Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Happy Mothers Day

There is a moment that sometimes happens between two people when you look at each other and, without any words at all, speak to each others souls.  You reach across the divide, however large, that separates you from that other person in less than an instant.  And somehow we realize that we are thinking the same thoughts, and feeling the same feelings.  That we are more alike than anyone, especially us, could have ever realized.

I know, because this happened to me when I was living in Haiti and visited a tent camp nearby the compound that we were living in, where many of the women who work at Kado live with their families.  I call it a tent camp, but it was more accurately a ruin.  Many of the families who had been living in a tent camp in the nearby field after the earthquake had actually moved back into the cinder block village where their houses had been, patching them with reclaimed cinder blocks held together with no mortar and USAID tarps.  Here, amidst the piles of rubble still present, hundreds of families lived together, nearly on top of one another, going about their daily lives.

Children ran and played in and out of broken foundations of houses.  Laundry was hung on lines stretched between walls.  Women and girls carried old buckets to a few wells to get water – I am not sure whether they were filtered and treated against cholera.  Men gathered in knots, talking and laughing and sharing stories.  Women gathered in groups to talk and laugh too, cooking over charcoal and rock fires or bringing some other task with them.

Amidst this all, Don and Lucy and I walked, visiting the camp to deliver some medicines that Don had promised on a previous visit.  Several of the boys from the baseball team had seen us right away, and came to grab our hands and lead us to the families we sought.  As usual, a knot of curios people and bolder children formed around us, trying to figure out why we were there and betting on whether Lucy was a real human or a doll.  When we finally reached the little cluster of houses we were a five minute walk into the camp through twisting and turning paths between closely built houses, and I knew there was no way I could find my way out without help again!

While Don went from house to house talking with people and dispensing his medicines, I sat on a chair that someone had immediately brought for me with Lucy in my lap and tried to play with some of the children clamoring for her attention.  All around us a group of kids and “ti mamans” formed, little girls no older than eleven or twelve with babies on their hips, charged with taking care of their younger siblings.  I finally stood up and walked around with Lucy to encourage her to get down and play, and that was when I saw you.  A woman, around thirty years of age (it is always hard to tell in Haiti, where some eighty year olds look forty and some twenty year olds look fifty), you were leaning against a broken pillar of concrete, watching Lucy and I.

People might think that when I look at you and when you look at me, all we see is the vast gulf of circumstances that lay between us.  You see that I have everything that you do not, and vice versa.  And at first, they might be right.  It is hard to ignore the poverty that surrounded us there, in the camp that you called home.  But then I looked closer and saw the little boy behind you, clinging to your skirt, and I realized that despite the almost crippling differences that we have – language, education, poverty, opportunity – we have something in common that transcends any boundaries that might lay between us.

We are mothers.

Being a mother is a vocation, not an occupation, whether you are in the tent camps of Haiti or the maple lined suburbs of Minnesota.  In the best of situations being a mother is the most difficult and most joyful vocation a person can ever take up.  I think to myself all the time what a difficult task I have ahead of me, raising my daughter Lucy, even when I can offer her the best possible chances to succeed in life.  Safety, good nutrition, available heath care, education, family.  I have such a large network of support around me to help, and still from day to day I find myself at a loss of how to do the right thing.  How to be a good mother. 

When I first saw you that day outside of your house – a room or two at most made out of un-mortared cinder blocks, tarps and tin – I was struck by the impossibility of your life, being a mother in that situation.  Not knowing if you would be able to feed your children from day to day.  Not knowing if they would be safe when they went off to school, if they were lucky enough to be able to go to school.  Not knowing if your roof would blow away or the walls of your house would fall down in the next storm.  Not knowing if your child would grow up to go to school, or have a job, or grow up at all.

