Tag Archives: fruit of the spirit

Fifteen years of longsuffering

It has been the month of patience.

Or, maybe more appropriately, it has been the month of patience being tested.

The last six weeks has held one broken leg (Dominic), two courses of antibiotics for intestinal infections (Mike and me), three trips to Thailand (all of us), and five colds.

It’s been more than a month since Dominic broke his leg and I still don’t want to write about it. Truth be told, I don’t even want to think about it. Because every time I remember hearing the crash after Mike’s mother slipped and landed on the stairs, then the long pause, then that awful, piercing shriek, it breaks my heart all over again.

And it hauls up – like a fishing net from dark depths – a whole slew of emotions.

The agony and helplessness I felt watching Dominic writhe and cry on and off during the thirty hours before we reached the hospital. Anger, because it feels like an accident that didn’t need to happen. Guilt about that anger, because accidents – unexpected and unintentional – happen, they are just part and parcel of this life. Guilt, also, that I didn’t realize immediately that something was seriously wrong. A great compassion for Mike’s mother, because I know she adores Dominic and would have changed places with him in an instant, and because I know how terrible I’d feel if it had been me that slipped on the stairs, and it could have been me. Gratitude that it was Dominic’s leg, not his head, that hit the wood so hard. Terror and an overwhelming desire to vomit whenever I visualize what would have happened if it had been his head.

And with this great mess of emotions – all slippery and flopping around and tangled up together – comes a question that is always lurking around somewhere: Is it worth it, living here?

Now, more than ever, I’m just not sure.

Dominic’s cast came off two weeks ago now. We got up early that day and caught the 7AM flight down to Bangkok. We found our way to a hospital that’s become more familiar to me than any hotel in the city.

I held Dominic in the taxi – me seatbelted in and him strapped to my chest in the baby carrier, my hand cradling the back of his head, my brain trying not to think about the likely outcome if we hit another car on the freeway. Mike held him as he screamed, terrified, while they sawed off the plaster, and then took the pictures that would tell us what was going on inside the reassuringly chubby leg.

Which meant that I was the one looking at the computer screens when the X-rays came up, and I didn’t like what I saw.

The front view showed a straight bone, but the side view showed the femur curved backwards – the spiky back part of the break still dense white and jutting out at an angle underneath the thin grey film of new bone.

The doctors told us that new bone was visible over the entire break site and that it was safe to take off his cast. They told us that bones (like so many other things in life, it seems) need to be subjected to normal daily stressors in order to prompt them to grow.  They told us that we should encourage Dominic to use the leg normally as he learns to sit, crawl, and walk.

They also told us, however, that there was no way of telling whether the femur will straighten out over time and grow normally. Because the break occurred so close to the knee, there is a significant possibility that growth will stall or, even more likely, that the bone will start to grow too fast in all sorts of funny directions.

We need to follow up via X-rays every six months for the next three years and then every year after that until the growth spurts of adolescence are over.

That’s at least fifteen years.

Fifteen years of explaining what happened to every new doctor and new school. Fifteen years of watching, of X-rays, of prayers, of keeping fingers crossed. Fifteen years of regular reminders.

It means that I can’t just leave that slew of painful emotions down in the depths and hope that if I don’t touch the thread of this particular story all those complicated feelings – starved of attention – will just wither away.

It’s early days yet, there’s no way of knowing which particular emotion is most frequently going to leap out of the morass and bite me when circumstances haul that day up from the depths of memory. Guilt? Anger? Frustration at the expense and the giant pain-in-the-ass-factor of all these follow up appointments? Grief over how this might limit Dominic’s mobility? Any of them are possibilities, but only one thing seems certain – this episode is going to push me to exercise patience in ways I’ve never before had to.

The Greek word used in Galatians 5:22 to refer to patience, makrothumia, comes from makros, “long,” and thumos, “temper.” It denotes lenience, fortitude, endurance, and longsuffering.

Before this month of patience started I thought that I had this one in the bag. Even Mike, who has a backstage pass to my life, would say that I am a patient person. I’m very skilled at controlling my reactions in the moment, at taking a deep breath and a step back, at not lashing out when I’m frustrated. It takes a great deal to make me really angry or upset.

But … the thing is … once I do get upset or angry I tend to stay churned up for a long time. Once the tipping point is reached, I hang onto all that dark energy and coddle it like a favorite pet. I feel justified in camping out under a cloud of self-pity. I have imaginary conversations during which I deliver perfect put-downs. I rehearse all the ways I’ve been wronged by others or the universe. I allow the misfortunes of the present to fuel fearful visions of the future.

