Inspired by Mom

My mother likes Maya Angelou.

She likes her so much that she adopted the name Maya as her name for “Grandmother”. To my children, she is Maya. To me, she is Mom.

“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.” —Maya Angelou

Well Maya, I am going to try to describe my Mom anyway.

My mother has done some things in her life that have particularly awed and inspired me. I have been pondering of late how to write about some of these things; what better day than Mother’s Day?

Although I could recount multitudes of stories of the hurricane force of Mom, I have chosen just this one as a representation of courage and perfect power. Many years ago my mom developed an interest in ophthalmology so she upgraded her education to specialize in ophthalmic nursing. In 1989 started up an NGO that offered corrective eye surgeries (primarily cataracts) in developing countries, restoring sight to the blind. Understand that she also worked full time at her local hometown hospital, the Cornwall General, and ran the NGO as a volunteer on her own time, travelling abroad for weeks at a time. As a Registered Nurse, she was underrecognized, always in the shadows of the more highly acclaimed (though no more accomplished!) doctors. But this never stopped her! The goal of her efforts was to offer the gift of sight to those who were too poor to afford eye surgery. This was her gift and her passion. She has run CAN.S.E.E. for over 20 years, with my Dad providing admin backup and holding down the fort at home. The organization has now shifted to providing funding for primary school child education.

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Mexico (women wearing post surgical eye patches)
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Ghana (children immediately after eye patch removal)

The many splendored colors of the Mom rainbow are also too numerous to recount here, so I have chosen 2 examples of the rainbow beauty.

We all know that rainbows only appear with rain. When my cousin Susan died last year my mom was right there quietly helping, supporting the family; even helping with basic nursing care to ensure Susan’s maximum comfort during her last hours: the rainbow in the midst of the storm. Susan’s sister remarked to me a few weeks later that she was deeply appreciative and touched by the amount of time that my mom devoted to being with them during Susan’s last days. She reflected with wonder that she hadn’t known this beautiful side of my mother and now hoped that she would come to know her better.

This past winter while in Florida, Mom met a woman from her own hometown, Cornwall, Ontario. This woman has a 97 year old mother named Winnie in Cornwall, though the woman herself doesn’t live there. My mother offered to check in with Winnie periodically simply because she enjoys helping people. She recently took Winnie out grocery shopping, and a few other things: Mom and Winnie spent a happy afternoon cruising about the city, gambling*, picking up hot men**, and blasting rock ‘n roll with the windows down***. Ninety seven year old Winnie, with her petite stature, could hardly see over the dashboard as they cruised about the town reminiscing about old neighborhoods and “the old days”.  Again, understand here that my mother is an active, busy woman with lots of friends; she’s  not bored and lonely and looking for company. She just enjoys helping others and Winnie was the recipient of a showering of glorious rainbow colors.
*      “gambling” consisted of Winnie redeeming her $8 worth of winnings from her lottery
           tickets
**    “picking up hot men” was actually picking up my Dad to drop him off at the gym
***  “blasting rock ‘n roll with the windows down” was entirely fictional (but it sounds
         good, don’t ya think?)

 

I can’t even begin to describe the love, care, attention and silliness that she (and my Dad!) devotes to her 2 grandchildren! I will let the pictures speak for themselves here.

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These are but a few small anecdotes of my mother’s life, but they characterize her inbuilt desire to help others. Why do these things inspire me so much? I think because they are such selfless acts.  She has always tried to instill in me a spirit of gratitude and she demonstrates her own gratitude for her health and well being by loving others through acts of service and kindness. She is indeed a “hurricane in its perfect power” when sets her mind to it! And the rainbow shines bright.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom! I love you.

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Mom showering a little rainbow love on me (she made me a rainbow cake!)

 

Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that suppose to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing. ~Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987

The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness. ~Honoré de Balzac

Maximum velocity, minimum effort

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I read recently that the albatross is a bird that has baffled science since the 1880’s in its ability to soar for long periods of time while expending very little energy. The albatross is a very heavy bird that relies on strong winds just to get it airborne. Once up, it uses a flight pattern called dynamic soaring, which involves 4 phases of repetitive up and down maneuvers, dipping nearly to the waters’ surface, all in the face of winds exceeding 30 km/hr. When I have watched videos of these incredible birds it appears that they are just having a lot of fun dipping and soaring. I had no idea that they relied on a technique so precise that 100+ years of scientific study has not yet figured it out!

