a goodbye blessing

My son, riches I have not to offer you.
But still, I can baptize this departure.
May my whispered prayers continue to ring in your ears,
long after the din of the world has faded away.
May my embrace be a warm foretaste of the One who has called you
and claimed you long before I was ever made your mother.
May I inhale the scent of your innocence with sorrow.
May I exhale only love.
I will annoint you with these tears, my son.
Let their salt nourish you.
And if indeed, it is possible to die of a broken heart,
like it so often feels to be, I will go to meet death with willingness
and kiss him with tender lips,
if it means you will have life.

I love you.

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FRBO: A Heart

If you take down the No Vacancy sign posted on your heart… all the amenities will attract Him in— He Who is known to frequent such places. And what decor!

-Blackout curtains to prevent light from coming in.
-Linens crafted with the blend of Treachery and True.
-War and Peace weighing heavy on the sagging bookshelf.
-Cockroaches in the corners, cobwebs collecting dust and the faint, musty scent of hidden mold.

But the water always runs hot! And the price is only one, human crucifixion, even during the high season! It’s His favorite type of suite to occupy.

Lodging fit for a King.

He’ll rest His Head here.
Crack the window.
Replace all synthetic fabrics with pure ones.
Abridge Tolstoy.
Scatter the varmints and wash the walls with His blood.

It’ll be like a brand new place…

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Littleness, Truth and Happy Endings.

Last week, I worked particularly hard one day. Hard for one not accustomed to fast-paced, public work anyway. And I walked home. And it was hotter than the breath of a devil. I collapsed on my couch, curled up in the fetal position and just wanted to be left alone. Ironic since being alone is so manifestly available to me lately—and resented.  Yet there I was. Ever the ingrate. Ever self-seeking. And my beautiful seven babies were restless. They did not see the grueling pace of what I had been doing for the past several hours. They could not understand why I didn’t want to bounce right up and devise infinite avenues of fun to be had in the heat of this evening’s devil breath. And they begged. Bordering just enough on whining but still able to stay on the side of rational where I would hear them.  “Mama, mama! Come play!” “We need to do something!”

And I resented them. And my body screamed “Go away! I love you to pieces but I want you all to just snuggle here with me and fall into blissful slumber. But you want to actually be active right now?! You want my attention right now?!  Dear God, say it ain’t so!” But—to my surprised horror– I heard my mouth utter a “Fine, go load up in the truck and we’ll take the kayak out”…  granted, it was spoken with a few extra pounds of resignation, and not nearly the levity of cheerfulnesss that I wished I could’ve mustered.

And we went. And we made the best of it. There were a few minor scuffles about who sat where in the truck and who got to be first on the water but by and large, a solidarity is usually found at the water’s edge for my family. Hermit crabs were poked and prodded and captured. Baby bums were soaked at unbalanced tottering along the rocks. And so on. The older children loved being in the kayak. They loved the freedom and independence of paddling out there alone. The little ones loved going out for rides with Mama. I loved… well, pretty much only that they loved it. And the fantasy that I could potentially love kayaking someday if only it came dressed up in peace and solitude.

Then the fight to get everyone loaded back up and home. The ill-timed bathroom needs. The smell of seaweed and the grit of sand in the folds of skin.  And it was hard. And my patience had run out. So we bumbled our way home and ate some cheese and crackers called dinner and tottered into bed, with protests and resistance.

Then I cried. And I let exhausted tears wash my cheeks and then my valiant mind tried to war with my bitter heart for being such a weakling… but my heart won. And my “Yes” to the present moment was nullified since it decided to show up heavily saddled with all the baggage of qualifications and conditions of my will that a selfish woman like me likes to carry around. So I rebuked myself and fell asleep.

The end.

