voice National Gathering planning team, from left to right, front row: Kristina Ortega, facilitator; Sr. Lisa Perkowski, Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton; Sophie Vodvarka, Giving Voice communications coordinator; middle row: Sr. Kathryn Press, Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sr. Clare Bass, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis; back row: Sr. Mary Therese Perez, Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose; Sr. Julia Walsh, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration; Sr. Adriana Calzada Vázquez Vela, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio (Provided photo)

Along with three others sisters in their mid-30s, I am in a busy café in St. Louis, Missouri, enjoying a lunch of sandwiches and salads. A bit ago, we prayed over our food. Between bites, we’re laughing and chatting about the work we need to do. Feeling happy and a little anxious, we still have many tasks to complete before nearly 80 more sisters arrive from all corners of the country.

It’s the final day of preparations for the Giving Voice National Gathering at Fontbonne University that the four of us — along with a team of three more sisters and two other women — have been planning since the fall of 2018. The theme for our gathering is “The Boldness and Beauty of Communion: Living Religious Life NOW!” and we have four days of prayer, presentations, discussions, workshops, art and fun planned to help us break open how our communal lives compel us to be “experts of communion,” as Pope Francis insisted. We long to be awake to…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Our Common Call to Contemplation, Communion and Creativity

Photo credit: alluringintuitive.com

On an ordinary morning, I kneel into The Now.

I am alone in my bedroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I have set my timer, so I know when I must move. But for now, this is all there is. I light the candle nearby, then close my eyes and move my mind — my focus — into the rhythm of my breathing. On the other side of my eyelids I sense the flicker of light, the glow of what is in front of me. I feel the subtle heat emanating from the flame. My body is barely still, yet I try to say yes to the chance to truly “be still and know that God is God” as God encourages me to do. I resituate my hips, straighten my spine. I hold my hands in my lap, and press my palms onto my knees. Slowly, eventually, stillness and silence seem to surround me. A sacred word makes its way into my mind — a word or phrase or traditional prayer, depending on the day.

Breath, light, heat, stillness, silence and words: these are my touchstones as my mind wanders, taking tours of the past or dreaming up the future. Each time a…   [This is the beginning of a reflection I wrote for Carl McColman’s blog at Patheos. Continue reading here.]