Yellow-stained diapers are hanging outside on the deck, bleaching in the sun. Pump parts are drying on the kitchen counter. A rolled heap of wet mattress cover and crib sheet waits on the floor in front of the washing machine. Burp cloths are draped across couches and chairs.
(And as I type this one-handed while nursing, the baby spits up a whole mouthful of milk on my last pair of clean jeans. Ok, my only pair of postpartum jeans.)
If feeding is the most basic of human needs, cleaning up after feeding feels like the most bodily.
Babies bring with their cooing charm every imaginable smell, shape and color of bodily fluid. New parents almost universally agree that they never dreamed so many discussions would revolve around the state of their offspring’s output.
Wiping dirty bottoms, swabbing runny noses, washing soaked sheets, and chasing curdled spit-up – there’s nothing romantic (or even vaguely pleasant) about such tasks required by newbornhood.
But there’s something powerful about the transformation of cleaning up after small children. (Even though it’s always temporary. Another explosion inevitably occurs five minutes later.)
As a parent, you have the power to deal with whatever mess is currently distressing your child. You can change dirty into clean. Wet into dry. Foul into sweet.
As children age into adolescence and young adulthood, the messes become more complicated, less easily fixed. So for now, amid the diaper pails and laundry heaps of the baby stage, there’s something satisfying about being able to help in simple ways.
Even if the cleaning never ends.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Psalm 51: 7, 10
In Scripture, there’s nothing small about cleansing. Ritual washings to make humanity holy. Baptism’s plunge into a rushing river. Even a great flood to wash the world anew.
God cleans, clearly.
And for us? Cleaning means forgiveness, too. Transformation. A second chance.
Of course we have to keep practicing it over and over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Because that’s the deeper lesson we need to learn – of how to live with each other, how to acknowledge what is damaged and dirty, and how to keep starting fresh.
Create in me a clean heart, O God. Every new morning that starts with a leaky diaper and a shoulder drenched with spit-up.
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. So that I can care for those around me, through their stains and smells and splatters and shortcomings. (And my own.)
There’s a lifetime of spiritual practice in that.
You bathe the baby, and he wets all over the dry towel. You change the dirty diaper, and the fresh one stinks as soon as you snap up the onesie.
The saying holds true: cleaning while your children are growing is like shoveling while it’s still snowing. Cleaning never ends. But neither does forgiveness.
(Good to remember while scrubbing dried spit-up off the car seat buckle. Again.)
. . .
For a new twist: while you’re washing and wiping, think about some struggle or sin in your life that you wish could be scrubbed clean. Or pray for the strength to help your child get through the bigger messes they will face as they grow.
What cleaning task do you find satisfying? What do you dread?
We’ve been playing endless rounds of Sorry!
Two, three, four games a day aren’t enough for my boy’s insatiable appetite. Maybe it’s the combination of cards with numbers (which he’s always loved) and games for a group (which he’s learning to love). Or maybe it’s because beloved cousins introduced him to the board game at the cabin over New Year’s, thus cementing in his 4 year-old mind the concrete connection of coolness that links friends and getaway and holiday.
Whatever the reason, we’re stuck playing Sorry! from morning till night.
There are worse childhood games to get roped into, as any adult who’s ever tried to cheat to end Candyland can attest. And I actually enjoy playing Sorry! (at least the first time or two) because it takes me back to sprawling on the living room floor as a kid, flipping over the dog-eared deck to crow at the cards that would send my younger brothers back home. Even more than Memory, this game offers enough surprise and strategy to hold a grown-up’s wandering interest.
And it makes me wonder if there’s something to be said for saying Sorry! all day long.
. . .
Forgiveness is the thorniest bramble of the Christian life. Sometimes I dare to dream I could do a decent job at this Christ-following business if it weren’t for this aggravating truth: that love means forgiveness and forgiveness means love.
Instead, I’m much more inclined – as any cerebral introvert will understand – to brood over the times I’ve been wronged. To nurse secret, sullen grudges over the times I’ve been hurt.
