But I think I know from whence her question came. She and her best friend, both former students, had called me up late at night in fear and anguish, and MTL and I had gathered them up, plunged into their drama, and been the safe haven they could not find elsewhere. She also knows a good bit about my own drama played out over the last two years. And because of their own sufferings, I had talked with them about what happened when I was five.
I suppose MTL and I have dealt with "real life" and its sorrows better than many. It's the "easily" part that struck me, because it has not been that, not for either of us. What seemed so easy to her?
It isn't really our own strength, I told her. We both have faith in God, not to take all the hardships away or make everything go right, but to give us the strength we need to deal with what comes. We've both had to lean on him pretty heavily at times. That's what makes it look easier than it is.
I've been reminded these last two weeks just how much I do need to rely on that strength and grace, because life has been messy and draining and complicated. Those friends' drama, with its unhappy and maddening and ongoing outcome. Learning the ins and outs of a blended family and providing for and monitoring and parenting five children (plus the occasional friend staying over, which makes us a full-blown Brady Bunch even without the kitten). Attempting to deal with an angst-ridden fourteen-year-old girl who does not want to go to a new school in a new district with new people on top of starting high school.
It's bringing back some awful memories, that last one. I'm remembering too well the anger and depression of being fourteen, coming back to Michigan for a one year furlough, going into my sophomore year with people I either did not know or who might remember me vaguely from fifth grade as that weird girl from Africa. And who wants to make friends with someone who doesn't have a clue about anything that is Important like the popular clothes and music and movies and TV shows, and will be leaving at the end of the year anyway?
I get it. All too well. Add all that drama to the natural angst of being female and fourteen...
It's been interesting around here.
So last weekend when The Dark One invited me and MTL to go with her to her church (she wanted us there! with her! in a public place!) we went. We were rather delighted with the service. And the pastor, who is an energetic young man with four kids and dreadlocks. We'll be going back.
Before his sermon, Pastor Devine (pronounced "Devin") talked about the need to hand over all our burdens and worries to God so that we could come freely before Him, and he asked us to bow our heads and then raise a hand if we were in a situation where we needed that strength and grace. My right hand shot up. I felt MTL's hand cover my other, and we held each other tight as we prayed. There's grace right there, I thought, this man standing beside me.
This week has been a testing of that prayer. Each day has gotten busier and crazier as I have performed the tasks of chauffeur, launderer, cook, maid, mother, stepmother, and teacher. Yesterday was the peak. I hadn't actually written out a list of everything I needed to accomplish (which might have helped my focus, really), but if I had, it would have covered at least two pages.
At one point I caught myself getting strident as I urged the children to get their chores done and rooms cleaned before I had to take the four oldest (MTL's three + The Dark One's BFF, who has adopted us as her parents and calls us Mommy and Daddy) the 50-minute drive out to their mother's place. One of the many, many things I've learned from this new family experience is that when I start getting strident, things get worse. The kids get sulky, resentment builds, and I end up feeling guilty and mean.
So I took a break. I went upstairs and closed myself away in the sanctuary of our bedroom, and I picked up the book I had grabbed at random off my bedside table the day before. It was a God-step, because in the pages of Anne Lamott's Grace (Eventually) I found the words I needed to bring me back to center, accompanied by the wry humor that appeals to me about her work. I even underlined some lines, the ones that spoke to me and reminded me that (1) we're all in this together and we're all a mess, (2) I'm not in charge, (3) yes, parenting is hard, but that's normal, and (4) God loves me and sometimes that's not a warm and fuzzy thing.
Let me share, because she puts it all so much better than I can (well, outside my head, where this blog post was ever so much more eloquent this morning, let me tell you):
We're invited more deeply into this mystery on a daily basis, to be here as one-of; a mess like everyone else, and not in charge. That's why we hate it. (125)
Why was he [her son Sam] sabotaging himself like this...and for what? Well, this is what teenagers have to do, because otherwise they would never be able to leave home and go off to become their own people. Kids who are very close to their parents often become the worst shits, and they have to make the parents the villains so they can break free without having it hurt too much. Otherwise, the parents would have to throw rocks at them to get them out of the house. (190)
It turns out that all kids have this one tiny inbred glitch: they have their own sin, their own stains, their own will. Putting aside for a moment the divine truth of their natures, all of them are wrecked, just like the rest of us. That is the fly in the ointment... (193-194)
I had behaved badly? It all started up in me again, but this time it didn't take over, because something got there first. You want to know how big God's love is? The answer is: It's very big. It's bigger than you're comfortable with. (125)
Then I said the stupidest thing to God: I said, "I'll do anything you say." Now this always gets Jesus' attention. I could feel him look over, sideways, and steeple his fingers. And smile, that pleased-with-himself smile. "Good," I heard him say. "Now you're talking. So go home already, and deal with it." (192)
So I took a deep breath and tossed a mute Help! and I'm sorry! and Thank You! up to God, girded my mental loins, and headed back into the fray. But I made sure to talk to The Padawan and apologize for my tone and thank him for all the help he's been giving and the good job he's been doing with his chores and the little kids. And I took the time to talk to KlutzGirl about how I know it's hard to suddenly be the only girl with a bunch of boys so much of the time. And I made sure to give DramaBoy and The Widget some hugs and cuddles, however brief, in between dashing about Getting Things Done. And when I picked The Dark One up from her orientation that she hadn't wanted to attend and over which she had actually cried, I took her to 7-11 to buy a Monster, and I told her how proud I was of her for going and trying even when she really really really didn't want to.
That's grace, really, in those small yet not-so-small moments: the strength and patience to do what needs to be done without losing track of the hearts and minds and souls of those God has placed in your life. It's stretching me, making me grow in ways I never dreamed, widening my capacity for love and patience. If you had given me the same sort of day with the same sort of To-Do list just a couple of months ago, I would have broken down. Instead, the day ended in smiles and laughter and connectedness.
It all has its rewards. Last night when MTL held me close and told me how much he loves me and how much he appreciates everything I do, I told him that I finally am starting to understand what some of my friends have been saying: these friends with big families and crazy lives who say that they find joy in the insanity, that they have a sense of fulfillment in parenting such large broods.
I feel the challenge, yes, but I'm also feeling the blessing.
Today they're all gone, all of these children small and large, off to their other homes and other parents. There's a part of me that relishes the silence and sanity and prospect of uninterrupted hours spent with MTL. And there is, against all logic, a large part of me that misses them and their noise and squabbling and laughter and craziness.
It's not easy, this life. But it's full of unexpected grace and joy.
All quotes taken from Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott.