Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bearing Fruit

A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love. ~ St. Basil

The Harvest Theme is prevalent this time of year. All cultures, from indigenous peoples to urban landscapes, seem to take time to relish hard work's results. Many elementary schools will offer field trips to go apple picking, churches will be hosting harvest festivals, high schools will have homecoming weekends and businesses will even bring their financial picture to a close for the year. Although the calendar year continues for several more months, the time of harvest is one of celebration, appreciation, goal accomplishment and bounty. It's also a time to take stock in what went well in the past year, and a time to plan ahead for next. Whether we are evaluating our home's garden, or our financial gains, we have an exceptional opportunity to see which areas bore fruit and which did not.

In a garden, most plants will bloom each year, given the correct conditions. Plants need the proper amounts of sunshine, water, fertilizer or nutrients and soil. They need to be pruned regularly to remove excess growth in the wrong places. They need to be studied and cared for. Yet, despite our best efforts, there are years in which our trees do not bear fruit, our flowers never blossom and our vegetables remain stunted. Our garden may appear to have stalled. We can pour over our notes, ask other gardeners and inquire of our neighbors similar plants. In the long run, however, if a plant has stopped bearing fruit, despite our best intentions, then it's time to cut it back to the ground. Some plants will respond well to this harsh treatment; they'll come back fuller and healthier the next season. Others, however, remain lifeless and useless. These are the plants we need to remove, roots and all. If we don't take the roots out carefully and completely, weak stems will continue to spring up and will suck the life away from healthier plants. We have to excavate all trace of these plants to allow those around them to flourish, and to allow for the sowing of new plants in their place.

Our lives can sometimes feel like a garden that's not doing well. There will be some areas of our lives that are thriving. These aspects are receiving the correct, balanced amount of time, care and compassion. Other areas may seem to suck the lifeblood out of us. We may feel drained, angry, bitter, unappreciated and uncomfortable. However, for many of us, we would rather carry on in a job, a relationship or a habit pattern that is unhealthy than to hack away at the life-draining roots of the problems. It's never easy to make those cuts. We don't want to feel like "quitters". We don't want to let people down. We don't want to feel as if we have failed. If we change our attitude regarding this non-fruit bearing areas in our lives, we will find that we can make the drastic cuts with a clear conscience.

The first step is to identify those parts of our lives from which we receive no satisfaction, from which we feel stymied from making a valued contribution or from which we feel distressed. We have to take an honest appraisal of our schedules. What is taking up the most time? How do we feel about that commitment? Is it gratifying or soul-wrenching? Not every part of our day is going to be fun. Yet there are some commitments that act like emotional vampires, robbing us of our ability for growth in our more productive areas. Sometimes, this may entail walking away from a committee, on which we find we have absolutely no voice or role to play. We may find that
we spend more time debating than accomplishing our mission. For others this may involve ending a relationship. At one time or another, all of us have been involved with people who are draining, volatile and overly demanding. They give us no positive reflection in our lives, but only take what they want, treating us badly. It's never easy to cut out a person from our lives, but there are times it must be done in order to preserve our other relationships...and our very well being. We have to be methodical, polite and pragmatic in this process, acknowledging our own enabling but in the end, still cutting that person out of our lives, down to the root. Leaving a job that's not working is also challenging, especially if we need that position for our income. In this instance, it may not be possible to simply slash and burn as we quit. We need to think of our future as we would planting a garden: we tend to prepare the soil by contacting employment services and reading the classified ads, as well as to inform our contacts that we are job hunting. We need to prepare our resumes as we would prepare a seed to be planted, and then scatter those seeds in the places we believe they'll take the firmest hold. Finally, we need to add the right amounts of confidence and persistence, as we would add sunshine and water to our garden. When the new plant of our new job begins, we can remove the old roots...politely.

The bearing of fruit in our lives is incalculably important. We want to be productive, positive, joyful, creative and engaged people. This will not happen overnight. Just as a garden can take years to cultivate and grow, so will the fruit of our efforts. But, if we make small changes to improve our outlook, our perspective and our goals, we can begin to see the tiniest green chutes of success begin peeking through the soil. With attention, focus and meticulous care, we can find that our harvest, one year from now, will one of plenty.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cain and Abel...what's a mother to do?

The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new. ~Rajneesh

In my theology course, we're slowly making our way through the Old Testament this term. Although many of the Biblical stories are familiar to me, I find that I'm reading these words with a new awareness. So much of the mythic qualities of the Bible tend to become "Jungized" in our minds; we lose track of the specifics of the tales and remember the archetypal symbols. As I read through the 4th chapter of Genesis, in preparation for my weekly presentation, I read Cain and Abel's story in a completely different way than I had as a child. I read the story with a mother's heart. That one brother would 'rise up and kill' another over petty jealousy is among a mother's worst nightmare.

