Category Archives: Bits About Life

Sometimes Everything Isn’t Going to be Okay.

(and that’s okay…)
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St. Stephen… who suffered a second martyrdom in our home.

I’ve written before how God can transform our hardened hearts, how an unwanted pregnancy does not end in an unwanted child. It has been four years since my ‘unwanted pregnancy’ has been born now and I can say with absolute conviction that he is still incredibly special and an unrepeatable part of our family. That child has taught me so, so much and I am thankful for him in a way that is unique to him alone.

Two babies later, I am not feeling the cold detachment or fear that I felt with that pregnancy. But unlike child number six, I’m not feeling over the moon either. I don’t know what it is… a quiet, melancholic resolution I suppose. I do trust that this child will be loved and will be the source of unspeakable joy for my family. But it’s okay to say that everything might not be okay. It’s okay to express non-elation.

As Catholics, we confide in each other about a million different ‘spiritually correct’ fears. We can trade worries over moving or schooling or finances or illnesses or childhood behavior. But we still hide that terrifying piece of our sinful selves that harbors fear over an unwelcome conception. It just seems like such an abortive mentality I suppose! But the truth is begging to be told, to be shown, to be LIVED that unwanted pregnancies do not end in unwanted children! We already have our defenses up because our families are big; I get that. We certainly don’t need to add more fuel to the fire the secular world had against us who would offer no sympathy to our plight: “You made your bed, now you have to lie in it!”  So we shut our mouths and pretend this was all part of our plan. But even in our own faith circles?! Are we afraid of being judged? I am. But I am also able to see the fool in myself who couldn’t pretend to be perfectly pious if she tried.  (And she has. And she failed.) So with no false pretenses weighing me down, I can say honestly: I don’t feel thrilled about having another baby right now.  But something that is different now that I’ve learned… is that I don’t feel fear.

Here’s the thing, everything might be awful for a while. Having a baby next spring doesn’t change the fact that our house needs an immense amount of work, that my husband is still in a highly stressful job, that my children’s behavior needs improvement, that we are still reeling from medical bills, that our vehicle is getting too small, that there is no spare bed in which to home the baby, that I’m a terrible housekeeper, that there are relationships in my life that are delicate and painful.  No. There are still and always will be challenges. “Crosses come custom made.” (right, Helen?!) At the end of the day, I may have nothing to offer but my broken bits of failure to God. I will have mountains left undone. My to-do list will not be conquered.  But it’s okay. He didn’t ask for success, or efficiency or completion or even an organized plan. He asked for faithfulness. Nothing else should trouble us…

Last week I attended the funeral of my friend’s daughter whose life was cut tragically short by a brain aneurysm. The pain and tears were abundant that day for our entire community. But the death of that beautiful girl offered me one sweet consolation— her life was not in vain. She was unrepeatable. Life is a mysterious gift. No matter what. And I went home experiencing for the first time something that I’ve been longing to experience since I found out I was pregnant: gratitude for this life inside of me. There are so many things we do not know or understand or foresee in this world. Be it done unto me…

It’s as if we think there is this magical nirvana place of peace that we keep aiming for and we imagine that a new baby disrupts that nirvana and makes us start the journey over. You know the feeling… you wonder when you can finally get rid of your baby clothes and carseats and when you can book a family vacation and enjoy it rather than just do damage control all weekend. Or when you can hang a family portrait on the wall of what you know to be “the whole family.” Or when you’ll be diaper free and you get your bed to yourself again or you get to finally convert a bedroom to the office you’ve needed for so long… then along comes another baby and oops! Reset. Life starts over again…even if your gray hairs are already growing in.

In truth, there IS a magical place of peace and it’s called Heaven. Happy and content isn’t found here on earth. Joy is… to be sure.  But it is flavored with the salt of beautiful tears. This is our Calvary.  And we won’t ever reach a place of ‘problem free’ so long as we are Christians! If it’s not babies, it’s strained relationships. if it’s not relationships, it’s poverty. If it’s not poverty, it’s poor health. Maybe it’s all of the above! Happy are you whose sufferings are great… souls will be saved if you do not squander your cross!

So no, I do not feel fear with this baby. I can’t possibly see how everything will be “just fine”… when there are physical and mental and spiritual challenges that need to be addressed still. I wasn’t “ready” as far as my finite brain could see. But I do know that I’m not asked to see the big picture. I am simply asked to do the next right thing.  And if we can stop basking in the first world luxury of overthinking and analyzing everything to just break life down into something as simple as that: doing the next right thing… everything WILL be all right,  in the eternal end that is. Life will be hard, for some more than others.  But how great is our love?  I pray you and I deepen our love every single day.  And in my experience, there has been no more proven way to deepen my love than to open my heart to a new, unique child… who was known by the Creator before all ages. Be done unto me…

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Misunderstood.

“Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood!”

In a purple robe clinging to His freshly made wounds and with spittle dripping down His bloody face, He could’ve transformed that Crown of Thorns into pure jewel-laden gold and smote His enemies with the blink of an eye. King of the Jews indeed… but He didn’t.

One of my favorite things to meditate on throughout the Sorrowful Mysteries is just how often Jesus Christ allowed Himself to be misunderstood. Pilate couldn’t probe Him. The soldiers couldn’t break Him. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. He lived who He was very clearly and very transparently, but never made it His mission to make sure every single person understood His every single word. Nor did He ensure that every heart would be converted to His message.

Today, so many of us are crippled by the perceived need to make ourselves understood to the world. It’s something I’ve fought for years. If we are newly converted, we want to shove all our conversion books on everyone we know. If we send our kids to public school, or private school or home-school, we feel defensive and want everyone to know how carefully we’ve considered our choices. We need to explain why we go to the Latin Mass or the Ordinary Form Mass. Or why we dress the way we do or why we eat this and not that, making sure everyone knows that we don’t normally allow our children soda and cookies, but it’s a special occasion. Or that your house isn’t normally this messy but, what are the chances?!… your visitor showed up on laundry day. Oh to strengthen those tongue muscles by just. keeping. silence!