I turn them over and over in my mind, these small slights or serious wounds, until my brooding polishes their jagged edges into smooth stones, comforting to hold in the warmth of my palm. Whenever an old hurt arises – when I’m back in the company of someone who hurt me, or when a memory re-surfaces painful words from long ago – I dig around in dusty pockets for these trusty rocks, to trace their familiar outlines once again, to assure myself that I was right in feeling wronged.
But to what end? What good does this brooding and turning and returning bring me? Perhaps it soothes the soft, small child inside who wants the world to go her way. Or perhaps it builds up a false façade of maturity, of look-what-I’ve-endured.
Either way it rings hollow.
There is no love in resentment.
. . .
I love the dawning of a new year: its hope of renewal, its promise of change.
Lately I’ve found the practice of resolutions to be an encouraging inspiration. As in New Year’s past, I’ve made a few that I hope will bring blessing, no matter how much or how little I end up pursuing them. (And since sharing resolutions here has helped me keep them in the past, I’ll try again.)
First, after a year in which I threw myself into a writing project that stole nearly every moment of my scant free time, I want to return to nurturing friendships that too often got pushed to back burners in 2013.
Second, in an effort to be more mindful of the way I spend time with my kids, I want to be more intentional about their faith formation at home. (An effort which you think might flow effortlessly from a theologically-trained mother, but too often tends to stumble over too much head knowledge and too much fear of screwing up.)
As in every year, both of these resolutions spring from an ever-growing desire for a slower, simpler life and the yearning to nurture meaningful relationships with those around me.
But in resolving to deepen love in these concrete ways, I wonder if I’ve pondered how much forgiveness this will take along the way. How often these happy-new-year prospects will ask me to pardon myself and others.
How often I will have to practice saying sorry!
. . .
On January 1st, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Maybe there’s something fitting for our own resolutions in starting the new year by remembering a woman who said yes to great change. Who made a decision that transformed her life. Who let herself be open to the ways God would call her to become something new.
But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.
For a woman who must have known deep hurt, who surely heard the cruel words that others tossed behind her back, who had plenty of reasons to become bitter by brooding, Mary chose instead to collect the small gems of beauty and hope. She cast aside the trash of other people’s opinions. She smoothed into tiny treasures the words that she could cling to in darkest hours.
Here, finally, were words of wonder and hope—from the mouths of people just like her. Here were shepherds who stopped their daily work to bring her stories of angels singing glory. Here were strangers who asked to see her baby and marveled at what his birth might mean.
Of course she treasured their words, turning them over and over in her heart, wondering what they might mean. While she learned to care for her child, as squalling and sleepless and hungry as any newborn, she gathered strength from their promise.
Perhaps this prayer practice was what sustained her as a mother: to treasure and to ponder…
I’m in awe of such wisdom and confidence, such trust and courage. What might it mean for my own habits and choices, my own decisions and resolutions?
. . .
A few months ago, I came across these words: “Other people’s opinion of you is none of your business.”
Such an intriguing twist on our insecurities.
I’ve carried these words with me, trying to muddle out their meaning for my own bad habit of brooding. And I’ve come to this conclusion.
The judgments, comments, even whispers of others only matter to the extent that I respond with love (which is to say, 9 times out of 10, with a heart full of forgiveness.) The opinions of those I cherish, like my children and my friends, should certainly be my business – but only to the extent that I keep trying to respond to them in love, to allow myself to be changed in ways that draw me closer to Christ.
Who is forgiveness, love, and peace.
So I launch into the new year with these questions in mind: What do I treasure? What do I trash?
What serves God and what serves only me? With my resolutions – and Mary’s courage – close to my heart, what changes could this fresh start hold?
What took more courage: going into the tomb or coming out?
On Good Friday the thought of going into the tomb overwhelms me. Too much blood and betrayal, too much violence and grief.
I drag my feet, wanting to stay in Holy Thursday where we break bread and wash each other’s dirt away. Yes, there’s betrayal and violence that night, too, but something feels safer in the celebration of service than in the commemoration of death.
When I’m thrust into Friday, it’s painfully dark and the Gospel makes me squirm and can’t it be Sunday already so we can get this mess behind us?
So whenever I close my eyes and try to imagine how Friday felt, the mocking and the beating and the pounding of nails into flesh, I’m awash with wonder at the courage it took Christ to die.
