The vow of stability

Originally written in 2015, reprinted in honor of Mother’s Day

Over red wine and herb chicken and a gaggle of loud children, a girlfriend recently shared insights from a marriage retreat she and her husband had attended.

One anecdote from a talk she heard stuck out to me in particular: that Benedictine monks take a distinctive vow when joining the religious order. Along with obedience and conversion of life, they also take the unique vow of “stability.”

I found that so intriguing — like a vow to not be moody? Well, yes, I suppose that could be part of it — but it refers to stability in a much larger sense.

One Benedictine community describes the vow this way:

We vow to remain all our life with our local community. We live together, pray together, work together, relax together. We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace. This means learning the practices of love: acknowledging one’s own offensive behavior, giving up one’s preferences, and forgiving.

Now, I’m no monk nor do I live in a monastery, but I found the vow incredibly apt in the context of family life.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day — a beautiful day that threatened rain in the weather forecast, but that instead flooded our newly planted Viburnums with golden beams of warm sunshine until nightfall. Three generations of family — grandparents from both sides — sat around our heavy, homemade farmhouse table and shared stories, stabbed salads and scooped vanilla icecream drizzled with warm caramel sauce.

And as stories of mothers past and present were shared, I glanced up to the large picture frame hung by the diningroom window. It holds four generations of couples — great grandparents on down. Scanning the faces, I found myself thinking about the unique vow that the Benedictines take.

The vow to stay together. To grow together. To work things out and restore peace. The promise to be like a towering tree where branches grow out and roots grow deep and where the stability of one generation gives strength to another. The vow to endure. And though the environment may be tumultuous at times, to be steadfast. [“Stability” is derived from the Latin word stare, which means “to stand,” “to stand up” or “to be still.”]

And of all the things my mothers and my mothers’ mothers and their mothers alike passed down, it is not just the Blue Danube china hanging on my wall or the old buffet table below it that has transcended generations. Rather, it is their clear vows of love that have sustained future generations.

The family really is a proverbial tree — where the stability of the roots affect the whole big thing. For even the love of a single mother carries forward for generations.

“Everyone knows that a good mother gives her children a feeling of trust and stability. She is their earth. She is the one they can count on for the things that matter most of all. She is their food and their bed and the extra blanket when it grows cold in the night; she is their warmth and their health and their shelter; she is the one they want to be near when they cry. She is the only person in the whole world in a whole lifetime who can be these things to her children. There is no substitute for her. Somehow even her clothes feel different to her children’s hands from anybody else’s clothes. Only to touch her skirt or her sleeve makes a troubled child feel better.” – Katharine Butler Hathaway

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Feed the mama

Feed the mama

red potatoes from the earth

yellow-orange butter from cows on green pastures.

Give her books to devour

with ideas she digests a syllable at a time

to see how they taste.

Feed the mama

friends in the afternoon

cups of coffee, babies nursing

girl, I’ve been there, too

Give her letters from her grandmother

love poems from her true love

hand-written in the steam of smudged shower glass.

Tell her sit down a moment —

those dishes will wait

patiently, even

if you give them a chance.

Feed her

moments of quiet where

all she can hear

is the longing, hopeful prayer in her heart.

Give her a corner to craft in;

a garden to dig

a bathtub to sink in her toes.

Feed the mama

the soul food of generations

stories of her heritage

the inheritance of her past.

Give her the hands of women

who have been there before her;

helping her up,

cheering her on.

Feed the mama

a diet of wholeness

with what nourishes her body,

and the baby at her breast;

the tired toddler at her knee;

the growing boy at her side

who looks more and more

like his Daddy each day.

Feed the mama —

plant her close by the water,

with roots that grow deep and firm in the stream.

Give her sunshine on her cheeks,

a Spring rain shower on her shoulders

as she walks barefoot to the mailbox

on a Wednesday evening.

Feed the mama,

take care of the caretaker,

for she is what she eats

and she gives what she is.

Feed the mama,

feed her well,

let her be full of love.

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What better way for God to tell me?

It’s the “family reunion feeling.”

It feels like Grandma’s house. And tastes like chocolate cake and sweet tea. It smells like fresh cut farm grass in the summer. It sounds like a house full of conversation, Yahtzee dice on a wooden kitchen table, Christmas music.

It’s the feeling of being present.

Of going two days and realizing you haven’t charged your phone. Of thinking of nothing or no-one but what is right there, right now. And it is bliss.

I think about this sometimes when my 8-year-old says, Mo-om. You’re not listening. Did you hear what I just said?