And then there’s the whole other, though related, pity the develops when we misspeak and spend so much faithful energy trying to explain what we really meant or backpedalling to make sure people don’t get the wrong idea about what we were trying to say. (Oh how I know this one well…)

Don’t misunderstand me (!), I think clarity of expression is critical in our world. And I think we need to be responsible in the perceptions we create to others with our choice of words, dress, lifestyle, etc. But we can not become slaves to the god of living in the other’s minds. And I think it’s sad that we feel the need to rationalize all our decisions to our pretend jury and explain ourselves over and over to our pretend judge. Somewhere inside us, if we are being honest, it’s clear that desires to explain and defend ourselves result from a misplaced need to be valued and respected by the other person. This is human and understandable. But we are called to something greater and it often comes at the price of losing human respect…

The truth is, we will be misunderstood. It’s a guarantee if you are living life they way you are supposed to be living! The best speakers, the best writers, the best communicators… all of us will be taken for acting hateful or self-righteous or harboring ulterior motives. For those who take great pains to be articulate in expression, this is a painful cross. But how absurd to think we can be greater than our Master!

There are a couple people in my life to whom I have sincerely wanted to create a particular impression. I admit it. God forgive my pride, but I wanted these people to think I was thoughtful, intelligent and holy. Invariably, He has allowed circumstances to be such that I am always somehow presenting the most foolish, inane, regrettable parts of me in front of these people. I accept it now. It keeps me humble to know that I can’t escape the fool inside of me apparently just clamoring to get out.

But the real pain comes from those whom we love the most. Our spouses. Our children. Our parents, siblings and close friends. Sometimes we do or say something to these dear ones and it causes confusion or hurt or anger. Sometimes they think we’ve deliberately tried to offend them or they misinterpret our motives. And sometimes no amount of defense or pleading or explaining can make it better… and we ache to know that we’ve been yet again, misunderstood.

We can not control what people will think of us. We can only be authentic and hope to live with a consistent ethic of life. It’s not our job to change the world or to convince others about how sensible we are or intelligent we are or thoughtful we are, not even those who know us best and love us best. Sometimes, despite pure motives, despite holy motives, we are asked to suffer the great tragedy of being misunderstood. Our job in life is not to control perceptions, is not to change minds or win converts like trophies on a shelf. It’s not even to be understood. People will hate you. And they will misunderstand you. And that’s okay. We have a One Man audience to please and He knows our hearts and will count all those moments as roses laid before His throne…

Why should we defend ourselves when we are misunderstood and misjudged? Let us leave that aside. Let us not say anything. It is so sweet to let others judge us in any way they like. O blessed silence, which gives so much peace to the soul!

—St. Thérèse of Liseux

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A Large Family Manifesto

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xjp1This is my firstborn. When we became pregnant, people were worried it was too soon after getting married. They thought we needed time to get used to married life together first. But we were open.  And he was born… forever changing our lives with a lightening bolt of a never before experienced love. He is a boy with a keen sense of justice. He loves to read and play football and is very skilled at making small children feel special. We wonder what great things will be in his future. Maybe he’ll go on to be a sport’s legend or open an excellent children’s hospital.  Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll live a simple life and just be the guy who talks someone off a ledge someday. And that someone goes on to start a scholarship fund for at-risk youth. Maybe...

DSC_0153This is our second son, born two years later. News of his pregnancy was received pretty well. We had been ‘reasonable’ in our two year spacing and everyone was excited for our child to have a sibling.  And he was born… piercing our hearts with a sword of intensity and love never before experienced. He is passionate and particular. He is a talented musician, an accomplished baker and a quick student. Maybe he’ll grow up to compose award winning pieces to a full, formal music hall. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just grow up with a boring job that he performs faithfully and get married to a decent girl and they live a normal life. Maybe he’ll become the father of three children, one of whom becomes a Supreme Court Judge that enacts major social change and is lauded for her intelligence. Maybe…

DSC_0042This is our third son. Upon announcing his birth, we received congratulations and then the gentle suggestion that it was time to ‘stop.’ Recommendations that my husband ‘get clipped’ were made. Three was enough, they said. And he was born, but even under difficult, imperfect circumstances, we found our hearts made shockingly new once again with a love never before experienced. He is a comedian and creative performer.  He is also unbelievably tender. Maybe he’ll grow up to become a holy and sought-after priest. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll simply live a normal life. Maybe he’ll become a police officer and marry a woman and become a father. And his simple dedication to goodness and selflessness become an inspiration to everyone who knows him. Maybe…

DSC_0606This is our first daughter. According to the commentators, she shouldn’t have happened. She tipped us over the edge of ‘responsible’ parenthood but people soon forgave us because she was a girl. You finally got your girl! Now you can stop. They said. And she was born in a beautiful, loving, peaceful environment. And the stars danced and the world was brand new and we discovered a love never before experienced.  She is an artist. She is sensitive and fierce. Full of a gentleness and a spirit-fire the color of her hair. Maybe she’ll grow up to be an award winning scientist and find new ways of making alternative energies efficient, forever bettering the world. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll get married but remain childless. But through hard work and sacrifice, she and her husband are able to save lots of money and help many others around them, blessing people in life changing ways with their generosity and maybe even foster parenting the child who will go on to develop cost-effective energy solutions. Maybe…