The courage it took to enter the tomb.
But this Easter, sitting in a dark church flickering with small candles of hope, I thought about the courage it took to leave the tomb.
Saturday must have felt so quiet and empty after Friday’s passion. Alone and safe in a cold stone cave. At last. Away.
Was he tempted to stay there? To let the hard work be behind him and the protection of death’s distance keep him safe from those who hurt him?
I used to think resurrection was a fairy tale trick, a golden glimmer from a magic wand that spun breath back into dead bones with a presto-chango burst of brilliance. But maybe resurrection is much more real, much harder.
Maybe resurrection starts with the courage to forgive.
The courage to move past pain and violence and death. The courage to move towards love and peace and life. The courage to walk out of the tomb and embrace humanity again.
I wonder if this is the reason Christ’s friends couldn’t recognize him at first, when they saw him in the garden and met him on the road. Not because he was a magical masquerader, but because he was utterly transformed by the courage that is deepest love. The courage it took to overcome humiliation and abandonment and rejection. The courage it took to forgive.
He looked different because he was different. Love won.
And the life that came from that courage – the life and the love and the hope and the faith and the Spirit that is still humming in so many of our bones – it takes my breath away with its truth.
The way everything is transformed when we live as if love wins.
. . .
So often I’m tempted by the tomb, tempted to stay in the solitude of safety and selfishness when I’ve been hurt. I’m tempted to hunker down against a world that doesn’t understand, that never understood.
But the call to live as an Easter person – to live into resurrection, to say no to despair and say yes to love – is a call that transforms. A call to have courage and let love win and leave the safe quiet and step back out into the world again.
I think of this often when I think of my children. How life will inevitably hurt them. How friends will betray and companions be cruel. How accidents will happen and mistakes be made. How their hearts (and probably bones) will be broken. How they won’t make the team or get the job they want. How people they love will die or abandon them.
Of course it’s not my job to shield them from any of it – it’s never our place to shield from life itself. We cannot hide in caves away from the world outside, content ourselves with licking our wounds from a thousand small deaths. The only thing I can hope to help them see is how to get up each time, breathe deeply, forgive and love again.
Try to let love win.
So my Easter prayer becomes one for courage. To shape a humble life that shows my children something about courage and forgiveness. To bear my own witness, my own small flickering light, to the love that wins.
For the mornings we wake up determined to make it a better day, and then we don’t -
For the times we promise to soak up the sweetness of these fleeting years, and then we wish them away -
For the days we want to fill with laughter and song, and then they’re darkened by bad moods and cross words -
For the meals we make with love and hope that they’ll be enjoyed, and then we grit our teeth as they’re gagged while chewed -
For the playdates we plan to share the long days with good friends, and then we’re annoyed that a sick child screws up our schedule -
For the glossy parenting magazines whose advice we dog-ear with good intention, and then we shove the stack in the recycling bin instead -
For the calm, cool, collected moms we envy when we wrangle our whiny bunch into the grocery cart, and then we glower over how we’re doing worse at this job than everyone else we know -
For the naptimes when we catch up on the world’s news and resolve again to treasure the rare gift of healthy, safe, sheltered children, and then we’re screaming at them by suppertime -
For the eyes that want to look with love and capture how quickly our kids will be grown and gone, and then they narrow with frustration at messes and mistakes and missing shoes -
For the hands that hope to hold and hug and help, and then they clench into angry balls that bang on the kitchen counter when no one listens to us -
For the boiling-over moments when we try to breathe and breathe and not lose it completely, and then we do -
For the nights we try to treasure bedtime instead of tick off the minutes till we’re done, and then we’re flooded with guilt when closing the bedroom door behind us feels like the best part of the day.
For remembering we’re humans raising humans,
for knowing if we teach our children nothing else, we’ll teach them how to bend down and open arms and say I’m sorry because we have to do it daily ourselves,
for the chance to keep screwing up because it means we keep going,
for forgiving ourselves,
and learning slowly how forgiveness takes the shape of a cross – pulled down in love, stretched out in embrace.
For trying again.
For today. For you.
. . .