Although I’ve always known that this is not my most admirable collection of qualities, I’ve never before wondered whether it had anything to do with patience. But perhaps there is more to patience than not getting upset, frustrated or angry in the first place. Perhaps true patience is also manifest in how we set about calming the storms once they’re raging?

I don’t exactly know what being “patient” with fifteen years of uncertainty about the future of that tiny, precious leg should look like. I sense, however, that it will need to move beyond not losing my temper when ugly, unwanted thoughts and feelings well up.

I suspect that weathering fifteen years of longsuffering with a patient grace will mean opening that net-full whenever circumstances haul it up and dump it at my feet. It will mean shaking loose its contents and naming these feelings, then naming the bedrock fears and expectations that have nourished them.

It will mean sifting out the thankfulness and then tossing the dross overboard.

Then turning my eyes from the depths and looking to the horizon.

Again and again.

And again.

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From Peace to Patience

Every day of life is a gift. Sometimes, however, the daily gift feels a bit like finding polyester socks – the kind that make your feet sweat and itch – under the Christmas tree.

So it has been every day this week. I’ve had a vicious head cold – the kind that makes it impossible to breathe easily and sends sharp pain through your ears. I’m also still breastfeeding, so can’t take any of the good stuff (the stuff that they now sell from behind the pharmacy counter in the US because people were buying it in bulk and using it to make illegal drugs). It’s only this morning, on day four, that I’ve started to feel marginally better and can dare to hope that I’m on the upswing.

Dominic has been grumpier and needier than normal – not that I blame him for that in the slightest. He’s been waking up multiple times a night (and here I must give a shout out to Mike for taking him away at 4 a.m. several times this week so I could try to get another hour or two of sleep). The cast means that several of my normal baby-entertainment strategies are out. Reading stories has been challenging with a sore throat and a stuffy nose, and twice this week I must admit that I sat both of us down in front of the television and watched Glee. Well, we watched Glee for at least nine and a half minutes before someone started crying and throwing things.

For the record: Not that it wasn’t tempting, but that someone wasn’t me.

Everything slows down when you have a baby in a cast, and we have to be particularly careful during these early days given that the break is above the knee. Every time I go to pick him up, change his diaper, carry him anywhere, sit him on the bed, lay him down… every movement has to be slow and gentle – a thoughtful ballet. Sleep training has also gone by the wayside for the time being. I feel I’ve accomplished almost nothing this week except practice patience.

And you know what? That part hasn’t been too hard.

I mean, sure, when he gives me all the tired signals and I put him in his crib and then he starts moaning and flapping and, finally, screaming, it’s still tiresome. When all I’m longing to do is overdose on decongestants and lie on the couch with a good book it’s really, really hard to find energy for baby play.

But then I look at his tiny body weighed down by all that plaster and 99% of the time patience is not that difficult to muster …

***

OK, all of the above was written before 10 a.m, during a brief and glorious half an hour when I was feeling pretty good about myself. You know, along the lines of: So I feel really sick and my baby’s got a broken leg and I’m making zero progress on publishing my book (what book, again? Did I write a book?) but, yeah, I’m rocking this patience thing. Someone should nominate me for sainthood. Or give me a medal. Or at least find me some ice cream.  

But that was this morning. This is this afternoon. This afternoon when my cold has reminded me that it’s not through with me yet, not by a long shot.

This afternoon with a baby who has slept for approximately 47 minutes all day and who is currently lying in his crib wide awake, screeching maniacally and yanking on the crib bars. (Did anyone else’s children basically stop napping as soon as they started eating solid food?)

This afternoon when I was going to finish this post by writing all this great stuff about how patience also seems to be rooted in empathy. But to write that stuff I sort of have to think it through first, and this afternoon I am a bear of very little brain indeed.

Oh, and also? This afternoon when the power tools next door just started up outside Dominic’s window.

I am not yet at the end of my patience rope. Not quite. But I can see that frayed knot from here.

When do you find yourself running short on patience? What is it about those situations (or people) that push your buttons?

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Peace Like A River

Two weeks after Dominic was born, Mike announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.

Fear.

In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if”. After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping merrily over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers, but they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

The Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos

(Update: In an irony of the sort you never want to live through, the day after I posted this my mother in law slipped on our stairs here in Laos and Dominic broke his femur. We are back in Laos now, but must return to Thailand for follow up in two weeks. Continued thoughts and prayers for good healing appreciated.)

Other posts in this series:

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Follow the link to read other posts linked up at the Practices of Parenting Carnival hosted by Sarah.

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On Peace and Quiet

When I think of the word peace, I always think next of the word quiet.

