Category Archives: Bits About Life

The Threshold of Joy

One of my favorite take-aways from the many months I spent in the throes of real trauma was experiencing a forceful reorientation of my senses. When it’s pitch black outside and you’re scratching at rock bottom, your eyes become sensitized to any glimmer of light. This takes the form of having a new appreciation for things as basic as… hot water. A warm bed. An exquisite slice of cheese. The kind of belly laugh with a friend that brings you to tears. Etc. For those of us who are “slow of heart,” it takes a full stripping down in order to recognize the goodness in our lives. 

I’m reminded of this with the “stay at home” order in the face of a universal pandemic. I’ve grown sloppy in my appreciation and neglected the journal I keep specifically for recording notes of gratitude. Well, in order to not go insane and to keep any pent-up anxiety at bay, I’ve been forcing myself to reframe— to take things down a notch: “Ellie: You don’t need a whole weekend of solitude in order to feel restored. Savor the 5-10 minutes alone on your front porch. You don’t need fresh meat served at every dinner; you know your way around lentils if needs be. (Thank God you have a tiny extra fridge/freezer!) Oh, and Ellie? You don’t need to run away to Ruby Beach to feel free and alive. You can walk around the block and note the robins plucking at worms and the trees starting to bud their spring blossoms. Reorient, woman. Get back to the basics.”  We are still free and still healthy. The golden foundation! I have an abundance of tea and coffee in my pantry. Precious stones! A chance to organize a cupboard. Fine linen! And there are moments of connection and bonding (intermingled with typical squabbling and restlessness, of course) between my children and me that wouldn’t have otherwise happened if we were all running to and fro, per usual. Pearls of great price! This time right now… ?! This staying at home is not a cross I want to squander. Truly it’s one I kiss and bless— its lessons are many and the perspective offered, invaluable. 

I never want to be someone who has a high baseline for happiness. I want to maintain joy at a very low, attainable threshold, like a toddler who is enraptured by ants scurrying on the sidewalk. I can’t remember the last time I was bored (thank God my curiosity and appetite for learning has kept me from feeling idle); but I do recognize that I have a tendency to develop very particular preferences that are tempting to call “needs.” And I reject this. Not too long ago, I would’ve paid good money to be able to have an hour alone each week; I was starved for time to be restored in the busy mothering life. Now, I yawn that I “need” a full 3 days of silence?! Nonsense. That’s a luxury that I’ve grown accustomed to. (I mean… a wonderful luxury, don’t get me wrong, but not a true need in order to feel whole.) I can make do on less. And this sort of paring down can happen in nearly every domain of my life; I don’t need my beloved forest of moss-covered, grandfather trees to be “happy”: I can pay attention to the succulent above my sink. And so on…

To live the fullest life one can, it’s important to be able to delight in simple things. And a season of social and practical deprivation offers an extraordinary opportunity to reset our thresholds. 

 

Share

On Writing and Bleeding

So many writers seem to publish articles when they have a tidy moral lesson to share. Or perhaps they have a new spiritual insight born from the foibles of everyday living. Then there are those who have to contrive together passionate words or feigned offenses in order to meet a contracted deadline. And that’s fine for some I suppose. But the former groups are ones that leave me dry if the purpose of writing is supposed to have as its end, something uplifting or at least satisfying to impart to readers.

I reject this as my end. There are hundreds of bits of writing advice out there— one helping to form the title of this blog in “Writing is simple; you just sit down at a typewriter and bleed” (Attributed to many). And that’s always guided me. Further, there is this little gem from a man with whom I profoundly disagree but find myself selectively quoting time and again: “Whoever writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read but to be learned by heart.” —Nietzsche

And isn’t that yummy?! Yet it’s still incomplete. I don’t write for the goal of being understood by others as my end either. There is something nearly impersonal about opening your veins. The one who donates blood knows that his gift will be utilized by someone somewhere. He is not concerned about being understood as a person. While I don’t approach writing in quite so sterile a manner, I do recognize that even as I “write hard and clear about what hurts” (Hemingway), it doesn’t really feel to be much about me. It simply feels as something I must do. Sometimes it’s public, more is private, but rarely am I left with hard conclusions that I would like to be understood about me or about life. I usually have more questions than anything else.

