‘A bad guy was killing people’: A parent’s response to the nightmare of gun violence

It’s 3 a.m. and the moon is glowing softly through the wide bedroom window. Why am I awake? I look to the side and see that our six-month-old is sleeping soundly.

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Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

A repetition of the sound that woke me, “Mama!!”, comes from the room across the hall. It’s our three-year-old who, despite a strong, independent spirit, believes that a parent is needed if she is thirsty or needs the toilet that’s a few steps away or if her blanket has slipped off. 

I pause and take a deep breath, take a drink of water and then another deep breath. “Don’t go in annoyed,” I tell myself. “You don’t know what she needs until you’ve listened.”

When I go to her it takes a few minutes before I can get her to say anything besides “Mama,” but I can see that she is in fact distressed. “Was it a bad dream?” I whisper. She nods. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

“There were bad guys killing people,” she says in a small, still-scared voice. And suddenly, I feel a dark weight in my own stomach and my throat tightens around the words of reassurance I want to speak. 

My mind conjures not her nightmare, but the real-life horror I’ve been hearing about on the radio the last few days. I imagine a Walmart where people – bored or excited, tired, in a hurry or casually moseying – are suddenly confronted with a rapid-fire lethal weapon that has no concept of the rich complexity of their personal stories. 

A bad guy is killing people.

And so, I can’t quite bring myself to say, “Don’t worry baby, everything’s okay, you’re totally safe.”  Instead I say, “I’m here with you, sweetheart, it was a dream, you’re surrounded by people who love you.” Because things are not okay, and I don’t really know what or where “safe” is. This has always been true, but the reality of it rests heavily on me right now. 

After a quick ritual of tucking-in and “huggy blanket, huggy blanket, down to your toes!”, my daughter drifts back to sleep and hopefully to sweet dreams of riding horses and unicorns that she reports having most mornings.

I try to return to sleep myself, but the infant who’s sharing a bed with me tonight is restless. Finally, I hold her close until her body relaxes and her breath evens into the rhythm of sleep. 

My body will not relax as my mind grinds, trying to solve an impossible problem: how do I prepare my children for an unpredictable and precarious reality while still providing them the sense of security and stability they need to thrive? How do I say, “It’s okay,” when I feel so sad and afraid?

Earlier in the day, when we had to make a quick stop to purchase the rest of their school supplies, my husband stopped the car next to the store so I could run in. I wondered if he was thinking about the same thing I was; the mother who’d recently run into Walmart in El Paso, Texas, to pick up something while she and her family were on their way to the airport. 

Her husband and children had waited, unknowing, in the car while she was murdered. How did they find out? Were they waiting for a long time, wondering what was keeping her? Did they get bored or annoyed? It’s such a small thing to run into a store, and yet …

I feel the tension in my body as I step out of the car. I close the door and then open it again; popping my head in to cheerfully say, “I’ll be right back, my lovies!” — both to reassure myself and to ensure that my possible last words to my beloved family aren’t, “Stop fussing! I’ll just be a minute!”  

Of course, the chances of me and my family being in any real danger are very slim. I know this. But I don’t like that argument. I am not exceptional — God is not any more determined to extend supernatural protection over me and my family than over those people who died senselessly. 

Even if I and my loved ones don’t encounter harm everything is still not okay, because others have and will and are encountering danger and hurt in so many ways. So, I am lying in bed, so tired, wanting desperately to fall asleep, and yet, how can I sleep to the sound of all this suffering? 

Jesus tells us many times throughout the Gospels not to worry and not to be afraid. All the while, he demonstrates through his life solidarity with the outcast and the sick; he reaches his hands out, even to the dead. I wish he would tell me what to do now.

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Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

 

Soon the alarm will sound and it will be time to ready the kids for school; to make sure they eat a nutritious meal, brush their teeth and are fully dressed before they’re bundled out the door. Why am I awake? To fall asleep feels like a betrayal to those kept awake with the ache of grief or fear or the loneliness of irreconcilable loss. 