I’ve always been someone who is extraordinarily sensitive to sound. As a student I would find myself distracted by the rhythmic clicking of a pen all the way over the other side of the lecture theater. Even now, any tapping or drumming of fingers tends to draw my attention with all the constant compulsion that magnets offer iron. Out in public I must sometimes make a conscious effort to maintain eye contact with the person I am speaking with, or I will find myself glancing around, restless as a sparrow, monitoring the source of every other sound that is playing its squeaky shrieky part in the symphony of background noise.

I crave quiet.

They say that you never fully appreciate what you have until it’s gone, but that’s not always true. I often notice and appreciate the gentle companionship of quiet. When I hear my damp bare feet meet our wooden floors after I get out of the shower at dawn, it reminds me to exhale gratitude for these brief still moments before the day really wakes up. Last year, as I stretched my way through prenatal yoga poses, I always thrilled to the heavy silence of the empty house. When I was pregnant and living at my parent’s place, I would open the bathroom window when I got up at night to listen to the slippery rustle of the breeze taunting the leaves in the tall stand of gum trees. Then I’d shut the window again, because given a choice I will always choose silence as a sleep companion even over the nocturnal music of this magical world.

Quiet for me is not just the absence of noise; it is a calming presence that prompts me to pay attention, to feel the act of breathing, to listen out for thoughts and feelings dancing hand in hand through my head. Quiet reminds me to live rather than just exist.

I am pretty good about being present where I am, but on those rare occasions when I indulge in fantasies of being elsewhere I always think of beaches, of cabins in woods, of the hushed sigh of falling snow or the grace notes that are the pop and hiss of a fire on a cold night. I think of my parents’ house. I never find myself longing for the efficient clamour of the London underground or the din and bustle of New York with its agile taxis and steaming hot dog carts and moving, throbbing energy. Those cities have their own charm, but I never find myself longing for them. I long for the still, silent places.

On the whole, Asia is not a still, silent place. Luang Prabang is by no means Jakarta or Bangkok, but it is a place of near neighbors and thin walls. It is a place of barking dogs, roosters, axes in wood, coconuts on tin roofs, motorcycles, and a cultural more that says you’re not having fun unless people in Vietnam can hear your music playing. It is a place of power tools running right outside our kitchen window.

Silence often brings me peace. This sort of peace comes easily, as a gift, but silence is not the only courier of peace. There is also peace hard won in defiance of noise, peace chosen in the face of fear, peace found in a seemingly barren wilderness of grief.

This I believe.

But sometimes that belief falters on days when I am serenaded by the shrill screech of power saws, or I think for too long about the lack of good medical care in this country, or I receive the news that a friend has lost his mortal battle with leukemia, leaving behind a much beloved wife and two little boys. Sometimes peace seems an elusive chimera indeed.

What does the word “peace” mean to you? What brings you peace?

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More than a brighter shade of happiness

“What have you been thinking about joy recently?” Mike asked me over lunch the other day.

“I’ve been thinking about that research suggesting that people are happier before they have children,” I said. “And about how happiness and joy are different.”

“Are you going to write the easy post about how you often feel less happy on a moment to moment basis since Dominic’s birth, but you have more joy in your life?” Mike asked.

“No,” I said. “Because, although I would like to think that this is true, I’m not actually sure that it is.”

Despite the fact that joy is the theme of this month, I’ve been trying not to think too hard about the difference between happiness and joy. This question confuses me, and thinking too hard about anything confusing in the face of this enduring sleep deficit is still a struggle. But there’s no getting around it, if I’m going to exert even a half-hearted attempt to grapple with the concept of joy, this particular question must be confronted.

Mike and I first started talking about joy a couple of weekends ago when we were hanging out at Zen and I was feeling low low low. Mike asked me what I was thinking about regarding joy on that day, too. As I recall, I told him I didn’t feel at all joyful and I didn’t feel like talking about it. Also as I recall, Mike being Mike, he persevered with the conversation, anyway.

“Happiness is present focused,” Mike said when I gave in and asked him what he thought about the difference between joy and happiness. “Joy is more future focused. Also, happiness is more self-focused while joy is others-focused.”

“Like how we feel about Leslie’s and Ryan’s engagement,” Mike continued. “Objectively there’s little in it for us other than a kick ass party, so why do we feel so elated by this? I think that feeling of gladness we feel at their good news, that’s less happiness than it is joy.”

I don’t agree with Mike about joy being tied to anticipating future good things, but then again I don’t think that I’m a very future-oriented person. If anything, I get more joy from remembering past blessings than I do thinking about the future.

However, I think Mike’s point about joy being related to empathy – being rooted in an appreciation for the “good” in life even when that good doesn’t directly benefit you – is fascinating.

