Friday, November 9, 2012

On Growing Up, Grief and Grace: Part 1, Growing Up

Some of you know that before our arrival here in Costa Rica in January, we had spent two years serving as foreign missionaries about six years before that. I have been thinking a lot lately about how different an experience that this year has been for me compared to those years and examining why. I want to know what has made it so much easier this time around. Not because I want to pat myself on the back (okay, it might be a temptation, but it's not the main reason) but because this life highlights so many of my hardest struggles. If I can get it right here, I need to know the formula so I can use it to get it right in the big, interior battles that I still lose far too often.

Here's what I think it comes down to. First, I have grown up an awful lot in the last six years. Second, grief has changed me. And third, grace. Just grace. Today, I am thinking about growing up.


On Growing Up
First, let me say that it is not lost on me that this time around my youngest child is the same age as my oldest child was when we left for our first missionary post. I was eight weeks postpartum with a five year old, two year old and newborn when we left for St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Life is easier in some ways with this band of brothers growing older and a little less dependent on me for their every need. It is also harder in a lot of mundane ways. More laundry. More food to buy, store, cook, prepare and clean up after. 5 people to have up and out the door, dressed and ready for school by 7 am each day. Media use to monitor. Emotional and spiritual needs to consider. When they were all little, it was exhausting. Now they're bigger and it's exhausting in different ways. But it may well be a bit easier.


The truth, though, is that I even though I had just had my third child and was five years into the journey of motherhood, I was still all too naive those six years ago about the cost of motherhood, the daily sacrifice of it all, that it was fun and joyful, yes, but that it was an awful lot of not-so-pretty hard work.
You see, I had spent my early mothering years assuming that the main part of my job was to have fun with my kids. I went to play group and library story time and the park and the play place. We had fun. More often than not, that meant that the laundry didn't get done and the dishes stayed in the sink and I forgot to think about what was for dinner. Y'all, we showed up at my big sister's house unannounced and stayed for dinner. All. The. Time. It is a credit to the kind of woman that she is that she never once looked me in the face and told me to march my spoiled butt home and cook dinner for my family. You see, that's just it, I entered marriage fresh from the role of the baby of the family. And it took me about 8 years to realize I wasn't the baby any more. No one was supposed to care of me. It was my job to do the care taking. Yeah, so I'm a little dense sometimes. I told you, the point was to recognize the faults.


So, what does all this have to do with mission? Well, it was hard work. And there were no play groups or library story times to run away to. And I was ill-prepared for it. It was hot and there was walking to be done. Food had to be cooked, over and over again every day. There were no chicken nuggets and my sister wasn't around the corner. Laundry and cloth diapers had to be hand washed and hung on the line (eventually I admitted I was lost cause at hand washing clothes and sourced help. And even though I claim to have grown up, I will confess, I am still untterly inept at hand-washing. Women in the third world amaze me with this skill on a daily basis.) Floors had to be mopped or else flies would invade. Water had to be warmed for baths. There was a lot to do. And suddenly, I realized, it was me who was supposed to be doing it.
I'd like to say I rose to the challenge, but the truth is, I caved under the weight of it all. Not right away, I was determined to be valiant about it at first. But eventually, a short eventually, it got to me. I felt the burden of never being done. Of it never being enough. My all or nothing tendencies got the best of me. I fought the urge to shut down and give up altogether. We were sick. Often. It made things harder. And about three months in, I started to look for early exit strategies to my one year commitment. To justify the need to go home and regroup, sure that if I just had my washer and dryer back, I could get this right.

This realization of the hard work ahead of me, the tendency for the daily sacrifice that stretches before me for years on end, my lack of perseverance in the face of it, it dogs me daily still. It followed me into two more mission posts and ate away at my zeal for this life over and over again until I convinced myself I couldn't do it, I wasn't cut out for it.

But you know what? I went "home" to my comforts -- a pretty house , a washer and dryer and dishwasher, a big car. And guess what? More babies came and all those things were still my job and life was still hard and it got harder. And I finally began to realize that this is what life is -- it's hard work. All the time. Never done. And if we live it intentionally, then we are always choosing one thing over the other, choosing the snuggle time on the couch over folded laundry, choosing dinner cooked and floors washed over an afternoon at the park, choosing football practice over a quiet evening at home. Always choosing. Always working. Never done. This is the life I signed up for when I gave my hand to my husband and my child-bearing potential to my God and made a commitment to take what came. What came was the joy of house full of boys and an awful lot of hard work. And a chance to battle back my worst faults and tendencies and seek holiness in the sacrifices those gifts presented me with. It seems an interesting choice for an all or nothing girl who was used to being the baby. Who is dogged by the tendency to give up when one day of perfection is drowned by a million days of mess and chaos and getting it wrong.
The tendency follows me still. On the days I get grumpy and fussy about the floors needing to be swept and mopped again. On the days I close the door on the bed full of laundry waiting to be folded and pour a cup of coffee instead. On the days I push the weight of it all off onto my husband and make it his fault that it's never done.