The sun will rise without regard for my mental state, rousing with its light three lively children and the mundane but necessary demands of the day. So, I hug the tension to me like a restless child, breathe deeply, pray for grace and accept the gift of rest.

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.

 

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.

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.

Namesake

baby

“Lord, have mercy/ On my descendants/ For they know not/ What they do/ For they know not

Who you are.” ~ “Pillar of Truth” by Lucy Dacus

It’s been about four hours since the birth, and now that everyone is calm and happy and relaxing, I take a minute to steal away. I descend softly down the stairs, down the corridor, and into the dim, cool, silent wood and stone chapel. On the side is the naive where the tabernacle waits, the red lamp is lit and glowing. I kneel.

“Thank you. Thank you for the gift of my son. Thank you for the gift of his life, his healthy delivery. For his mother, his sister, our whole family. I’m really overwhelmed with gratitude for these blessings. Thank you. Really.”

I pause. I look around. I breathe in the quiet for a moment.

“If I’m being honest … I’m a bit nervous. About raising a son. It’s a … confusing time to be raising a young man. A confusing time to know what it means to be a man, with so many different, conflicting ideas of manhood competing for attention. Some quite uplifting, but so many so destructive, so toxic … so short of what I hope my son will be and become.

“That’s why we named him after you. Joshua. He’ll know you by a different name of course — the Latin derivative, instead of the Hebrew — but still, he’s named for you. Please teach him, your namesake, by your example of what it means to be a man.

babyMeet baby Joshua (image courtesy of Steven Cottam)

“Teach him that courage does not mean the willingness to inflict pain, but the willingness to endure it for the good.

“Teach him that it is stronger to control anger, greed, and lust than to give it free rein and inflict it upon others.

“Teach him that the proper use of power is the defense of the powerless.

“Teach him that to protect and provide for his family does not stop with those who share his features, but extends to all his brothers and sisters in need.

“Teach him that it is better to die as an innocent, than to live as an oppressor.

“So many have said to me, about my son, ‘How exciting, a son!’

’Yes, exciting!’ I say.

‘He’ll get to be the one to pass on your name.’

‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘Maybe. Probably. Unless of course he is called to a different path. To be a religious brother. Or a priest. Should we be so blessed.’

‘Well, sure … but you don’t want your only son to be a priest. Who would pass on your name?’

“Hmm. Good question. Who would pass on my name? I’ll be honest Lord. It doesn’t matter to me if my name is passed on. It doesn’t matter to me if my descendants remember me. But please, Lord, let my son pass on your name. Let my descendants remember you. Let them know who you are.

“Please remember this your namesake. Remember him by granting him the grace to remember you — your name, your life, and to call upon you all the days of his.

“Amen.”

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Love in the midst of the mess

You are dreading another meal of ramen noodles and canned vegetables, but you know that’s all that’s left in the cupboard, that it’s the best you can offer your son tonight.

You’re thinking about this as you enter the dimly lit child care center to pick him up, with hunger pulling on your stomach, only to see him sitting on a grimy, stained rug. He gazes upward, engrossed in a cartoon, his face stone-still like an icy zombie. You remember that you once asked if the TV was safe — it still looks as if the smallest bump to the cart could make the heavy machine plummet down and crush a child — but the one time you tried to ask about it, you felt like a nuisance, so you never brought it up again.

Before you gather your son into your arms, you notice a child care worker with thinning hair scolding a girl; the girl stares at the dusty floor as tears roll down her cheeks. The scene tightens your throat with discomfort, awkwardness; you ignore this and scoop your son into your loving arms instead.

You don’t like this place; you have a feeling that…

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

Feeding Time at Art Beast Child Development Center Photo Credit: ©Ellen Friedlander
Bubbles at Art Beast Child Development Center Photo Credit: ©Ellen Friedlander

Fear, faith and the flu

I am not a germaphobe by nature, but this year’s flu season has me in a tizzy of microbial paranoia.