Many dictionaries define joy as intense or especially exultant happiness, but this doesn’t seem nuanced enough to me. Even if I don’t find it easy to pin down exactly why, I feel as if joy really should be something more than just a brighter shade of happiness – something wider and deeper, something that stems from beyond myself and my pleasures.

I think the man who listed joy as one of the “fruits of the spirit” in Galatians 5:22 would agree. That man would probably say that true joy is a by-product of our appreciation for, and relationship with, the divine.

A good friend recently made a similar point by email.

“Joy is hard to quantify, no?” she wrote. “I think that joy doesn’t always make you happy, because the fruit of the spirit is the result of the work of God in your heart and experience shows this to be not exclusively a blissful journey. (Maybe sometimes we are more like in the stage of ‘the flower-bud of the spirit’? I mean, fruit will probably come, but not for a few months yet…).”

“I love that image of a flower bud of the spirit,” I wrote back. “I will hold the image of jasmine in my mind. At least, I’ll hold it in my mind until Mike teases me that I’m really more one of those carnivorous, meat-eating flowers you find in the Amazon. And then I might wonder aloud what sort of poor marriage decision that little flower made to end up having to adapt to living in the tropics, and tell Mike that sometimes flowers just do what they have to do to survive. Then we’ll both laugh. Thank goodness that, most days, we can both still laugh.”

We did plenty of laughing this morning when Dominic suddenly decided that our dog scratching himself was the funniest sight he’d seen in his whole little life and laughed until he turned bright red and started hiccupping. Today’s so far been a good day full of long baby naps and bright baby smiles and leisurely walks under cloudy skies to pick up groceries. Today I think of Dominic and smile. Today I can say without hesitation that Dominic’s birth has brought great joy into my life.

But today doesn’t tell the whole story of this last week.

Last week at this time I was alone in the house, exhausted from several nights in a row of broken sleep, unable to escape the screech of power tools right next door, and trying in vain to settle a grumpy baby who didn’t want to put down (or to sleep). I was walking the floor of our bedroom with Dominic in my arms, crying, thinking that this could not possibly be the point of life.

I would like to be able to say that even in that desolate moment I felt that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is that I simply felt so bereft of happiness and joy that I had a hard time conceiving that I would ever really feel either happiness or joy again.

I would also like to be able to say that even during that moment that felt so joyless, I still knew that the demanding, wailing bundle in my arms had brought joy with him when he burst into my life four months ago. Yes, I would like that. But the truth of the matter is, the only thing I knew for sure in that moment was that I still wouldn’t wish his birth undone. If the Archangel Gabriel had appeared in that instant and offered me the chance to hand Dominic over, I would have refused (unless Gabriel had promised to bring him back markedly more cheerful in a couple of hours – then I would have relinquished him with great haste as well as both happiness and joy).

Perhaps I still don’t have this difference between joy and happiness all sorted out in my mind because they’re impossible to completely untangle in real life. Sometimes, I think, joy does feel like a brighter shade of happiness. But sometimes in moments when happiness is nowhere to be found, I think it can feel like peace instead. And perhaps sometimes it’s not really a feeling at all, but more an attitude, or even knowledge.

I don’t think that knowing you don’t really want to push the reset button regarding the existence of your child – even in those dark, exhausted, tear-drenched moments – quite reaches the lofty heights of joy. Perhaps, however, joy can sink its roots deep into this knowledge and continue to grow even when the fertilizer of happiness is in short supply. Because I believe now that what I discovered last month about love is also turning out to be true of joy.

Last month I wrote about how love for Dominic hadn’t swamped me like a tidal wave but was creeping in slowly and inexorably, like a rising tide. I don’t know why I expected joy to be a different kettle of fish in this regard, but I did. Subconsciously I’ve been thinking of joy as something you either have – flowering full and perfect in your life – or don’t have at all. It took my friend’s letter to make me realize that I had missed a foundational implication of the fruit of the spirit analogy – the fact that fruit, uh, grows. Slowly. As in weeks, months, and entire seasons slowly. This much I do know about the process, despite the fact that I’ve never been all that talented at growing things and prefer to buy my fruit from others who have done the hard and careful work of tending.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be easier if we could buy joy from our local grocery store or, better yet, instant-download it directly into our lives using the buy-with-one-click button on Amazon?

Easier? Maybe.

Better? I can’t articulate exactly why, but I suspect not.

I will strive to remember that as I rue the irony of spending the next month thinking about peace in the midst of our ongoing negotiations with our noisy neighbors. I will remember it tonight when I wake up in the wee dark hours, as I will inevitably do, to reach down and place a hand on a stirring baby. And I will remember it this afternoon as I go soon to get him up from his nap, change him, amuse him, feed him, love him. If part of deep joy necessarily springs from focusing on others, this mothering thing surely means that my emotional greenhouse will eventually be a fruitful, joyous, sweet mess of color. And in the meantime, there are fresh mangoes and tamarind available at the little stall just down the street. Maybe I’ll take Dominic for a walk in that direction this afternoon.