So, why am I talking about the albatross? Because these birds are onto something!! Do I want to be a stunt pilot or a crazy cliff jumping hang glider? Definitely, NO! But life requires a lot and I would really like to understand how to maximize my velocity while minimizing my effort.

I can see you scratching your head, wondering if I might perhaps strap wings to my back and set up large industrial fans in my home, tying down children and furniture lest they blow away. Again, NO! I am trying to understand this conceptually, from a spiritual perspective.

I think we, as human beings, often see the wind in our lives as problematic. Winds that blow over our best laid plans and wreck our perfectly styled hair (well, perhaps other people have perfectly styled hair…).; winds that bring sickness and the unexpected.; winds that stir things up in ways that we don’t always like. The apostle Peter demonstrated this so clearly when he tried to walk on the water to go to Jesus.

 “Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Matt 14:29,30

Peter was doing great, walking along on top of the waves, as long as he had his eyes fixed on Jesus. The instant he took his eyes off of Jesus he began to focus on the wind kicking up the waves and he was scared, and he started to sink. He cried out for help.

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This example has always been poignant to me, but when I put it together with the albatross, the wind takes on a new meaning to me. The wind that causes the waves is not the enemy! As the albatross depends on the wind for flight, I too can depend on the wind for flight. If I am willing to keep my eyes on Jesus, I can walk on those waves and even soar in that wind. The wind can be my lift, not my downfall.

How do I walk this out? I think the first step is in recognizing the wind. When milk spills on the floor, when siblings are squabbling (again…), when a family member is facing illness, when my husband and I are in disagreement, when God’s calling upon our lives is hard: these things are the wind. Recognize them first, then fix my eyes on my Helper,  not on the wind, nor on the waves created by the wind. God is my shear wind field. The shear wind field for the albatross is a layer about 10-20 meters high, just above the layer of wind that is creating friction with the water below. The wind in this field increases smoothly and quickly the higher you go in the field, and the albatross extracts energy from that field, allowing it to fly almost effortlessly in any direction, including into the wind. Wow!

So if I recognize the challenges of the wind, and look to God instead of at the waves that the wind creates, I can use the power of God as my shear wind field to allow me to soar above it all. The waves, the result of the wind, are the catalyst, the source of friction that is needed to create this shear wind layer that will whisk me up to higher heights. These are learning opportunities (oh yay! bring on the spilled milk and the squabbles…hmmm…). But really, this is where we learn isn’t it? Not when things are smooth.

Where does this power come from? Certainly not from me! It comes from hearing and walking out the Word of God. I try to read the Bible every day, and really hear what God is telling me. Then the challenge is to actually walk in that truth when things are hard. What I am learning though, is that this is possible! And, it makes no “scientific” sense (like the albatross)! It’s not human nature to let things go. We are inclined to worry and fuss and try to control things for our benefit. God says there is a better way. The way of the albatross. Soaring effortlessly. I want that!

One other thought that I am pondering in this is that the 3rd stage of the albatross’ 4-stage flight pattern is a descent, almost hitting the water (but not). An observer might think the bird will crash unceremoniously into the waves. Even the learning bird might experience fear the first few times he or she attempts this (or, more likely, this is a projection of how I would feel in face of this same exercise!). And I think it’s no different as we walk with God. It often seems like help doesn’t come until the last available moment; or perhaps we are not willing to truly trust in the wind until the last available moment. It looks like we are going to crash into the waves. But God has other plans if only we are willing to trust.

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“The problem of getting great things from God is being able to hold on for the last half hour.” – Author Unknown

A homeschool day in the life (with a 3 1/2 & 5 1/2 year old)

(this is not a typical post for me; I wrote it as part of a series “a homeschool day in the life” for Simple Homeschool)

As with many homeschoolers, every day looks different so it’s hard to identify a “typical” day. The goal at this stage of preschool and kindergarten is primarily play, with a day that balances a good rhythm of metaphorically breathing in and out.