When I struggle, and think that I am failing, I remember that sometimes all it takes to be a good mother is to love, which is something that you taught me.  I saw that day that you love your children with a ferocity that is inspiring, because no matter what your situation is, you never give up.  Ever.  You find a way to feed your children, even if it means selling a few tomatoes a day along the side of the road.  If your child is sick, you borrow money from friends and family until you have enough to get them to a doctor, even if you have to carry them yourself eight miles to the hospital because you cannot afford the doctors visit and the tap-tap.  If your house falls down in a storm you make a shelter for your family from USAID tarps until you can find a better solution.  You give everything you are, because you love your children –that is what it means to be a mother.

I held my daughter in my arms, and looked into your eyes as your own baby clung to your skirt.  And when Lucy finally squirmed out of my arms and ran to say hi to your son, we smiled at each other instantly.  As I drove away from your home a while later, back to the safety of the compound, I knew one thing to be certain: I would do anything in my power to help you succeed in your vocation. 

Being a mother is hard enough…Let's make sure to give each other all the help that we can!

Please visit Kado today.  Every gift you give helps a mother make her children's lives a little better.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

In Which I Have The Best and Worst Day at Mass. Ever.

Today I had the most hilarious, warm and fuzzy, joyful experience at mass that I have ever had.  Which was immediately followed by a thirty second exchange of pleasantries with someone I knew from my former job that completely eviscerated me and left me counting down the hours until an acceptable cocktail hour.  What the hell.

People who know me well know that I am not exactly a kid person.  Yes, I love my daughter with a soul squeezing intensity.  Yes, I love my sister’s daughter and all of my friends children.  I am happy to watch them anytime, love getting together for play dates, and have so enjoyed getting to watch them grow up into little people.  But I will never use the childcare at church, because I never want to have to volunteer there.  Ever.  And sometimes I am not super excited about going to the park because I usually have to deal with other people’s children in their interactions with Lucy. 

I don’t think this makes me an evil person, just biologically conservative.  Parenting my own child is difficult enough.  If you are a stranger, I don’t want to parent your child too.  So keep your mean, bossy daughters from trying to pull Lucy up the slides and keep your sugared up sons from pushing her if she takes more than five seconds to climb a set of stairs.

Of course this entire theory of biologically conservative parenting (aka not having to love every child you see) goes out the stained glass window for me in church.  In church, I love all children.  I love the baby eating cheerios off the floor to my left.  I love the three year olds trying to mimic their parents in the holy water fount and mostly just succeeding in soaking their nice church clothes.  I love that one baby screaming in the back.  I love the toddlers yelling inappropriate things to their parents horror during those silent moments of prayer.  I love it all!

One morning Don and I were at mass at the Immaculate Heart of Mary when we lived in Indianapolis.  Apparently it was a particularly striking homily that day, because as we left the church Don started eagerly asking me what I thought of the Gospel and what the priest had to say.  I looked at him blankly.

“Um…to be honest I didn’t hear the Gospel or the homily at all.  I was watching that one little boy one pew over and two pews down rip the head and limbs off of his sister’s Barbie and then try to put them back on in the wrong places.  He was seriously confused about why the legs didn’t fit in the neck hole.  It was amazing!  You didn’t see that at all?!”

We both left mass feeling that the other person had completely missed the point of the entire experience.

So today it was with delight that I spent the entire mass playing with Lucy and three year old Tommy who was sitting with his mother and two older sisters in the pew directly in front of us.  It was a crowded service, and the four of them were jammed into a space for two, so Tommy was sitting behind his eightish year old sister.  He made eyes and Lucy and I for the first fifteen minutes of the service, but his shyness was quickly overcome when Lucy pulled out her little travel sized magna doodle (note: by far the best purchase I have ever made.  $1 at Target.  Only comes out for church and plane rides.  Completely awesome.)  Upon seeing Lucy scribble away at her “coloring” he immediately leaned over the back of his pew and inquired as to what we were drawing.  Lucy showed him her scribble and he sagely nodded “Ooohhh.  An A for horse!”