Daily news reports about the severity of this specific flu strain and the extent of the epidemic have fueled my anxiety, as did a recent email from my daughters’ school informing us of confirmed flu cases within the student population. Yesterday, a doctor on NPR waxed dystopic about the particular vulnerability of people who have underlying health conditions.

As the mother of a 6-year-old with asthma, I feel frightened and exposed.

Although our entire household got the flu vaccine back in early fall (as we do every year), I know there is no guarantee of immunity. With the flu season now in full force, I want to wrap my kids up in Purell-lined bubbles and safeguard them against all the insidious germs that assault their immune systems on a daily basis. I want to protect them from the physical misery and dangers of influenza.

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Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

As a matter of fact, I want to protect them from all suffering. Forever.

But of course, the world doesn’t work that way. Try as we might, we parents cannot prevent our children from suffering.

We can get them the flu vaccine, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get the flu. We can provide them with love and stability, but that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle with depression and addiction. We can raise them in a household of faith, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn away from God.

In this world – as in the flu season – there are no guarantees. And so we vaccinate as early and as extensively as we can … and then we trust.

As Christians, our trust is based not on the presumption that we will avoid suffering, but rather on our faith that God is with us when we suffer and that Divine Providence (aka “God’s Plan”) will ultimately triumph. We trust that the Good News of Jesus prevails, even when our lives are filled with bad news. We trust that our suffering is not in vain.

Easier said than done (at least for me).

Sure, some suffering makes sense – either right there in the midst of it or decades later, with the hindsight of lessons learned and otherwise-missed life journeys. But some suffering will never make sense this side of eternity; some suffering is so dehumanizing and apparently pointless that it falls into the category of the “Big M” Mysteries of Christianity.

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Image courtesy freeimages.com

This is the kind of suffering I fear most for my children and – by extension – myself. It is the suffering I find most baffling and scandalous … and the suffering for which I most need the baffling and scandalous grace of God.

Especially as a mother.

Elizabeth Stone famously wrote, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

It’s true. And it’s why, as I drop my children off at school – where H3N2 germs, Mean Girls and any number of other potential threats await them – I am thankful that they (and my heart right along with them) are ultimately in the hands of Someone I trust.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to 6- and 4-year-old daughters in the Seattle, Washington area. Her contributions to Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. For the record, she’s really not interested in a debate about vaccinations right now.

Again

I tense up slightly as I see my daughter toddling over to me holding the telltale green and blue box, replete with several cartoon dinosaurs staring up at me. “Me want to do dinosaur puzzle,” she says.

“Please,” I entreat. “Not the dinosaur puzzle. We’ve done the dinosaur puzzle six times today.” I can’t take the dinosaur puzzle again. I could put the Iguanadon and his friends together in my sleep. “Please, pick something else.”

Her eyes and chin start to do her trademark wobble, indicating that the begging is about to begin. “But, me want to do dinosaur puzzle with you,” she implores. I quickly scan the room and realize that my options of finding a better activity are, in all honestly, very slim. Even if I could convince her to do something else, what would it be? Pony coloring back? 3 times today. Dress up tea party? 4 times today. Give a stuffed animal a doctor check-up? 8 times today. She is in the age of learning by repetition, and dinosaur puzzle or not, I am being called to sit and watch her do something slowly that I have already sat and watched her do slowly several times today. “Fine,” I sigh. “Dinosaur puzzle.” “Yeah!” She squeals, and she upends its 48 large pieces onto the kitchen floor and ponderously begins unraveling its mysteries once again.

I sit next to her and bear witness to the saga as it unfolds. I’m not allowed to help, she can do it “all by meself;” I am merely supposed to confirm and encourage, and perhaps offer the occasionally helpful “oh, that doesn’t look quite right.”. At moments like this I am often tempted to retreat into a distraction. I pull out my phone and scan the news. I stand up and start to peruse the mail. But I can’t do this long before I get a small scowly face and a chiding, “Daddy, you not watching.” She knows when I’m not paying attention to her, or am only pretending to do so. “Sorry honey. Ok, I’m watching. Oh, look, you got another piece in.”

