“When I appealed to God in words, praise was on the tip of my tongue.” – Psalm 66
I got up early to make them pancakes. I even added blueberries. As I was flipping, the oldest wandered downstairs, wiping sleep from her eyes. I thought to myself, she’s going to love this. What a great surprise, special pancakes on a random weekday morning.
She walked into the kitchen, took one look at the pancakes, and burst into tears.
“I don’t want pancakes! I wanted oatmeal!” Typical.
It was 7:45 and I was defeated. This being mom, it’s more an art than a science. We try to anticipate what our children will like, and do it for them. Because we love them and want to see them smile. My kids love pancakes, and I went out of my way to make them a special breakfast. For which they were terribly ungrateful, because they are children and as such, completely self-centered.
Isn’t that one of the big challenges of parenting? How to instill gratitude in self-centered beings, especially given my own thanklessness, my own self-centeredness. What kind of example am I?
In today’s Scripture reading, the psalmist says that when he appealed to God, praise was on the tip of his tongue. Meaning, that before he asked God for what he wanted, he began with thanks to God for who He is. This struck me in light of the pancake episode and my reaction to my daughter’s lack of gratitude for the gift I wanted to give.
When I talk to God, my Father and giver of all gifts, do I start with gratitude or grumbling?
What if my Maggie had walked downstairs and said, “Wow Mom, you made me pancakes! Thank you so much. They look great. But I was really hoping to have oatmeal for breakfast. What do you think?”
When my gift made her cry and cry out in ingratitude, I felt hurt and angry that she rejected it, offered with much love. Of course I got over it, recognizing that she is not there yet, that she is becoming. God knows this about us, and loves us anyway. Forever and ever, amen. How much more does God, our maker and love of our souls, experience the rejection of our thanklessness and ingratitude?
Ann Voskamp writes, “Eve’s thanklessness for all God does give and her resentfulness of the one fruit He doesn’t give, this is the catalyst of the Fall.”
Resentfulness of the one fruit He doesn’t give.
Hoo boy, does that sound familiar. Does that sound familiar?
Courage friends! It does not have to remain this way. If our fall begins with ingratitude and forgetfulness of who God is and who we are, then our redemption can begin by remembering. We can start again each day with gratitude first. Giving thanks for who God is, and who he created us to be.
As for the pancakes? I put them in the fridge, and everyone happily ate them the next day. This too is grace.
“Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” – Mary Oliver
Have you ever been haunted by a word? It’s name popping up here in conversation, there in a magazine. Always speaking to you, in a hushed whisper, of what lies in store should you pursue her?
Over the last six months, this word has been following me, a shy boy afraid to ask for a date. Hanging back and hoping I’ll notice him. So often there on the periphery of everyday life.
A couple of months ago I finally went back to weight watchers, after gaining back every single one of the 20 pounds I lost a few years ago. Gives new meaning to the term lifetime, huh? This time around, I am not eager and excited. I am resentful and jaded, not looking forward to spending the rest of my life writing down every bite of food I consume so I can comfortably fit in a size 8. I walked in feeling vulnerable, ashamed, and wishing to be anywhere else.
The leader spent the first four meetings I attended talking about mindfulness. Breath. Meditation. Focus. Distraction free eating. Mindfulness and satiety. Paying attention.
Have you ever sat down to enjoy an afternoon snack or coffee only to get so wrapped up in your thoughts about next, and hurry, and lack, that you look down and its already gone? Did you even enjoy one bite of that thing you were anticipating an hour ago? Is every day this way?
Maybe we are sleepwalking through life?
I’ll admit, I was annoyed at that meeting, talking about breathing. Please. Give me the good stuff. You know, all the stuff that as a lifetime member, I already know. But can’t seem to remember. Like how to ask myself what I’m really hungry for and if I’ve had enough.
Have you had enough of feeling disconnected?
