by Mary Ellen Mitchell, Lydia’s House Co Director
Mary Ellen just completed a 5 month sabbatical and returned to work at Lydia’s House Jan 2. Here’s her final reflection on the time away.
It’s, effectively, the last night of this sabbatical. Sam and I leave Mexico tomorrow, and I’ll start back into Lydia’s House rotations January 2. To end this time our family took a walk on the beach, to watch the sunset. We did so in gratitude, first for the many people who hold the work we do at home so we can be here, and also for God, who created a beautiful world even though we humans keep making it ugly, and finally for good luck, as we are here during some of the worst winter weather on record in Ohio.
It’s funny how the universe or the Holy Spirit or whatever we want to call this bigger force that shapes our lives shows up. Admittedly, I’m kind of sad and kind of afraid about all the responsibility that awaits me at home. But the last few weeks have also been a reminder and preparation for returning to the life I know I’m called to, even if I’d prefer to hide out at the beach for a really long time.
Knowing I’d be watching a lot of “kid in pool” activity I looked for an audio book back in late November, and downloaded The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. I’d been interested in it when it came out, never read it, and then it seemed to appear on my screen courtesy of the library app. I’ve been listening to it each day: mostly tales of Samantha describing how she went to bat with lots of people, including Barack Obama, to try to prevent a number of genocides, while also being pregnant and nursing babies. I don’t pretend to match her tenacity or capacity but listening to her juggle these balls ignited a bit of a fire in me to get back in the good fight. My inner champion seemed to cheer, “You can do it. Yes, you can!” And over the past two weeks I’ve started reading articles again about the child tax credit, food programs, affordable housing, transportation. When Ben arrived here in Mexico I actually wanted to discuss work.
In more subtle ways, the journey of the last 15 years of my life seems to be coalescing into something coherent and beautiful, especially in family life and in the lives of my kids. When Meridith came to visit me in New Mexico I told her, “I keep being surprised at how much my children want to go back to Ohio. It’s like we created a life for them that they love.” It’s a not big deal/ huge deal that we’ve been together as a family for weeks now on vacation and everyone seems to really like each other. The largest conflict has been pool splashing. I marvel at this because this was unheard of in my childhood. NEVER EVER would we have taken an extended beach vacation to be together and play board games. Someone DEFINITELY would have gotten into a major altercation and wanted to leave early. For those that grew up in functional families, the small miracle of creating one may pass you by, but for those that didn’t you too can hear the hallelujah chorus playing as my background music.
More than peace or even joy, what I’m noticing in my kids is an awareness and inquiry about the world. Just tonight, on the beach walk, Jacob (my 6 yo) wanted to remember and talk about our family trip to protest the Lincoln Heights police gun range. He said, “Remember that time we went to the gun field and we just wanted to help kids be able to take a nap without hearing gunshots.” In my head I thought, “Why yes, yes I do. The bigger miracle is that you do, little Jacob. You were 5 years old at the time, and we forgot Sam’s shoes and we spent a lot of time dealing with his hot feet.” To him I just said, “Yes. I remember.”
As we headed home from our walk tonight, Sam confided in me, “It was kind of a hard choice for me to not go to Camp Joy (a camp for low income kids, kids with an “agency” affiliation and foster kids) again next summer, but I’m glad I made it because it was chaos.” And what followed was a discussion on why we send him to Camp Joy, why kids might get in a fist fight over beads in the craft room, and how people can be good people who also don’t deal with their feelings well, just as he used to not deal with his feelings well, say, 2 years ago, when it was common to end the night with a tantrum. We both laughed about those tantrums and I told him it took a lot from all of us to be patient with that phase, and a gift he can give to the world is to be patient with complicated people.
On the topic of life’s complications, one constant rumination of my sabbatical was how to be healthier. Is there a way to live my life and hold the things I hold and not be flattened by them? To be honest, I don’t know how things will change to be more sustainable for me when I get home. I have some ideas about a better morning routine, new recruitment avenues for young staff, less fundraising time (because fundraising is going well), more advocacy and writing, more direct and meaningful face time with guests, more emphasis on the spiritual lives of our guests and our staff. I think some of this will happen. I’m also strengthened to know that the hard work of time spent in the past paid off, transformed people, transformed me, transformed my family. The plan of the last year was a hard one but not a futile one. This life I was living back in Ohio was like a metalsmithing workshop whereby we all kept bending under extreme heat, but what I can see with some distance is that bend we did. I’m trying to find peace in knowing I’m more “metalsmither” than gardener, and that perhaps I’m headed back into that furnace.
My observation as of today is that heat is not the worst thing. In it my kids have bent into team players, people who can endure annoyance and come out on the other end, thoughtful observers of the world around them, little sponges soaking up the experiences we give them and imagining how they might act to change things from here. They are also pointed critics of realities that “make no sense” or/and “safety mongers” while also offering clear and lucid affirmations of the good. My husband has gone from self-proclaimed introvert and Bush voting Republican (at age 23) to public representative of affordable housing (he’s like best pals with the Cincinnati NPR lady) and strong advocate for the poor. While I spent idle days in this beachside condo, he was making calls to the Governor’s office lobbying against new taxes on housing intended for the bottom 30%. And over these years I’ve gone from erratic actor to strategic actor, outspoken truth teller to reserved truth teller, steam roller to planner. A friend recently told me, in response to kid challenges she’s facing, “I think teenagers, like marriage and community, mold us every day into the people God created us to be.” I’d say the same is true for the plethora of hard and sometimes futile things I/ we took on over the last decade+. (May it be even more so with teenagers, as I have one now!)
I’m happy to know that some time and silence can reveal new things about me to me, and that I think I’m still open to learning and changing, as I sit solidly in middle age. Of the things I learned over the last months some include:
- I really enjoy the work of faith formation and want to do more of it with young people
- I really enjoy watching my kids play sports and want to make time and space to that while they still play (though Sam is sure he’s going to the pros, so I’ve got many years)
- I love sunlight and natural beauty and created beauty and need more of it in my life. I feel more alive when these things are present.
- It’s really worth it to reconnect with old, good friends and make space and time for them through visits and letter writing
- I feel much more confident now than I would have ten years ago re: speaking on behalf of our guests’ needs and experiences and want to do this in more coherent ways
- I need work and life away from screens. It’s ok to call something work if it isn’t mediated by a screen. I need to limit my at home screen time and protect my kids from these beasts
I’ve realized at a deeper level I cannot do all that I want to do, shape my kids into everything I want, will the journey for my marriage that I hope it takes, respond to poverty both effectively and compassionately and be sane alone, but I think I can do these things with community and with the help of God and the gifts of the spirit. I’m strengthened in prayer knowing that the chasm between my hopes and abilities is a large one.
All in all, I’m so thankful for 5 months off of work, for all of my many hosts, for the gracious friends I met along the way who embraced me though I was temporary, for warm welcomes in many homes, and for the financial means to do this in “3 phases,” the last of which was just a month of vacation, joined by various friends, and marked most significantly by reuniting as a family of 5.