IMG_5962This is our fifth child. People thought we were fools when we announced his pregnancy. They gave my swollen belly scornful looks in the grocery store and told me I was irresponsible. We had too many they said. But I held my head high, proud of my children while still fighting back anger and sadness at their comments. If only they knew how much I loved them. And he was born. And our hearts cracked open and we plumbed new dimensions of love never before experienced. He is generous and loyal and in love with the living world. He teaches us about human dignity in a way none of our other children ever have. Maybe he’ll grow up to write groundbreaking stories and win a Pulitzer Prize. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just grow up and live a normal life and become a biology teacher responsible for igniting a passion for learning in his students and one of his students goes on to develop new life-saving measures for trauma victims. Maybe…

IMG_4917This is our sixth child. The “Congratulations!” were by now either half-hearted or completely nonexistent, to be replaced by concern and pity. One girl saw my children and a pregnant me on the ferry and said in horror, “Eww.” And I cried inside for her. And this daughter was born and time stood still and she opened our eyes and hearts to unparalleled levels of love never before experienced. She is a lover. She is assertive and bossy and adores animals and babies and fashion. Maybe  she’ll grow up and perform critical surgeries internationally with Doctors Without Borders and be renowned for her wisdom and compassion. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll simply plug along in obscurity and become a wife and mom and raise a gaggle of children who test her and challenge her. Maybe someone will see her in the grocery store wearing her sleeping baby and swaying gently while comparing tomato sauce prices.  And this person will feel scales fall off her heart. And she might decide being a mother isn’t such a terrible thing after all and she decides NOT to have an abortion. And that child goes on to become a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor war hero, saving dozens of lives and having the gratitude of their families forever.  Maybe…

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babyThere will be another child next spring. The seventh. Who will this person be? Will he be brilliant at math? Will she be an athlete? Have a love for architecture or social justice? Maybe this child will grow up to found a new, important religious order. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just pick up a stranger’s tab in a restaurant one day and that man has a restored faith in humanity and goes on to serve the poor and pay forward the message of love. Maybe…

Desires to announce this pregnancy have long since been replaced with trepidation. Not because of the child. We know that despite the challenges of large family life, this one was fearfully and wonderfully made. He or she will introduce us to yet another new, never before experienced love that we wouldn’t be able to do without once we know it. We are tired of hearing how irresponsible we are. Tired of the pity, the worry, the disgust. Because they don’t understand. Love is eternal. And new levels and dimensions of love through each and every single one of our children have only proven to better our lives in a million ways. They are our future. They are the jewels in the crown of marriage and we are grateful.

1935034_167437621840_840773_nPeople are worried because we don’t have a ton of money. But our children are always fed and always clothed and always sheltered and always loved. We are immeasurably richer than some of the wealthiest families in the world.

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People wonder if I regret not being able to travel the way my heart has always wanted. Or pursue my personal interests with as much focus as I wish I could. Yes I do. Yes, it hurts. But it is a pain that I know is worth it. I know the journey of love experienced in this new being will far surpass any expedition I could possibly pay for. And no art project or novel or is worth my time, talent and energy as much as raising and teaching these incredibly creative, diverse people who love me back in a way my static creations can not. I have never met a woman who tells me she regrets having the children she did… but I have met many who regret not having more.
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That’s not to say large family life is for everyone. It isn’t! But it is one way to live and it can be a beautiful way. People think there are too many people on this planet. This is not true. The resources are simply inequitably distributed and one of the best ways to solve this problem is to raise compassionate, just, critical thinkers who’ll go on to tackle these issues with clarity and intelligence.

IMG_0208On the other side of the spectrum, mothers of big families often give the impression that it is all perfect peaches and cream. Maybe they are afraid of letting their guard down because the wolves will begin the attack “See! Your life would’ve been so much easier if you just had fewer children!” They gush about how proud they are to have a baker’s dozen and give the impression that they were just born to have babies. Often such women have to consume themselves so much with defending the decision to be open to life that we are afraid of letting people know that it is a struggle. In fact, being open to life does bring heartache and pain and challenges that sometimes seem insurmountable. We don’t have it all figured out. Our bodies have been crucified. Our homes aren’t shiny and sparkly. Our relationships take a lot of effort and a lot of work. We are sometimes weak. We are often tired. But we are always committed to loving them the best we can.  And our trials are paid back a hundred fold with the joys they bring into our lives. This is something most people can’t understand.
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But this is the privilege and honor of motherhood. It is nothing to be defensive about. But it’s also nothing to hide behind and pretend is perfect. We are real and fallen just like you. We aren’t more patient than you, more maternal than you or more pious than you. We simply kiss our Cross and walk up Calvary, not knowing how every step of the way will go or considering how we feel about it all the time. We just do it because we love. We put one faithful step in front of the other because we have committed ourselves to this love. And true love is only found in true freedom. And true freedom is found in the Cross. There will be agony and there will be sorrow. But we are sustained by the promise that the glory of the Resurrection is around the corner.  And that is why we keep saying “Yes” to Love.

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Food Fight

Disclaimer:  This article is not addressing any issues families may face with food allergies and sensitivities who by necessity, have to eat a certain way. This is written with all the rest of us in mind.

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Living in the the least religious archdiocese, in the least religious state of our nation, it is rare to find the evangelical fervor and regularity one might find in a place like the Bible Belt. In the greater Seattle, WA area, we are passionate about coffee, political activism, a certain sports team and the great outdoors… not so much about monotheism. One thing that has significantly replaced the zeal people generally have for religion, is the zeal we have for food.  And while the Religion of Food has an especially high number of followers in the Pacific Northwest, this cult is not exclusive to us. You’ll find it growing and spreading everywhere, even without clean-cut missionaries going door to door!  The wave of intensity amazes me. And it also disturbs me.