The last few months I’ve felt my fuse getting shorter and shorter, the normal foibles and challenges of parenting stretching me to the breaking point. All is not so well. Then, the stars aligned, bringing two ideas together in stunning clarity:
Mindfulness and Melancholic
In doing more research into the four classic temperaments, I realized that I am melancholic. So, so melancholic. With a very healthy dose of Choleric for good measure. Its a laugh riot over here.
Yet in reading more about mindfulness and the characteristics of my people, melancholics, I realized how much one can help the other. Melancholics are characterized as being:
sensitive and/or moody
slow reactions to ideas, people, and situations that build in intensity over time and leave a lasting impression
globalize mistakes as disasters
But they are also capable of great empathy, compassion, and are often very concerned with the suffering of others and injustice in the world, and strive to be the best they can be and to inspire others to greatness. With melancholics you get the heights and the depths of life. Ask my husband, a delightful blend of Phlegmatic and Melancholic.
Artists, writers, counselors, and religious are often melancholics. These are my people, and we need mindfulness.
For people like me, we exist in the world of our thoughts, and it can be hard to extricate ourselves from our thoughts long enough to enjoy the present moment or see God’s hand moving through everyday experiences. Our thoughts and feelings are so intense, they must be true, right?
Maybe thoughts are just that: thoughts. Maybe feelings aren’t facts, and we can choose how we respond to them. However we can’t do this if we don’t periodically stop and pull away from our thoughts to focus on what is actually happening in the present moment. To actually feel the breeze in my hair or the touch of a tiny hand in mine.
When is the last time you did this?
Though mindfulness is most well known as a Buddhist principle for enlightenment, I believe that God uses mindfulness to draw us to Him, and to give us the self-awareness that we must have to grow in holiness. Mindfulness is about paying attention to what is in front of us, taking each day with its joys and sufferings as it comes. Is this not what God invites us to do in the prayer He gave us:
Give us this day, our daily bread…
Are we missing our daily bread today because we are focused on what comes tomorrow?
In Scripture, Jesus explains how we are to be, using the analogy of birds who cannot live anywhere but in the present moment, and tells us what we all instinctively know: worry is not of God and will not lead us to Him.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
So, the practice of mindfulness, of slowing down and paying attention, can undo our paralysis and open our eyes to the many gifts that God is giving us today. Right now, even in the midst of this sorrow. This hardship. This day of too little sleep, and too many tiny hands demanding more of us than can justly be expected. We give it anyway, and in this is grace.
If this speaks to your soul too, please join me. I’m going to be posting one gift, one fruit of mindfulness each day on Instagram until I hit a thousand. Taking a page from the wonderful Ann Voskamp’s book, I’m using mindfulness and gratitude to allow His grace to shake me awake.
It’s been a while since I’ve had anything to say in these parts. So I figured what the hell? It’s NFP Awareness Week and I haven’t written about anything that I can’t stand in quite a spell, so here we are. You all are so lucky I’ve turned off Criminal Minds long enough to tell you about our journey with NFP. Make sure you thank Molly, because she inspired me to talk about something I swore I’d never blog about again.
The first time I heard the term “Natural Family Planning” I was a senior in college and attending an honors presentation that I frankly can’t remember, other than the man presenting was talking about NFP. Then he casually mentioned that his parents had used NFP and I happened to know (because he was dating my roommate) that he was one of 5 (or so) kids. I still remember clear as day turning to my friend and saying, “Well that obviously worked really well” and rolling my eyes.
Oh yeah, NFP, that Catholic thing where you end up with 5 kids. No, thank you.
Fast forward a few years and I’m dating the man who is now my husband. He is a new convert and I am a spiritual toddler, learning a lot about the faith of my birth.
It was pretty close to the time when you decide to either get engaged or break up (we got engaged), and we were talking about kids. It was a good sign that we both wanted some. Not a whole baseball team or anything, but a few. We were both vaguely aware that there was something you could do, possibly involving some kind of magic, where you might be able to not get pregnant every time.
Since we both had 90’s sex ed, it was like this:
We decided we better figure it out because we did not want to have a baseball team and I had no clue. Let’s just say, chastity was new for me.