At no point in the Genesis account of God's dealing with the first case of sibling rivalry is Eve mentioned. Eve, mother of both Cain and Abel, must have been heartbroken. One son lies dead, murdered by his own brother. The other brother is exiled from his home to go to "the Land of Nod" with only an ambiguous reference to a "mark" as protection. How did Eve handle this dramatic and devastating turn of events? What did Adam do? How do parents get over the loss of both of their children in one day? In the Biblical account, Adam and Eve are not featured players. Their only mention was by way of introduction in telling us who the boys' parents were. But, we know nothing about their parenting, if the boys had always argued over which sea to part or who received a bigger portion at dinner. The fact is, Cain and Abel are born....and because God shows favor to Abel, he is murdered. No serpent is needed to play the sly 'idea planter'. No rationale is given to us, other than Cain's jealousy. We are left in the dark about the boys' childhood, about the events leading up to our culture's first murder and to the family reaction. This would not make an easy case to be built on C.S.I. Too many of the details are missing.

Although she is not mentioned, other than having 'known' her husband and giving birth to a 'male child', Eve must have gone through an unimaginable time of loss. Because the Bible is based on oral tradition, having been told around nomadic campfires for millennia before it was written down, I can't help but be certain that the storytellers, who perpetuated this piece of the Genesis puzzle, were exclusively male. Every woman I know would want more details. There isn't a mother alive who would be willing to simply look at the larger picture, taking the life lessons from the story, and moving on, without wondering how Eve felt and what she did. I can only imagine her complete sense of disillusionment with God's Creation. Men may be able to gloss over these losses, but women need to cry, to talk through the situation and to ask themselves what they could have done differently. Eve must have felt like a failure: first, she gets her husband and herself kicked out of the Garden of Eden (her dream home), and then settling in the wilderness, gives birth to two boys, without an epidural or a baby shower. When the boys begin to fight, Eve has no idea what to do. There is no parenting support group. She doesn't have a mother to call to say "Ma, these boys are driving me crazy!". When the worst happens, and her life is torn apart yet again, it is difficult for me to imagine her turning to God for help. He seems to be done with her. What's Eve to do next?

Sibling rivalry is never easy for a parent. In my own case, it came as a complete shock to me. Because I'm an only child, I harbored fantasies about having siblings and how much fun it would be. I imagined that we would always play nicely together, and that there would always be someone to talk to. It never occurred to me that brothers and sisters would fight. Having two children almost exactly two years apart, I imagined my two being best friends forever. I thought about how they would go apple picking, go to the beach, go bike riding and even share books. I dreamed that they would call each other, as they got older, almost daily, and share a unique bond because they share my husband's and my DNA. Reality is different from fantasy, isn't it? While I am thankful that my children do not harbor the "Cain and Abel" syndrome of extreme sibling jealousy, I can say that there have been hostile words, shoving hands, nasty comments and death stares across the table. There have been car rides that turned into cage matches. There have been items chucked across the room that were never intended to be used as weapons. In short, life with siblings hasn't been perfect. Although they played well as young children, by the time they hit middle school, war had been declared and battle lines had been drawn. What my children failed to understand is that every harsh word, every time they excluded their brother or sister, each nasty action broke my heart just a little bit. They believe that their relationship is between them...and only them. They do not fathom that the way the treat each other reflects on how I've tried to mother them: to be loving, kind, generous and courageous. I did not raise them to be petty, snarky, vindictive or rude. In the words of Andy Warhol "I just want everybody to like everybody".

Interestingly, during our discussion on this topic in divinity class, I was the only student to wonder about Eve. I am also the only mother actively parenting two children. The majority of the discussion centered around motivation, weapons and the impact on civilization. These are all noble, fascinating and interesting topics of conversation. They're clearly more common than my own ponderings as to whether or not Eve used 'time out' with the boys or took away bird watching privileges. I wish I could meet Eve for the years before the scene played out to its dire end. I wonder if she could have used a sympathetic ear, a mother's night out or some brainstorming strategies to get those boys to behave. I also wish I could pick her brain about being the mother of civilization as we know it. But, that might have to be a discussion for another time. In short, I wonder if Eve was as emotionally exhausted as most mothers are today. I wonder if she was surprised by Cain's vicious attack, or if she would have shook her head sadly and said, "I saw it coming, but there was nothing I could do."

Being a mother is challenging on the best of days. We love our children, and we want them to love each other. We hope that they will take the very best of the lessons we try to teach them and bring those out into the world. We do not expect them to behave like cranky, irresponsible, angry beasts. As we read any book, whether it's the Bible, or a popular piece of fiction, we read it with eyes that have come from experience. It's virtually impossible to separate our lives from our ways of interpretation. What is important to us in life will be the details we pick up the most on as we read. The Bible isn't any different in this sense: stories that speak to our hearts are the ones that resonate with us. As a mother of two, I found that my interpretation of Genesis 4 was radically different from that of my classmates. Perhaps that's one of the most fascinating aspects of education...what we bring into the classroom is what we can share with others.

While I'll never be able to encourage Eve to treat the boys evenly, and to build up their self-esteem in the ways in which each of her sons needed it most, I can relate to her 'untold' part of this story: that of a mother dealing with sibling rivalry. As my children have grown up, their conflicts are less pronounced and they even have fun together once again. I may still not like it when they bicker or pointedly ignore one another, but I do see an improvement that's come with maturity. I no longer have to referee the "I'm not touching you!" drama coming from the back seat of the car. But, I can still pray, encourage and hope for my son and daughter to establish a positive relationship as they get older.

At least, I won't have to pull over to the side of the road and seethe, "Nobody is ever to touch anybody again!".