It’s true. There was no happy ending that day.  When I wrote this initially, I wanted to be able to weave in a tidy,  little lesson of virtue here.  I’ll even share with you what I drafted out:

Then, I leaned into my weakness by clutching my miraculous medal and recited my favorite 3-word prayer (“God have mercy”) and allowed myself to fully feel my littleness. My reluctant will. My incomplete surrender.  My heart empty of virtue. And instead of turning in on myself and filling this vacancy with thoughts of shame and disgust and irritation… I offered it to Him. My baby Jesus to come fill this filthy-barnyard, smelly, manger of a soul with His presence.  And my pride died a mini-death. And what I then said “Yes” to… was my very inadequacy to do or be any good outside of Him.  And I nearly smiled in being nothing—yet everything— because I was simply His tiny, pathetic daughter. My ramshackle soul presented so much space for HIM to transform and heal and fill…. I imagine like those fixer-uppers on TV who get so excited transforming homes when they have a generous amount of money with which to work.  How excited must my Jesus be to fix-up my heart when His budget and energy are inexhaustible?! I am His perfect project.

And I found some freedom in that. And peace. And God. What else could I possibly want?!

I know. It sounds so meaningful and heartfelt, right?! And it was.  But it wasn’t very honest. I didn’t end that day with holy, peaceful inspirations. I fell asleep on a pillowcase wet with tears and drool and completely devoid of sanctifying thoughts. (And if, through writing, I am anything other than honest, I have no business saying anything at all.)  As it is, I wrote that little paragraph as an editor would like to revise a script that she just read. “Well, everything seemed to be going smoothly, with a moderate amount of interest… but your ending was just really, really crappy. So let me fix that up here…”  That’s the ending I wish I would’ve had to that night.

But I have to believe there is some merit in retrospective goodwill. I have to trust that the desire to revise my life script counts for something… and further, that it inspires something for future chapters. Sometimes  writers or bloggers seem to have the pretense of authority or “figured-it-out-iveness” that has always bothered me.  (Pride hates pride, see…) And I never want to be like that. The intention of this little corner of cyberspace isn’t to preach anything to anyone about how I’ve mastered my vocation, my faith, or life.  I am here as a fellow sojourner… pointing out interesting sights along my path… offering to share a bench with others as needed… chattering about beautiful books to read along the way… running out of fuel sometimes… and wiping off my face, just like anyone else who bites the dust often. I’m little and foolish, that much is true.  But that much does indeed purchase a liberty in which I will be delighted to end my life’s story.

 

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Life in Plan B

No one ever chooses to stand outside of Time. It’s only in moments of tremendous grief or personal upheaval that time itself serves an abrupt eviction. And standing there in a cosmic void of uncertainty, you can only examine the wreckage of expectations with a primal instinct. And lacking any cues to survival, the best that can be done is to begin searching through the rubble for any fragments of ‘normal’ that can be found. And so begins the long, hard work of rebuilding an identity.

* * *

I am a single mother of seven children now. I am not a widow. I am not a divorcee. And I am sacramentally bound to my husband until death do us part. But the process of legal separation has been a brutal reality check on a life that I thought I had all figured out. An identity I thought I had all figured out. I have been with this man for half of my life and on our 15th wedding anniversary this past December, barely a word was spoken between us.  When we started dating, he was my world. I looked to him to show me and tell me who I was, for better or worse. When the ring was on my finger, I delighted in being “his” wife and the Mrs. in front of his name. When the children were born, I thought we were complete and that hand-in-hand we’d let the fire of our love ignite and evangelize the world through the raising of good, wholesome children. I knew there’d be trials… but never, ever dreamed that I’d have to come up with a Plan B.

Yet here I am. 35 years old and navigating how to make sense of Plan B as best as I can. I have to provide for my family for the first time so I work in a restaurant to supplement the child support in order to make ends meet. I am not a stay-at-home wife anymore. The lives of my children have been thrown into extraordinary trauma, so they’ve all been enrolled in school. I am not the home educator anymore. Years of tending babies throughout the night now leave me restless and awake at all hours, haunted by the silence.  And my breasts ache to nurse the baby who is denied his mother’s embrace. I am not an attachment parent anymore. I do not go out on dates. I do not enjoy Valentine’s Day. I do not feel the complete happiness and satisfaction I once knew hanging out with our married friends, but I have no place among the young singles either.