While we were engaged, a friend who was married a few months ahead of us took a symptho-thermal class through Couple to Couple League. She loved it. So when it was our turn to be engaged, we signed up for one too.
It was standard fare. A video from the 90’s with a chubby, smiling baby on the cover and a very nice couple with 4 kids – which somehow seemed significantly less insane to me than 5 – who had no idea what to do with me. We walked out of that class shell-shocked. Atticus said he learned more about the female body in an hour than he’d known in 25 years. I was pretty skeptical, knowing since I was 16 that I have Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). I’d heard it could make charting “challenging”.
No, seriously you guys. It was a damn joke. My first cycle charted with sympto-thermal was 72 days long. But what were we gonna do? It was this or nothing. I’d spent a few years on the pill and it literally made me a lunatic. Even if I weren’t morally opposed to hormonal contraceptives, I’d never take them again knowing how I felt on them.
The instructors who were clueless, told us to give them a copy of the chart and they’d send it off to their supervisor. Then, during our last session with them, they told us that I was ovulating somewhere “around” cycle day 14 and that my phase 3 was variable in length, and that’s why my cycles were so long.
That is not true. Completely inaccurate. But we sauntered down the aisle toward wedded bliss with that nugget tucked away.
Our plan was to avoid for a year because I was in grad school and we lived in a tiny Chicago apartment. Then I got pregnant two months into our marriage on cycle day 50-something, because I did not in fact ovulate “somewhere around cycle day 14”.
I was completely shocked and overwhelmed when those lines turned pink. How were we going to pull this off? Yet in the midst of my terror there was joy. I was happy to be pregnant, although the timing was not what I had planned. This was the beginning of a theme, yet it took me many years to embrace it. It never occurred to me that even though I was pregnant, there might not be a baby nine months later. There wasn’t. We learned at an early prenatal appointment that the baby had died very shortly after conception, but my body hadn’t caught on yet.
In retrospect, this little NFP “mistake” was really a miracle, given what happened next.
What happened next?
14 months of trying to conceive again. Of using inaccurate information and trying to make sense of sympto-thermal charts that I charitably describe as a train wreck. Temps so low they’re off the chart, cycles that look like a sawtooth. No discernible pattern. Finally, after we had been trying to over a year, I did a search online for other methods of NFP and things began to change.
We met Creighton.
Creighton Model Fertility Care System is what I found in my desperate searches for something that would help us know what we were doing wrong and why I wasn’t pregnant again like everyone said I would be after our loss.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I walked into our first appointment with our FCP (fertility care practitioner) and actually started to cry when she mentioned that she too had PCOS. She was nurse, and she knew her ish. I finally felt like I was learning about *my* body, not about what normal bodies do. She referred us to a Creighton trained infertility doctor who could help us.
During the cycle we were learning the method, we conceived Maggie.
Strictly speaking, we violated one of the rules of Creighton, which is to avoid sex during the entire first cycle when learning the method. We ignored this because (a) my cycles were then about 2 months long, and (b) we had been trying to a baby for more than a year and were not going to miss a chance. I was frank with the instructor, and she understood. And there she is.
Though I was not actually under any treatment plan (yet) I credit Creighton with her conception because it helped us accurately figure out days of fertility, and given my history of miscarriage and PCOS, the Creighton doctor prescribed progesterone right away. How much of a difference this made, we’ll never know for sure.
Can I just say, one of the best things about pregnancy is the break from charting? Can I get an Amen?
I was super lucky after Maggie was born and my cycle returned at 10 weeks post partum, due to my inability to nurse, which you can read all about if you’re into that sort of thing.
We crossed our fingers and tried our best with Creighton. We successfully avoided pregnancy until she was just over a year old, and we felt ready for another baby. And one of the things I really do like about NFP is that when you are ready to be open to another pregnancy, you don’t have to change anything other than which days you have sex.
We started trying for another baby when Maggie was about 13 months old, hoping to have kids around 2 years apart. You know, more plans.
Seriously, what is it with people and plans? We all know what happens as soon as you make them.
