Avoid School Year Stress With Sacred Space

 

Last May a friend who recently moved from Texas stopped me after a school concert to ask, “Why is it so crazy where we live? When I lived in Texas it wasn’t like this.” She’s right. It is crazy in our neck of the woods so here are a few strategies to combat that choking, stressed out feeling of back-to-school.

We live in Chicago’s western suburbs. Here, like many other affluent burbs, parents can drown themselves and their kids in a thousand productive and good activities which will shape their kids’ future. In a single day dozens of “opportunities” float across my computer screen enticing parents to sign up. Everything from knitting clubs, piano lessons, in-home baking classes and the ever expanding list of club sports all of which are beyond the regular after school offerings. Parents want their beautiful stars and starlets to step forward into the next  arena of dawn until dusk development. In our world, this is what good parents do. They provide experiences for their children which will hopefully capture their hearts and minds, enhancing focus and direction for the future. Overloading schedules can result in burnout with mom or dad in the drivers seat from 3:30 until 7:30. Dinner ends up being an already baked chicken from the grocery store and mac an’ cheese. No veggies. They take too long to chop. I’ve lived this routine. Our daughter used to eat her dinner in the car on the way home from ballet at 9:00p.m., shower and head up to her room for hours of homework. Not exactly family time.

Another reason why it is so “crazy” here is that we live in America. This is an achievement driven culture that thrives on crossing off the to-do list and winning awards. If we are not doing then we are dying. Yes, we are all dying but the doing somehow allows us to disguise the dying part. In our beautiful, green suburban enclave this is keenly felt. Almost every parent I know posts photos of their child’s current accomplishment on Facebook or drives them around on their bumper. “My child is an honor student at Hadley” the sticker reads. What is with those white stick figures that people put on their cars? Mom, Dad, eight children and four pet stickies which scream I AM SO BUSY. If we aren’t doing and now thanks to social media, proclaiming, we must be living dormant worthless lives. How can we stop the suburban spin and get off?

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My summer mornings were spent running or biking in a variety of forest preserves. Along the trail I’d stop. Taking a pause in the middle of my run, I’d look out at a vista and pray there. Right in our own crazy neighborhood, a quiet, morning beauty. I was running, but also resting. Seeking out spaces without cars, just crickets and birds. Saint James Farm overflows with giant oak trees, pastures, hidden creeks and trails. Along one of these gravel paths lies the Horse and Hound cemetery. Mr. McCormick, the creator of Saint James, loved his animals and laid them to rest amidst etched crosses reflecting an era all but gone in our county. This is a great fencepost legacy to lean into. Loving animals. Creating sacred space. Allowing others to partake and enjoy the bounty. Just a place to thank God for the day we’ve been given and all the people who’ve gone before us to make our lives more beautiful and rich.

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If running isn’t your thing, grab a Starbucks and sit by a fountain with your journal and make a list of all the things you are NOT going to do this fall. Close your eyes and drink in the spray on your face with that burned coffee bean taste of your latte. Resolve to seek quiet, seek beauty, rest in faith. The less we succumb to our external realities the more space we create for cultivating our internal reservoir. Remember to tell your children how and where you found your quiet center and the holy order this brought to your day (and hopefully theirs.) We can resist the crazy culture of overload if we give value to the sacred space in our day and share it with those we love. Sacred according to Merriam-Webster means “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a diety.” Churches are a blessing, but what other sacred spaces are in your back yard?

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Graduating Baby Corn Plants

Like millions of others, our youngest child graduated from high school this month. “Millions have done it before you and millions will do it after you,” my husband was told when he signed up for the Barbri course to prepare for the bar exam. There is something everyday, you’re just a number about graduating from high school. In the U.S. it’s common and rates are at an all time high with 81% of students graduating. As I hung graduation lanterns over the patio and sent out announcements I couldn’t escape the “been there done that” rudimentary feeling…until driving home from Wisconsin put me face to face with thousands of baby corn plants.

Their simple rows of lime green spriteness reflected hope. Each of them owned the potential to give something back to their planter and maker despite their soft leaved vulnerability. “Knee high by the Fourth of July” seemed impossible with only four inches of growth on Memorial Day. With the right conditions their single growing season will produce abundant food, about 800 kernels on a single ear of 16 rows. By November, those soldiers left standing dry, brown and brittle will blow over with the first winter blast. Left unharvested, their final act feeds the soil to strengthen the next crop. Our son’s eighteen years felt about the length of one growing season, but was it beautiful, rich and nourishing enough to grow a self-sacrificing adult?

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His little toe head of curls, one of which I keep tucked in a Limoges box on my dresser, felt the same as these first little corn leaves I stooped down to touch after pulling my car over. They also carry a soft curl before they toughen up in the face of sun, wind and rain. Making friends came easily for our young one and I wondered if these little plants become tight with their growing partners who share their space in just a few weeks. In every grade, desk partners and playground pals became friends out of convenience and necessity. He formed “The Purple Punk Club” with his skateboarding buddy in first grade – their mission – stealing the kindergartner’s ball. Naughty, but adorable boys. The corn plant doesn’t veer off mission unless deprived of nutrients and water. Did I water my little guy enough in those early years? Without water the tassels don’t form, there is no pollination, no kernels. I watered him with books and music, Berenstain Bears, Beatrix Potter and Yamaha Music School. As a graduate, he doesn’t read much for pleasure and would rather slam on his basement drums. Were those countless Berenstain bumbling stories enough to bear fruit in his developing soul? Well, drumming can be food for people. It aligns to their heartbeat and leads them into worship or it can offend and harm sensitive ears, a.k.a. his 82 year old grandmother. What happens with those drums is not my decision now.