* * *

What is most bewildering is the forgetting that happens outside of time. Faces you know and love may come to visit. And they will offer some comfort: a breaking of the bread or companions in the search for artifacts of consolation. “A sorrow shared is a half joy.” But the faces know what the native can’t seem to remember: life goes on. Elsewhere. Inside the proper laws of time and space and a reasonable continuum of normal.  A place where babies are born, brides are kissed and dogs are played with at the park. So a choice has to be made. Build a bridge to this Elsewhere. Or stay longer and continue to water seeds of bitterness that can never bear fruit. Keep trying to warm the dead body with a torn up blanket or take the blanket to a friend and have her help you stitch it back together.

* * *

Plan B is a no-man’s land in the world of devout Catholicism. While broken families are the norm in the larger culture, being separated with children makes you a demographic ghost in my particular community. People aren’t quite sure how to make sense of what happened to our family and without cutting through what fragile threads of privacy I imagine to remain, I am forced to live with question marks tattooed on my face and speculation following me around like a personal rain cloud. It’s not my job to correct misunderstandings about how the public perceives my situation. It is only my job to be who I am and be that well.

My identity now is the same as it’s always been; I’m  just seeing it for the first time. My self-worth and character are not in the context of another person and should never have been. I am the daughter of a good, royal Father who wants nothing but the best for His children. So He gives us the Cross. Married, single, religious, or ghost… it doesn’t matter, He gives us the Cross that becomes our identity. If we can drain our ego enough to fill up on the Blood and Water that gives us life, we won’t just “accept” our cross, but we will long for it and kiss the beloved wood that will carry us to Heaven.

I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know how much more I will have to lean on the extraordinary charity of all my friends—my myriad of Simons— to help me carry this Cross. I don’t know how much longer I’ll vacillate wildly between laughter and tears, hope and grief. I don’t know if my husband will ever be open to reconciliation. I don’t know how God plans to shield and save my children through this. I don’t know the end to my story. But I am trying to be patient and faithful in living it. For some people, it’s not even so much that He’s exactly authoring our story… but that He’s ripping pages away from the book we thought we had all written out already, The Divine Editor if you will. When all is said and done, we do know that He promised to work all things for the good of those who love Him.  His ways are mysterious— to be sure. But I know that I love Him the most that a broken, little fool can and thankfully… that is enough.

* * *

Time won’t wait. And time won’t promise to never toss you out again. He is cruel. But there is a way to beat him. At least, I hear it’s so.  Bury down deep, into the beating, bleeding heart of the One who beat time at his own game. And time will roll over you, high above searching for his victim, thrashing and gnashing about, like a storm inciting the ocean to a boil.  But beneath the waves,  inside The Heart, you can’t get tossed.  Time will call your number but the Heart has already called you by name.
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Pride: A Self-Inventory

Have you ever been tired of your tummy pudge and after consulting Dr. Google, found out that the idea of “spot toning” is really not a viable one?  Depressing isn’t it? When you realize that you can’t just do 50 sit-ups a day and poof! the spare tire will disappear.  The reality is that, any physical trainer worth their salt will recommend a much more holistic approach and be sure to  include cardio and strength training along with healthy eating in order to combat excess weight.  There are no magic short-cuts for long-term changes.

So it is with the spiritual life. Some people recognize how much they struggle with gossip, so they start to shut their mouths and ears just a little bit more and hope to beat it.  Others have a short temper… so they practice deep breathing techniques and maybe invest in a punching bag.  And these things will help.  Every isolated struggle we face can be addressed and combatted head on and small changes (with varying degrees of success) can be expected.

But it won’t work for the long haul. There will be backsliding. You’ll wonder why your list of sins sounds like a tired old record player, even though you feel true contrition and have true amendment to change. To be forged by fire into who we are called to be, I.e. saints, there’s only one painful path:  taking a shotgun and firing a heavy round of buckshot into your ego.  As pride is the father of all sins, humility is the mother of all virtues.

