Monday, September 24, 2012

7 Quick Takes; family weekend at Rice and other Murphy people updates!

--- 1 ---
It's been five weeks since we dropped our son Alex off for his freshman year at Rice University in Houston.  We were able to get away from Austin for about 24 hours this past weekend to visit Alex for family weekend.

The campus is beautiful, his new friends are fun, Houston is charming but the best part was being together.  We missed our youngest Natalie; she was at a weekend retreat and couldn't come with us.  

The Academic Quad anchored by a statue of university founder William Marsh Rice 

--- 2 ---
Alex gave us a campus tour.  Sadly it's still pretty hot here in Texas; at one point one of our entourage could be heard grumbling, "This is fun, but do you have to lead us like your arse is on fire?"

family weekend at Rice; trying to keep up with our tour guide

--- 3 ---
The campus is lovely.  Idyllic might be the better description.  Occasionally I feel like I'm walking through a movie set.  For example, this building contains the professor's office Alex will be working for this semester (research).  

Brian and Alex in front Herzstein Hall on Rice campus

--- 4 ---
In a stroke of good fortune family weekend coincided with Frodo and Bilbo Baggins' birthday; lunch at Houston's Hobbit Cafe was in order!  (Since we were hobbits for lunch I was not embarrassed that I ordered a Fatty Lumpkin sandwich and did not even order the slim version because, frankly, ordering a Slim Fatty Lumpkin seemed silly.)

The Hobbit Cafe, Houston

--- 5 ---
Andrew invited us to the housewarming party that he and his roommates are throwing next weekend.  I totally love the party theme:  each guest bring an item to decorate the house and the guys will hang it/place it/use it while we are all together.  No matter what it is.  

Currently I'm considering a 16 x 20 poster of myself staring at them with a stern motherly expression.  Something they could hang in a prominent place in their house where all who enter will be aware of my ferocious motherly instincts.  Maybe I'll ask Andrew's grandmothers to each send a photo, too, and we can form a decorative triptych.

Want to share some other ideas?

--- 6 ---
Kendra is getting settled into her junior year.  Junior year is tough, right?  You're not close enough to college to spend too much time thinking about it, but high school's getting a little bit stale.  This is especially true with two older brothers and a few good friends in college.  We're trying to walk the balance carefully -- dreaming ahead while being present to the present.  Still, this weekend we started searching online.  Dreaming a tiny bit about what part of the country, what sort of residential system, areas of study she might want to pursue.  

She dreams; Brian and I pray down God's provision.  

--- 7 ---
Natalie, on the other hand, seems to have hit high school with a vengeance (in Brian's words).  Her days have filled up with the sort of classic high school activities I kind of always dreamed for her.  For example, this past week friends walked home with her from school just to do homework together.  Another day she stayed after school to watch her friend's volleyball game.

We're so grateful to live within walking distance from school and grateful for the new job I have that is helping us afford to live in this neighborhood.

Another fun fact about Natalie is that she joined the school newspaper.  She's become a regular roving reporter on campus and, as is her fearless way, volunteered to take the article no one else would -- a feature on the school's new Varsity football coach.  This means Natalie has had to stalk search for interviews with the Varsity football quarterback also.  

She's not timid.  And she's not dumb.

Enjoy a beauty-filled week!


For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Parenting Unrehearsed: It does take a village

— adj

(of a play, speech, etc) not having been practiced in advance

I might also add off-the-cuff, in no particular order, results may vary.  For six(ish) weeks I'll share here  -- off the top of my head -- a few practices we may have learned in our twenty-one years of parenting four children. 

Chapter 1:  Your Kids Were Supposed to Have Perfect Parents.

Chapter 2:  Your Kids Are Not Fragile

Chapter 3:  

It does take a village.

  (or How to Have Awesome Kids and Make It Look Like You Did All the Work)

My youngest daughter offered the alternate title for this blog series:  How to Have Awesome Kids and Make It Look Like You Did All the Work.  She's so funny, right?

Really, that quip feels more true than false.  I did not earn, nor do I deserve, these four beautiful people who call me Mom. Of course, it'd be silly to believe that my husband and I had nothing to do with our children's upbringing.  I feel like I'm self-aware enough to recognize some of the good decisions we made along with the parenting mistakes.  

At the top of the list of good decisions we've made I'd put this one: We raised our kids in community

Do you remember way back in 1996 when Hillary Clinton wrote It Takes A Village to Raise A Child and all of us conservative-types cheered when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole gave her the what-for in his nomination speech: "With all due does not take a village to raise a child.  It takes a family to raise a child."