Maybe someday, I’ll write my whole story; it’s interesting if nothing else. And maybe someday I’ll  manage to write something profound and brilliant, offering new insights into this human journey. Today, I only offer these anemic statements:

  • My life is really challenging right now.
  • The stress can be crippling.
  • I keep a brave face for the most part, and say “Fine” when asked how I’m doing. (Folks tire of reality.)
  • But I do cry readily and often to a select few.
  • I beg God to take this cross from me.
  • I steel my nerves for battles that I have to face on many domains right now.
  • I am very disorganized because my executive functioning skills (normally my strength!) are suffering from me simply putting out fires day in and day out in the frenetic pace of life I live right now. This has been extraordinarily trying; I miss order… survival gets old.
  • I make inappropriate jokes about stabbing and death in a light, cavalier way that sometimes gets me concerned looks from others. Don’t be alarmed, it’s just me.
  • Representing yourself in court is exhausting.
  • Lawyers can be rogues.
  • Grad school is exhausting.
  • Busy work assignments are infuriating.
  • Seven children is exhausting.
  • And I wish I could love them better and be more present now. But I am getting a life together to better love them and be more present to them in the long term. My absence and inattention and constant childcare crises are for them.
  • I have a number of other unstated issues fighting for mental real estate in my brain. [Insert something here about the art of balancing authenticity with discretion.]
  • My social life looks like this: ignoring or forgetting about a lot of texts, making some plans with people but cancelling more often than not… and just hoping there’ll be a few understanding friends left over at the end of this season.
  • I love and find meaning in what I do as a counselor.
  • I see a therapist. All therapists should see a therapist.
  • But I miss my kids. I miss being a homeschooling mom. I miss being consumed by picture books. I miss the slower pace of life.
  • Still,I kiss the floor each morning and whisper Serviam.

And see! Right here I feel a strange obligation to try and wrap this up with some positive or at least satisfying phrases. Can I let just a string of difficult bullet points sit there without feeling the need to boost my reader’s spirits?

Well, yes. I can. Sure, “God is good all the time.” And “This too shall pass.” Blah, blah, blah. Make no mistake— I know all about silver linings. I even know about silver floodings! They’re wonderful.

But today… today, that’s not what I’m writing about. Today, I don’t have answers, lessons, moralizing or insight to offer at this juncture.

Just a wee bit of hemoglobin on your screen.

Share

Head. Heart. Instinct.

Instinct. Now here’s the thing! “Trust your instinct!” “Listen to your gut!” (And please don’t confuse this with the “Follow your heart” slogan because that is dangerous and misleading…)  Seems like a really big deal these days to talk about trusting our instinct. And this is true on a lot of levels. The intestines of our 6th sense are really, really intelligent! Most intuitive people have certain, unnameable and unexplainable alarm bells that ring at certain times, in certain places, or with certain people. Instinct matters. Pay attention.

 But don’t crown it king.  

I listen to my instinct. I trust it. I pay attention. I believe it has saved me from dangerous situations/people. I have also suffered the consequences that come when I choose to ignore or dismiss my instinct, tightly blindfolding it and shoving it in a dark closet… following my heart instead or listening exclusively to my head that—if left to its own devices— is quite skilled at rationalizing away the reality that is right in front of me. And that’s all kinds of bad news. Indeed, coming off the repercussions of ignoring my instinct has left me somewhat skittish now. I’m easily alarmed when I get the first hints of Instinct trying to chime in on my life now. And I don’t want to be a person who is easily spooked; I want to be measured and thoughtful and deliberate in action. So, this has taken me some time to reorder, take Instinct out of the closet, help it get adjusted to the light of day, and figure out where it should live. This is a work in progress.

But I do think I’ve started to come to a really excellent understanding of its proper place in my life now. Today, Instinct acts its part in an organization that is not unlike the triumvirate of authority in my spiritual life—Tradition. Bible. Papacy. Or if you are among the three secular readers here who prefer more sterile analogies, we can use the branches of government: Executive. Legislative. Judicial. By this I mean that Instinct doesn’t get to wear a crown and dictate actions the way it seems a lot of new-age pop psychology articles want it to. It’s part of the team that includes the Head and the Heart. As with my faith authority… it’s part of—but not conflicting with— the personal guide that makes up the truth of who I am. As with the government, it serves as a power check to both the Head and the Heart but can not effectively exist independent of either of them.

No; Instinct is what contributes to making one a healthy Skeptic. I’m not talking about a cynic, mind you. No one loves the company of a cynic. His wry commentary on the banalities of life are enough to bore anyone who takes seriously the mandate to live. But I’m also not talking about the kind of skeptic that enjoys the popularity of a sort of agnostic skepticism that is demonstrated so often in today’s postchristian culture. It’s convenient and interesting and ‘cool’ to walk along the fence and doubt this and question that. Raise your eyebrows here and look askance there… “trusting your gut” so that one never moves decisively. But walking along a fence in perpetuity is no life worth living. 

There is a way to do Skepticism rightly. Rightly done, skepticism should have a reasonable half-life… never maturing to old age. It must be poked and prodded and wrestled with— and then be put to rest. This doesn’t mean we get to have all the answers in life. Often we are left with more mysteries! But it does mean that we aren’t content to crown ourselves rational kings and queens, too important to come down off of the fence, one way or the other. Putting instinct in its proper place, skepticism in its proper place, requires conviction and humility. To live fully and authentically, you are required to do the hard work of finding the answers. Of playing your instincts out… seeing how they fit with your head and heart. Test the evidence of your thinking. Test the veracity of your heart. And then run everything through a ‘gut check’ and act with conviction, not necessarily with expediency or comfortability. 