I have loved praying the Litany of Humility ever since I first heard about it… but it’s alway been a struggle to pray it with sincere enthusiasm.  Over the years, and after logging a little more time in at the Range of Life Humiliations, the prayer has become a comforting salve to me, healing and protecting me from the inevitable defects that set me back. But I keep returning to it, so prone I am to the inflammation of pride. And it does its job on some level—reawakens in me the desire to be grounded in my identity as nothing other than a fool for God. Indeed I only grit my teeth a tiny bit now, toward the end of the prayer… I’m still a work in progress.

Anyway, one of the things that has taken me many years to learn is just how interwoven pride is in so many of my character defects.  I’ve never had to uproot it so thoroughly from my heart as I have lately and turns out that pride is a nasty weed that has a quite the complicated root system.  (As an aside, if a gardener could do his weeding with a shotgun, I’m sure he would, but the rest of us will have to labor through my awkward, mixed metaphors here with patience.) Something like ‘being a control freak’… is a form of pride.  Obsessing over your imperfect looks… a form of pride. Wanting to divulge others’ secrets… a form of pride.  I was stunned when I learned that even the horrible feeling of “self hate” is a mutated form of pride (Fr. Jacque Philippe said so, okay!  And that means it’s Gospel.  The two cent version of this concept is that if we loathe ourselves, it’s because we have created a false idea of who we are supposed to be and rely on our powers—rather than God— to be that way… despairing when we fall short. More or less anyway.)

I thought it might be useful to make a corollary list for sinners like me to go through.  I got all excited thinking how useful it would be to my readers and how great of an idea it was before I found out that St. Josemaria Escriva (and probably hundreds of others) have already been there, done that, and I’m only a couple hundred years late to the ball game.  So. I will only distil some of what far smarter people have already conceptualized for us (and before I forget, the chapter called “The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity is an absolute must read for all Christians. Read that chapter every other month or so, in fact.)  Please don’t use this list as a prompting to scupulosity. Most of these aren’t sins per se, but warts on our character that just need to be filed off to really maximize the efforts we are making to truly grow in virtue.  As with all the vices, the way to beat pride isn’t to just try and eliminate it… but to replace it by practicing the opposite virtue.

Self-inventory for the Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.


From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

  • Do I enjoy being considered pious, virtuous or holy and try to demonstrate what that “looks like” outwardly?

From the desire of being loved…

  • Do I try to make myself seem interesting or unique to win the esteem of others?

From the desire of being extolled …

  • Do I bat away compliments in an effort to hear them emphasized or repeated?
  • Do I forget that all the gifts, talents or blessings I have are simply on loan to me, and not my own?

From the desire of being honored …

  • Do I make a point to name drop so others will be impressed by my associations?
  • Do I get annoyed when I feel like someone is patronizing me?

From the desire of being praised …

  • Do I purposefully put myself down in an underhanded attempt to get people to contradict and praise me?

From the desire of being preferred to others…

  • Do I get jealous of the attention others get from people I admire?

From the desire of being consulted …

  • Do I like to be considered an expert in any area (cooking, web design, babywearing, fantasy football, etc.)?
  • Do I regularly offer my opinions when they are not asked?

From the desire of being approved …

  • Do I make a point to demonstrate how witty, knowledgeable, or special I am by inserting my anecdotes into conversations?
  • Do I try and serve only the best food or wear only the most fashionable clothing or drive only the nicest cars?

From the fear of being humiliated …

  • Do I hide or make excuses for my flaws or bad decisions?
  • Do I refuse to accept help or charity even when needed?

From the fear of being despised…

  • Do I avoid controversial situations or debates because I don’t want people to think badly of me?

From the fear of suffering rebukes …

  • Do I have the need to get the last word in an argument… even if I’m right?
  • Do I refuse to back down on a position even if I’m wrong?
  • Do I resist apologizing to others, especially under the reasoning of ‘they don’t deserve it.’?

From the fear of being calumniated …

  • Do I have to clear my name whenever I perceive it to be sullied?