I didn’t, I reply honestly. Because I was — well, where I am too often —

Lost in a world of pre-occupation. Of to-do lists. Of what’s for dinner and did I respond to that text? And this house is a mess. And then suddenly, I miss the lizard that has captivated my first-born. It has scampered away, along with the opportunity to share a moment of magic with my boy.

So I have been trying to be more mindful. More intentional. More present.

But for me, it’s not totally a matter of the will. More-so, it is the recognition of the environment that makes being present most possible. Both the external and internal environment. The state of my home and the state of my mind.

The first case in which I find being present more possible is when I close all the windows. By that, I don’t mean the literal windows — I mean, the “screens” that feel like windows into an outside world that my mind so easily leaps to. When I am in the middle of text conversations all day, I find that my mind can be stuck there. When I am checking the internet too much — or blogs (hello!) — or news (never a great idea) — I find that a piece of me stays there. But when I shut them off, when I power off, I feel a very literal quiet come over me. An instant focus. For a piece of me that was there is now here. Scheduling time for screens of all kinds helps me be present the rest of the time.

I also find that unloading some thoughts onto a piece of paper with the scribble of an inky pen helps. It keeps me from having that “I need to do that” feeling on loop. It lets me take the thoughts of what I need to do and what I haven’t done and place them in a box for safe keeping. I can come back to that later. For now, I focus on now.

Other thoughts that can keep me from being present are needless human worries, the what if’s and what might’s of life. I love the advice of one of my favorite spiritual writers, Father Jacques Phillipe, who says:

“Things seldom happen as we expect. Most of our fears and apprehensions turn out to be completely imaginary. Difficulties we anticipated become very simple in reality; and the real difficulties are things that didn’t occur to us. It’s better to accept things as they come, one after another, trusting that we will have the grace to deal with them at the right time, than to invent a host of scenarios about what may happen — scenarios that normally turn out to be wrong. The best way to prepare for the future is to put our hearts into the present.”

And in throwing my heart into the present, I am trying to accept the interruptions of life. To see them, as perhaps, not interruptions — but interventions. Most of my plans are not urgent. Whether I wash the laundry now or later isn’t of great monumentality (though it is good to make sure everyone has clean undergarments). Whether I finish weeding all the garden beds this weekend or next, or mop the floor before company, and so on — really, who cares. What people care about is how they feel when I am with them. Fr. Phillipe continues,

“In every encounter with someone else, however long or short, we should make him feel we’re one hundred percent there for him at that moment, with nothing else to do except be with him and do whatever needs doing for him. Good manners, yes, but also real, heartfelt availability… A heart preoccupied by concerns and worries isn’t available to other people. Parents should remember this: children can get along happily without constantly demanding their parents’ attention, provided there are regular times when Dad or Mom have no concern except being with them.”

I am always asking God what his will is for me today — and then, when I am interrupted from what I am wanting to do, I am put off. Well, what better way for God to tell me what he wants me to do than to have my child ask me? Or my neighbor? Or my friend?

And so today, I take time for stillness. For observation. I give myself a moment (or many) to soak up this life like a cat does the sunshine.

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For seeds and soil and Saturdays

It hadn’t rained, but the plants were still drinking morning dew. The split-leaf philodendron in an oversized pot on my back patio had a large dew drop dangling from the end of its lime green leaf and I watched it catch the gaze of the morning sun as I walked by in bright blue garden shoes.

Good morning Rosemary. Good morning Thyme. G’day cilantro, I said to its neighbors.

Down the hill I tromped, an empty wire basket in one hand to collect the eggs — a stainless steel canister of chicken scraps in the other.

They saw me coming.

Like a pack of teenage girls when their favorite boy band arrives, they ran to the back door of the coop built by my husband’s hands, clucking and cackling and carrying on. There is something flattering about it, I suppose, even though I know they are most interested in that shiny object in my hand.

I creak open the wooden back gate, lift the “chicken” door that they’ve piled against and out they come, one by one: Mary Magda”hen,” Saint “Bird”adette, “Feather” Locklier… and the rest of the girls (and their rooster, Fluff. He’s beautiful. And he knows it.)

The scraps fall to the post-winter chicken yard with a thud. They eagerly inspect the goods — a mango core, toddler-rejected oatmeal and so on. Not an overly picky bunch, they scratch and peck with the purrs of contented poultry and off I go to the garden leaving them to their feast.

The potato bed needs weeding; the bib lettuce is ready to harvest. There is something so satisfying about perfectly-lined rows of edible green leaves that magically sprout from the warm, black earth. I love the smell of the garden, of soil, of morning, of the damp cedar wood around the raised garden beds.

The tall trees of the forest peek over to see: yes, the tomato plants are doing alright. The birds sing in echoing unison. The sun rises higher in the sky.