The issue has practically become a moral one:  what kind of food is ‘right’ to put into our bodies?  Most sensible people can agree that the “correct” answer to this question is simple: healthy food. But with several brands of ‘healthy’ being peddled to the diet-hungry masses, it can be hard to discern what the specifics are of the “healthy” criteria: Should we adopt the Paleo Diet that shuns grains and lauds proteins? Embrace the Nourishing Traditions mindset of eating whole, unprocessed foods exclusively? Do the GAPS Diet? What about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and sustainability? Is “organic” more important than “local”? Is soy good or bad? Gluten Free? Agave Syrup? Vegan? Quinoa? The questions and nuances are endless and dizzying. But any food zealot will be happy to talk you through them if you simply ask… or if you happen to give your child an Oreo in front of them. This is where the food fights get itchy for me. The amount of time and energy people spend proselytizing about food is reminiscent of the golden calf idolatry in the Old Testament.

After a lot of soul searching on this issue, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two distinct problems with how people grapple with food issues:

First, there is very often a distinct sense of elitism that comes from the special diet folks. For example, the Paleo diet is a fine thing for those who can afford massive amounts of protein and have enough freezer space for sides of beef. But it’s wrong to look down on the rest of the world as if they are inferior or uneducated. Of course, it’s uncharitable—in and of itself— to hold oneself in superiority for any reason at all. But the other component to this is that frankly, it costs a lot of money to support a high protein diet.

Similarly, it may also be a stretch for some people to buy everything organic. Sure, we’d all like organic produce all the time!  And grass-fed beef. And raw milk. And sprouted grains from our neighbor’s wheat field. But these are simply not options for many folks who feed their seven kids generic pasta once a week just to make sure everyone gets fed. So I think the elitist attitudes are damaging on a couple counts: it can become a sin of pride and gluttony (part of the original definition of gluttony includes being overly picky about food!), and it’s also damaging to the solidarity we are supposed to have with the poor as the food elitists can often come across as intimidating and judgmental. Discussing what a family is eating in a way that is laced with moral undertones or critical statements turns people off.

Now part of this is inadvertent I think. There is some primordial thrill we get when we brew our own kombucha or grind our own grain that makes us giddy and want to share the news all over social media. “Look what I did!” Reclaiming the domestic arts is an empowering feeling and that raw enthusiasm often gets mistaken for pushy evangelism. Which brings me to the next point:

The other problem is actually on the other side of the food fight. Only very recently was I able to pinpoint why I get so uncomfortable in discussions with food-zealot friends. I was amazed to realize that part of the problem is me, not them! I’m pretty sure I experience the same kind of feeling people get when they talk with homeschoolers!  (I’ve both home-schooled and had a child in parochial school and enjoyed exploring the feelings both those identities gave me.) When I mention that my children are home-schooled or make some kind of comment about our curriculum, I notice the non-homeschooling person generally closes up, becomes withdrawn from the conversation.  And regardless of my intentions, the listener feels defensive, or guilty, or some other flavor of discomfort. Schooling choices is just one of those hot-button, Catholic mommy issues that can unite or divide us. Like veiling in Mass or vaccinating our children maybe. We just get uncomfortable thinking that others are judging us— even if they would be bewildered by the very suggestion that this was their intention! So it seems to be the case with food discussions too. People shouldn’t feel threatened when I discuss living books or strewing… and even though I try to have a really common sense attitude about food (imperfect in practice), I still have to fight off my defensive feelings upon hearing a lively conversation about kefir or bone broth methodology.

So what are we to do?  How can we make peace when so many of us have such passionate ideas on what and how to eat? Some people think nothing of what they eat. Some people think the adulterated food industry is part of satan’s grand conspiracy to make us all unhealthy, sterile and dependent on the government. Maybe it is. Is there a happy medium? Does there have to be a victor in the food fights? And while we ought to be concerned with taking care of our bodies insofar as we are able and educated… aren’t we, after all, still mortal?

Once upon a time, people were brought together over a meal. The breaking of the bread is more than a liturgical moment… it has historically been the common bond of humanity to be united over sharing food together. I want to get back to that. I want folks to feel free to eat what they want in their own homes— practicing moderation and common sense— but not to shun the pizza offered to them by a friend, even if it has to be a private moment of personal sacrifice to do so. Regardless of whether or not you think that Monsanto has ruined our bodies by poisoning the food supply… they can’t have our souls. And we should do our best to keep our souls pure and our hearts earnest in uniting people in love and compassion. I’ll leave off with a bit of wisdom from an old Irish prayer:

May the kitchen be a gathering place blessed with family and friends where love is always the key ingredient.

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Summer Pursuits

girl readingSome people categorize reading books as escapism or a guilty pleasure.  For me, reading is more like the necessities of breathing or eating or sleeping. Summer reading just means more time to give to the pursuit of a life fully lived since I’m not putting as much time into homeschooling. And all readers know that so many dimensions of the experience of life can only be found by crawling inside the written word of another person’s intellect or imagination.

There are lots of summer “must read” lists already circulating online so I won’t bother tampering with those. But I can share what has my attention right now. The books I’m reading (and yes, I habitually read multiple titles at once, alternating to accommodate various moods or circumstances) are what I consider pursuits to knowledge or leisure or empathy… not mere escapes!

I purchased this in 2013 and started it in February of this year. It’ll surpass Anna Karenina to claim the prize as the heftiest book I’ve ever read.  It is supremely satisfying with one of the most accomplished character developments and writing styles I’ve ever known, but it’s heavy. And I’ve taken frequent, extended breaks from it to dive into lighter literature…

 

 

I started The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books a couple months ago and have found them to be light but soulful… and outside of my usual spectrum of interest. Something about how Smith writes about Botswana just makes me pause and deliberate a little bit more in my own life. This title will be the third one I’ve read in the series.

