Upstairs, Downstairs

This poem was written for my former downstairs neighbour and dear friend who has now returned home to Egypt with her husband and children. It was an honour and a joy to share our lives with them, and to find a warm connection that overcame any differences.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms everywhere!! Peace be with you. May you always be supported, embraced and encouraged by your fellow moms all over the world! Go team! 🙂

 

Upstairs: a crazy crew of kids

six littles bouncing, dancing, singing, banging.

Downstairs: two small sweeties,

running, shouting, playing, laughing.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the mothers scold, cook, cuddle and caress.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the mothers mother

day and night.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women sing

in Arabic and English,

songs of faith and lullabies

unique yet universal,

of one heart.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women weep,

mourn lost babies–

precious ones snatched away too soon–

in each other’s arms

these mothers find warm comfort.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women pray,

observe Lent and Ramadan,

break their fasts and rejoice together

over homemade sweets.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women hope,

cherishing the new lives

nestled in their wombs…

little tiny babies

due at the same time.

May they be best friends!!

 

In the world there is hatred

but not in our house.

Upstairs, downstairs

there is love.

 

Every “No” is also a “Yes”

Many people struggle with saying “no.” It is so hard to disappoint people, to imagine letting them down. It feels easier to take on added stress than to refuse someone and upset them. But this attitude can lead to burnout and resentment, and endanger the peace and well-being of the person giving. Boundaries are necessary to protect these things, and having healthy boundaries means being able to say “no” without excessive guilt or worry. 

Perhaps reframing things would be helpful to those who struggle with saying “no.” Within each situation where something is refused, another positive thing is chosen. Saying “no” to taking on an extra work project over the weekend means saying “yes” to quality time with your family. Saying “no” to joining an extra committee means saying “yes” to being able to take care of your own work and family, without getting so frazzled and stressed. Saying “no” to that late night movie means saying “yes” to gettting the rest you need. Every decision involves discerning and affirming your priorities. Decisions are a way to say “yes” to the life you wish to live…and that life requires the boundary of various “no’s” to maintain it. 

I think the key, which I am trying to learn myself, is to allow yourself to say “no” calmly, without the guilt or worry that can lead to harshness or sarcasm in order to protect the fragile boundaries around yourself. It is ok, and even necessary and good to take care of yourself and make sure that whatever you do give is given freely, with a cheerful and generous heart. We need to give this good example to our children and those around us. Love can only be given freely, and that means also having the freedom to say “no.”


Many of these helpful ideas are found in the book Boundaries: When to say Yes, How to say No, to take Control of your Life by psychologists Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend. I believe I have written about this book before because I found it so eye-opening and transformative. After discussing boundaries with various people– family, spouses, children, co-workers, etc– the book ends with various tips and questions to see how you are growing in your ability to maintain your boundaries. The best quick check for responding to a request was this: if you hesitate to say “yes,” the answer is “no.” You shouldn’t have to force yourself into things because of fear of disappointing others or appearing badly. 

Remember, every “no” is also a “yes”…a “yes” to what you are able to do, what you desire to do, what makes your life better, what helps you feel free. Of course we should practice generosity and strive to live affectionately with those around us, but in the security of knowing that their love for us doesn’t depend on our unconditional “yes” to every request. And hopefully by learning to say “no” with confidence, we will also greatly respect the “no’s” of others, and never receive them with bitterness or resentment. 

Woman: part, parcel, or person?

The other night after dinner I let my kids watch a bedtime movie so I could clean the kitchen. First we chose a Jim Carry comedy about a superhero, as the kids had heard it was really funny. I gave a hesitant ok and popped in and out of the living room to make sure it was suitable.

At a certain point there was scene in a lounge with a female singer in a sparkly dress “purring” a little to confidentially to the men in the audience. My 9 year old daughter said right away, “Mom, her dress is too short.” “Yeah, kinda more like pajamas,” I agreed. “She’s being inappropriate,” stated my 7 year old bluntly, as the woman continued in the manner of an overly friendly cat, rubbing up against people. “Let’s change it,” concluded my 9 year old. So we did. 

Figuring it would be a safer bet, especially for the younger ones, we switched to a cartoon. An adventure story about archeologists. Surely this would be fine, right? Again I popped in and out to make sure while tidying the kitchen. I came in to the following scene: 

A slightly nerdy looking guy, the main character, having a discussion with a slim woman with glasses and a pony tale. There was some dangerous adventure to be had, and he objected to her going alone. Then from the other room she asked if he was offering to come along. He hummed and hawed until she reappeared, now in her “archeology outfit” which consisted of little jean shorts and a small, revealing tank top. Her glasses were also removed. All his hesitation disappeared, and no surprise: of course, he was coming!

Perhaps kids won’t really notice this subtly sexual joke, likely put in there for the adults watching, but what message does it actually send to girls? Guys won’t be willing to make sacrifices for you because of your friendship or your brains, but you can be sure they’ll do anything for your boobs. Great! And we really think feminism has advanced so far…

Whether or not women’s bodies are being presented as sources of power and control over men (again, this is a manipulative rather than healthy message), the fact is what seems to matter about women is their parts…the pieces of their bodies that interest men. Perhaps brains are also presented as a good thing, but only as long as they come in a pretty package. 