“Exactly,” I responded, and our friendship was cemented.  Over the next forty five minutes I drew the letters of the alphabet for them and quizzed them (“A for Horse!  A for Zebra!  Draw an L, I love that letter it looks like my head!”) drew animals on both Tommy’s and Lucy’s commands (“Can you draw a cow?  Can you draw a kangaroo?  That’s not a snake, it’s a worm!”) and guessed around 500 of Tommy’s own drawings (“Is that a dinosaur?” “Nooooo!!!!  It’s a picture of you and your sister!”).  Both Tommy’s mother and myself tried to explain to him multiple times that I was Lucy’s mother, not her sister.  We both failed.  In the end I decided to just be flattered.

His older sister’s left for the children’s mass, but when they returned they were eager to play with the coloring as well.  Tommy informed his eldest sister that he was drawing just like on his iPad.  She smacked him, lightly, over the back of the head and said “In your dreams you have an iPad!  That’s Mom’s iPad!  Duh!”  At one point Tommy leaned over the pew toward Lucy, gently touched her cheek and said “She is so cute!  She is the cutest girl!”  I almost had to end our friendship then and there, but he quickly went back to coloring and I decided to let that one slide.

The experience was capped off when everyone stood for the final prayer of sending.  As Tommy got to his feet on the pew bench, he looked up at his mother and stated loudly “I just tooted!”  I literally choked on my own laughter, so much so that Lucy, whom I was holding, grabbed my face and turned it toward her asking “You OK mama?”  Oh yes.  I was way more than ok.  I was elated.  Best.  Mass.  Ever.

So it was with a very light heart that I exited the sanctuary and made my way through the crown to the fellowship area to see if any of my other friends were in the back of the church.  Not finding anyone, I sat Lucy on top of a table, dug my keys out of the diaper bag, and prepared to leave.  Lucy slid off the table and, sensing that freedom was immanent with these many people around us to distract me, made a break for the doors heading out to the street.  This particular behavior is symptomatic of a current issue we have been having.  Namely, she now will take any opportunity to run away from me and hide somewhere in plain site.  This would be hilarious if the behavior did not instinctively kick in at the precisely wrong moment.  Every.  Time. 

We are late for church and need to leave.  Lucy runs back into the garden and drops to the ground in the wet grass covering her head with her arms.  We are waiting in the resident’s break room to see Don for five minutes, trying not to disturb the people doing research or the nurses taking their breaks down the hall.  Lucy runs from the room, shuts the door in my face behind her, and then runs down the hall into the nurses break room screaming that she needs water.  We are ready to leave church and trying to avoid the crush of people in the welcome area.  Lucy tries to flee the church for the busy street, pins herself against the church door, forcing me to come face to face with one of my former work places board members and biggest donors.

I had Lucy pinned against the door and was leaning down to pick her up when the donor came up to the adjoining door and said hello to me.  I looked up, somewhat in surprise, and said hello back.  She asked how I was doing, and I said I was doing very well and asked how she was.  She said she was well, looked down at Lucy and said that this must be my daughter, so grown up now.  I broke eye contact to crouch down and pick Lucy up, saying that yes indeed it was my daughter who used to be an infant but now was a big girl.  When I straightened back up to continue the conversation, in that split second I had been crouched down, she had walked through the doorway and outside.  Have a nice day, she called back over her shoulder, not making any eye contact.  Her husband, instead of continuing to walk behind her out the door, had gone behind me through another set of doors and was outside already.

I stared after them for a few seconds, wondering what had just happened, and then put my head down and walked through the adjoining school to the parking lot where we had parked.  Lucy asked to slide down the playground slide and I asked her if she could wait since it had been raining all morning and the playground equipment was soaking wet.  She asked if we were going to visit Papa at the hospital and I said yes.  I walked with Lucy to the car, put her into her car seat, got into the car and drove out of the parking lot without really thinking at all about what I was doing, still trying to figure out what had just happened.  Well, more to the point, trying to figure out why all of the sudden I couldn’t recall the feeling of elation and joy I had felt when walking out of the church sanctuary, but instead felt terribly small and grey.