Today, kids had bible reading time on the couch with Daddy shortly after 7am and we were finished breakfast by 8am. We would typically get dressed, brush teeth and make beds before circle time, but today we just organically drifted into language lessons at the breakfast table. My son (age 5 1/2) has developed an interest in Chinese (written words in particular) so we started learning the Chinese words and characters for dog, kitten and turtle (why these words, you might wonder? primarily because we have also learned these words recently in Spanish and we already know them in French). Chinese character for dog My son practised copying the Chinese characters for each word, and also wrote out the English words (this activity qualifies in my books as practise writing and learning language). My daughter (3 1/2) got tired of this by 10am so I gave her a new workbook on numbers and she was delighted. My homeschool pedagogy initially leaned away from workbooks, especially for such a young child, but this girl thrives on them and loves to do them (so, Mom is chilling out and enjoying the freedom to go with the flow without getting caught up in theoretical mumbo jumbo).

When I declared a snack break at 10:30am my daughter was distraught that she hadn’t yet completed her entire workbook (between the lines, this equates to a driven perfectionistic tendency…something I am very minful of!). I pulled the plug anyway because I knew she was getting tired and hungry.

After snack, kids dressing and tooth brushing, the kids just naturally shifted into playtime. They played while I showered and attended to some household things. We had a Skype call with my parents, then lunch at 12:30pm, followed by a bit of quiet time. They always drift off into books or quiet individual play after lunch. By 1:30pm we were getting ready to head out for a skate at our local outdoor rink. We played some hockey (my son now gives me a fair run for my money!) and we cheered on my daughter as she proudly showed us how she has learned to skate backwards.Kids hockey

We got home at 3:30pm and kids headed straight into quiet individual play again (they really do need the rhythm of breathing in after letting out energy, whether physical or mental). I took the moment to sit down and write in a sun patch in the bedroom. My son noticed me writing and started asking questions about cursive letters versus printed letters. Another lesson opportunity. My daughter joined us in the sun patch and sat quietly chatting to her “babies” and dressing them and feeding them. Writing time was short but moment like this are precious.

I headed down for supper prep at 4:15pm, both kids in tow. The donned their chef hats and eagerly asked if they could cut some vegetables for me (yes, I allow my 3 and 5 year olds to use sharp knives with supervision and do they ever feel proud! The book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” liberated me!). This was followed by a quick tidying of the house, then more play interspersed with spontaneous math lessons. Finally supper and play time with Daddy, reading books and then bed by 8pm.

As I said, every day is different. Yesterday we had two extra children with us for the morning (this happens twice per week) so our morning was more structured with circle time starting at 9:30am, then play, crafts, and lunch. Our friends were gone by 1pm so after quiet story time the kids launched headlong into creating a Wallace and Gromit claymation  using modelling clay and my daughter’s camera (a thrilling Christmas gift for this 3 year old photography nut). By suppertime we had three separate 12 second animations in “.wmv” format, narrated by my son. Talk about some proud and excited kids!Kids making claymation

WG claymation still

On Monday, we start our day at 8:30am helping tap trees at our local sugar bush (the only urban sugar bush in North America, right around the corner!).

One of the things that I love most about homeschooling is that it can be child-led in terms of focusing in on their unique interests and strengths, while still incorporating the important foundations like reading and math in the midst. There are learning opportunities crammed into every moment of living, not just for kids! The trick is to look for them, seize the moment, and ENJOY! Children are wired for learning and if we keep it fun we can all enjoy and learn together.

Grace

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My daughter’s middle name is Grace.
When we chose the name, our simple definition of GRACE was that it is
“an undeserved gift”.

I have a lot to learn about GRACE.

I have been reading a lot from moms lately; mostly about guilt and fear of failure and intense pressure to “get it right”. What’s up with that?

It appears that women in general, and moms in particular, are harder on themselves than anyone else. Grace is a tough concept to grasp. I think this is partly nature and partly nurture. Nature (the way God created us) has wired us this way, so that we work to do things well. Our culture “nurtures” (not the right term at all in this case!) the way we view our roles as women and mothers.