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On feeling joy-less

It is an unhappy sort of irony that ever since I switched the theme of my fruits of the spirit blog series to joy, joy has felt in rather short supply.

On Sunday Mike bundled baby bear and me into the car and took us on a surprise adventure for the afternoon – a trip to Zen, a resort on the Khan River, about half an hour from where we live.

It was a gorgeous spot on a relaxing Sunday afternoon and (despite the smile I have on my face in the photo above) how did I mostly feel? I mostly felt like this:

The neighbors behind the house have been using electric power tools to sand wood for hours every day for three weeks, which is about the same amount of time as I’ve been struggling with chronic neck pain. Mike’s away a third of the time at the moment. I’ve been worried about my milk supply. Ants keep mounting exploratory expeditions into our closet and underwear drawers and hiding places you wouldn’t expect, like cracks in the chair I routinely sit down to feed Dominic in. And Dominic, he can go most of the night without needing to eat now, but that doesn’t mean he stays asleep that whole time. Also, he seems to think 4 or 5am is the official start to the day. I can’t imagine where he got that idea from, Michael.

To make matters worse, as I’ve felt more and more depressed this last week I’ve also found myself increasingly tripping over my own inner shoulds.

I should not feel this way when I have a healthy child who smiles at me every day with the whole of his little face.

I should not feel this way when I am married to a man who means it when he tells me to wake him up if I need help in the middle of the night (when he’s in town, that is).

I should not feel this way while I live in a world where other women comb through my trash to collect empty tonic water cans – tonic water, incidentally, that I consumed with gin while sitting on the deck with Mike after he’d arrived home from work.

I should be able to hang onto a broader sense of joy, even on days when moment-by-moment happiness seems in short supply.

My inner shoulds can be useful in helping me effectively corral negative emotions, but this week they have compounded my problems. I have not only felt depressed, I have also felt weak. I have felt like a failure. I have looked out upon views like the one below and felt numb.

Do your inner shoulds help or hurt you? What inner shoulds do you find yourself tripping over?

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is joy  (which, despite the week I’ve just lived through, I do expect to return to my life one day soon).

From love to joy

Last Wednesday I talked about how the arrival of one baby coincided with the death of a dream (at least temporarily) for another.

During the first six weeks of Dominic’s life, doors with traditional publishers continued to close one after another. I received a lot of positive feedback from editors about my writing and the book, but no one was willing to take a risk on it in the current publishing climate.

It was difficult not to let this disappointment dominate my thinking or taint the joys that other areas of my life were handing me. When it comes to compliments and criticism, most people seem to be hardwired to pay attention to the negative – good marriage counselors will often tell you that it takes about five positive comments to counterbalance a single negative comment in a marriage. For me, this dynamic can come into play in other ways as well. A single negative can sometimes seem to overshadow a whole fistful of joys.

I’ve been thinking about this anew this last two weeks. Life in Laos can dish out both intensely good experiences and intensely frustrating ones and some days it’s a struggle not to let the frustrations (circular saws screeching right behind the house all day, ant bites in unmentionable places, sore neck and back, no ingredients or oven to make chocolate chip cookies when the mood strikes, crying baby) overshadow the good things in life.

So as we transition from love to joy in this series, it seems fitting to catalog some of the things that have helped fill my joy cup this past week.

  1. The cool weather appears to have arrived to stay for the next couple of months!!
  2. A husband who took the baby in the 5’s on Saturday and Sunday so that I could sleep.
  3. Two hours of uninterrupted writing time on Saturday.
  4. Walking down by the river in the cool dark of evening with Mike, pushing the pram and chatting.
  5. Celebrating Halloween with friends here with a perfectly behaved baby, the charming movie Stardust, and big bowls of kettle corn (how have I reached this age and never before experienced the deliciousness that is kettle corn??).
  6. Mike arriving home by bicycle for lunch every day this past week.
  7. Friends here announcing their engagement.
  8. Not having to do the many loads of laundry Dominic generates (how is it possible that one small being can triple an entire household’s weekly laundry??)
  9. Cointreau, tonic water, lime, and ice.
  10. Eliciting Dominic’s first real laugh (it took about 200 repetitions of peekaboo, but let’s not dwell on that).
  11. Watching Dollhouse episodes while breastfeeding.
  12. Chocolate ice cream at AB bakery.
  13. Lime green walls and passionfruit sorbet.
  14. Coming to a decision about the future of book baby (come back on Writing Wednesday for the next installment in that tale)…

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is joy.