 

 

What a vanilla title on a book that is bursting with excellence! I thought this would be your run of the mill “love your vocation” books and almost didn’t give it a shot. But I’m so thankful I read it. And I plan on buying and re-reading it periodically in my life. There is so much goodness here on the DUTY Christians have to create a beautiful life and to use their gifts.  This is written by the mother of Susan Shaeffer MacCauley who wrote the excellent For the Children’s Sake.  I consider The Hidden Art of Homemaking as mandatory reading now and wish I would’ve found it years ago…
I just started this book and have such high hopes for it already.  I first learned about Etty from Fr. Jacques Philippe in a footnote from Time for God (Seriously, do yourself a favor and read every book this man has ever written please. ) and immediately felt a weird supernatural connection to this woman based on what very little I knew about her.  I’m not sure what it is yet, but I suspect that I have a Russian-Dutch-Jewish soul sister here.  More on that later…

 

I really hope to squeeze this one in before summer’s over also.  My sister gave it to me for my birthday and I’ve desperately wanted to spend some time studying the art of storytelling… something about the oral narrative tradition being lost in today’s world really resonates with me and Sawyer’s book seems like a great place to start.

 

 Eww! Ick! Hiss!  I loathe books that contain photographs on the covers!!!  It is the single most deadly of the 7 deadly publishing sins (a riveting post coming up soon…) for all the offenses against imagination it strikes!  But alas, the Eliot Family Trilogy came back into print and the most affordable way to purchase these books is to get the new editions. I finished Pilgrim’s Inn (aka The Herb of Grace) this spring and found it even better than the original book The Bird in the Tree (and you really do need to start there.  Anyway, Goudge is probably in my top three favorite fiction authors of all time (outside the picture book world that is…) and this series was sort of her magnum opus in my opinion. Luckily, she’s fairly prolific and I can’t wait to work through all her books.

 

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Fear-mongering and the Price of Community

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a community. (In the upcoming issue of Soul Gardening, I have an article about one unexpected aspect of my life as an urban dweller. Tune in for that!) Of course we have the community of believers, and we have the community (be it ever so fluid) of family. But what about the literal, physical community in our neighborhoods?  How has that changed over time? I think we could all agree that it has changed drastically.  Not least of the reasons being due to global connectivity and the greater access to social networks which have the counter-intuitive effect of actually isolating us more.  Despite being more connected than ever, our communities seem to be more withdrawn than ever… not from other communities necessarily, but from the individual. Having the security of their families and friends on their online network, families often close in on themselves away from the neighborhood around them.

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illustration by Elisa Kleven in One Little Chicken.

Something else that I also think has had a large effect on community is what I personally see as an overblown concept of “stranger danger.” All parents can share stories of what things were like when they were kids—being allowed to roam the woods all the live long day, riding bikes across town at the age of seven, being able to eat homemade candies from strangers etc. While there were certainly “bad guys” back then, the dangers children faced certain seem to be far fewer than they are now. Today, we parents are fiercely protective. All Halloween candy gets inspected. Children are not allowed to talk to strangers. They are not allowed out of our eye sight in public places.  They are most certainly not allowed to roam the live long day in the woods! Don’t they know there are drunken predators lurking in there just waiting for innocent children to come along!!!  And while I don’t want to trivialize the very real gravity of childhood abduction or sexual exploitation that does exist and that does seem to make all the news headlines, it needs to be put in its proper place.

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The Little House by Virgina Lee Burton

The polarities are frigid, extreme places to dwell after all. While there is a grave danger of being a helicopter parent—hovering constantly over your children to protect them from every physical and emotional danger, it’s similarly dangerous to just abandon your kids to be formed by whatever influences they find in the streets also. Where is the happy medium? I believe with all my heart that the happy medium is not in trying to control our environments so much as it is in trying to control ourselves and our relationships with our kids. Statistically speaking, children who have loving, healthy relationships with their parents are much less likely to fall victim to predators. The ‘bad guys’ know this too; a child who is likely to tell mom and dad everything, who is secure in who they are and where they come from, will be a lot harder to abuse than kids from damaged homes where the parents are either absent, negligent or abusive themselves. Sadly those homes are far too common in society but we can only do our part to shape what we can.

I don’t really believe there are more bad guys looking to steal our kids now than there were in the 1950s (or even 80s). But what can we do to stay properly vigilant without becoming paranoid parents?! Forbidding children to talk to strangers or to go out alone in their neighborhoods inherently means they know their neighbors less, their communities less. And this will perhaps develop into a whole generation of individuals that do not have any sort of vested interest in protecting and nurturing their communities. Our children will grow up as people who have a very carefully guarded network of acceptable acquaintances and indirectly taught to view everyone else with either disinterest or suspicion. The consequences of what this means for us as a nation can’t be understated. How can we expect our little birds to grow their wings and fly when we are constantly forbidding them to fall from the nest?

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Seriously. Just read it.

They have to be proactively taught awareness (not fear) and how to handle situations that they may face. We’ve had uncomfortable conversations with our children starting at a very young age about “What to do if…” situations.  They weren’t fun to talk about and it hurt me to even think about someone trying to abuse or abduct my children, but I am confident that our children will know what to do if God-forbid a situation like that arises. We live in an urban area. There are some seedy characters in our neighborhood. Crime happens here. Sometimes we even put the children on house arrest while an incident is taking place outside. Some people I know raise eyebrows that I let my 8 year old walk to the church alone even though it’s only one block away and within sight of our house. I also let the boys ride their bikes around our neighborhood and play with children in the park that I don’t know. And as I type this, my boys are sleeping in a homemade teepee right there in my yard where the derelicts could find them if they wanted to. God have mercy.