From the fear of being forgotten …

  • Do I always have a story to share in group conversations?
  • Do I like to be in the know regarding the details of everyone’s personal lives?

From the fear of being ridiculed …

  • Am I embarrassed by doing menial jobs or not having certain possessions or lifestyles?

From the fear of being wronged …

From the fear of being suspected …

  • Do I act defensively or deny wrongdoing rather than sometimes, bearing wrongs patiently?

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

  • Am I envious of the happiness in others’ close friendships and/or romances?

That others may be esteemed more than I …

  • Do I think my ideas are always the right or best ones?
  • Do I resist taking the advice of others?

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease …

  • Do I want to be considered the “life of the party”, the “brains behind the operation”, the “deep thinker” or “the fantastic host” etc. ?
  • Do I insist on having my own way?

That others may be chosen and I set aside…

  • Do I put myself in position to be recommended or chosen in some way?

That others may be praised and I unnoticed …

  • Do I get hurt or annoyed when I hear others being complimented or praised, even if they don’t deserve it?
  • Do I make sure people see me being generous or doing good works?

That others may be preferred to me in everything…

  • Do I get upset if I’ve not been invited to social events, chosen for a leadership position or selected for promotion?
  • Do I compare myself to others all the time?

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

  • Do I have ‘spiritual envy’?
  • Do I get discouraged when I sin and dwell on my shortcomings?
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Springtime with Kevin Henkes

In the same way that Jan Brett shines best in winter, Kevin Henkes was made for springtime.  While he is now a prolific picture book author/illustrator, it seems that all his best works embody spring somehow. Maybe it’s his color palette… simple but strong colors in very restrained but delightful shapes. Whatever the case may be, his books are always strong favorites in my house for the younger set… so I wanted to highlight his best of spring themes. I’ve always thought it would be fun to gift a certain THEME of books among my children— I’m thinking Easter baskets here; certain author themes would fit this well too!

Brand new this year and nearly wordless… four eggs hatch and an unexpected friendship ensues.

Last year, this book stole my heart for its burst of color and sweet text. A wonderful primary-age celebration of spring.

The sweet little “Mama loves you” story… also available as a board book!

Let the birding season begin! This is my very favorite *early* bird book.

A board book perfect for a toddler’s Easter basket… an ode to candy basically. 😀

A potentially bad day… reframed. Not just for kids.

Gardening season is beginnning! Kick it off with this imaginative girl…

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Spiritual Direction for Each Temperament

Ever been too intimidated to try reading the Summa? Or found little, pithy lessons on Proverbs to be “fluff”?  It’s probably just the type of person you are…

Well, I found something genius.  I’ve read so much on the temperaments over the years that I tend to gloss over the details nowadays. But I read that entire file and soaked up every word.  Honing in on the right kind of spiritual path for each person is really an excellent way to grow in virtue.  And what works for a Sanguine will not work for a Phlegmatic necessarily… so knowing the base tendencies we are sort of born with can really help us figure out the best way to stretch our hearts and grow in faith.

If you don’t know your temperament, I recommend this test. I think it is the most credible one you’ll find on the web and the same one found in the excellent book, Temperament God Gave You. Remember, we can’t use our temperaments to excuse bad behavior or make stodgy claims like “Well, that’s just the way I am!” Christ Himself is said to be the perfect embodiment of all the temperaments. And many saints worked on their characters so hard as to mitigate the negative side of their inborn tendencies while simultaneously cultivating characteristics that may not come naturally to them.

Once you’ve got a pretty good idea of what your base tendencies are, you can begin looking at what *type* of spiritual direction is ideal for you… assuming you don’t have a real, live, holy human at your ready.

I used Fr. Christian Kappes’ analysis of the temperaments to make a suggested reading list for each type of person.  I recommend reading the entire analysis to “know thyself” but here are just a few book ideas for each type to get you started:

Melancholic:

(“The melancholic needs to experience tenderness and love of her soul created and cherished by God. Thus the melancholic must refrain from literature that exacerbates despair and a sense of guilt that already (for the melancholic) penetrates to the bone.”)