In my youth I always dreamed of having the chance to suffer mightily on behalf of others. I imagined I would be a missionary, braving cold, hunger, and every deprivation. I have rarely encountered such trials. However, one cross that I have frequently and fruitfully born is that of boredom.

Boredom is a hardship we don’t often think about because it’s so terribly unromantic. In fact, in our distracted, stimulation obsessed age boredom of any intensity, of any length of time, is seen as a vice. We flee from ourselves and our own thoughts, sometimes to the point of preferring pain just so we can have something to focus on.

In our collective flight from boredom, we frequently commit grave sin against ourselves and others. We ignore our children, because their tedious games bore us. We ignore our parents and the elderly, because we’ve already heard the stories they are going to tell. We ignore the dull or those less educated than ourselves, because their uninteresting conversation wastes our valuable time. Recently I had several parishioners tell me how tired they are of hearing about disaster relief and social justice protests – are we still talking about those things? Underlying all of these is the same subtle lie that is embedded in every sin – I am more important than you. My time is more important than your time. What I want is more important than what you need.

But perhaps the person I wound most gravely when I refuse to endure boredom is myself. For isn’t there something really sad and broken about someone, about all of us, when we stop seeing things for what they are? Every person I meet is a gift from God, is a son or daughter of the almighty. My boredom is caused by my blindness. As C.S. Lewis reminds us,

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… there are no ordinary people. (The Weight of Glory).

Even boring tasks are frequently a chance to converse with God, and to remind oneself of the raw glory and wonder of mere existence. When I too quickly dismiss boredom with an external panacea, I miss the chance to fight through to the other side, where God renews my sight and becomes my vision.

courtesy of Steven Cottam

So I turn my attention back to the dinosaur puzzle… which is coming together, slowly but surely. The apatosaurus is half done now. My daughter’s toddling, repetitious play is just a phase, and the truth is I will sorely miss it when it has passed. My attention is my gift to her, and her reminder of what matters is her gift to me. Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I will give it to as many as I can, and I will try to do so gladly. When it is hard I will merely ask God that, like all sacrifices made out of love, it might bear much fruit.

 

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

One life together

As of the writing of this reflection, Witness Against Torture, The New York Catholic Worker, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence, among others, are in the midst of a week-long fast for the victims of the recent airstrikes and ongoing besiegement of Yemen. There we see, once again, one of the poorest countries of the world pummeled by some of the richest; not an unusual circumstance, but it’s ubiquity makes it no less tragic.

I was invited to join the fast but unable as my youngest is still an insistent and aggressive breast feeder and my oldest has simultaneously forgotten his ability to listen and enhanced his capacity to test all boundaries. Circumstances being what they are, a well-balanced and consistent diet seems an indispensable tool in order to be an alert and able-bodied parent. Frankly, I felt relieved to have such an excuse. While my younger self would contrive reasons to fast, exulting in the ascetic undertaking and invigorated by the discipline, that aspect of my nature has diminished over the years to such minute stature that I am hard-pressed to find it in me.

On the other hand, I am disappointed to miss out on the communal response. Joining together in mourning, conceiving acts of creative resistance, fasting and prayer are among the few means of response we can identify in the face of escalating and seemingly endless violence and despair. As it is, I am merely one among many who hear it on the news, quietly lament, and continue with the needs and desires of the day. I am at risk of becoming inured to the pain of others, especially that of those who I don’t see in person and who exist in such overwhelming numbers. More than I can remember or recite. More than I can truly imagine.

Before I have finished writing this there will be more to count. Already, the U.S. has chosen to conduct air strikes in Syria in response to the ghastly chemical attacks there, which are a part of a larger, ongoing massacre happening through various means of human-on-human violence. Violence begetting violence. Those who’ve been following the news will be aware too of the atrocity in Mosul, yet another among the countless acts of destruction and devastation in Iraq.