Over to you: Do you find that the negative in life disproportionately influences your mood and thinking? And what has helped fill your joy cup lately?

The Most Versatile Word in the English Language

In these bodies we will live
In these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life
(Mumford and Sons)

Love: What wells up when Dominic flashes a wide, gummy grin of delight when I bend down and speak to him.

Love: How I feel about the chocolate ice cream that AB Bakery has just started making. Yes, folks, we may not have incredibly reliable electricity, but there’s now some good ice cream in town.

Love: The fact that Mike, despite feeling completely exhausted, dragged himself out of bed at 5:15 this morning, took our flapping, squawking child and our whimpering dog away, and let me sleep until 9.

Is there any word in the English language as versatile as the word love?

After I started to get the hang of breastfeeding (read: after I no longer wanted to cry every time the baby started to open and close his mouth like a clam and I could actually concentrate on something other than pain and technique), I started to read during daytime feedings. This is probably why Dominic went from average to above-average weight within three weeks. More than once I picked up the kindle after he was attached and then completely stopped paying attention – leaving my son to gulp until he was absolutely stuffed and then fall off and lie there, happily somnolent and dribbling milk down my stomach.

The first book I read during this time was a young adult novel called Delirium. The premise is fascinating – the 17-year-old narrator, Lena, lives in a society where love is considered a disease, something to be surgically cured when you turn 18. As the booklist review puts it, “[The author’s] masterstroke is making a strong case for love as disease: the anxiety, depression, insomnia, and impulsive behavior of the smitten do smack of infirmity.”

Lena views love as a feeling – a transformative feeling, impossible to resist. “Love,” she says, “is a single word, a wispy thing, a word no bigger or longer than an edge. That’s what it is: an edge, a razor. It draws up through the center of your life, cutting everything in two. Before and after. The rest of the world falls away on either side.” It is that most dangerous of diseases, “the one that can kill you when you have it and kill you when you don’t.”

There is some beautiful writing in this book, but ultimately it didn’t wow me. Love is too narrowly defined as passion, desire, eros. There is little exploration of agape love.

Agape love is a selfless orientation that seeks the best for another without expecting anything in return. This type of love doesn’t transform us in a moment; it transforms us slowly, as hundreds upon thousands of moments pile on top of one another to make up our days, our weeks, our months. This love is not the work of a razor but of sandpaper. Sandpaper that grinds, smooths, and ultimately fashions the very core of us into something more beautiful. It is a love powered by will rather than only by emotion, a love of choice rather than just a love of chance.

A love of choice.

I was reminded recently of the popular misconception that you do nice things for people you like and bad things to people you don’t. But the paradoxical truth of the matter appears to be that you grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm.

David McRaney in an article on the Benjamin Franklin effect put it this way:

“It is well known in psychology the cart of behavior often gets before the horse of attitude. Your actions tend to chisel away at the raw marble of your persona, carving into being the self you experience day-to-day. It doesn’t feel that way though. To conscious experience, it feels like you are the one holding the chisel, motivated by existing thoughts and beliefs. It feels as though the person wearing your pants is performing actions consistent with your established character, yet there is plenty of research suggesting otherwise. The things you do often create the things you believe.”

The things you do often create the things you believe.

Mike leaves Monday morning for a week of meetings down near the Cambodian border. He won’t be home until next Saturday night. So Mike has spent this Saturday riding around town on his bicycle stocking up on groceries and cash for me for next week, setting up a mosquito net for Dominic’s cot, finding and filing medical documents.

When I came downstairs ten minutes ago after finally managing to settle Dominic for an afternoon nap, Mike was programming the emergency number for our international health insurance company into my phone.

“What’s next on the list?” I asked.

“Washing the dog,” he said. “I’ll do it. Why don’t you lie down and put your feet up?”

This I know, I am well loved.

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love.

Things to love about coming home

We’ve been back 48 hours, and I’m way too tired to write anything deep on the current theme of love, so I thought I’d just offer a look at things I’ve loved about being back so far…

The power went out before 9am the first morning we were back, so instead of unpacking and organizing necessities like change tables and diapers we spent three hours mostly trying to stay cool. Well, Mike and I tried to stay cool. Crazy baby didn’t want to lie on the tiles for some reason so he lay on Mike and sweated his way into a bad mood. A really bad mood.

Oh, wait. I was supposed to be talking about things I’ve loved. My bad.