Any woman who has given birth has likely experienced the abundance of “blaming” terminology that plagues obstetrics and post partum care:

  • The woman on bed rest because of her incompetent cervix
  • The woman with the “smaller than dates” fetus who is told “your baby isn’t happy in there” (when in the end her little girl is simply a very healthy petite child)
  • The woman who labors well for hours upon hours and eventually needs a C-section due to failure to progress
  • The woman with the small, slow growing baby is written up in her medical record as: baby: failure to thrive
  • The woman who can’t produce enough breast milk is told she has inadequate milk supply, though all her prenatal preparation told her that “breast is best!”, and that the body will always supply enough milk for the baby

What do women hear in these messages?
Incompetent
My body isn’t good enough
Failure
Failure
Inadequate

We don’t stand a hope of feeling good about ourselves with this kind of language attached to us. These labels travel far beyond our medical records into our psyches.

The media tells us we’re not thin enough, not young enough in appearance or in body, not wealthy enough, not skilled enough. The information super-highway of the internet and books and magazines and journal articles offer up an over abundance of excellent information about how we should mother and how we should work and how we should love and how we should play; and an equal amount of information on all that we should not!

How do we filter all of this? Information is good but the pressure it places on us is enormous. I love information! I love to read and I love to hear different angles on things that matter to me. I am learning to filter, to take what fits for my life and my values and my family, and toss the rest.

But the pressure is still strong to be the perfect WOMAN. And that is where I (we!) need to learn about GRACE. How do we find this elusive grace?
When I speak badly to my husband or my children, is there grace?
When the house is a mess and the schoolwork isn’t done, is there grace?
When I say the wrong thing and I know it, is there grace?
When I forget something important, is there grace?
When the baby is small or the breast milk isn’t coming in, is there grace?

In all of these circumstance I know that I, for one, am the last person to offer up grace to myself. Others offer it up far more quickly.

Grace is a gift.
When a gift is given, we can choose to receive the gift, or refuse the gift.
The gift does not become mine until I actually take it.
God offers grace.
“He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.””
~ 2 Corinthians 12:9
What a relief that is!! Power made perfect in weakness. Wow. Now all I have to do is allow myself to be weak. This will take some learning…

Grace2_blog picI recently read these quotes about grace.

“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
~ Anne Lamott

“The art of celebrating life isn’t about getting it right, but about receiving grace.”
~ Ann Voskamp

Apart from leaving me wondering if there is something special about the name Ann(e) that predisposes one to saying profound things, I am left with a renewed understanding of the meaning of grace. It’s not about getting everything right. It’s about leaving the situation changed; changed by having received (willingly!) the gift of grace from both God and others; and reminded to offer up grace not only to others, but to myself.

Grace be with you on your journey.

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Gifts from Heaven

To Malaika, love Susan
To Elijah, love Christopher
Christmas 2013

Susan died April 14, 2013 at the age of 51. Christopher died August 25, 2011 at the age of 10. Yet there were gifts from them under the tree this Christmas. And in the tree was a note from heaven that read:

“Merry Christmas from Heaven”
I love you all dearly,
Now don’t shed a tear,
I’m spending my Christmas
With Jesus this year
Does Malaika (age 3) understand that Susan, whom she has never met and will never meet this side of heaven, has given her a hand-me-down music player and a nice hat and socks that she never had the opportunity to use? Does Elijah understand the significance of the play mat with the roads on it, the mat that Christopher used to construct elaborate roads and tracks for his cars and trucks? Probably not. Yet the value of these gifts is priceless.Gifts from heaven blog pic

Those who have gone before us leave us so much, the physical things being the least important yet often the most valued as they are the only things we can concretely grasp. In Christopher’s home there are pictures of Christopher everywhere, there are cups with his name on them, there are gift bags from years past addressed to him; but most importantly, his presence is always evident in the hearts of his  family. Stories of Christopher are recounted regularly, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tears. This is a beautiful thing. He continues to live in the lives of those who loved him because his family is healthy enough and comfortable enough to keep him in the present while knowing fully that he is physically gone.