For those of us who live in relative comfort and security, it is all too easy to stagnate in statistics. I often feel I can’t even write or talk about something that tears at me because then I need to mention every troubling incident. Each crisis gets lost in the many and responding feels impossible. I recently heard a poem that addresses this attitude on NPR’s OnBeing called “The Pedagogy of Conflict” written by Pádraig Ó Tuama; a poet, theologian and leader of the Corrymeela community (a place of refuge and reconciliation in Northern Ireland).

“When I was a child, / I learnt to count to five: / one, two, three, four, five. / But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count / one life / one life / one life / one life / Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken. / Legitimate Target / has sixteen letters / and one / long / abominable / space / between / two / dehumanising / words.”

I believe that throughout Scripture, God has sought to communicate to humanity that we were created with intention, that we are part of a holy human family, that all life is precious and inextricably interwoven. I have found it hard to know how to live out that truth as a citizen of the Western world (the U.S. specifically) where, unlike citizens on the receiving end of our war-making, I live my life removed from the death and disorder in which we are involved. I feel all the more inhibited in my capacity to respond to the needs of others as I endeavor to care for and create a stable, loving, beautiful environment for my own children.

Amy Nee and one of her children.

Yet, even as life as a parent inhibits me from reaching out, from taking risks, it also tends to enhance empathy and conjure the questions—what if it was me in that situation? What if it was my kids?

Ever since reading a book review by Terry Rogers in The New York Catholic Worker’s newspaper I am haunted by the story of a Palestinian father who used to feel great peace watching his children sleep. Now, he gazes on them with anguished anxiety wondering if this will be the night that they wake to a bomb tearing through the ceiling, or if they will even wake at all. He writes of too many friends who have lost their children to bomb attacks and realizes he cannot expect his own family to be spared from the same fate. So to look at his children, vulnerable in sleep—each one a mysterious trove of wonder, laughter, frustration, confusion, tears, expense, effort and attention, both given and received—brings only sadness, fear, anger, despair.

One life … one life … one life … one life.

sleeping-children-courtesy-Any-Nee
Amy’s children, sleeping soundly (photo courtesy of Amy Nee).

Seeing my children sleep, I am most often filled with relief, satisfaction, a wave of affection and admiration for their beauty and gratitude for our shared life. I cannot imagine what I would feel were I to hear them referred to as collateral damage, let alone “legitimate target.” I cannot imagine–having watched with amazement each new developing nuance in language and motion–suddenly seeing them fall limp and mute and forever lifeless. Each blossoming life, so intricate, so very dear, so amazingly new each day. “Each time is the first time that life has been taken.” What a gaping hole there would be in my heart, in our family, even amongst our friends.  Whole communities grieving the loss of what was, of what was becoming.

One life … one life … one life … one life.

I am being interrupted in this writing endeavor. My one-year-old daughter, waking from her brief moment of tranquil sleep, insisting on nursing. I will resist for a moment and then concede. It is a comfort to so easily give comfort. I know it will not always be so easy for me, with nothing more than my own body, to bring calm and contentment to my daughter whom I love profoundly. For one life, that opportunity has been stolen.

One life …  one life … one life … one life.

Come, let us love one another.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy 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, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Bread, art and a kindergarten heart

 

“NO! I HATE this part of the bread! I won’t eat it!”

My daughter had just realized that her peanut butter and honey toast was made with an “all-crust” heel piece. To a five-year-old who has never known true crisis, this realization is nothing short of devastating—on par with candy-less valentines and cake batter-scented (but NOT flavored) ChapStick.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the parenting struggle that, moments ago, I had decided was indeed worth my time and energy.

As soon as I’d opened our bread bag and discovered only end pieces, I’d known that making toast with it might awaken the melodramatic beast dwelling within my kindergartener. All parents are familiar with the rapid cost-benefit analysis of “choosing our battles” in daily life. The fact that there were four, as opposed to two, end pieces in this bread bag indicated that I had forfeited this particular battle with our last loaf of bread.