Share

2019 in Books

This was an extremely productive year of reading. Somehow, even with a full load of classes and working, I was able to read more than I ever have before. This is for three reasons: 1) Giving in to the Audible way of life. I had to do a lot of commuting with my internship and this bought a lot of ‘reading’ time! 2) The silver lining of a messy divorce and convoluted parenting plan is that I have time to nurture my introverted self that I’ve never had before. I used to read while nursing babies or late at night and not too much in between. Now, I can sometimes manage to whittle away an entire Sunday afternoon in books if I want to!  And 3) I am a reader. That means something. Reading is something you commit to if you love and value it. It means to sometimes choose books when you’d rather tune out to Netflix. It means making sure you own a purse large enough to stash a book inside (yes, this is a factor I consider when shopping) so that you pull your book out in waiting rooms or coffee shops rather than scrolling through your phone. It’s a lifestyle you choose to live if its important to you. And since my life has been made immeasurably better in nearly every way through reading, I doubled down on my commitment to that lifestyle this year.

In 2018, I began my commitment to reading  three “hard books” a year. I’m adding in a 4th commitment to myself now and that is to RE-read a book each year. Revisited books are like old friends and new treasures can be mined from these old haunts just by virtue of the evolving perspective that time and age buys you. While I managed to read over 30 titles (!), I want to highlight here just 12 that were especially meaningful for me to read.

 

The Lord of the Rings. It had been nearly 20 years since I last read these books. And this is the perfect example of old books offering brand new meaning upon revisit. This will not be the last time I read all about my favorite characters. LoTR being my favorite work of fiction is probably the most cliché and nerdy thing about me. I’ll wear that crown. 🙂

 

12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. I resisted this man until I could no longer. He was getting too famous. Everyone was talking about him. My natural (and unreasonable) aversion to popular things/people didn’t WANT to love him. But now, I’m a total groupie. In a world where people can not seem to talk straight about what matters, Peterson is a breath of fresh air. He speaks my language in an interdisciplinary way— weaving together science, mythology, psychology, spirituality etc. I love his videos, his books, his quotes, all of it. I might get a tattoo of his face on my bicep. I mean… heavy emphasis on the “might”, but it’s at least fun to have my pride take a hit as I join the fan club. 🙂

Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. I have loved every word that has spilled from this man’s hands ever since I began following his syndicated column in the local newspaper as a teenager. He is extraordinarily dispassionate and sensible about hot-topics! This book was a mental game changer for me as I finally began to understand something about markets and regulations and economic principles. I’m convinced that if every politician read this book, and cared, our world would be a much better place. Highly recommended.

The Inner Search by Dom Hubert Van Zeller. So… one of my favorite things about being Catholic is the total heterogeneity of our people and of our expressions of faith that exist under the same theological umbrella. There is a saint that resonates with some people and not others, same with spiritual writers. Van Zeller is one of my people. I don’t think he’s for everyone. But he is for me. And I’ve eaten up every little morsel I’ve gotten from him.  In the process of cleaning up and purging our parish library, I was able to gather a number of old Van Zeller books that have enriched my spirituality so much.

Silence by Shusaku Endo. One of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. It was one of the best because it left me so thoughtful! I still can’t wrap my mind around it. This book challenged so many things that I had taken for granted regarding faith and life and martyrdom and shame and redemption, etc. There is some controversy about the “message” this supposedly gives… but ultimately I think it’s a powerful book that ought to leave all of us breathless at the mystery of our finite understanding of life. In a similar vein, incidentally, the book The Power and the Glory was another one I read this year that not only was delicious writing, but made me extremely thoughtful…

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown. I’m a big fan of this author as the type of work she’s spent her career researching tends to resonate deeply with me: these are the concepts of shame and self-worth. This book was very useful for me both personally and professionally to really identify what matters and who matters and how to show up when needed. I also read and enjoyed her title Rising Strong this year as well!

 

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. I can’t remember what brought this book onto my radar; it wasn’t a planned read (I generally have an intentional reading list but allow spaces for serendipitous books) and I’m not particularly in a place of negotiation in any domain of my life at present. But I found the book to be a fascinating study of human behavior, empathy, and power. Really interesting!

 

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry. This was an extraordinary book. Sure, it’s ideal for people in the mental health professions to read, but there were so many profound takeaways I learned about attachment theories, love, grief, and pathologies. This book has impacted me greatly both as a mother and an upcoming clinician. Trauma is something most people bring into adulthood in one form or another and understanding it could do wonders for improving the quality of life for everyone.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. I used to want to be a bioethicist. Then I realized that those jobs aren’t particularly easy to find on Craigslist or with the background and dollars I brought to my education. Suffice it to say, I find ethics riveting. And end of life issues intriguing. This book was beautifully written and extremely thought provoking. It left me, like Silence, marveling at the mysteries of life and bowing in humility with the realization that there are more questions than answers.