This year I really valued the gifts that I received from heaven. My cousin Susan suffered from a debilitating condition called Rett syndrome so what I knew of Susan was her smile and her dark eyes. My nephew Christopher spent 8 of his 10 years in West Africa so my time with him was intermittent and limited. Yet the loss of these 2 precious children of God has had an enormous impact on me.

At Susan’s funeral, I was impacted in ways that I still don’t fully comprehend. My struggle with “the ways of God” was bigger than I had initially thought. Why does God allow such suffering in a life? Yet listening to her sisters speak about her and listening to the deeply touching songs about being children of God affected me deeply. Susan’s life was significant! She didn’t achieve her way through life; she didn’t have that ability. But here is what was said:

Sister 1:
I believe there are angels in heaven and I also believe God gives us gifts on earth. Susan was a very special gift from God given to our family. She taught us so much in her 51 years of life about love, endurance, patience, compassion… Her infectious smile will surely be a welcome addition to Heaven.

Sister 2:
Early on, she helped me recognize the sanctity and uncertainty of life.
Susan opened our eyes to the sheer improbability of existence, the nobility of the human spirit and our own individual capacities to experience joy as well as sadness.
We will remember her as a very special person with an indomitable spirit, infectious smile and the clear, attentive gaze of a child- and we will miss her.

Sister 3 (about their mother, my aunt):
Watching my mom snuggle with Susan, care for her, comfort her and say good-bye to her, my understanding of a parent’s unwavering love evolved. It was so apparent that a mother’s love is forever, no matter what the circumstances.

When I see my children singing and dancing to the kids music player that came from Susan, I am reminded of the message that Susan’s life so strongly conveyed to me at her funeral: Come to God as a child and stop trying so hard! (Matthew 19:14) Susan’s life was an example of a life lived in simple innocence, before God; a life that had an improbable impact on so many. Receiving a gift to Malaika from Susan under the tree brought all of this back to me.

When I see my children playing with Christopher’s play mat I am reminded of the fragility of life and how suddenly everything can change. And I take a breath and give thanks for these 2 who consume so much of my energy yet offer back more joy than I could ever articulate!

Gifts from heaven are lasting.

Thank you Susan and Christopher for your beautiful lives and your beautiful gifts.

We see where we focus

We arrived at my parents around 5pm in a snow squall, 3 year old soundly sleeping, 5 year old wildly excited. My brother and his wife had arrived the night before. All converged together at the family home to celebrate Christmas.

My 3 year old should never nap! Come bedtime she was wide awake, eventually drifting off to sleep at 10:45pm in bed with her grandmother. I carried her, finally in dreamland, to her own bed in the loft next to her snoring brother.

5 adults, 2 children and a cat, all in close proximity, made for a night that was reminiscent of a circus act. Sounds of snoring rang through the darkness. The bathroom door revolved endlessly on its axis. A shout emerged from an active dream life. A brother’s nocturnal thrashings resulted in an unceremonious “whack!” to a little sister. Crying ensued “He hurt me!!!”, followed by further yelling protests “She woke me up!!!” Then, small feet carrying sleep deprived but excited little passengers scampered about at the crack of dawn.

This is what family Christmas gatherings are all about, right? I was awake more than I was asleep, but woke up strangely content. I wandered downstairs to the scent of brewing coffee. A glance out the front window revealed a slowly rising sun over a wide expanse of river that was disgorging its heat into the cold winter air, slowly giving way to ice. Powdery snow covered the landscape surrounding the house, shimmering, the kids said, “like jewels”.
outdoor beauty
How could I let my sleep deprivation deprive me of this beautiful moment? It’s all in where we focus, isn’t it? I could have focused on my exhaustion, on the reality that this was only night #1 of our 2 weeks of holidays, on my irritated throat and sore neck. But that would have robbed me of the joy of this moment.

Even through the night, I was able to frame the interruptions with gratitude. My 3 year old won’t go to sleep – but she is happy and behaving well. My 5 year old whacked her in his sleep and I am up, yet again – but there is life, there is breath, they are well, and I am up because they ARE. These little people that I longed for, that I prayed for: they ARE.