Boy, we felt pretty pleased with ourselves on that soundbite, didn't we?  

In 1996 I had just given birth to my third child in five years.  I was 27 years old.  We were elated that our daughter was born over spring break so my husband didn't have to miss any classes for his undergraduate degree.  Two months later -- in May -- Brian sat up 38 hours in a row writing his thesis because he was also working and we had three kids five and under.  We were barely making it any which way you measured it.  I mention all these details because it was our tribe of family, friends,  neighbors and church community who held our frazzled parts together during that season.

In some ways that season never ended.

Fast forward to 2012.  Our kids are older.  Now Brian's working on his third degree -- seminary, this time -- and we still would not be making it as parents, as healthy human beings without our "village".

Perhaps we should have paid more attention to the African proverb Ms. Clinton used for her book title; perhaps in a more humble, less Western-independent mindset, we could learn from the tribal cultures of our African neighbors.

My 2012 self would love to tell Bob Dole -- with all due respect -- it takes a family
 to raise a child and a village to raise a family.

Two of our "tribe members" helping us bless 
our oldest son on his 21st birthday last month.

The same daughter who offered the witty little title suggestion also gave me my most vivid "It takes a village" moment in all my years of parenting.

She must have been about twenty-two months old, Labor Day, 1999.  Her sister and two brothers (now 8, 5 and 3) sat watching cartoons early in the morning.  Because it was a holiday, Brian had a rare chance to golf with friends.  I was asleep when he left so to absolve himself treat me nice, he let me stay in bed, warning the older three children to "keep an eye on your sister".  

I'll never know the exact timeline of the following events, but when my five-year-old started banging on my bedroom door hollering for me to wake up, one thing became pretty clear:  "MOM, THERE'S PEOPLE AT THE DOOR AND THEY'VE GOT NATALIE!!" 

You ever have one of those weird moments when you're so sound asleep that  you can't be quite certain you woke up or you're still dreaming?   Yeah, me too.  

As I stumbled toward the door I wasn't even sure what I was wearing, what day it was or if that baby looking back at me through the screen door actually belonged to me.

 I definitely did not recognize the bathrobe-clad couple holding the baby.  In my sleep-walking state it felt like it took me ten minutes of staring at them to register the fact that they held my daughter -- wearing only her soft blonde curls, bare feet, and diaper.  That she had toddled all the way to the end of our street alone, unharmed.   Then it seemed like another ten minutes feeling so embarrassed at what kind of mom I must look like to her rescuers before I opened the door and retrieved her.

In the haze of horror, I heard them tell their story -- as if they were speaking to a reporter for the 6:00 news: "We were in our house and kept hearing a crying noise.  Finally we looked out our window and saw this baby and we didn't know what to do.  We thought we'd walk up the street and try to remember which houses had children." 

For years afterward I avoided running into that couple at school and neighborhood functions. You know I never thought to ask them if ours was the first house they tried.

vacationing at Wrightsville Beach with some of our tribe, 2007

The illustration is a bit dramatic, possibly, but fitting.  It's a good thing we lived in a village that September day because that child's family wasn't paying too much attention.  Not for malice; we were just plumb worn out!

In real-life ways for the twenty-two years since I was pregnant with our first child, we have walked from day to day fueled by the strength of community.

We needed a village to help us when we were exhausted -- to play with our kids, to let us go out once in awhile.  We needed a village to teach us how to properly slice a melon and balance a budget and cut tile for our bathroom remodel.  We needed a village to take our kids out for ice cream, to listen to their stories and their knock-knock jokes, to remember their important days and remind them how wonderful they are when we forgot.  We needed a village to sit around campfires and teach our kids Bob Dylan tunes.  To show up at birthday parties and graduation parties and school plays and post-alt-rock band gigs in unheated Elks lodges in the middle of winter in upstate New York.

three generations chatting around Grandma's picnic table

In our tribe we needed people of all ages.  We needed families with older kids than ours to model a way to grow up in this wily world.  We needed families with younger kids to remind ours that little eyes and ears were paying attention.  We needed grey-haired friends to tell stories about the war and the Depression and the old-time factories in our small town.  We needed babies and single people and newlyweds and pregnant women and barely-surviving Christians.  

One of our favorite tribal troubadours, Jason Harrod at our home, 

By grace we've gathered in our tribe musicians and artists and philosophers and carpenters and engineers and teachers and preachers and janitors and missionaries and students and unemployed and disabled and retired people.  Not everyone we've welcomed has stayed long, some we've lost touch or fallen out of relationship.  But even then, living in community trained us as parents and as a family.