OK, lets talk about the stroller. I love this stroller. Seriously. I spent more time researching this stroller than I spent researching the first and only car I ever bought. Way more time. The car decision (a silver jetta) was based on two qualities – shape and colour. The fact that VW’s are pretty safe was an incidental bonus. The stroller decision, on the other hand, was made after hours of online research, the waylaying of total strangers to check out the model they were pushing and solicit their input, and much cruising of e-bay.

The stroller I finally chose and bought second hand (a City Urban Baby Jogger) is a BMW of baby prams. It has suspension and sturdy rubber wheels to deal with Laos streets, mesh panels to keep things cooler, and a swivel front wheel you can lock straight when needed. The thing slides as if greased with astroglide when you give it the merest nudge. Not for the first time, I find myself jealous of my own baby. I wish someone would put me in this stroller and push me around while I did this…

Luckily for us, Dominic seems to love the stroller almost as much as I do. We’ve taken him out and about a couple of times now as we’re reacquainting ourselves with our favourite restaurants, and he hasn’t cried once. Well, not while the stroller’s actually moving. We’ve managed one meal out of three with him asleep in the thing. The other two meals have been eaten in shifts – one of us gobbling while the other walks the grumpy munchkin.

I’m not sure Dominic likes the heat. When he hasn’t been fussing he’s spent an awful lot of time looking something like this since we arrived home:

"Gosh, life is exhausting. I could really do with a big ice cream right now"

But he hasn’t been grumpy the entire time we’ve been back. Sometimes he does this.

"Did you SEE that??? It's a red and green COW!!!"

Awwww, isn’t that cute? I love that too. I haven’t got to see that face too much in the last 48 hours, but lets not dwell on that, it’s awesome when it comes to visit. Or when he snuggles down in my arms at 4am and spits out his dummy for the sole purpose of smiling up at me. Yeah, that’s almost as good as sleep. Almost.

So what else have I loved about being back? Cinnamon buns and a mint lemon freeze at Joma. Walking the familiar streets here with Mike and not coming home absolutely dripping – the cool season’s not here quite yet, but it’s on its way. Seeing trees near the house that were knee-high when I left which are now taller than I am. Feeling our little dog lick my hand, searching for affection. Sorting and stacking baby clothes – a weird one, I know, but even though I’m absolutely exhausted there’s something fun about organizing our own space to make it baby friendly. I think they call this nesting. I think most people do it before they have a baby, but hey, I’m not always the fastest player in the game.

Have you been away lately? What’s one of your favorite things about coming home?

Looking Like Love: A Letter To My Parents

It’s been five months since I stepped off the plane from Asia, roundly pregnant at 28 weeks, and saw you both there waiting for me and smiling. The hills here were green, the cool air smelled of wet eucalyptus and the pancakes that we stopped for on the way home were heaped with berries, tiny crimson waterfalls falling from the stack. As I unpacked in this bedroom later that morning I thought that five months seemed like an eternity. So many milestones in life had to come and go before I would depart – Mike’s arrival after ten weeks apart, the baby’s arrival, then Mike’s departure, then Mike’s return. As I hung up my shirts, I found it impossible to fathom that I would ever leave here again. But next week, now, I will.

Just before his last departure, Mike asked me over dinner what I wanted to remember about this time. The first thing that came to mind was that I wanted to remember how special it has been to come home at 35, half a lifetime after I first left, and experience so many of the good aspects of being parented again while I was in the process of becoming a parent myself. I wanted to remember the precious mundane of this time we’ve had together as well as the epic. I wanted to remember moments like these…

I’ve been home four days and I’m still nervous about driving on this side of the road again. Mum takes me to my first appointment with the obstetrician, then shopping. I try to protest that I don’t need any clothes, that the ones I salvaged from the communal stockpile of maternity clothes that get passed around among expatriates in Laos will be just fine for the next three months before the baby comes. I am overruled. As Mum is marching me into changing rooms she says I will thank her later. I am far less ruffled by this particular maternal prophecy now than I was at 14, and when I wear that grey tracksuit jacket every day for two weeks straight, when I am fifteen pounds heavier and needing clothes suitable for leaving the house, I do.

I am 31 weeks pregnant and Dad suggests a walk. I don’t really want to drag my baby bulk off the couch or circumnavigate my belly to get sneakers on, but Dad reminds me that I’ll feel better if I make the effort. Now we’re outside in that magical hour of almost evening. The golden light is skimming over the grassy fields, filtering through the gum trees, dancing on the dirt road ahead of us. We talk of work and family, and frustrations and joys – occasionally breaking new ground in this familiar conversational territory. Halfway up a hill we spy wallabies feeding in the glade below. I watch them bound away, envying their speed and grace, not to mention their birthing process.

