Thursday, March 22, 2012

What Meals at the Homeless Shelter Taught Me About Motherhood

Twenty years ago I was a volunteer at a day shelter for homeless women and children. I would arrive on my scheduled day and spend the morning chatting with the clients or attending their required Narcotics Anonymous meeting with them.

In my memory, I can't think of any way I was particularly useful. I remember blundering through more than one conversation, feeling like I had accidentally insulted someone. Maybe I had. But the shelter, like many others, operated with a very practical principle: the more "normal" people the clients spent time with, the better.

That makes more sense to me now than it did when I was young, idealistic and eager to "fix" people's problems. Back then, my fear of appearing snobbish left me offended at the suggestion that I was "normal" and the clients were not. Aren't we all just people? I thought, with a melodramatic quiver. But now I see the sense of it. The majority of the clients were addicts. Many of them had never known a relationship with a man that wasn't abusive. "Normal" people meant people who expected life to be free of violence or drug abuse. That expectation was powerful.

The woman who ran the shelter was a recovering addict who had been homeless herself, and had a sharp perspicacity for when someone's dire need caused them to break a rule, and when she was being snowed.  I have remembered for twenty years the way she looked a client in the eye and said, "Did not having bus fare ever keep you from getting drugs? Then it doesn't keep you from attending NA."

I have used this method more than once in my parenting.

When lunch was served, the staff and volunteers ate with the clients. There was always more than enough food, and eating together was a mark of respect, a communal sharing between everyone in the shelter.

But while I sat at the table, I never ate.

I was in a struggle with eating disorders, and eating in front of people - especially the heavy food given to women for whom this might be the only meal that day - felt impossible. I could not explain this to anyone. I felt paralyzed. I sat, but the clients noticed I was not eating. Sharing a meal is a way of sharing someone's life, and I was refusing to share.

I have thought of those meals often since then. I have thought of the irony of me trying to help women who, in this respect at least, were less broken than I was. Today, I would eat. Even if I wasn't hungry, I would make myself eat, because sharing a meal is about more than food.

 I have thought about those meals as a parent, because there are afternoons I feed my kids but do not sit down with them. I know that is a refusal to share something with them, as well as a warning sign about old problems re-emerging. So we eat dinner as a family every night. It says to my girls, "Look, I am sharing myself with you. Look, mothers must nourish themselves as well as others. Look, we are a family."

I have thought about those meals when I volunteer at a local shelter now. It is much larger than the one I volunteered at twenty years ago, and serves many more people. It serves mostly men, and the volunteers do not share the meal because every scrap is needed for the clients. If the volunteers ate the meal, it would mean someone else did not get seconds. Instead, we serve the meal, being the waiters and waitresses for the clients, and hope that shows a similar respect. It doesn't exactly, but it's the best we can do.

The economic downturn has changed things, and a friend who runs a local shelter says they see more people now who are destitute for the first time, people with shocked eyes and "normal" lives. I think at dinner about what I am modeling for my girls about "normality." This family does not expect prosperity, and if we are ever a family at the shelter, we will manage it as best we can. But this family does expect a life free from violence and drug abuse. This family expects a life of mutual sharing and nourishment. This family expects love that values each other's dignity, at meal times and all times.

I'll eat to that.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"Jesus Loves Me" at the Nursing Home

Last Sunday, I and my girls helped with a worship service at a local nursing home. I read scripture, and the kids sang.  I dressed my middle two girls, who are often mistaken for twins, in their poofiest spring dresses and put double pigtails in the six-year-old's long hair.  Residents of nursing homes do not get to spend enough time with kids, and I understood that part of our job there was to be ministers of cuteness.

The Mitchell girls and their friends were swooningly adorable as they sang "Jesus Loves Me" for the residents.

The worship service was in a medium-sized community room, and there was no place for us to sit, so we stood in front, facing the residents the whole time. I would like to tell you that my kids behaved beautifully, standing there in front of everyone. I would like to tell you that.

Yes, that sure would be nice.


I managed not to snap at my four-year-old as she was squirming and whining and almost-shrieking. Instead, I got a glimmer of an idea. "Y'know, honey," I whispered as I bent down to her. "You can hug these people."

That was all she needed to hear. My four year old is an extravert, trapped in a family of library-lovers and solitude-seekers. But here! Here was a whole room full of strangers to be charmed.

She began making the rounds. I stayed close to make sure she did not bump anyone's oxygen tube, but she was so gentle and careful, I was unnecessary. Every waking person in that room got a hug. Most of them got a kiss. And almost every resident looked down in surprise, drew back a little at first, and then hugged back, smiling like a woman getting her first love letter.

I have often heard young-ish people insulting nursing homes, speaking as though they were warehouses for stacking the elderly. That may say more about how the young person sees the elderly than how the nursing home does. I don't automatically assume a nursing home is a bad place to be. My grandfather entered a nursing home in his nineties, and he liked it, because it offered so much more social activity than my parents' home. There was always someone to talk to and something going on. But any nursing home - good or bad (and there are bad ones out there) - suffers from the same absence of children.

Our worship service was part of our congregation's "Service Week." Service Week is like a charity sampler; the congregation is strongly encouraged to volunteer during this week at one of the many ministries our church supports. The hope is that members will find a ministry they are well-suited for, one in which they will become more regularly involved.

This has been a difficult month for our family, facing the economic realities of our life and acknowledging our need for help from others.  But I am still wealthy in one precious resource.

Maybe it's time to share.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Saturday Chess

On Saturday, I took my eight year old to a chess tournament. Five chess matches, each scheduled for 50 minutes. She had three draws and two losses. We arrived at 8 AM and left after 5 PM. It was grueling.

But she adored it.

In between her matches, she ran around finding other people to play practice games with her, eager as a chipmunk with a watermelon seed. (Maybe you've never seen a chipmunk with a watermelon seed. trust me. It's enthusiasm.) When the tournament was over, she walked up and down the aisles looking for unusual chess sets, and then asking their owners to play her. Even though she did not play well, she was delighted.

I asked her later at dinner what her favorite part of the tournament had been. "THE WHOLE THING," she said.

I did not enjoy the tournament, but that's because I hate crowds, treasure Saturdays as my chance for solitude, and don't particularly enjoy chess. No other reason. But I loved seeing her light up like that. And from the moment we walked in the door, I was forcefully reminded of the boarding school I attended. The mix of people, the nerdy freedom, the intense devotion to an interest - this was the world of the math-and-science high school I lived at. I may not have enjoyed the chess, but I did enjoy the nostalgia.

And while I was sitting in a quiet corner of the Parents' Waiting Area, minding my own business, reading Sense and Sensibility, a coach from another team came over to make small talk.

"Have you been in television or movies?" he asked. "You look just like the woman who played Dr Weir on SG-1. I could have sworn that was you."

A happy child, a wave of nostalgia, and a nerdy come-on.

It was a full day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

7 Quick Takes

1. I was thinking to myself today, "With the van dying, I just didn't think to give up something for lent this year." That's right. The van that died on Fat Tuesday. The van I have lived without since Ash Wednesday. That van. It has prevented me from fasting from a privilege or taking up a new discipline. Right.

What? I'm a little slow sometimes.

But I think I got Lent covered this year.

2.  Yesterday after the two big kids caught the school bus, I pushed the two little ones in the stroller a playground. It's a two-mile walk, and the kids + stroller weigh 111 pounds, so I was feeling really virtuous. The weather was beautiful and we were enjoying ourselves when the three-year-old decided she needed to use the potty. We walked to the YMCA to make use of the facilities, and as soon as we got in the door, the sky went DARK. Ten minutes later, it was hailing. 

I was relieved that we were inside before the hail started. I let the kids play in the YMCA nursery for two hours while we waited out the worst of the storm. When I finally pushed them home, it was still raining a little, but not too bad.

See? I told you it would be AN ADVENTURE.

3. Knowing that adjustments to a van-less life would be time-consuming, I bought a ton of convenience foods for this week. I think almost everything we have eaten this week was pre-packaged by someone else. Some of you may remember my Slow Food Experiment, and know that I am not a big fan of chemical ingredients in my food. But sometimes the time-saving is necessary.

It made me realize how much a life of natural transportation (walking) is in conflict with a life of natural eating (cooking). There really is not time to do both, especially if you have a large family.