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Belonging by Jeannie Baker

“Pray. Hope. And don’t worry.” Therein lies our solution. But the solution won’t look the same for all of us. We have to be at peace, not live in fear and trust our instincts. Every parent has to decide for themselves just what temperature of ‘free range’ they’re willing to allow. Like homeschooling or vaccinating or gluten-free eating, this is not a faith issue… and we need to remember that. It’s a parenting issue and we ought to do our best to give people the benefit of the doubt that they want what’s best for their children and are doing the best they can. That said, however, I do hope to see some deliberate efforts made to refocus on the concept of community living be it in a rural, urban or suburban setting. Being local and sustainable and community oriented isn’t just for the progressive, hipster demographics. We all need to have a vested interest in the people around us and in the place we live… not just to teach good stewardship of our community, but to foster real and meaningful relationships with people of all ages, sizes and colors in face-to-face encounters. That’s how we plumb the depths of the human experience; that’s how we can know the many faces of God.

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The Writer’s Secret

This week I am tasked with writing an article that I promised for a company called “Living an Apostolic Summer.”

And while the deadline looms nearer and nearer, I realize why I’ve been resisting it so much. I feel like a fraud. I don’t really know anything about anything it seems—much less do I have anything to offer others by way of spiritual inspiration. I am in the year of just trying to hang onto my hat right now and praying the light of faith doesn’t extinguish altogether in my heart.  I’ll certainly be okay soon enough; but the darkness of my soul’s night seems particularly black when one is asked to conjure up some light from within.

HemingwayI trust that efforts made through endurance rather than piety will amount to something. That’s the secret of writers: we don’t necessarily feel a burning inspiration every time we sit down to write. We have to labor at it in a similar way that a bricklayer labors at slapping on the mortar and brick. We don’t always ‘feel’ like writing the things that come out. Our thoughts burn to get out and our hands itch to produce… but sometimes we have to muck about in the slime of our minds and search hard for a nugget of something worthwhile. Indeed it is much less about the creation of something as it is about the discovery of something that was buried deep in the murk just waiting to be found. So we labor to find this and are often as startled by our discovery as readers are. Scratching away with our words… leaning heavily on the delete button… staring at the blank white page in despair until the word count ticks up just enough to pass muster, hoping the sheer habit of expression will carry us through when the desire to to express is lacking.

As a child, there was no career more attractive to me than the mythical figure of ‘writer’ I had contrived in my mind. What could possibly be better than a rainstorm beating against the window while a fire sparked merrily in the fireplace near the thoughtful writer exploring away at her own profound, unique depths? The inspiration falling onto the typewriter keys would barely be contained… and of course a nearby cup of honey-heavy tea waits in perpetual warmth. Bliss. My reality of writing instead is one where it is more like a difficult spouse than a passionate lover. You’re committed. You’ve allowed yourself no other option but to continue. And it requires work and communication and sometimes you want to ignore it but a certain amount of maintenance is required to keep the peace. So it is with my soul. While there is the occasional, earth-shattering tryst of passion with words and feelings spilling over, more often than not, I write in the plodding, effort-exerting way suited for a chore to be done. Sometimes, we all hit a season of life where thoughtfulness and introspection don’t exist freely and to acquire them requires much more brute willpower than one should think fair.

So I’ll write about living an apostolic summer.  And I’ll feel nothing. But somewhere after I clock in my time card, some sort of observation or realization will make its way to the surface of this dry, dusty desert of a mind and come forth onto paper. And maybe people will cheer. And maybe they’ll mistakenly call me wise or inspired. But somehow the truth of this vocation will glint a bit in the daylight and I hope someone, somewhere will realize that the light doesn’t  originate from this cubic zirconium hack— she is only able to reflect a little bit a piece of the Son should He so will it.

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Got Disenchantment?

rainI don’t think it’s anecdotal to feel that motherhood today is more difficult than it was 60 years ago. We all know that today’s struggles seem infinitely more pressing and prevalent than those faced by parents a couple generations ago. We get assaulted with drugs, pornography, early sexualization, technological interruptions, and an entirely rotten moral code as a culture. It’s easy to think that the issues we face completely trump the issues our grandmothers faced. But let’s not forget some of what they had to go through either: e.g. higher rates of infant mortality/diseases, back-breaking farm and household labor without the convenience of modern machinery, etc. So, I’ve been chewing on an idea that leads me to believe that our greatest struggles today really aren’t in content but in our methods of dealing with them. Why do so many mothers feel ill-equipped, lost and overwhelmingly frustrated with the demands of parenthood? Why are mothers the number one users and abusers of prescription anxiety drugs? I believe that even if the variables of what we face today compared to mothers of yesteryear were controlled, most women now are beginning the motherhood journey with a severe handicap. And I’m not sure how to name it: lack of “generational continuum” maybe?

Here’s my theory: something strangely ironic was lost when the choices for women’s careers opened up. Most good (and bad) feminists will agree that vocational ‘choice’ is a good thing: women should have the right to choose a career or motherhood and in some cases both. The interesting thing to me is that when masses of women defaulted to choosing careers over motherhood, expectations were changed, preparations were shifted and skills were lost in translation. In most schools, children are prepared for college or for careers. There is usually no formal preparation for domestic life: “Home Ec” is pretty much obsolete anymore. Do they still teach students how to balance a checkbook, hem a pair of pants or plan a menu? I have my doubts. What’s more, is that the informal teaching that got naturally passed down from mother to daughter seems to have dissolved in many ways too. If a working mother is understandably dog-tired at the end of the day, it’s all she can do to pop a store bought, frozen lasagna in the oven to feed her kids. How can she be expected to spend time with her daughters showing and explaining ways to make a soup stretch to feed more people? Or when to use butter vs. oil? What is a “simmer” compared to a rolling boil? All these nuances of meal prep are ones women have to learn by practice.

But it doesn’t just stop in the kitchen. Women today go into motherhood clinging with desperate abandon to all the parenting expert books out there because they don’t have a confidence in their own instincts. (Indeed, how can we, if our instincts have been stunted in deference to the experience of being pruned for job interviews and college applications?) This, coupled with the fact that families are often making their homes far away from their family of origin leads to a sense of parenting isolation that previous generations rarely experienced.