Farewell to Arms. I didn’t get to as much fiction as I would’ve liked to this year (Again. True to form.) but I’ve spent so much time swooning over Hemingway quotes about life, love and WRITING that I thought it about time to actually read one of his novels. What makes this one breach the Top 12 was the unique style of Hemingway’s writing for one thing, and the personal meaning I found in spending my time getting to know another writer that I’ve long respected while reading this novel.

 

The Private Life: Our Everyday Self in an Age of Intrusion by Josh Cohen. Full disclosure, I’m not finished with this one yet but it has all the makings of things that fascinate me: human behavior, grappling with social media and connection/vulnerability, self awareness, perceptions, etc. “The ego is not master in its own house…” sort of stuff. So anyway, I’m just assuming that whether I end up liking it or not, this book will add to my storehouse of meaning on topics that matter to me a lot.

 

The Day is Now Far Spent by Cardinal Sarah. Another one of ‘my people’… I’m taking my time with this book as part of my spiritual reading.  This is the kind of book where I keep a pencil nearby so parts can be underlined and rewritten in my commonplace book to become engraved upon my memory forever. I fell in love with Sarah in his book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (one of the best spiritual books I’ve ever read in my life) and this one is the third in the series… I’ve yet to read the first one but you can be sure I will…

I don’t have 2020 all mapped out yet but I do know that I will be rereading a beloved book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I’m determined to start in on The Gulag Archipelago since I bought some gorgeous early editions this year on eBay.  This might take me the entire year or more to read through all three volumes  but I know it will be worth it…

 

Share

The Very Last Beginning Again

15 years ago, I waddled with a heavily pregnant body around the corner of my little rental house, past a ditch with a small, crawdad-filled stream, past the scent of tamales and Suavitel laundry soap hanging in the air, and past trees with initials carved into them from starry-eyed teenagers. I was bringing my first-born toddler son, faithfully each week to the story hour at the little library closest to us. It’s there that we discovered the likes of Eric Carle, Jan Brett… finger rhymes and overdue fines. We might’ve packed a lunch and walked a little further to the sunny Californian seashore to enjoy sandy, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and saltwater soaked shoes, before returning home for naptime. He was my world. We did stories, park days, mommy groups, daily Mass… and we did Joy.

Life orbiting around one young child at the epicenter is a marvelously unique and precious time in a woman’s mothering career.

I am here again in the very same and entirely different way. Six of the seven children are all in a place that They call school, where an education is promised even if Real Life must be sacrificed. There are some things I can not control.  And my youngest 3-year-old boy will also begin pre-school tomorrow. Just twice a week for what amounts to only 8 out of 168 hours in a week. He may as well have been conscripted into a foreign army by the way my heart is hemorrhaging for this separation. I never wanted this. I am a mother ripe with jealousy for those given the privilege of educating my own children now. But I digress…

All mothers taste a piece of this on some level. And all homeschooling mothers who resort to brick-and-mortar solutions know the pain more than most. We’ve known Real Life and have steeped our children in the riches of a homegrown education. But circumstances change things, slightly for some and drastically for others. And by loosening the fists that protects our ideals, we open our palms to a surrender that we never wanted, and may even adamantly object to. But such is life. Such is Calvary. 

For now, there will be some days when it is just him and me. Today, we ran errands. We folded laundry. We read stories. He played with blocks and cars while Mama answered emails, paid some bills, wrote to professors, read some textbooks, scheduled appointments, and scratched her temples the way she does when she’s overwhelmed. We ate leftover tacos for lunch and giggled at the sudden rain that came through the sunroof of the car. He told me he loves me “bigger than the world”. And it was such a very different beginning to a one-on-one relationship with this child. My very last, first time. He was not exactly the epicenter of my life that has astounding demands and pressures now. But, like my firstborn… we still did Joy.  

What gives the most extraordinary peace is knowing that the most beautiful thing in the world once came from a place called Calvary if I’m not mistaken. And though on an infinitely smaller level,  I am not the first Woman who has ever had to give up her own flesh and blood…

 

Share

The Economy of Emotion

* Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Soul Gardening Journal*

Some years ago, a friend told me that she had given up her opinion for Lent. That’s it: her opinion. I laughed at the simple absurdity of it at the time, but it didn’t take but a few minutes for it to really hit me how profoundly difficult that must’ve been. To refrain from offering one’s thoughts on Facebook articles. To not chime in with one’s two cents at dinner parties. To defer to another’s preference on whether to get take-out Chinese or Mexican food. And on. I don’t know about all of you, but opinions buzz around in my mind like fruit flies on a spotty banana. I used to think that not offering my opinion (solicited or not) would make me a terribly boring person.