This family needed a village to raise it like an old-timey barn raising:
 blood and sweat, tears and casseroles.

Practice Tribe-Building

"True integration is a matter of people really feeling a oneness with others and attempting to understand them in personal communication of the sort that takes place around fireplaces, washing dishes together, having tea together, eating together, walking together, and discovering things in common together. True integration is a matter of people having spiritual communication and fellowship together, discussing and discovering new thoughts and ideas by sharing their trends of thought, or thinking out loud and having some kind of creative activities or recreation together ."  (The Hidden Art of Homemaking, Edith Schaeffer)
 I've never even read Hillary Clinton's book so I don't know what her definition of "village" might be.  For us, the village represents several circles of influence:

1.  Neighborhood -- neighbors, teachers, principals, co-workers, coaches

2.  Church community -- pastors, teachers, friends, small group members, ministry team members

3.  Extended family - grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles

learning the essence of Farkle at a beloved tribe gathering, 

Repeating an important disclaimer:

Relax. You've got time, it's going to take time

I know, I know - old ladies have stopped you in the store five trillion times to warn you that the time flies by faster than you can imagine and that you need to make the most of every single moment with your cherubs.  And that's sort of true.  

Most true, though, is that Jesus is a redeemer of time. He moves outside of time and space, He returns time and stretches it out in just the right ways so He can save you and your kids.  When you read any practical suggestions I have to offer please take your time, consider, pray, laugh, relax.

Put another way, maybe the very, very best advice I have to offer parents is this:

Reject hyper-vigilance, embrace spacious grace.

With that in mind, some of the best truths I've learned about the practice of tribe-building:

1.  Practice bare-foot hospitality:  You can not build a tribe if you are too busy managing your family's image to some sort of idealized, dressed-up version of community.  Cultivate the sort of comfy hospitality that invites people into the everyday-ness of your lives (figuratively and literally).  Bare foot hospitality goes both ways:  you risk exposing your true messy selves and you make space in your homes and hearts for others to tread with their own sort of flaws and foibles.

2.  Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others:  You've heard the quip "some things are better caught than taught"?  I can't think of a better example of this truth than the way you model friendships for your children.  When you cultivate healthy, life-giving friendships for yourself you are then able to pass the value of good relationships to your kids.  In that order.  

3.  "Stay at the table" with your church community:  This is probably totally politically incorrect in the Christian blogging world right now, but I'm a big proponent of finding a church and staying with it...even -- and especially -- if you struggle with doubt and disillusionment.

The church we attended for 13 years in upstate New York used the expression "stay at the table" to help us all imagine what it looks like to stay in the tension of being together.  To not push away from the table too soon, storm out of the room or just lean back and disengage.  It's a good metaphor for all sorts of relationships.  If you and I were sitting together -- face-to-face-- it's at this point in the conversation that I'd put my hand on your shoulder and say "Please, please, please don't try to raise your kids without going all in together in a church community."

There's so much more I could say on this subject but maybe most important for this post is to tell you that without my husband and I going all in with our church community -- the good, the bad and the ugly (and there was plenty of all three) -- I'm honestly not sure we'd still be together.  If we were, I'm not sure what we'd look like.  And I know for sure, our children would be poorer for it.

our friend Stacie -- and busy mom herself -- showing up 
for one of Kendra's choir concerts

4.  Recruit tribe members: When we were preparing to move to Texas last year I prayed hard for at least four different people to take a special interest in each of our kids, to intentionally walk with them through the transition of the first few months.  I knew I'd need more help than I'd ever needed.

God answered beyond our expectation in the way that we quickly synced with our new church community, but still I realized I needed to make some specific "asks" for our kids. I am forever grateful for the men and women who said yes. They showed up for concerts and birthday parties, took our kids to coffee and lunch, asked the question "how are you" and waited for an honest reply.

5.  If you are a parent you need a tribe for your family, if you are not a parent you need to be some family's tribe: I have seen so many beautiful examples of men and women who do not have children of their own stepping into the (often chaotic) rhythms of a family's life outside their own.  Just last week I watched a man bounce and sway and cradle a newborn so that her mother could lead our writer's group.  Eric and his wife Cheryl do not have children of their own but I've watched them be a village for exhausted, stressed-out moms and dads.  I'm thinking too of some beautiful people we know in New York who gladly make other families a priority in their lives.  

My sister-in-law JoAnn does not have biological children but she has mothered dozens, maybe even hundreds, of children. 