We got to the hospital and the forty minutes that followed did not do anything to alleviate my funk.  I always know that we are never assured a visit with Don when we go, because of the nature of his work.  Sundays are always especially busy, but I wanted to take the chance anyway.  Partially because Lucy had not seen him since dinnertime yesterday.  More so than ever now because, without thinking the whole thing through yet, I knew that I needed a hug and for someone to tell me that they loved me.  Unfortunately it was really busy, we did not get to see Don, Lucy had two time outs sitting in the corner of the break room, and then we eventually left after the third time she ran away and tried to hide from me.

When we finally got home and Lucy went down for her nap I tried to process what I was feeling.  Why was I looking longingly at the bar, wondering if we had any Bailey’s to put in my coffee, or if it would count as a brunch cocktail if I had a Bloody Mary before noon.  Why did I feel so bad?  That person was not a major part of my life.  What was going on?

What I realized was that ever since I got fired/laid off/let go/whatever I have been waiting for an opportunity to show someone how much better my life is without that job.  Waiting to show “them” how much happier I am.  When I am completely honest with myself, I was waiting to show them that I did not need a job, a career, an outside source to validate me as a human being.  Which was a total lie. 

Because what I really wanted was the have a pleasant conversation with that person, who took part in the decision to take away my job, and have them thereby demonstrate that I was a person of value to them because they cared enough about me to know how I was doing.  I wanted someone to validate me by letting me show them that I didn’t need them to validate me.

Yeah, that is sick.  And what is sicker is that I have been secretly yearning for this moment for a year now.  Rochester is not a large city, and the Catholic community in Rochester is a pretty small circle.  But in the year since I was let go from my job I have not seen a single person that I used to work with.  Well, that is not entirely true.  A month of so after it happened I went to dinner with several of the ladies I had worked with on the high school fundraising gala.  They didn’t even know I had been let go.  The office I worked in did not even deem it necessary to send out the customary email to staff and parents letting them know that I did not work there anymore.  Awesome.

But coworkers and colleagues that I shared an office with?  No one.  The gym I go to almost every day is right next to the Catholic high school.  Don and I frequently go to stores and restaurants owned by RCS donors and parents.  Lucy and I walk all around downtown when we go exploring.  But in twelve months I have not had a phone call, email, note, letter, telegram, chance encounter, or surprise meeting from or with any of my former coworkers.  I have not even spotted anyone at the farmers market or across the street.

I guess when you work with people for a few years, you kind of hope that they will like you and respect you enough to say “Hey, I am sorry you aren’t working here anymore.  I think you are a nice person and I hope you have a good life.  No hard feelings!” in some form or another.  At least, that was what I was really hoping.

So that was the ton of baggage I was carrying when I looked up and saw this woman leaving church today.  Even though we met in a doorway, I needed a lot more out of the exchange than I got.  As sick and pathetic as it is, I needed someone from that time in my life to indicate somehow that I made a difference to them, that I was valued as a person.  Hell, even just some indication that I still existed as a person for them and that they still remembered my name! 

What I did not need was a “hello, how are you?” and then to be fled from while I was picking up my daughter to show off how wonderful she was.  What I did not need was her husband to avoid saying hello to me altogether.

Or, maybe that was exactly what I needed.

Would it have been better not to have had that encounter at all, and to leave Rochester in two months never having seen or talked to anyone from RCS?  No.  I would have been constantly plagued by the need to contact someone, to force someone from that time in my life to say something, anything to me.  Now, at least I have an answer.  It’s not the answer I would have wanted, but it is enough to give me closure in that area.

Hopefully it will be enough to send me looking for validation and self-worth in the right place this time.