Today was supposed to be the last in the series, my part to add to the wise women who shared their stories of how they nurture their mothering spirits, how they find peace in the midst of parenting.
But inspired by this dad’s truth spoken here, and a morning that called for this instead of that, I’m waiting till tomorrow to write about calm. Because today I needed to write about chaos.
Because I thought I might not be the only one who needs to hear it.
And maybe you can share it with another mom who needs it, too.
I hit, I hit, I hit!
He wakes up chirping like a bird. A happy song to greet the dawn, warbling as he waits for me to arrive. But the words aren’t quite as sweet as the tune.
No hugs! I do not hug. I hit! I hit my brother!
The rivalry song.
Half of me wants to burst out laughing every time I hear his angelic soprano start on the monitor. Half of me wants to storm in the little devil’s room and declare, for the thousandth time that no, you do NOT hit your brother, it is NOT nice to hit, and you do NOT sing mean songs about hitting, you need to be GENTLE.
(Even though yelling at children to be gentle never fails to amuse in its irony.)
He’s three and the baby is one and they can’t help but collide all day, physically and emotionally. One is curious, the other covetous; one likes to build carefully, the other likes to barrel over and destroy. They are each other’s beloved playmates, but when the toys and books and food and games and attention have to be shared, rivalry rears its ugly head. For now the older is always the instigator, but the tables will soon turn and the hits will trade back and forth.
Push, shove, steal, slap, throw, grab, smack. I hit, I hit, I hit!
Sometimes I try gentle reminders: We don’t hit in our family. Sometimes I opt for alternative techniques: Hands aren’t for hitting; they’re for helping. Sometimes I simply grit my teeth and seethe STOP.
I know it’s a passing phase; I know some siblings spar far worse; but I also know I’m plain tired of it. Tired of him singing about it from the time he wakes up; tired of wrestling toys away from one or the other all afternoon long. Tired of whacks and slaps and shoves and pushes between brothers. Yearning for a gentler touch.
. . .
Election season rolls round, and the churches roil over to uproar again, and I’m so tired of the factions, the fighting, the fear, and the ferocity with which we attack each other. Over and over again we become as bad as sparring siblings: we hit and hit, lashing out; one side’s sinners, the other side’s saints. I wonder if deep down we’re all craving God’s attention, clamoring for love like children, shoving at the siblings around us, slapping each other with name-calling and petty attacks. Where’s the Christ in that?
I hit, I hit, I hit my brother, no, I do not like hugs.
Contrary to Teresa’s wisdom – Christ has no hands but yours in the world – we use hands in many ways that aren’t holy, too. The slaps and shoves I see from my oldest to my youngest aren’t so far from my own fists balled in frustration, my palms slammed to the kitchen counter, my fingers pointed in pettiness. As they learn language I’m constantly coaching use your words, but how do I teach use your hands?
Maybe the more I fold them in prayer, bring them to heart’s center like my yoga teacher reminds, the more I model the gentleness of touch. Fingers that fix, palms that smooth, hands that hold, hug, help.
A heart that rests in God’s belovedness without elbowing the other children of God around me. Hands that don’t need to fight for attention.
It started off as a lovely morning. Until.
Isn’t that the way it always goes?
Until the baby smeared yogurt all over his third outfit of the morning. Until the preschooler dawdled away all our free minutes pushing strawberries around his plate. Until one child cried for help getting shoes on the right feet while the other tipped over my tumbler of tea and the dog howled for help and suddenly everyone was wailing and white-hot anger surged through my body, tight and hard and shaking and ugly, and I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs I cannot DO this, God I cannot DO THIS!
And finger-snap fast, the bright sunny morning is brooding and dark. We’re sulking in the car and I’m racing through stop lights and both boys are sad-quiet in the back and all I can think is this is not how I want to live. Yelling at my kids and running late and stress pounding in my temples.
I take a deep breath, two, three. I ask for forgiveness. I promise I love them. I sing a song to cheer the mood.
But all morning long the memory lingers.
I pray as I stroll the baby down sun-dappled streets. I plot ways to ease the morning crunch. I plunk down five dollars at the bakery for the big boy’s favorite loaf of fresh bread.