But life has a way of broadening my perspective and enough stupid things have come out of my mouth by now that I realize more and more how much wisdom and solace there is in simply remaining silent. Secondly, it’s taken a long time, but I’ve also realized that I don’t need to jump into every conversation that I know a fair bit about. Unless directly asked, I no longer go on and on to people about which baby carrier is The Best one or which homeschooling curriculum I liked the most. Or even about liturgical discussions or faith debates I see happening. Do I have things to say? Sure. Ought I say them? Usually…? No.

However, just as I begin to appreciate the value of keeping quiet on things more often than not, humbling myself enough to recognize that I don’t have all the answers for all the people at all the time (Sheesh, what a burden that would be!), I spent a lot of time with someone who simply had no opinion. And that changed me. 

I know this sounds strange, because I was suspicious at first too. “What do you mean you don’t care if people come over or not? If we grill chicken or have soup for dinner? Whether you go to this party or not?” As someone whose natural temperament has strong opinions on nearly everything, I didn’t understand. Was this her pious way of deferring to others just to be agreeable? Of being a martyr by dying to her own preferences? I tried to fish around a lot, asking if she was SURE, if she really meant that she didn’t have an opinion. And more often than not, she was. It wasn’t just a holy gimmick! This was unreal to me. After reflecting for some time on this and when I pressed to understand, she explained that she has trained herself to deliberately not have an opinion on things deemed to be smaller matters in her mind. The goal wasn’t to be a floppy, thin doormat. The goal was to save up her emotional energy for the things that were really important to her: “It’s just too much work to care about everything.”

Living an authentic Christian life requires fighting a lot of battles. It requires men and women to stand their ground in forming strong convictions on deciding what kind of spiritual, educational, medical and social lives they want for their children. In general, what kind of lifestyle they want in their family. By not investing her thoughts and energy into trivial things, my friend’s moral compass was made of cast iron. She’s as easy going and accommodating as can be on what’s for lunch or where to go on vacation. But she turns into a mother bear you don’t want to meet if you cross her on something important. Adding wonder to all this, my friend also happens to have a heart for ministering to others that is practically unparalleled. 

From her and my friend of Lenten silence (even if not giving an opinion comes with a wry, Cheshire cat smile), I’ve learned something about economizing emotions. One of the beautiful side effects of this came unexpected to me. Not only does being selective about where to put your energy and attention have extraordinary mental health benefits, but it offers something essential to others in our lives as well. By virtue of our baptism, we are mandated to respond to the call to evangelize others. Evangelization is not optional. For most of us, this is accomplished by simply living an authentic lifestyle rich in the works of mercy, rather than serving foreign missions. And do you know what the primary thing is that people in today’s post-Christian world are starving for, after genuine love?! Peace. We are a culture drowning in anxiety and chaos and arguments and noise. God can not be heard, seen or encountered in this climate. So few people anymore have the requisite calm, collected mental state that is necessary to minister to the emotional needs of others. Increasingly, so many of us are busy investing our emotional energy in everything else under the sun. By practicing a healthy economy of emotion… by surrendering large parts of our opinion, we free up space in our minds for others. If we are so busy putting our energy into little things, trivial things, we have no room at the inn of our hearts for others.  We don’t have to care about everything. We can fulfill our essential duties of evangelization by caring primarily for others, and freeing up some space in our hearts to make a resting place for them. Then, in that still, small space, Jesus Christ can be found. 

Share

The Benefits of a Public Scandal

In a voice that carried all the way across the vestibule after Mass, the woman confronted me: “Did you go back to your husband yet?” And I had a brief storm of shame-filled fight, flight or freeze where my vision threatened to go black and my heart rate went up.  But I found myself just smiling and saying with what I hope was enough grace to mask the interior tempest: “That’s not a choice for me to make.”  This invited the upbeat suggestion to “Keep on praying!” (Me politely: “Yes, I won’t stop doing that.”)

Then I bolted.

My mind raced with anger and indignation for another 90 seconds while I got in my car. She has no idea … I rehearsed at least 3 other responses in my head that I wished I could go back and say: Things like “You know, unsolicited solutions are really unhelpful when you’ve never bothered to understand the problem.”  And well… ahem, other responses.

But at the end of it, I see this encounter as a blessing. It’s a reminder of the freedom I have. See, because my marriage fallout was so… public, there is much that I can’t control, including others’ perceptions. So, people are left to form their own conclusions. Despite claiming frequently that “It’s none of my business what other people think of me…” my heart isn’t always as quick as my reason. My pride took some painful blows in its early quest for exoneration. I wanted people to just know The Truth,™ and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t misunderstood and that everyone knew I fought as hard as I possibly could to keep my marriage together and never aimed for its end. But when the fire alarms of life are going off left and right and everything around you is crumbling, there’s simply not enough time or energy to set up a full-blown PR campaign for justice. 