But this time I felt prepared to hold my ground: my daughter would eat this food or no food.

Having just read a parenting article about instilling empathy and pro-social behavior in children, I decided to make an effort to turn this little clash of wills into “a teachable moment” (mom-talk for trying to channel one’s maternal frustration into wisdom rather than a large glass of wine).

As my daughter geared up for another outraged protest, I looked her in the eye and said, “Honey, I love you so much. And one of the ways I try to show you I love you is by making your favorite snacks for you, like peanut butter and honey toast. How do you think it makes me feel when you start crying and yelling just because it isn’t exactly what you want?”

She furrowed her brow and pouted, mumbling something unintelligible. Then she got up and walked away from the table.

I sighed, disappointed.

“You can walk away, but you need to know that I’m not going to make you anything else until you’ve eaten what’s on your plate.”

She grabbed something from her art corner and disappeared behind the couch.

“Did you hear me? I said I’m not making you anything else until you’ve eaten your peanut butter and honey toast.”

“Hold ON,” she said impatiently. I rolled my eyes at her (because apparently, trying to create a teachable moment had maxed out my maturity quotient for the day).

paper--plate-hearts
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

And then she brought me the “art” she had abandoned the table to create: an addition to the paper plate valentine she’d made in church earlier in the week. Around the edge, she had penciled in the words I love you because you feed me.

And, for the millionth time since becoming a mom, I realized how much I have to learn from my daughter.

How often do I spurn the blessings God has set in front of me, simply because they look a little crustier than I was expecting? How often do I pick apart that which nourishes me, only to find myself feeling empty? How often do I take for granted (or refuse to take at all) the bread of life that God pours out for me?

Perhaps, most convicting: How often do I recognize the error of my ways and humble myself, turning to God with such a simple yet profound prayer?

I love you because you feed me.

communion-chalice-bread
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington, area. Her articles for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. Ironically, the daughter mentioned in this article is not her picky eater.

In God’s Image: Finding Jesus in the Mundane Mess of Motherhood

“Your loving doesn’t know its majesty, until it knows its helplessness.”   – Rumi

“Pretty bad day here – I think if parenting was something one was allowed to quit I would have by now …”

This was the content of an e-mail I tapped out on the phone to my husband while he was at work and I was home with our two kiddos, age one and three, approximately.  Trust me, if you’re mind is jumping to judgment at the wimpyness of my parenthood or the flakiness of my fidelity to family; I jumped there first and with a larger arsenal of accusations against my ineptitude and impatience.  But regardless of how much I thought I should be more patient and gentle and joyful in motherhood, what I felt was, to put it mildly, overwhelmed.  I was overwhelmed in an implosion is imminent way that the ubiquitously used “overwhelmed” just doesn’t adequately convey.

Nee-Walker Child #2 on the prowl
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“Remember that scene from Jesus Christ Superstar, with the lepers?” I ask my husband who has called, concerned, after reading my e-mail.  He does not remember.  Do you?  Despite its campiness, and the Christ figure’s wild falsetto, I was so moved and marked by this scene when I first saw the 1973 film version of this rock opera years ago.  Jesus is walking into the desert, singing to himself of his mission and journey, seeking a quiet space to reflect and pray.  As he walks he is confronted by “lepers”, covered in dark rags, first one, then two, a handful, then hordes, singing out their needs to him, urgently, repeatedly.  At first Jesus reaches out to each one, compassion and determination evident on his face.  By the end of the scene though, his expression has shifted to one of desperation, even terror as he cries out, “there’s too little of me!”  The scene ends with his image all but swallowed up by the beggars as he screams, “leave me alone!”