When I brought my first boy home to an empty apartment at the tender age of 20, I couldn’t believe they let me out of the hospital with this tiny, helpless person. Who was I?! My own dear mother was a thousand miles away, my husband was deployed across the world and I had barely a friend to lean on for help. I was bewildered to say the least and didn’t know what to do. He cried all night and I was so scared and tired I just put him in a bassinet and wheeled it into the farthest corner of my home away from my bedroom, shut my door and curled up on my bed in tears… afraid of being so angry with my son and not having a clue on what to do to help him. Coming into motherhood, I didn’t know about things like colic, thrush, or mastitis. I also wasn’t ready for later children’s night terrors, oppositional defiance, or food sensitivities. Of course, no one can ever plan for all the challenges that will come up in family life, but I do believe women can come into marriage with more practically defined coping skills and godly expectations than what we generally do today.

There are so very many things that I had to learn the hard way because I wasn’t ready for domestic life in the practical sense. I was completely career oriented before I got married. I had planned on post-graduate degrees and teaching overseas. I never picked my mother’s brain on how to cut up a whole chicken or what to do for a diaper rash. When I began the romance that led to marriage, I wish I would’ve spent time with my mom learning things about domestic life. But while she would’ve been glad to teach me, I never even thought to seek her guidance. I was just a starry-eyed dope who figured everything would fall in place. Society told me love was a beautiful thing; marriage was bliss and I’d live happily ever after.

And now the stage was set for the rude awakening that I certainly wasn’t alone in experiencing. How many of us knew just how badly breastfeeding would hurt at first? How to prioritize communicating with our husbands? How to make those dollars stretch in between paychecks?  How to handle a toddler’s tantrum in public? Sleepless nights? Post-partum depression? Feelings of fear and loneliness despite being surrounded by a bunch of little people? And we want to scream that there ought to be major warning labels on the beautiful package called marriage and motherhood because this “true love” thing, this “agape” thing?! They sure don’t seem to be all they’re cracked up to be. Women today suffering from anxiety and depression in tremendously higher numbers than women of yesterday is not just a coincidence. Our lives can be brutal and the fact is that we just aren’t properly disposed to bear it! Growing up to expect a life that is more free-spirited, socially fulfilling or professionally oriented can leave us in motherhood feeling instead like a caged bird.

The majority of us come into this vocation almost hindered by the beautiful promises of career freedom. In generations past, women didn’t have the choices we do so they very wisely learned everything they needed to succeed as a wife and mother because that was all that was open to them. I don’t think they experienced the level of disenchantment we face today that paves the way for our hardships and mental breakdowns. No, I think most women saw their own mothers struggle and they figured their future would be a struggle too. And that wisdom of practical preparation was consciously and sub-consciously passed down to daughters through the generations. Their coping skills were sharpened to a fine point. Today, our girls grow up being asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?” “What glass ceilings will you break?” And the choices are beautiful: we see glamorous actresses, happy news anchors, smiling doctors, and confident female politicians. I’ve witnessed the awkward, embarrassed surprise that follows the answer a girl gives when she says that she just wants to be a wife and mama.

So, lost in that myriad of career promise is the rock-encrusted diamond of motherhood. It’s tough as nails and more glorious than all other professions… but it takes a lot of work to make it shine compared to the glitter of happy careers. And little girls don’t necessarily see that right away as a default. So their attention goes elsewhere and they rightfully flirt with a million ‘choices’ as they grow up, but they forget to focus on the one choice for which all others exist: family. And we as a society and as parents don’t do enough on our parts to prepare them.

I’m not suggesting that we revert back to women being shunned from the workplace. But I am suggesting that we must reverse this downward spiral and turn our fates around. We have to prepare our daughters with skills needed to be the genius and heart of their homes, regardless of whatever they ultimately choose to do. We have to teach them very basic skills like how to sew on a button, how to swaddle a baby, and how to hard boil an egg. How to iron a shirt, re-purpose leftovers and ward off feelings of spousal resentment. Today’s modern adult often learns these this by watching YouTube videos or even paying for classes! Some might think there’s nothing wrong with that but I think it’s symptomatic of the larger problem: loss of generational interdependence.

Preparing our kids for their vocations doesn’t mean they need to take formal classes or have long, drawn out conversations about every scenario that will ever come up. Women 60 years ago surely didn’t do this. What they experienced was probably something more like osmosis. We just have to be more proactive about what we are already doing… allowing our children to naturally be a part of making a home and raising a family. Talking with them (not just at them) and explaining steps of cooking rather than always shooing them out of the kitchen. Keeping the lines of communication open and talking honestly about what it means to be a wife, a husband or a parent. Loving them to the best of our abilities and training them in all that we’ve learned on our own journeys. We have to teach our children to aim for the stars and to dream big… but still give them a pragmatic set of expectations on what the domestic world brings.  If we can prepare them with a proper understanding of how tough being a wife and mom is, we will hopefully keep them a step ahead of emotional breakdowns and debilitating anxiety.

Maybe we are thinking that it’s too late for us; we are having to learn the hard way. But it’s not too late for our own daughters. Raising them to expect and properly deal with all the inevitable struggles of family life is the only real way their hearts can be prepared for its glory as well.  And while bringing that goal into focus, we ourselves will eventually get our own set of sea legs and learn to learn to embrace our crosses and find in this vocation more meaning and fulfillment than we ever thought possible.