And then we’re driving home, and he’s full of school day chatter and the baby is babbling smiles and I am overwhelmed with the rush of love and joy and guilt and fear that sweeps over every day of mothering. God, I love them so much and they’re such sweet, small things and I hate my rotten temper and I hope I’m not ruining them.
Rare is the day that comes easy, but how I wrestle with the days that come hard.
At lunch’s end, I pull the loaf of still-warm bread from the paper bag. Something feels sacramental. I tear off a hunk and offer it to the boy I screamed at hours earlier. He grins and accepts. I do, too.
We both chew, quiet and content. I think about Eucharist. Does it help us forgive? Liturgy and sacrament classes swirl in my head; I can’t remember a single connection. But it feels good to slow down and break bread. That much I know.
Before nap time we’re snuggling over a pile of books. As he dives under the covers, he asks if we’re going to do prayers next. I start to say no, that prayers are for bedtime, and then I hear my own words. Of course, I reply. Let’s pray.
He launches into “Our Father…”and I hum along, half paying attention. Until.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses. As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Bread and forgiveness, I realize. There it is. I swallow back the lump in my throat, kiss his mop of hair as he turns away on the pillow.
What we need daily: bread and forgiveness. That much I know.
With gratitude for Fr. James Martin’s inspiration:
Sometimes I, too, get so frustrated with your church.
So much I love, so much I hold as true. But so much I struggle to understand.
I look into the bright eyes of my children, so young and trusting. I wonder what questions they will ask about our church. I wonder if they will see my staying as hypocritical. I wonder if they will choose to leave when times get tough.
I want to lead them into a life of faith, but sometimes the road seems so dark. Storm clouds are swirling above, and my light flickers so small below.
When I hear news that disheartens, help me not to despair. Let me remember that we have been struggling from the beginning with blindness and brokenness. But Your Spirit has always been blowing among us, strong and steady. Perk my ears to that small, still sound of hope.
When I’m tempted to shove those who disagree with me into neat boxes with easy labels, help me to look beyond divisions. To see Your face in each of theirs. To learn from the challenges they pose to my faith.
When friends tell me they’ve had enough – that they feel battered and bruised enough to leave – widen my heart to hold their hurt. Bend all our winding paths to you, no matter how far they roam. Remind us that You have always been bigger than our imagination and institutions.
And when I’m tempted to draw the line in the sand, to shout with tears in my eyes that if they push me one step farther I will leave too, pull me even closer to You and whisper words of peace. Remind me that You sent the life You loved most into this world – Your child – to preach peace and forgiveness and radical love. All of which is still vibrant and humming in Your church, no matter how far flung in corners it sometimes seems.
God of light, many people I love are calling this a dark time for the church. The pain on their faces, the anger in their voices, the sadness in their hearts – I share it, too. But I refuse to let go of my stubborn faith in resurrection. I refuse to leave a community that has been full of sinners from the beginning. I refuse to believe that I have it figured out on my own.
God of truth, I am deeply grateful for what this church has taught me. To defend life from its beginning. To work for justice for all. To celebrate sacramental moments. To find You in word and prayer and community and the poor.
When I think of all the gifts your church has given me, I am overwhelmed with love. But when I think of all the ways your church continues to fall short of striving towards Your kingdom, I am overwhelmed with sadness.
When I doubt, help my unbelief.
When I feel alone in my struggles, let me strengthened by all who came before me, who claimed the name of Catholic with fierce and faithful hearts.
And when I worry about how to raise my children, let the memory of their baptisms run deep in my heart. Let the echo of promises, the splash of water, the smear of oil and the spark of light remind me that a whole communion of saints promised to help me on this journey.
When I was younger and people would ask me how I could call myself Catholic in the face of scandals and failures and deep, deep sin, I would respond that I loved Your church like I loved any person in my life – as flawed and broken but beautiful and full of grace.
Now that I am a mother, I think perhaps I’m called to love Your church like my child. Not in a condescending way, but with eyes that see all its potential and promise. With a stubborn heart that loves despite the difficulties. With patience that forgives failure and never gives up on hope.
Help me, God. And help Your church.
Don’t give up on us, and don’t let us give up on each other.