Introduction to the Devout Life
Finding God’s Will for You
I Believe in Love
Searching for and Maintaining Peace
In the School of the Holy Spirit
The Reed of God
Into Your Hands, Father: Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us

Choleric:

(“She needs to hear and acknowledge her defects and pride as personal sins to be attributed to her own volition. The devil is usually the scapegoat for the choleric.”)

The Twelve Steps to Holiness and Salvation
The Imitation of Christ
The Spiritual Combat
The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for our Lives Today
Humility of Heart
The Way, Furrow, the Forge
Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and the Gospel on Prayer

Sanguine:

(“…because of her weakness for immediate and gratifying pleasures, short, pithy say- ings and stories will speak to her temperament. Lengthy biographies and tomes on the spiritual life are often lost in distractions and overwhelming spiritual lethargy.”)

Way to Happiness: An Inspiring Guide to Peace, Hope and Contentment
Peace of Soul
Called to Be Holy
Reflections on the Psalms
Mother Angelica’s Private and Pithy Lessons from Scripture
Anima Christi: Soul of Christ
Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems

Phlegmatic:

(“Recommended are the more passionate and less intellectual and ideational works.”)

Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas
The Life of Christ
Abandonment to Divine Providence
The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Divine Intimacy
The Joy in Loving: a Guide to Daily Living
Interior Castle

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An Open Letter To Vestibule Mothers

*** originally published in Soul Gardening Journal in 2013 ***

Dear Vestibule Mothers,

IMG_4050     Your arms are tired, your blood sugar is getting low and poor baby Oswald just can’t stop squirming/screaming. So there you are in the vestibule at Mass. As usual. You’d invite others to your self-pity party but frankly, everyone is rather relieved you left with your whining child so besides a couple other long-suffering parents, you’re on your own. You sigh with the resignation of a reluctant saint, “Well, at least I’m here, right.”  And you wonder just how far away is the day of a peaceful Mass in your life. You can just imagine how wonderful it will be; you can hear the bells of Consecration; you can even smell the incense if you’re lucky. But for now, you wait in the vestibule, gritting your teeth in disbelief or shame at just how naughty your child is acting.

     Don’t lose heart! Those peaceful days of quiet worship will come before we know it. But in the meantime, the attitude of “at least I showed up” can be so much greater. In truth, the sacrifices given to us that we accept lovingly, are worth a thousand times more than any self-imposed sacrifices. So don’t squander this Cross! The graces of Mass are real and vibrant and present even in the narthex or cry room of the building. We may not “feel” them but thank God our religion isn’t one based on subjective feelings anyway! Jesus promised our lives would be hard; the sweet glory of a peaceful Mass would really be just an extra consolation. The vestibule is like Purgatory fellow sojourners. Devote your time there for those forgotten souls in Purgatory. Every time you walk to the back of the church with an unruly one, think of it as a gift and smile on the inside for the offering you get to present to Jesus on behalf of these poor souls. For they are like you: waiting and suffering just outside the doors of the Heavenly Banquet.  

Yours Truly,

Ellie

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Catching up with 2016, Christmas and Otherwise


So it’s been an off and on year with blog writing for me. But I finally took a morning and traipsed through the bookstore grabbing a large stack of new picture books to settle down and preview. Coupled with a flurry of library holds, I feel adequately qualified in my investigative research now!  My finger has not been on the pulse of all immediate releases this year until now and I thought I’d share what I’ve discovered:

jefFirst of all, the rather depressing news.  There are no brand new Christmas themed books that really blow my dress up this year.  I mean sure, Gingerbread Christmas will get Jan Brett’s typical cult following.  If one is an accomplished enough artist, customers are willing to overlook a weak story.  And well, I just felt like it was a bit contrived. I liked Gingerbread Baby as a fresh spin on the old tale but kind of thought the mischievous whimsy should’ve stopped there. Incidentally, last year’s re-release of Gingerbread Man, illustrated by Richard Scarry is still one of my favorite renditions of the folktale and at less than $4, it’s a bargain.  And then there’s the one that’s getting the biggest press from publishers: Christmas Boot.  But while Pinkney never disappoints in his illustrations, I personally felt like the story was kind of a tired sort of regurgitation of a dozen other Christmas stories. That’s not to say it’s bad… but after reviewing hundreds of Christmas stories, I am looking for novel stories at this point. Christmas Crocodile was somewhat novel… and I always appreciate a good humorous break from the saccharine, emotional stories.  So that was pretty fun…