My shoulders turn pink as I pick the weeds and toss them into the canister to throw to the chickens. A panting 70-lb golden lab tries to sit in my lap while I pluck weeds from under strawberry leaves. Excuse me, I say. She doesn’t.

Excuse me, I say again — this time to the Welsummer hen who has settled herself into the egg box for laying. She gives me the eye: can I get some privacy? I quickly gather the turquoise and bright white and dark brown and wheat-colored eggs from the empty straw nests and place them carefully into my wire basket.

And back up the hill I go: with eggs in my basket and grass on my shoes; dirt under my nails and a prayer under my breath: Thank you. For these things to nurture that nourish us. For these things to love that give us peace.

For seeds and soil and Saturdays.

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How did you make your peace?

*I recently received an email from a reader that I have been in touch with since she received a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. Because I feel that other readers may relate to her sentiment, I asked her if I could share her question and my response here in hope that someone else might find encouragement. She graciously said yes. (I’ve changed her name for privacy.)

Dear Lauren,

Jacob has arrived. I love him but I’m still really not at peace with the diagnosis…at all. I was brought up in a very traditional Catholic home. At the moment I just feel very angry with religion/God. Why us? None of my friends have children with additional needs. How did you make your peace with everything?

Colleen

***

Colleen,

I’m so glad you wrote. I am reaching through the computer with a hug. Congratulations on the birth of sweet Jacob! I completely understand how you’re feeling — I had incredibly complicated emotions after Kate was born, as well. I absolutely loved her with every part of my heart, but I was sad, scared, and confused about her diagnosis. I get that. You are absolutely not alone.

If I can offer you any piece of advice to start with, I would simply say: be patient with yourself.

Your body just did an incredibly big thing and this season is tender and sensitive. It takes time to get to know any newborn, no matter what their ability. I’ve had a moment after each of my children, where I held them in the hospital, looked into their big blue eyes and thought: well, hello there, who are you?

It takes time to grow in relationship with each other and the best thing you can do now is not worry about Jacob’s diagnosis, but try and focus on doing what you would do with any baby: snuggle him, feed him, rock him, sing to him.

You don’t have to worry about what YOUR ENTIRE LIFE will be like raising a “child with special needs,” all you have to think about is what today holds. Be easy on yourself and just try and enjoy his soft skin, his new-baby scent.

And then, next week or next month or in a few months, you may need to see a specialist for something — and when that day comes, you will be ready for that. As he grows, you will grow. As his needs expand, you will be ready for them. It will be uncomfortable at times, you may feel frustrated or confused for a little longer than you think you should, but it will get better — day by day. The more you grow to know him, the more comfortable you’ll become.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of community, though. In those early days, I was surrounded by parents and a husband and friends who loved my baby girl and me and who encouraged me that everything would be OK (even if I didn’t believe them at first). If you don’t have any friends who have walked this journey, I encourage you to reach out to your local Down syndrome society. You’d be surprised at how many incredibly fun, loving, adventurous, thriving families there are with a child with Down syndrome — and not in spite of them, but quite the opposite!

So let yourself get there naturally. As Fr. Teilhard de Chardin says, don’t try to force yourself to be today what time will make of you tomorrow. We all have to go through one season to get to the next, that’s ok. Just know — you will get there.

I can honestly say today that having a child with Down syndrome is one of the most incredible gifts I have ever received. Kate is so smart, capable, funny, enjoyable. I love to just hang out with her and laugh and play. She brings out the best in everyone in our family — and they bring out the best in her. I wondered what God was doing when I first got her diagnosis as well — but now I know: he was giving me a gift.

So have patience with yourself. When tomorrow comes, you’ll be ready — when next week comes, you’ll be ready then. Day by day, you’ll have the grace you need. One of my favorite spiritual writers, Fr. Jacques Phillipe writes:
“Grace is not kept in reserve. It is humbly received day by day. It’s like the manna that fed the Hebrews in the desert: when you try to preserve it, it spoils. We must gather it up each day. This is not to say there’s no need to exercise virtue and grow, but we must not lean on ourselves and create false security in doing so. In the Our Father, when we confide our needs to God (who knows them better than we do!), we do not ask for a store of bread, we ask for the bread for each day — just what’s necessary for today, forgetting the past and not worrying about tomorrow.”
You ask me — how did you make your peace? And I can say, I didn’t make it. It slowly came to me like a butterfly in the Spring and landed on my shoulder and there it stayed. Had I chased it when it wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t have been able to catch it. But with time and grace and days fully lived with my beautiful daughter, it came to me. It will for you.

In the meantime, surround yourself with people who tell you all of this and more every day. I promise, you’ll get there.

Love,

Lauren

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