4. The kids love the school bus so far. This is a relief to me.

5. In case you did not know, there is no smoother way to be accepted as part of the landscape of a neighborhood than pushing adorable, friendly toddlers around. I have not received the glare of death from a single stranger. Instead, I get big smiles and, from other moms, sympathetic commiseration on the weight of strollers. Three-year-olds are the universal ambassador. I suggest the UN find a way to use this.

6. My parents want to buy us a used minivan. I have mixed feelings about this, but decided that refusing their gift would be more about my stubbornness than anything useful. The kids would have to give up the most if we stayed van-less, so I agreed. The plan is for my husband to fly down to Texas sometime around Easter, and then drive the van back home.

7. So will I continue our new pedestrian lifestyle after we have a minivan? I don't know. I plan to have the kids ride the bus for the rest of the year, so that will inspire us to continue some of it. But once the heavy Cincinnati summer heat starts, I doubt I'll be willing to walk much of anywhere. I am a weak creature.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Mother's Dream in Pen and Ink

She bends over her paper, intent. The black lines are crisp on the white paper, and she is drawing every scalloped leather edge on an ancient warrior's kilt, or every feather on Horus's wings. She will do this every day. Most will be abandoned for imperfections only she can see. A few will make it to the coloring stage, and she will fill the black lines from the canisters of colored pencils that sit low on our shelves, accessible to every small person.

When I had my first baby, a friend sent me a baby gift with a few lines of - I thought at the time- useless parenting advice. He said that nobody knew what they were doing in the beginning, but eventually you get into a parenting habit, and after a while discover there's a purpose to the habit. I have been a parent for eight years, and now I think his "advice" is brilliant.

When we started our kids in school, we tried violin lessons. We struggled for almost two years to transform our family culture into a musician's home. It was torture. It ended when my kids, who hated it as much as I pretended not to, blankly refused to practice or play, and their teacher refused in return to teach them. It was a mercy from him, and I am still grateful.

Now I see her bent over her drawing, and I realize: this is what I want for her. The free time I give the kids, my determination not to schedule their lives any more than the public school already does, and the ready availability I make of art materials - these have become a habit that reveals a purpose. I want her to have the chance to throw herself into something she loves just because she loves it. I want her to know the thrill of leisure time spent lost in what fascinates, because too soon she will be grown and her leisure time will all but disappear.

I want to give her the gift of love. Not just the love I feel for her, but the love she discovers for something else.

Since she was born, we have made up stories for each other. My stories for her and her sisters are often princess stories, fairy tales that begin "Once upon a time" and end with "happily ever after." But I don't make marriage the happy ending. Some people long to get married and never get to, and if my girls have that life, I do not want to add to their heartbreak by building in them the belief that marriage is their mother's expectation for them. Instead, my princesses have something they love to do, - flying kites, raising dragons, digging tunnels - and the happy ending comes when they find a way to do that thing for the rest of their lives.

My stories whisper that I want them to find a vocation in life, a calling that satisfies something deep in their soul, whether that is marriage and motherhood or something else.

And I think of that when I tape her new drawing to the kitchen wall (our fridge ran out of space long ago), wondering if this will be her lifelong love, or if she is still waiting to meet it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

This Is Why I Worry

My schoolgirls rode the bus for the first time ever today. It did not go smoothly; we waited in the rain at the stop, and the bus driver drove right by us. I called the dispatcher and used my angry voice. I'm not proud of myself in that conversation, but I suppose it will make our stop memorable. Dispatch sent the bus back to us, we walked to the stop again, and my girls stepped onto the otherwise empty bus.

I told the bus driver I will always be waiting at the corner when she drops the kids off.

I took my two preschoolers back home. Now I am sitting in my favorite chair, wearing a comfy sweater, waiting for the kettle to boil. I am a little shaky. This was more emotion than I usually experience before 10 am.

I was bullied as a kid. Most of us have been at some point. When I was eight - the same age my oldest girl is now - my family moved from the suburbs of a large city to a small Illinois town. There was not much tolerance for deviation from the mean in our new town. I was too smart, an outsider in a town where everyone had known each other since the womb, and a tomboy in a world of girly girls. All of these things made me a target.