I have to surrender my image; thankfully, I do so willingly now. I have had to surrender many things along with my children, homeschooling, my home, my financial security and my social place. Interestingly, while some of these are griefs beyond words, the combined sum of these losses results in a positive. Flannery O’Connor said in a letter to a friend once: “We are all rather blessed in our deprivations if we let ourselves be, I suppose.”

One gift that has been given to me in this box of darkness is the freedom I have in knowing who I am and what I’m about. And when so much of your life gets stripped away, it’s like extracting a diamond from rocks: nothing is more precious and life-giving than knowing the origin of your dignity. It’s not from strangers making insensitive comments. It’s not from those who might say that you’re an irresponsible, cruel or unstable woman. Nor is it from those who might think you’re just a pious, veiled saint who can do no wrong. I reject all these. My dignity is from God alone, who knows every square inch of this blessed and flawed body and soul and loves me profoundly anyway. When you let go of allowing other people to define you (whether you’ve been forced to or can master yourself enough to), you are free to be little and to love your foolishness and to smile at the well-meaning but audacious voice that embarrassed you for a brief minute. Public scandals can be powerful teachers. And I am grateful to be an eager, imperfect, B- student.

 

Share

On Love and Things

I knew the vase was going to be a problem right away. I liked it too much. My friend had given it to me near the beginning of my marital fallout and I was incredibly touched. Someone was thinking of me?! Someone sees me?! Someone wanted to do something nice for me?! In a way it was actually quite pitiable just how amazed I was at this gesture of thoughtfulness. It was all in the timing. I was in the process of being devalued and discarded, see. And when one is in the throes of questioning their entire self worth, any small token counts. Like bones being tossed to a starving dog. Already, it feels like a lifetime ago…

My appreciation and love for the vase should’ve tipped me off. And at the risk of sounding too prophetic or sagacious… it did. My household seems incapable of keeping nice things… nice. Or even intact. We have been known to break cast iron pans and kill cacti. Nice things… in a household with five choleric-sanguine boys? They don’t live here. At least not for long.

So I was simply waiting for it to happen. For some careless child to break the vase. I had the choice to lock it up high and out of sight… but I liked it too much. So I placed it strategically at one end of my mantle, in full view and designated it the bearer of all seasons. It held tall grass in spring and summer, cattails and wheat stalks in autumn, silvery bare branches in winter.

Then it happened. An exuberant 7 year old was tossing the throw blanket basket into the living room air (because this is what makes sense when one is 7) and the vase plummeted to the brick hearth and broke. Terra cotta and hand painted designs in pieces. The children stopped. Silence. Everyone knew I loved that vase. Odd, because it is a rare few “things” that I love at all… preferring utility and minimalism to clutter. But beauty trumps both utility and minimalism.  I put my hand over my mouth and closed my eyes, distrusting myself to speak until I processed what just happened.  An older child began the shaming of the younger one. A couple minutes later, I calmly said, “Please go brush your teeth and get in bed.”  Rare, prompt compliance.

My emotions?  I observe them as a scientist with curiosity. My initial instinct was one of compassion for the child. Shockingly… and honestly.  I felt bad for him. Not anger, not irritation, not frustration… as has been my historic norm. But compassion. It’s true! I AM growing a heart!! His eyes had met mine. He knew. He knew that he’d made a mistake and broke something precious to me. What an awful feeling! The poor kid! He was just being a happy, little scallywag and the vase happened to be in a place that—in this family— is the High Risk Zone (read, anything between ground-level up to 6.5 feet high). What a burden to bear!

So I swallowed my disappointment about the vase. Those reading this are the only ones who know, now, just how much I loved it. Just how much it meant to me. Just what a shaft of light it was for me in a very dark time. But in the end…. it’s just a thing.

I went to my son’s room that night at bed-time and beckoned him with my finger. He couldn’t make eye contact and moved towards me in silent shame. I hugged him. I told him I loved him. I reminded him to say his prayers that night. I kissed the top of his head.

And that was it. No need to lecture the poor kid about rough-housing in the living room. He already knew. I just wanted to make him feel loved. To make him know that he was worth more to me than the vase. To show him what mattered in life: bed-time hugs and prayers.

Share

Christian Music that Doesn’t Make Me Vomit

You can tell a lot about a person by the books they read, the shoes they wear, the laugh they have and the music they listen to.  That’s just the truth.  I am always giddy to foist my booklists upon people because of a misplaced zeal—my books are elements of my person; books are relational beings almost!  And naturally, in the same way that we want to introduce our family to our meaningful lovers or friends, bibliophiles want to introduce loved ones to their important books. All good books should be good to all good people.

Music… now there is something entirely different. The unique tastes of people get a lot more leeway with me. I mean, if you don’t appreciate Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Mozart’s Piano Sonatas, I don’t know how to have a conversation with you; those things exist outside of time and space almost.  But outside of that, you’re free to jam to Adele or Johnny Cash or Pearl Jam. No matter to me.

But Christian music is something else… a sort of contrived category of the same five chords, hook, and emotional exploitation that seems to sound all the same.