Parts. Packages. Juicy bits. What are we talking about here? Cars, internet bundles, steaks? Things. We are still talking about women as if they were things instead of people. This is objectification. Do we want our daughters to be objectified? 

 
What really matters about women is that they are people, and like men, each one of them is unique, irreplaceable, and worthy of love and respect. Tell me Hollywood, when are you going to grow up enough to share this message? It is one of true beauty and of hope for relationships that actually respect each person as a person, and just not a set of spare parts to be used for fun…until a better model comes along. 

Do we treat our husbands as well as our friends?

Sometimes we wives and moms can be having a hard day, and are perhaps very tired or stressed, but when a friend calls we perk up and feel much better. And when a friend is in need emotionally, we find the time and strength to be present to them, offering a listening ear, encouraging words, and understanding heart…We are able to give the best of ourselves to friends, even when we are drained.

We wouldn’t imagine saying, “I’ve had a rough day, so I’m going to blast a heap of bitterness into the first available ear, even if it’s my dear friend.” Or “I think I’ll sting my friend with repeated sarcasm if she attempts to make me feel better. What does she know?”

Why then, do we women often do exactly that with our husband, as if our every struggle was his personal fault? As if he should cower under our mood, and be culpable if he doesn’t read our mind and fan us with palm branches before we mention being hot…

We’ve been taught to be very self-righteous as women, and very suspicious of men, but I ask you, is this prickly attitude making us happy? Does it not foster division in our marriages, and dissatisfaction in ourselves?

I grew up with three brothers, whom I love a lot, so I have a hard time buying the “evil men” stereotype. Personally I think we human beings are all fairly imperfect, but still kind of wonderful.

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Ultimately we are the ones who have to make ourselves happy, who with the help of grace have to choose happiness despite life’s challenges. Blaming someone else for all our troubles only traps us in the cage of our own weakness. We wouldn’t blame all our challenges on our friends, so why would we choose (even subconsciously) to blame them on our husbands, who are supposed to be our best friends?

The role of a best friend is to love us no matter what and to walk with us through life, always by our side. It isn’t to carry us so we don’t even have to use our legs. It’s to support us in happy and sad times, but not to provide a godlike dose of happiness and protection from all sadness. You can be vulnerable and honest with your husband without expecting him to be able to fix everything. Don’t deify your spouse. Accept and love him as a human being who is worthy of your respect and tenderness, even if he’s not a superhero. Remember inside there is still a little boy who needs your love.

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Perhaps you and I are never grumpy or sarcastic with our spouses (ahem!), but for those mortals who are, I think this is good advice: try to treat your husband with the same kindness and understanding you do your friends. And of course all this advice applies to men as well, in how lovingly they should treat their wives.

This year let’s take responsibility for our happiness by trying to be our best selves, not just with our friends, but with our spouse. In doing so we will become better people, and give him a chance to do the same. And it is in this striving to become the best version of ourselves that we will find peace and happiness.

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“Do Not Be Afraid of Tenderness.”

These were words Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio spoke during the homily at the Mass inaugurating his pontificate as Pope Francis. They echoed the first words of Pope John Paul II: “Do not be afraid,” spoken when the threat of Cold War still loomed. But they have a distinctive twist that catches my heart, and seems particularly relevant for today’s world.

How often, in the business of our daily lives, in our many interactions with neighbours, strangers, co-workers, friends and even family members, are we mindful of the need for tenderness? Is it not easier to be brusque, dismissive, too busy to care, too busy to listen when someone is longing to open up their heart?

And yet listening attentively, with tenderness and understanding, is a powerful gift which can change someone’s whole day, and perhaps much more. It makes the other feel valued, respected, and cherished.

It is a deep need of our souls to be received like this, to feel that we are journeying through life accompanied by friends and family who love us, and by fellow human beings who value us. I can’t express how much it means for me that people I love take the time, even over the phone, to listen to my joys and struggles, to encourage me and console me.

This kind of tenderness is a gift we can all give. It affirms the sacredness of the other, that they have value and are worth our time…worth dropping everything for a moment for. In our materialist “time is money” culture this tender listening is so needed. It is what deepens relationships and builds community. It is what binds us together no matter what our culture, finances or background, bringing unity in diversity.

I hope that we can extend this attentiveness to people beyond our immediate circle of friends. To the person waiting with you at the bus stop. To the grocery clerk or banker. To the homeless man you see every day. To the neighbour who needs a smile and a kind word. And to our spouse and children when we are tired and don’t feel like it. This is perhaps the hardest one.

It is difficult to be truly present to the little ones who tramp around all day demanding it. But it’s so important to have special moments together, even if they are brief. There is an add on the bus for helping troubled youth that says something like, “Tell kids they matter. They’ll believe you.” Listening to our children’s little stories, as well as those of other people we meet in our day, is a way of telling them they matter.

So in our busy, individualistic world, more concerned with productivity and money than relationships, don’t be afraid to take time for tenderness.

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