As I cleaned, bleary eyed, my son’s pee from the back of the toilet this morning (little boys know how to aim but are apparently too distracted much of the time to concern themselves with minor details such as actually hitting the water in the toilet), I was once again reminded of something my sister-in-law said to me: “the toilets are easier to clean now that he’s gone”. She was referring to her son, who died of malaria at the tender age of 10. This statement wasn’t meant as a good thing, but rather, as a statement of just how much changes in one’s life when there is such a profound loss. So now I clean up pee with gratitude – because my son IS, because he breaths, because he is healthy and able to pee all over the place.

As I walk into Christmas, I want to keep my heart in this place of gratitude. I want to frame each moment, whether “good” or “bad” as a moment to give thanks. God is ultimately the reason that I am able to give thanks in all things (1 Thessalonians 5:18), but Ann Voskamp helped provide me the tool I needed to get there: a gratitude journal (One Thousand Gifts: A dare to live fully, right where you are – check it out!).

Christmas, (as at all times!) is a time to give thanks and love one another. I challenge you to try to find the good in every demanding or difficult circumstance that comes your way. The disruption of holidays is a both/and scenario – both good AND hard. It’s not either/or – one or the other. Particularly with young children who become over-excited and over-tired and over-sugared and lots of other “overs”! Enjoy family, enjoy friends, give thanks for what IS and for WHO IS.

I thank God for this glorious day of exhausted fun!

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Family sillies

Imperfect

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[im-pur-fikt]

adjective

1.

of, pertaining to, or characterized by defects or weaknesses

Really?
Imperfect = defective?
Imperfect = weak?
No wonder I struggle with perfectionism! Who wants to be defective and weak?

Or is there another way to look at this?

2 Corinthians 12:10 “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

There is no person alive, past, present or future, who is perfect. Apart from Jesus Christ. So why do we strive so hard for perfection? I am learning to let go of it. To recognize that “perfect” isn’t really so great after all.

Yesterday I finished up this year’s home made Advent calendar with my 2 children (ages 3 & 5). The calendar is made up of 3 ribbons with walnut halves glued on them, each containing a piece of paper with instructions for an activity (ideas we have created together, that I have written on colourful paper). We open one walnut each day of Advent. The 3 ribbons are now proudly hung on the wall by the dining room table.

Perfectionist me says “The ribbon widths don’t match, the nuts are not evenly spaced, the ribbon lengths are uneven, the colours are all different…” I don’t need to go on.

The new(er) me, the me who is learning to live in each moment, the me who is reaching for gratitude in the small details of every instance, says “Wow! What a beautiful time spent with my 2 wonderful children. Look at their faces glowing with delight at their special calendar made of ribbons they chose and nuts they cracked!”

Tonight, the first Sunday of Advent, we peeled off the first walnut. As instructed, we chose some gifts to donate to others in countries in need. After much discussion about what it means to be without clean water, and what it means to have no clothing, we have chosen to donate towards the creation of a well along with tuition for a woman to learn to sew. And in honour of our nephew, Christopher, who died of malaria at age 10 in Benin, we are donating mosquito nets.

How would this scene have played out if I had obsessed about trimming ribbons and insisted that the colours match and that the nuts were evenly spaced? If I had robbed my children of the opportunity to fully engage at their own level in this precious activity? Would my words have held any credibility as I told them about cholera and typhoid and lakes filled with sewage? I think not.

Perfectionism is a toxic poison that robs us of the moment. It causes us to lose sight of what matters. It clouds vision and causes pain to those that we don’t even see in our mad clamber for “better!”

It is also contagious and probably genetic. When my daughter was 2 years old I had to ban colouring books and colouring pages. She became enraged if she coloured ever so slightly outside of the lines. This, from a 2 year old! Oh dear…
So, she was confined to plain paper without any guidelines that might suggest she was making  a mistake. This was the kick that I needed to work on my own perfectionist inclination.

And so it goes.
Mismatched ribbons and colours and walnuts. And it is so good to live in the moment, learning to ignore the insignificant details that once seemed to vanquish all else.

For when I am weak, then I am strong!