I mean… I love Jesus too. But there’s something very saccharine about creating an entire radio channel of good looking, pearly white people singing His glory. Art is art. And the truest artists aren’t categorical to one subject alone (I mean… the classic composers could do Catholic Mass settings and also rage about lost pennies too without feeling like they deviated from their musical identity).

In my opinion… the best ‘praise and worship’ music should strive to be excellent art first. If musicians happen to be Christian and that is reflected in their lyrics… awesome!  But if they strive to be a “Christian musician” primarily… I feel like this is a disordered expression of gifts. That’s not to say I ‘judge’ all Christian musicians as frauds or cheapskates— truly, they’re probably doing the best they know how with what they’ve got! But the sound? That unmistakable contemporary Christian sound?  It’s just not my thing…

Truth be told. I can barely stand most contemporary Christian music. I know that sounds awful, but categorically, maybe it’s the way people feel about country music. As a whole, some people loathe it, as it is usually so single-minded in its sound and theme… but occasionally, there’s a standout.

We all have our standouts in most genres.

I wanted to share my favorite “Christian music” here. Because the list is pretty limited compared to my wonderful other curated playlists of folk, fiddle, rock and classical music etc…

I made this playlist when I was at the height of my marital trauma. I needed someone to have words for me, when I had no words and when nothing made sense. These musicians did that for me. I have since added to it here and there. Some of these songs are definitely of the ‘typical contemporary Christian’ sound that you are free to dismiss. Others are the plight of the human spirit in verse… so listen up! It is still music I turn on when my heart hurts or when I need to jam while making supper and not worry about my children overhearing the lyrics.

… So, entirely subjective and a million other disclaimers, I call this list “Healing” and I love it. I organized them into sections for you to laugh at or love. (As a general rule, I usually hate music videos, and I’ve not SEEN most of these but YouTube links are convenient.)

When Nothing Makes Sense:
“Where I Belong” by  Building 429
“Sweet Simplicity” by Brother Isaiah
“Rest” by Matt Maher
“Carry Me” by Jenny and Tyler
“Trust in You” by Lauren Daigle
“Your Grace is Enough” Matt Maher

To Raise the Volume All the Way Up and Scream into the Void Like a Crazy Person:
“Taste and See” by Shane and Shane
“Psalm 46” by Shane and Shane
“Jacob’s Song” by Brother Isaiah

To Fight Fear
“No Longer Slaves” by Bethel Music
“Mighty Fortress” by Matt Maher
“Safe” by Phil Wickham
“Back Home” JJ Heller

I Just Love Him and Desperately Need Him
“Tender Remedy” by Brother Isaiah
“How He Loves” by David Crowder Band
“Champion” by Alanna Boudreau
“Lord, I Need You” by Matt Maher
“Fortunate Fall” by Audrey Assad
“Jesus Lover of my Soul” by Fernando Ortega
“Just Be Held” by Casting Crowns
“I’ll Keep On” by NF (featuring Jeremiah Carlson— love his voice— who incidentally, I went to school with… used to play the game RISK at his house with him, some friends and his savvy father— good times…)
“Praise You in this Storm” by Casting Crowns

Claim Me, Jesus
“Love Song for the Bride” by Brother Isaiah
“Spoken For” by Mercy Me
“You Say” by Lauren Daigle
“Remind Me Who I Am” by Jason Gray (*nota bene: I actually love this video)

Share

2018 Booklist (÷ 2)

If you read this website, there’s a fair chance you have similar tastes in literature as I do. And if that’s the case, it’s probably also true that you like booklists curated by likeminded zealots.  So I’ll give you one. I have enjoyed doing Year in Review booklists before but this year is different (and we’ll all just collectively erase 2017 from our memories, thankyouverymuch) because I had an excellent amount of reading time during the first part of the year and will have very little free reading time during the rest of it. It’s also different in that there is a disproportionate amount of spiritual books and non-fiction listed here; I usually prefer to have a more well-rounded biblio-meal than this. Be that as it may, here are the books upon which I feasted these past few months, and my commentary about whether or not you NEED to read each particular one.

 Night by Elie Wiesel. This was not a pleasant read. But it was important. Sometimes books are like that. They force us to squirm and wince and confront the horrors of humanity. I believe this book should be mandated reading for all high school students before graduating. And it should be mandated reading for all adults who have any interest whatsoever in being fully human.

 

The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah. This is the most important spiritual reading I’ve done in years. I would go so far as to say it’s in my top 5 books that every Catholic/Christian/Thinker needs to read. There’s simply no way to overstate its impression that was made on me… and in such timely and relevant times within our culture. I urge you, if there is only one book on this list begging to be read, it’s this one. You won’t regret it.