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Shortcuts to Heaven

photo 3Maybe you are like many of us mothers who happen to have one child in particular who needs to be handled with kid gloves. This child may have been labeled ADD or ADHD at one point. He may be a textbook ‘oppositionally defiant’ child. Maybe he’s just some sort of loose amalgam of brilliance that makes conventional child-raising methods a little tricky to employ. I have one such child and I have frequently referred to him as my “path to Heaven.”  And I believe this with all sincerity. The difficulties and the abrasiveness my son presents to me allows me to think of him as sandpaper: he is scraping and polishing off so much of my impatience and imperfections.  Even if it hurts and is uncomfortable, we all need sandpaper people in our lives; I’m blessed to have one living with me every day whom I love dearly.

I’m not an expert on behavior deviances.  But I do know that sometimes my days feel so brutally unforgiving when dealing with this child that there has to be something out there to offer a bit of reprieve. I’ve identified ten small reminders to myself that I call “shortcuts” on this ‘path to Heaven’ that has been laid out for me. There are certainly counselors and internet articles galore that can offer more than this anecdotal advice, but I thought it might to be worthwhile to hear one mom’s perspective who lives this (and sometimes fails this) advice and has seen remarkable improvements.

1. Distinguish between disobedience and inability.  One mistake I used to make so often was getting very irritated and exasperated at having to repeat myself to my son over and over again.  I’d say his name when he was simply across the living room for me—know that everyone else in the room heard me— and he would seem to ignore me. By the time I would finally get his attention, I was at a full yell and he was startled to see me angry with him.  When he is playing with something detailed or immersed in a project, the world inside his head is so loud, that he literally can not hear me. It’s not fair for me to get angry with him for “ignoring me”, when he’s so caught up in his mind that he doesn’t even hear me. This is me needing to find another way to reach him.
2. Speak at eye level, using their name. This is how I have to get his attention. Sometimes, it’s inconvenient to stop what I’m doing, rather than call across the room, but if I want to avoid repeating myself over and over and avoid the temptation to anger, I have to stop and find him, crouch down if he’s on the floor playing Legos, say his name, wait for him to meet my eye, and then continue.
3.  Don’t raise your voice. One of the most damaging things for my son, despite being explosive himself, is to have others yelling at him. He is either overstimulated by the reciprocated noise or he is incredibly sensitive to feeling that he did something wrong. Whatever the case may be, so much of his behavior can be controlled simply by my husband and I controlling our behavior. We have to sometimes stop and employ breathing exercises before responding to our boy but it helps. He is even sensitive to hearing strain in our voice.
4. Keep tasks short and manageable. I used to have the ideal of getting all our schoolwork done in a certain block of time or all our chores done all at once. This feels overwhelming to my child. He responds best to doing an assignment then having a short break before doing another assignment. Whenever tasks pile on, he feels crushed by the perceived urgency and mountainous pile before him. So, even if it’s annoying for me and my schedule, I have to sacrifice my plans to accommodate his needs if I want a peaceful household.
5. Find his currency. When the need to punish my child comes up, I sometimes have to consider very carefully what the consequence is. Many of our other children respond very well to being sent to their rooms or getting assigned extra chores for disobedience. These didn’t make a mark on deterring my son’s poor behavior at all. He could spend all day in his room or get assigned lots of extra chores and not care a bit.  But once it was discovered how much he hated missing out on playing football with the neighbor kids in the park… that was our leverage point. Change was much more apparent then.
6. Consider diet. Many allergic or sensitive food reactions don’t just show up in a physical way but can be seen in behavior as well. This was news to me when I heard it! Common culprits are wheat, corn, dairy, and even eggs! If you have the fortitude to undergo it, try to do some elimination dieting to see if you notice improvement. This is not easy, but it may be worth a try. When we tried this, I made sure to be on the special diet with my son so he wouldn’t feel so ostracized from the family. It can also be helpful to supplement your child’s diet with high quality fish oils, A & D vitamins or essential oils as well.
7. Rest. Children of all temperaments suffer from having overstructured days, but especially ‘special’ kids it seems. If we try and do too much or are ferrying him from one activity to another, he starts to melt. Overstimulating environments are something else we try to avoid as much as we can. After going to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese years ago, our son was handed a cup of coins and set free to party.  He just stood there shell-shocked for quite some time before getting into it. Then, trying to bring him down off the party high afterward was really, really difficult. So we do our best to make sure our children are getting ample rest and free play or reading time during the day.
8. Do as much preliminary expectation clarification as possible.  Our days run much more smoothly when our boy knows exactly what the routine is and what is expected of him. Even though we shouldn’t have to keep telling our children to be good, it is remarkable what a 30 second conversation can do before going into the grocery store and reminding them that there will be no begging for treats and no running amuck, etc. Sometimes we bring this down to a smaller scale too.  Instead of just ordering my son around, I will often preface things with something like “_______, I’m going to ask you to do something for me and I know you can do it cheerfully and promptly, right?” And then I say it. More often than not, he responds beautifully when I take the time to ease him into it like this.
9. Deliberate kindness. I learned this lesson the hard way. One day, after I had been laying into my son about something or other, his eyes welled up with tears and he said to me, “It feels like you don’t even love me. You are just mad at me all day long.”  And I was immediately sorrowful.  He was right. When I took an honest look at my interactions with my son, most days I had been nagging him, exasperated with him or irritated with him… in addition to talking at him rather than with him. It was heartbreaking. Now, I make it a point to have a few moments of just kind moments with him.  I don’t always feel like being kind to him and I may be harboring sentiments of exasperation, but I absolutely HAVE to take time to hug him and listen to him and tell him something he’s doing really well that day. Otherwise, all his memories of his mother will be horrid ones and I desperately want to avoid that.
10. Don’t despair. Don’t blame yourself. Entrust your child to the Blessed Mother. Know that this child, perhaps more than any other, is one way to unite yourself to her sorrows and those of Our Lord as well. Surrender all things, and especially your weaknesses to Christ. He wants to carry your cross. Give the broken pieces of your day to God. And try again tomorrow.  It’s your faithfulness that pleases Him, not your success.

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