I am 35 weeks pregnant and Dad is working in South Sudan for a month. Mum’s presence in the house prevents the quiet from feeling empty, and I am amazed at how busy life still feels even now. I am wrapping up consulting work. I am talking to Mike on skype. I am driving to doctor appointments. I am napping. I am melting dark chocolate to make elaborate biscuits with malted coconut icing. Mum says she is glad I’m around, even if I make an astounding mess in the kitchen each time I bake and by the way how do I generate that much washing up? I point out that I clean up after myself (in this area, anyway). We smile. We spend easy evenings watching crime dramas and reruns of Friends. It is the middle of winter but life has the peaceful feel of a still lake on a summer day.

I am 38 weeks pregnant and it’s the night before Mike’s arrival. The thick blue and grey wrap that I commandeered from Mum’s closet two days after I arrived keeps the cold at bay as Dad and I eat Thai food under the stars. After dinner we walk next door, into one of the happiest places on earth, and Dad spends too much money on gourmet ice cream to take home because he knows it will make me smile. Later that night I wake up at 3am to pee for the third time that night, come downstairs in the dark, and help myself to seconds. As a teenager I would have covered my tracks. Now, I leave the bowl in the sink.    

It’s 5am. I’m two days overdue and finally in labour. You’ve heard Mike stirring and come out to find out if all is well and kiss me goodbye. Already in the car, half gone on this journey into pain, I say I don’t want to be kissed, I don’t want to be touched. I know you won’t mind. Later that evening, after my life has changed forever, I will ask over the phone if you could please stop and pick up a pizza on the way to the hospital. When you arrive Dad also presents sorbet, Mum gives me prunes. “Now is not the time to get constipated,” Mum says knowingly. The idea is inconceivable – I am propped up in bed, sitting awkwardly on an hour’s worth of stitching and with the miraculous trauma of the day on replay in my mind. I tell you not to worry, that I have decided to deal with that issue by just never pooing again. No one argues with me. You beam and say that you’re so proud and that Dominic is beautiful. I look at that little bundle in your arms and wonder how on earth he happened.

These are those first days home from the hospital – a bewildering blur of baby, broken sleep, and breastfeeding woes. Dad is helping Mike dig a hole so that we can plant a tree to commemorate Dominic’s birth. Mum is making lunch, and dinner, and lunch, and dinner. Dad is building a fire to keep the living room warm and we eat in there – watching the flames fashion coals, watching Dominic asleep on a blanket on the floor. Mum witnesses our first fumbling attempts to burp our child, to bath him. She thinks we aren’t dressing him warmly enough. Demonstrating unusual delicacy she bites her tongue, wondering how much advice she should venture to dish out, but I discover an advantage to having a child so many years safely distant from my own childhood. Advice is generally welcomed rather than merely tolerated, or ignored.

Dominic is five weeks old. Mike has left again, bequeathing me the baby and a score of love notes hidden in such unlikely places that I will still be finding them three weeks after his departure. Slowly, slowly, I start to find my feet in this mothering role. I venture to think that just maybe I’ll be able to join good friends for five days at a reunion. I don’t know how many times I’ve circumnavigated the world alone now, so I am amused and mildly exasperated when Mum reminds me to start packing no fewer than four times in the days leaving up to departure. It gives me the warm fuzzies, though, on the morning that we do leave to hear her telling Dominic how she’ll miss him and to find that Dad has gathered me a pile of useful miscellaneous to take – the phone charger, sunscreen, a hiking headlamp in case I need to get up in the dark and can’t find a light, two bottles of wine to share. The car is full of petrol. “It shouldn’t need to be refilled,” Dad says, “but if it does, don’t forget that it’s diesel.”

It’s 5am and Dominic is seven weeks old. I’m getting up, fumbling for the dimmed lights, stooping to pick him up for the third time tonight. I’m too tired to sit to feed so I take him to bed and lie there beside him, satisfying his demanding little mouth with my body. He kneads my breasts with small fists and makes little mewling sighs of relief as he eats. I feel like echoing them. For I know that Mum will probably turn the handle to my bedroom sometime between 5:30 and 6am, as she’s done most mornings for the past month, carry him away, and leave me a cup of tea and the chance of some more much-needed sleep in his place.

I came alone almost five months ago, and a week from today I will leave as part of a family of three. I return to all the adventures and frustrations of Laos with new responsibilities. I return determined to think through qualities like love, joy, and peace during the year ahead. I return hopeful that I will, increasingly, embody these qualities. It is perhaps harder to define what love means than to describe what it looks like, but as I work to understand and live out love in this new family that Mike and I are creating I remain unfailingly grateful for my first family and the example that you set as parents – then and now. Thank you for, so much of the time, looking like love.

Lisa

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love. Where have you seen love this week? What did it look like?