 

Thirsting for Prayer by Jacques Philippe. “Misnomer” is when something is named wrong… what is the word for when a book is published with the wrong cover image? This is my lament will all of Father Philippe’s books; they look like 1990s self-help, woo-woo stuff. But they are absolute gold. Every one of them. No other contemporary writer has had such a massive influence on my spirituality than this author and he has been a fundamental part of my spiritual growth especially these past couple years when I’ve faced tremendous hardship. This book, like all of his is profound, concise and easy to read.

 Belles on Their Toes by the Gilbreths. This is the fantastic sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen and it’s just as much fun! I was looking for something light and comical before heading into Lent and this book delivered exactly what I needed. If you’ve not read any of these original, TRUE stories, do yourself a favor and start now.

 

 In the School of the Holy Spirit. (*Sigh* Scepter Publishing… please… stop.) I read this book to refresh on the concepts before I gave a presentation of Fr. Philippe’s teachings last March. It is wonderful for those who feel kind of “stuck” in their lives or paralyzed with indecision on making choices.  He is always full of wisdom and common sense.

 

  A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell. This was definitely my most challenging read of the year. So, just as a disclaimer, Thomas Sowell is my socioeconomic man-crush; he can write no wrong. The man is genius in how lucid and wise he is in explaining our culture. I’ve been a longtime follower of his syndicated newspaper column before he retired but never actually read one of his books. Basic Economics is sitting in my Audible library waiting patiently for me to get around to it, but someone recommended this book in particular as being an ESSENTIAL title that all Americans should read. So I made this my first Sowell book and I now can emphatically agree. It’s difficult to focus on the writing if you’ve been living primarily on memes and HuffPo , but with some effort you’ll see why the academic language is necessary to explain the polarity in our country. I don’t think it’s possible to find any other writer who can explain both political positions with as much unbiased clarity as Sowell does. He is an absolute gift to all of us.

 The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich. I started this two years ago and decided to pick it up again and finally finish it. I’m so glad I did. The book is chalk full of fascinating trivia first of all, but the real reason why it’s so wonderful to read is that it gives a real, meaningful picture, EXPERIENCE, of Jesus in His humanity!  If you have any interest in Lectio Divina or contemplation, this book can be a powerful aid to that.  So good.

 Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown.  I read this out of sheer curiosity about the Brené Brown cult that seems to be growing. And it was good. What I like about this author is that she’s not just a self-help guru, she is a trained researcher and I appreciated her balance between brain and heart in this book. I’ve since listened to a couple talks she’s given and find her very compelling in nearly everything she says. I can’t quite say I’m looking for backstage passes, but I definitely think what I read in this book was worth my investment and I’ll be making time for some of her other titles as well.

 Arise from Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn’t Make Sense by Benedict Groeschel. If there is a title that epitomizes my life this year, it is this one. I have always loved this priest and his no nonsense delivery of profound spiritual guidance. I think what makes him especially compelling is that Fr. Groeschel was trained in psychology and understands human behavior so well. He is witty and thought provoking and I am glad to have picked up this book last month.

 Forty Reasons I am a Catholic by Peter Kreeft. I felt so strongly about this book that I wrote a review about it on Amazon. Read it. Also read the description of the book on that site and tell me it doesn’t sound absolutely riveting. This is the kind of book you need to have sitting out on your bookshelf or coffee table to spark the interest of any visitors. Because even just a flip through the pages is extremely compelling and forces you to pause and read. Excellent.

 Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak by Leila Miller. I hated this book. It made me cry. It hurt like hell. And I never want to see it again. That said, you should read it.  Every person should. This is the untold perspective.  I am not seeking a divorce in my situation, nor do I think divorce to be healthy for children in most cases, so I was angry and bitter when a friend challenged me to read this book. I don’t need to be convicted on how traumatizing divorce is for children! Leave me alone! But, wanting to face the full, ugly truth of my defense mechanism and to go into whatever my future holds for me as prepared as I can be, I read the book. And I am thankful that I did. I don’t think people realize how important it is not just for couples who are divorcing or on the brink of it, but for everyone to read. Marriage is not a private institution; the stake in it is communal. So don’t just recommend this book to some struggling couple that you know, read it yourself also.

 Strong Mothers, Strong Sons by Meg Meeker. I read this when it first came out a few years ago, but since my situation changed so drastically, and teenagers suddenly sprouted into my existence, I thought it was time for a revisit so I’m working on finishing this one up. I really like Meg Meeker a lot. You’re not going to find any gimmicks or profound truths with her necessarily, but just well written, thoughtfully researched stuff on childraising.

 

And that is the end of it! I expect to be fully consumed with textbook reading in my “free time” this year so I will just be very happy if I finish the current fiction titles I have already started: The Brothers Karamazov and there’s about 6 hours left of The Count of Monte Cristo (ahem, Bill Homewood narrating ONLY please… his voice is like delicious French butter…) which I began on audio last year when I was spending more hours in my car than I am now. I’ll toss in some spiritual reading for the morning time, fairy tales in between semesters, and call the year well spent!

 

 

 

Share