That is the scene that came to mind as I thought about how parenting felt to me this past week.  As I recounted it to my husband, of course digging up the YouTube clip to share, I recalled to myself why I had found this scene so striking in the first place and carried it with me all these years. The fullness of Jesus’ humanity, the rawness of emotion, of vulnerability, the capacity for fear and despair in the midst of determination and faithfulness had never been so evident to me as it was in this midrashic moment.  It was an ‘Oh my God” moment, not in a slanderous slang way but in a Thomas touching wounded hands and feet, “My Lord and my God” way.  The idea of God coming to earth as a man capable of fear and exhaustion can come as a bit of a letdown for those of us who might sometimes hope for a superhero savior who will scoop us up from the messiness of life on earth and spirit us away to a pristine heavenly home. But imagine the radical, outrageous love that compels the God of All Things, Being Itself, Creator of the Universe not to scoop us out of the mess but to join us creatures, and humans in particular, in it for the sake of restoring relationship.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

The same night as the e-mail, after the kids were in bed (hopefully for at least an hour or two before tumbling into ours), I was immersed in the warmth and rhythm of washing dishes, enjoying my empathic bond with an image of Jesus from the 70s and contemplating Incarnation.  I was also listening to a rebroadcast of an interview with Fr. James Martin on Krista Tippet’s OnBeing. It was a seasonally appropriate rebroadcasting and they began to talk about Christmas, commercialism and the often overlooked scandal of the true nativity story.  

“It’s a terrifying story in terms of what they had to undergo” Fr. Martin was saying, “It is a shocking story. It’s not just a baby. It is God being born in human form. And it’s just as shocking as the resurrection. And I think we’ve tamed it… We can just kind of look on it, and say, “Well, that’s cute.”  But if you say to people, “Do you believe that that is God incarnate in that stable? What does that mean for you, that God comes to us as the most helpless being that you could imagine, sort of crying and wetting his pants and needing to be nursed? What does that say to us about who God is for us, and how God is for us, and how much God loved us to do that?”

“What did he just say?” I thought. I had to rewind and listen again.  I consider myself someone quite familiar with the nativity story, even the complexity and danger and dirtiness of it.  There was nothing especially new about how Fr. Martin had described it, except that one word; “nursed.”  One of the most beleaguering things for me has been that my daughter, who will be one on Christmas Eve, still nurses, on average, every two hours through the night. Calling it nursing, I feel, is another word that lacking.  My daughter tugs mercilessly at my breast.  I could never have imagined the elasticity of human skin before mothering this child.  Her version of nursing is not a snuggling, nuzzling seeking of nourishment and bonding but a primal, mammalian, devouring of prey.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

“And yet,” I am shaking my head in wonder at the thought, “Jesus nursed.”  Jesus cried out in the night with pangs of hunger, of fear perhaps, of a simple desire for warm, familiar flesh.  How did Mary feel?  Was she exhausted and exasperated?  Did she simply move on auto-pilot through the familiar motions? Did she have ever-present the prophecy of an impending sword to her heart and treasure every moment in which she had the privilege to cradle her child, to meet his needs and sooth his troubles?  Here I had been imagining the overwrought Jesus, beat down by the demands of others and suddenly I am confronted by Jesus the infant whose whole being is a bundle of demands.  It occurs to me that Jesus, in his earthly lifetime, lived both sides of the coin of giving and receiving.  This is something we all share with him and each other.

The next day, despite the gift of perceiving Christ’s presence both in my weariness and in my children’s insatiableness, I continue to struggle.  My tone of voice slips too often from calm to stern to angry.  I say more “no’s” than necessary.   I am not the person or parent I want to be.  Still, at the end of the day, my son unwittingly reveals to me yet another way in which Christ is manifest in his small, precocious, presence.  Washing the dishes again, this time while the kids are awake, playing with their dad, I am interrupted by my son popping in the kitchen, “Come dance with me,” he says.  “I can’t, my sweet boy.”  A few minutes later, he’s back, “Come play with me, Mama.” A third time, “Come, read with me.”   Despite my eruptions, despite my busyness and rejections, he keeps returning to me, desiring to be with me, delighting in my presence.  In his beckoning, I hear a phrase, so similar, from Jesus, “Come, follow me.”  However helpless you may feel, however you have failed, come, let us walk together.

Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker
Courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy 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, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.