Honestly, I think the best Christmas-specific book released this year is actually another Golden Book by Richard Scarry… that of The Animals’ Merry Christmas. These vintage tales never go out of style and they stand head and shoulders above some of the newer fare that tries to force a Christmas SOMETHING down our throats.  Other than that, Christmas Fox is the only other title that peaked my interest but I’ve not had a chance to see it in person yet. And the Ephipany book The Christmas Horse and the Three Wise Men looks really lovely but not particularly novel. Epiphany suffers from the Thanksgiving syndrome… where it seems like the majority of picture books related to those holidays get in the rut of just rehashing the same story in different words each time.  This is why The Third Gift was the best thing to happen to Epiphany books since… well… ever. I consider it a must-have.

So let’s dive into some of the more exciting titles of the year…

 Before Morning is the only book in this post that I haven’t actually seen yet, great! Saw it! Love it. A contemporary story with just a working mother shown (no explanation of dad’s absence which I like) but with very classic illustrations. Beautiful! but illustrator Beth Krommes has never disappointed me yet. It looks absolutely glorious and seems to have that magical, lyrical perfection down of text matching illustrations…My very favorite book (so far) illustrated by Krommes is Blue on Blue but Grandmother Winter is a close second!

 

 And check it out!  Marla Frazee was able to nail an excellent, equally delightful sequel to Boss Baby about the new baby sister.  Bossier Baby is just as much fun and Frazee still stands out as my favorite baby illustrator of all time!

 

 

 Coupled with ABC Dream, Kim Trans has created a beautiful duo with 123 Dream.  Her artwork is stunning and the subtlety with which she illustrates her point is so appreciated.  These books would make a wonderful gift for a toddler… a gift that the adult would appreciate too.

 

 

 Circle is a living book that any curious child would be lucky to stumble upon.  Collage artist/writer Jeannie Baker first made her mark on me with the innovative book Mirror and she continues her excellence here. The story follows the migration of the world’s farthest traveling animal, the godwit.  And the spreads that show the curve of the earth are exquisite…

 

 Fun, bright, fold-out pages make Hocus Pocus, it’s Fall! a charming addition to any autumn book basket. There’s nothing profound here, just magical words on each page and rich, vibrant colors to get you in the mood for the season.  The first book here was Abracadabra, it’s Spring, which I thought equally gorgeous. I hope they end up doing a title for Summer and Winter also… they’d all make a lovely gifting set.

 

 Donkey-Donkey is an old title from 1940 that was reprinted this year much to the delight of Roger Duvoisin fans like myself.  It’s the classic tale of an animal unhappy with his lot who tries to be like everyone else before realizing that he’s just fine being himself.  It’s the modern theme of “celebrate your unique self” done with natural taste and charm.  I love how Duvoisin speaks occasionally to the reader, similar to Beatrix Potter and other children’s authors who don’t take themselves too seriously.

“But pigs have slow minds. Donkey-Donkey waited a long time. He counted up to one hundred but Rosa was still thinking. I suspect in fact that she just went to sleep.”

* Intermission Nota Bene…*

Unlike a lot of other picture book reviewers, I’m skipping over several other 2016 titles that  have made news lately. There is a large movement from publishers to produce books that are excellent in graphic design lately. Seems like all the ‘cool, new, hip’ picture books are ones that feature a particular flavor of simple, contemporary graphic art. Now, a lot of this is great art… don’t get me wrong. I just think that picture books deserve to be published only if there is a great marriage between word and image… and I for one am not willing to suffer through a mediocre story just to see some hipster images…

 But hey, look at this!  Pond by Jim LaMarche!  It’s been 16 years since we’ve delighted in La Marche’s naturalist beauty found in The Raft, and I’m not sure if Pond is designed to be a sequel in the proper sense, but it’s hard not to draw parallels. The story does the same thing in paying attention to the natural world while still progressing the plot… it begins in mid-winter and goes through the year.  After La Marche illustrated the superb Winter is Coming, it’s evident that he just keeps getting better and better with each title.