But I have done some growing up in spite of the temptations that I still battle daily. I am under no illusion  that life is anything but hard work. I have, for the most part, learned to do what I can with what I have where I am and let it be enough. I have learned to accept that it won't ever be perfect, but that perfectly folded laundry one day can be savored and enjoyed in the moment, that cake and ice cream for dinner are okay sometimes, that an afternoon reading aloud that means dishes piled in the sink til the morning is sometimes worth it. I have learned to let the choices be intentional and to let myself be enough. I have learned to ask for help rather than build resentment. I have learned that sometimes chaos reigns and there is very little I can do about it. And I fail at these lessons over and over again even though I have learned them. I have learned that joy is not something that happens outside these things, when I have the chance to put them all aside and pursue an adventure, an outing, a break. But that joy is here, if I choose it, in the sudsy sink and the clean pajamas and the early morning risings and the interrupted sleep. Joy is here because life is here. And life is the gift I chose above all in choosing this vocation, the gift I begged for and hoped for and yearn for still. And I have learned that failing doesn't mean we pack up and go home, seeking an easier way. It is an opportunity to seek forgiveness and begin again.
I remember reading this post on Katie Davis' blog and thinking I knew a little (not 14 times worth, but a little) of what she meant. The daily life of a mom in mission is not that different than the daily life of a mom anywhere else. I cook and cook again. I wash and fold and put away. I sweep and mop and sigh at the footprints that appear before I'm done. I tuck in and wake up and dress and bathe. I burn the used toilet paper. Okay, maybe you don't do that. But you get the point. And you know what, with the exception of the occasions on which I get a little cranky about it all, I am pretty much okay with the fact that this is how I spend the majority of my life. And that it is good.
I was not shocked by the piles of laundry that followed me into this mission post nor the messy bathrooms nor the dirty floors. These are my life. They are my life in the middle of suburbia and my life in the mountains of a developing nation. And they are my sanctity. They are the things that keep my faults ever before my eyes and keep me clinging to grace. And they are my joy. The constant joy and satisfaction brought by serving those most important to me in the most important of ways -- food, clothing, shelter -- home.
Yes, I'd say I'm good and grown up. A grown up sinful mess who still gets it wrong far too often? Yes. But a grown up nonetheless. And because of that, I am still here almost a year later. Not ready to run from the hard work, but instead, falling on my knees before the Lord and saying, "You want to do more? For more people? But you promise you'll help? That the grace will be there? Then, bring it, Big Guy. I'm ready."
And that, my friends, is a humbling place to be for the spoiled baby girl who'd rather sip coffee and read than mop the floors.

Linking up at Moments of Grace at Suscipio. Join us to share this week's grace in your life?


  1. Oh Colleen, this post is so lovely and packed full of savory nuggets to ponder and meditate.

    I have learned to let the choices be intentional and to let myself be enough.

    So many of what you called faults at the beginning of this post and then came full circle showing them to be a part of your life still...I saw the difference.

    In the beginning, they controlled who and what you did or didn't do and now you choose them and control them.

  2. Colleen, I've been following your blog for some time now. I have read through your happiness, your joy, your grief, your suffering, and your renewals. I am continually inspired by your faith, your contemplative spirit, your "single gaze" as Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity calls it. What a beautiful lesson in learning, and knowing of a very practical level, that we cannot do anything without Him? I continue to be moved and inspire by you. You are awesome to me. Grown up mess and all :)

  3. I was just praying, while listening to the rosary on tv, and prayed for help, in the form of a voice I can were that voice for me today. Thank-you...

  4. Colleen,
    Catching up on your last few blog posts and I hear a very honest, sacrificial voice speaking from a distance. I caught glimpses of my own early self in this post and my own lonely self in your recent post. Thanks for working the field with us. :)

  5. So much of this rings true. And really we are all called to be missionaries wherever we find ourselves. I certainly relate to that misconception that my main role was to be having fun with (and without) my kids. Story hours, support groups, moms groups, bells and whistles lessons, craft projects that took hours to prep and clean up from but maybe 2 minutes to DO. Life was upside down for many years. Many. I have come to realize that joy is not dependent upon entertainment - and often not even related! - but that was a slow process.

    Growing up! It takes some of us a long time. : )