Precious few of us know at eighteen what we want to be when we grow up. When he built his first drum set at three years old out of cookie tins and oatmeal containers we suspected. Dozens of concerts and thousands of practice hours later, our suspicion is confirmed. Come harvest time his hands and heart will be cultivating a new field in a new state with new gardeners, but the beating of the drum still pounds out his growing song.

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One proper growing season can produce millions of ears of milky white corn kernels, enough to feed a country for a year. One tiny house on the corner of President street and Liberty sends its youngest child off to college, but the tassel of golden silky hair remains in my Limoges box. The mother’s privilege is to take it out and ponder it’s possibilities when the silence of beating drums in this house produces a relieved sigh, an empty ache or a hunger. I’ll stop to savor a buttery rich ear of corn with a nice cold glass of pinot gris and toast the truth that although they all travel off to plant their own field, the farmer’s job is never done.

Surviving the Divided Family Christmas

“I’m not coming if your father is going to be there.” Sadly, this is a familiar reply to the Christmas invite in families of divorce. My parents divorced the year of our wedding, so these refrains are familiar territory.  They challenge our ability to walk in the fullness of joy which is Christmas. Often these broken family dynamics are magnified during the holidays. How do we keep it all together for the sake of our faith, our children and our own sanity? One year my father showed up unexpectedly at my mother’s Christmas dinner. “Surprise!” He exclaimed with joy, bursting into the living room toting an enormous gift box. Our children jumped up and down with delight, hugging him, clinging to his stuffed, down parka. My mother’s face fell more quickly than her ruined chocolate soufflé. Our children’s joy lasted about ten minutes, until they opened the gift and realized what lay beneath all that popcorn packing, about thirty Idaho baking potatoes. “I want you kids to experience what it is to be thankful for a gift you may not think is so special, but for starving children in another country, it would be a feast.” Hmm. How do we respond to these well intended, uninvited Christmas surprises?

1. Run away – Although you may feel like it, this is not an option. Instead, engage your family with depth and creativity. If you host the event, surprises like my father’s potatoes are not as stressful because you are responsible for what happens next. You have the emotional edge in setting the tone for what follows rather than buckling under the pressure of your divorced parent’s meltdown. Plan your dinner and keep your guests busy. Load the table with Christmas Crackers, sing a carol to start the meal, ask everyone to go around and share a favorite Christmas memory. Give your children responsibilities so that the focus is on them serving those who might be hurting that day, rather than on themselves.

2. Pretend Christmas isn’t happening – This doesn’t work. Our children want all the traditions in full view. They call them “decks,” as in decking the halls. “When are we going to get the decks going?” They say, the day after Thanksgiving, usually right after we’ve had our first leftover turkey sandwiches and are still reveling in the glow of the candlelit cranberries we feasted on the night before.  Invite one parent to join in your holiday tradition and another parent to celebrate a different one. My mother celebrates the tree decorating event every year. Reigning from her couch throne, she places hooks on all the ornaments and hands them over to us to hang. My dad is too unpredictable to include in a regular tradition so we try to do something new with him each year. Include them both separately in the way that works best for your family. Do not let them run your own family Christmas. The day when we were children is over and our family comes first.

3. Strive for perfection – This is your recipe for disaster. When Martha Stewart’s “Living” was the hot magazine and my in-laws were coming, I spent evenings in my garage dipping white chocolate onto styrofoam cups for our dessert’s perfect presentation. It looked great and I fell asleep at the dinner table. In order to deal with holiday dysfunction, take care of yourself. Stick with your exercise program, rather than abandon it. Set a goal to eat healthier than you usually do. Treat yourself to an indulgence you don’t ever have time for, like sitting in a whirlpool after a workout. When the tense conversations come, you’ll be physically at your best and can steer the tone more effectively if you aren’t drained.

4.  Prepare – As in prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. He is our way in the wilderness. This is what Advent is all about. Taking care of ourselves can only go so far, if we aren’t filled by his life- giving Holy Spirit, when the holiday storm hits, we’ll get battered.  The single most beneficial thing I add to my Advent each year is an intentional focus on one participant in the nativity. Get to know these people who brought Jesus to us and witnessed his coming. Read and listen to everything you can about Joseph and spend time reflecting on how hard his life must have been. This will help minimize the gravity of your own problems.  Joseph’s Song by Michael Card is a helpful accompaniment and Maria Rilke’s poem, Joseph’s Suspicion, can lift our hearts in praise. If you choose Mary, read The Life of Mary and Birth of Jesus by Ronald F. Hock which gives helpful background on Mary’s own family. An intimate look at the wise men is depicted in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi. Some of us  have heard the nativity story so many times, we need artists to breathe new life into their story. When we stop and take in their words and harmonies, we meet these people anew.  Spend Advent with one nativity participant and ask the Lord to reveal them through scripture, music and literature.

5. Pray without ceasing – This call in Thessalonians is central to surviving the broken family Christmas. Despite all of our best laid plans, we can’t do it on our own. The Lord of the manger is waiting to be in the midst of our dinner table conversation and our late night dish drying sessions. Don’t let evenings go too late with the relatives. People get more emotional when they’re tired and disagreements can fly, so say goodnight to your guests and save that space for the Lord at the end the day. Before you put your feet on the floor the next morning, invite Him to come and order the thoughts of your mind and meditations of your heart for the new day.

For the first time in twenty four years, both of my divorced parents will be staying under the same roof of our home for the entire week of Christmas. What might my father surprise us with this year? Perhaps he will bestow an enormous hook rug or velvet painting of a Santa Fe cowboy to hang nicely on the wall of our French country home. “Honor your father and mother” is the first commandment that comes with a promise, “and you will live a long life.” The Lord rewards us as we honor our challenging parents and he is blessed. This alone is a good enough reason to give it our best this year.  After all, He chose them to bring us into this world.

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