 The Bear and the Piano.  Easy. Fun. Great illustrations.  A sweet little story to delight all budding musicians or those unsure of their own talents. Definitely worth checking out.

 

 

 I finally got to see The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles and, as suspected, I loved it. Erin Stead’s illustrations are perfect, soft and inviting in this evocative, simple story about a lonely man who finds friendship… really well done!

 

 

 Finding Wild is one of those graphic arts tour de excellence that I stuck my nose up at in the intermission.  The difference is the text. It reads like spoken word poetry and manages to encourage people to appreciate wild spaces, big and small, without becoming preachy about environmental issues.

 

 The Night Gardener.  Simple, beautiful, whimsy.  This is one of those fun little stories that aren’t necessarily the most profound or gorgeous things in life but has the potential to be a child’s favorite.  I have learned with my own kids, that there are certain flavors of quirkiness in tales that they just adore and beg to have repeated again and again.

 

Let’s see, I already raved about The White Cat and the Monk, which leaves only one last thing I need to gush about: A Child of Books… the pièce de résistance of 2016… and that’s only because I feel like this book is my autobiography. I’m not sure I would’ve initially picked Oliver Jeffers to be the illustrator in my life story but upon reflection, it makes sense… his work is messy and stylistically unorthodox but simple and authentic too.  So those adjectives probably fit me quite well.

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Misericordia

(Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Soul Gardening Journal)

In reflecting on my own wretched pitifulness the other day, I was disgusted to think of the squalor I had to offer God. Just broken promises, half-hearted prayers and a controlling greed in trying to manage my own life. People like to remark about how St. Thérèse was so humble and sweet in just wanting to be a tiny, insignificant flower in the garden of Our Lord. In a jaded huff, I wondered if God loved the weeds in His garden too.

     What do I have? Nothing.

besides-gods-mercy-there-is-no-other-source-pope-john-paul-ii  And then my three year old crashed my pity party by tromping in, pants torn, runny nose, face and body covered in various shades of filth from robust play in the muddy section of our yard… tears on his cheeks over some infraction from a rowdy sibling. He looked remarkably like an orphan from a Dickens novel. My heart melted. My thoughts went from my egotistical musings to my child. I scooped him up and held him on my lap, rocking him and smoothing back his hair and letting him wipe the nose on my shirt. It was gross. But it was precisely this grossness that tugged at what mercy I have in my selfish heart. Had he been clean as a whistle, carefully groomed and composed in coming to me, my love would not have overflowed in such a powerful way.

     Mercy in Latin is misericordia… or literally having a pain in your heart. In so many revelations to saints, especially to St. Faustina, Christ discusses how His divine heart is actually attracted to misery. I was perplexed when I first heard that, but I think we mothers can get it. When are we at our most merciful and nurturing?! When a child is hurt or sad. All the great spiritual masters warn us not to dwell on our failings lest the evil one start to manipulate our minds. We are to shake ourselves off and try again with new resolve, even if we have to do this dozens of times every day. If God comes running when we are in our most pathetic state, I can’t think of anything more consoling. We can be His ugly, broken children, but we are not orphans. Just as my son in his pathetic moment was not just a disheveled, distasteful boy, we are not the sum of our ugliness and sin. Our disorders do not define us. And just how I managed to look past his grime to see his innocent little heart— wanting nothing more than to restore him to peace and make him feel loved,   our Father desires to do the same with us. He is not repulsed by our miserable natures; His greatest desire is to heal us and and show us His love. He is not the angry schoolmarm in the sky tsk’ing our every bad move. God is love and “Love’s middle name is Mercy.”

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