Fairy Godmother JoAnn
 (how many people do you know who'd voluntarily attend  four-year-old's birthday parties?!?)


Next time on Parenting Unrehearsed:

I love to hear from you!  For example, what are some ways you've both learned and taught healthy practices of tribe-building?  Also, please feel free to share the sorts of questions you've been asking about parenting.


P.S., If you'd like to receive This Sacramental Life in your inbox, enter your email address here

*Thank you to the lovely Lindsey from Lindsey Davern Photography for capturing the hilarious -- and unrehearsed -- family photo I'm using for this series.*

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

from the book pile, 2012: Heather Sellers, Wendell Berry and four vacation novels

to see the book pile from 2011, click here / from 2012, click here

Source: via Tamara on Pinterest

From the book pile posts collect my reading reflections as I work my way through the tower of books teetering off the edge of my nightstand. I post the once a month the books I've read.  In the meantime, the fun little widget on my sidebar includes a "real time" thought about each title I'm reading.

When I first started this blog in 2006 one of my goals was to nurture a forum that kept me accountable for the cultural goods I consume.  Of course, I didn't really know then to articulate the goal in those terms.  The truth dawns gradually.

Every new year, I consider making a number goal for books read in the coming twelve months. (do you do that too?) It's never a good idea; rather takes away the enjoyment of arriving at December 31 and tallying up titles from the previous year.  Feels like an accomplishment no matter the number.  Hope you enjoy!


13Page After Page: discover the confidence and the passion you need to start writing and keep writing (no matter what!)

Author:  Heather Sellers

Genre: non-fiction

Published: Writer's Digest Books, 2005

General Impression:  I'm generally wary of "how-to" books.  Especially people writing and selling books to other people who want to write and sell books -- seems like a bit of conflict of interest.  I gave Heather Sellers' Page After Page a try because Jennifer Fulwiler recommended it and she feels the same way about scorpions as me so I figured that was a pretty good guarantee.  Also, this was the perfect read for our 30 hour drive back to New York for summer vacation.  Not too heady, just enough inspiration, suggested writing exercises that didn't feel too dorky and plenty of good humor.  

I don't know if I'll write better after reading Page After Page, but I'll definitely laugh at myself more in the process. And, in my book, that's a very healthy thing.

One of the best descriptions I've read on the insecurity of a writer's life:
"Writers are people who are comfortable with intense contradictions. They are the people who live with a high degree of anxiety. Becoming a writer means learning how to write, every day, without missing a day.  In order to do this, writers have to gently embrace ambivalence, anxiety, not-sure-ness.
While unpleasant, this practice of writing while in a state of anxiety is key to making a writing life. It's way more important than learning plot or prosody or publication tips.
Many of the productive writers I know believe they are simultaneously shit and undiscovered geniuses. Brilliant shit.  This belief is in itself anxiety-producing.Not knowing if you suck or are the next Anne Tyler/Stephen King/Albert Camus is simply very frustrating and irritating. It's a weird way to live. It's how we live."
 Probably the best writing advice I've ever read:  
"The secret to getting more work done is a little bit tricky, because it feels completely counterintuitive. If you want to pay your bills or get caught up on six months of unbalanced checkbook or start a new writing routine or do yoga, for that matter, the first thing you must do when the inevitable cranky horror mood strikes is nap.
I'm not kidding.
Here is the secret to life, the secret to writing, and to productivity...When you are cranky, down on yourself, behind, overwhelmed, blue, swamped: when you are saying, I need to write! I don't have time! I have to write, I'm behind; when you are sick or getting sick or recently sick, you must nap.
I know this sounds: (a) stupid, and (b) impossible.
I know you don't want to nap; you want to get caught up, and you have to or life will fall apart.
That plan never, ever works. Abandon it.
Stop the madness.
...You aren't going to have a great writing day if you whip yourself into it...Nor are you going to have a good writing day if you drive around doing errands and paying bills and thinking abouthow far behind in our writing you've gotten, how horrible you are.
There is only one solution, and it is this: Nap."

Author:  Wendell Berry

Genre: non-fiction

Published: Counterpoint, 1995

General Impression:  Ever since a friend told me about her doctoral thesis on the Mad Farmer, I started reading Berry's poetry.  Years after I began reading his fiction.  Now I'm starting on his essays.  I'm a fan all the way around.  There's a certain amount of sentimentality he includes in each genre that never felt gratuitous, especially grounded in the soil of the good soil of robust language and story.  Reading this book of essays, I found myself for the first time feeling like the Farmer's prophetic voice for our country signaled too little too late. 