At recess, the kids played a game they called "Medusa." I was so ugly, they told me, that my face turned people to stone. So the game was to "catch" me - which meant grabbing me and pinning my arms to my side so I couldn't get away - without making eye contact with me. My role in this "game" was to run and struggle and try to get away. They played it every recess for weeks and weeks until one particularly bad melee caused the recess volunteers to stop it.

My life in the town gradually got better. As we got older, being smart became something other kids respected, and I gained a few new friends each year. My life was not as hard as some of my friendless classmates'.

But when I think back to my childhood, the two places I always felt most helpless and most exposed to bullying were gym class and the bus stop. In gym class, there were too many ways to hurt or threaten  without getting caught. And at the bus stop, there were no adults. No one to intervene, and no chance to leave. You had to stay and wait for the bus, no matter who else was there or what they were saying or doing to you. I learned to walk the extra mile to a bus stop where I had friends.

I know that my kids will not necessarily face the same things I did. We live in a city, where differences are more tolerated, and where my kids "belong" as much as anyone does. Schools don't view bullying as the harmless right of passage they did when I was a kid. But I drove my kids to school for the last three years because I could not face them riding that bus. And now that they are, I know I can't leave them at that stop alone.

Even now. Even thirty years later.

So I told the bus driver I will always be waiting at the corner when she drops the kids off.

I could not be anywhere else.

Friday, March 09, 2012

7 Quick Takes

And this time there's a theme.

1. Our van died. Completely and utterly. It was leaking coolant from four places. The brakes were worn out. It was time to send this pony to the glue factory. She was twenty-two years old, and had been the most reliable vehicle I've ever owned. And yes, I am personalizing her now. I have never done that before. It must be part of the grieving process.

We sold her for $400 to a junkyard. If I had thought of it, I would have spray-painted her first: "Well done, my good and faithful servant."

2. We cannot afford to buy another vehicle, so we are vanless for a while. We still have the sedan that my husband uses to get to work, but we don't have a vehicle that the entire family will fit into. I called the school board and got my two school kids signed up for bus service, but we had to wait two weeks until the buses were rerouted on March 12.

In the meantime, through friends and neighbors and church folk, we arranged rides. Two weeks of borrowing vehicles or asking for help in other ways. It's a humbling experience, but I'm grateful for all the people who helped us.

 3. The older two kids start riding the school bus on Monday, and they are anxious. They have never ridden the bus before. We live in a sorta seedy neighborhood, and I won't let them wait alone at the bus stop. But I am also terribly absent-minded, and I am afraid of forgetting to meet them or something. Prayers are appreciated.

4. During the school day, the younger two girls and I, like working class people for generations before us, will depend on the city bus system for transportation. I have not been bus-dependent since before the kids were born, so this will be an adventure. AN ADVENTURE, I SAID.

5. I took the money from selling the van and have bought equipment for the kids in our new pedestrian life. A sturdy stroller, raincoats, umbrellas, comfortable sneakers, rainboots and sunglasses. We will be WALKING today, kids! I mentally practice saying this with lots of enthusiasm. AN ADVENTURE, I SAID.

6. This also means that we will need to take the bus to church every Sunday, since not only do WE not have a vehicle big enough for our family, but no one else we know has one either. If we all take the bus together, going to church every Sunday will cost us $18. Have you ever thought about what you would pay to go to church? SEE? I SAID AN ADVENTURE.

7. Some of you live in cities with excellent mass transit and you are wondering what all the fuss is about. I live in Cincinnati. This city does not have excellent mass transit. There have been improvements made recently, and I was excited to see that AT LAST! In March, Metrobus would begin selling fare cards! I would not need to bring exact change every time I rode the bus! I could put money on a fare card and swipe it whenever I rode instead!

So today I took some of my broken-van money and walked up to the Metrobus booth downtown.

"Are you guys selling the rechargeable fare cards yet?"


"I ask because I looked at the website and it said you'd start selling them in March."

"They're not selling them yet."

"Any idea when they'll start?"

"Whenever they can get the computer interface to work right."

He grinned at me. I grinned at him. It was a grin that said, "Oh? Government-contract, awarded-to-the-lowest-bidder IT work? What could go wrong?"