Granted, this book of essays compiled in the mid-1990's may have been right on time and I'm the one late to the conversation.  Still, the social, agricultural and economic changes Berry recommends in many of these essays feel past-due.  My son, Alex, and I read most of this book out loud together -- mostly because I felt like he needed some Wendell Berry thought in his repertoire before he began his undergrad political science studies.  Eventually Alex admitted to me that reading the essays frustrated him more than anything else:  "...I think they run the risk of being irrelevant because they're so demanding/impractical."

Still, Berry's words are full of a wisdom that add hearty nutrients for any reader.  Perhaps, like the wisdom our parents and grandparents handed down, we benefit by rehearsing their words together, mining them for every amount of practical advice for our current time.

One of the passages where I thought "Oh...I think someone paid attention to this warning!":
"If a safe, sustainable local food economy appeals to some of us as a goal that we would like to work for, then we must be careful to recognize not only the great power of the interests arrayed against us but also our own weakness...
...we should also understand that our predicament is not without precedent; it is approximately the same as that of the proponents of American independence at the time of the Stamp Act -- and with one difference in our favor; in order to do the work that we must do, we do not need a national organization.  What we must do is simple:  we must shorten the distance that our food is transported so that we are eating more and more from local supplies, more and more to the benefit of local farmers, and more and more to the satisfaction of the local consumers. This can be done by cooperation among small organizations: conservation groups, churches, neighborhood associations, consumer co-ops, local merlchants, local independent banks, and organizations of small farmers. It also can be done by cooperation between individual producers and consumers. We should not be discouraged to find that local food economies can grow only gradually; it is better that they should grow gradually. But as they grow they will bring about a significant return of power, wealth, and health to the people."  (from "Farming and the Global Economy", p.6)
 An example of Berry as a dooming prophet:  
"This essay owes its existence to anxiety and to insomnia. I write, as I must, from the point of view of a country person, a member of a small rural community that has been dwindling rapidly since the end of World War II. Only the most fantastical optimism could ignore the possibility that my community is doomed by the overwhelming victory of industrialism over agrarianism (both North and South) in the Civil War and the history both subsequent and consequent to it...I can not see how a nation, a society or a civilization can live while its communities die." (from "Private Property and the Common Wealth", p. 47)
Words that will never be outdated:
"We know that we need to live in a world that is cared for. The ubiquitous cliches about saving the planet and walking lightly on the earth testify to this....For we not only need to think beyond our own cliches; we also need to make sure that we don't carry over into our efforts at conservation and preservation the moral assumptions and habits of thought of the culture of exploitation....
...And certainly we must preserve some places unchanged; there should be places, and times too, in which we do nothing. But we must also include ourselves as makers, as economic creatures with livings to make, who have the ability, if we will use it, to work in ways that are stewardly and kind toward all that we must use.
...We must include ourselves because whether we choose to do so or not, we are included. We who are now alive are living in this world; we are not dead, nor do we have another world to live in. There are, then, two laws that we had better take to be absolute.
The first is that as we cannot exempt ourselves form living in this world, then if we wish to live, we cannot exempt ourselves form using the world.
...If we cannot exempt ourselves from use, then we must deal with the issues raised by use. And so the second law is that if we want to continue living, we cannot exempt use from care.
...A third that if we want to use the world with care, we cannot exempt ourselves from our cultural inheritance, our tradition. ...we are in it because we are born in it...But that only means that the tradition too must be used with care.
...And so I am proposing that in order to preserve the health of nature, we must preserve ourselves as human beings -- as creatures who possess humanity not just as a collection of physical attributes but also as the cultural imperative to be caretakers, good neighbors to one another and to the other creatures.
...When we include ourselves as parts or belongings of the world we are trying to preserve, then obviously we can no longer think of the world as "the environment" -- something out there around us. We can see that our relation to the world surpasses mere connection and verges on identity. And we can see that our right to live in this world, whose parts we are, is a right that is strictly conditioned. We come face to face with the law...we cannot exempt use from care. There is simply nothing in Creation that does not matter.  ("The Conservation of Nature and the Preservation of Humanity", the bold font is mine)

Summer vacation means some fun novels 'round here!  Just want to list the titles here for the record-keeping's sake.

15.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book 3), J.K. Rowling
16.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Book 4), J.K. Rowling
17.  The Moon by Night (Austin Family), Madeleine L'Engle
18.  Three Blind Mice and other stories, Agatha Christie


I'd love to hear what YOU are reading! 
 Leave me a couple of suggestions in the comment box, won't you?

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