I was in great shape. I’d lost 20 pounds, was working out, and having the shortest, best looking cycles I’d ever had. I just knew it would happen for us.
But it didn’t. It might sound crazy, but I knew after the third failed cycle that something was wrong. You don’t have sex on peak day three months in a row and not get pregnant, unless something is wrong. We waited another six months for good measure (and a healthy dose of suffering too) and then called the Creighton doctor again.
This time he gave me the big C. Clomid. I was nervous. I did NOT want to have twins. No way, man. I had one kid and knew how insanely hard that was. Two at once? No, thank you. He said, blah blah slight risk. Blah, blah, 6% chance.
Oh, 6%? That’s all. That means you have a 94% chance of not having twins. Right?
6%. Their names are Mary Cate and Charlie.
In yet another sweeping gesture intended to remind me of who’s in charge here, I conceived twins on 50 mgs of clomid, during the third cycle of taking it. We tried for one year exactly and found ourselves pregnant with two babies.
Listen friends, I have given up trying to be a witness to anything other than the fact that I am not running this show. I got pregnant when I was trying to avoid, experienced sub-fertility twice, and had twins on the lowest dose of fertility meds you can take. You don’t have an unplanned pregnancy, infertility, and twins all in the span of 5 years and think for one second you’re in control.
At the end of the day, I think that’s the best lesson that NFP has taught us as a couple. We are not in control. Control is an illusion, and we humans cling to it like a life preserver. There is only so much control someone can ever have over something like when and how human beings come into existence, and making peace with that is the only way to overcome fear of the unknown.
We have been trying to avoid pregnancy successfully since 10 weeks post partum with the twins and they are 20 months. There’s no end in sight for this for us. Despite evidence to the contrary, I do have a very small filter and no, no one on the internet needs to know why we are avoiding for the foreseeable future. But we are. Yes, its hard. Yes, it often feels like a burden. And yes, we also know that with at least 15 years of fertility left and having already had quite a few surprises, we may be surprised yet.
Yes, it absolutely sucks. NFP is terrible. It’s just less terrible than everything else. As the wise Simcha Fisher once said, “When it comes to sexuality, all God’s children got angst.”
Yet, for me and my constellation of circumstances, Creighton has been the best possible method of NFP and while I hate abstinence (because I’m human), I truly believe that our children are here because of the treatment I received from Creighton doctors and nurses and I’d be happy to talk with anyone who has questions about it.
Now back to Criminal Minds.
A few weeks ago I got to experience one of my favorite pleasures, going to a new library for the very first time. Since we just moved to a new town, with its very own library just a couples miles from our house, I was thrilled to check it out.
Libraries are my happy place. I have fond memories from the very small library in my sleepy town growing up, and of exhausting most of the children’s section by the time I was 12. I worked for my college library for a few years, and worked for the public library in Indianapolis for a short while before Maggie was born. I have a pipe dream (one of a few!) of going back to school for the MLS (masters of library science) degree and becoming a real, live librarian.
There’s something about a library. It cuts across racial and socio-economic lines. Rich and poor alike use libraries. They are community centers and in many places function as gathering spaces for students of all ages, people seeking quiet work space, and those lacking resources such as in-home internet access. Everyone in this house is a big fan of the library.
Our new one is wonderful! They have an excellent children’s section, and offer many programs for children, including story times, crafts and activities, and there is even a mother-daughter book club for 4th and 5th grade students. Something else I loved was that the parenting section was in the children’s section, something I have not seen at other libraries. Brilliant!
We’ve made a few trips now, and on the last one Maggie and I discovered the “grab and go” bags. They are pure genius!
They are tote bags for kids aged 0-5 and filled by theme with picture books. So you just grab one, and there is even a barcode on the outside of the bag so you do not have to take each one out to scan. I’ve seen pre-made bags at other libraries, but none arranged by theme and so easy to check out. I love them.
Maggie chose bugs and princesses. Of course. Maggie still likes princesses, but we are starting to get away from the obsession of her toddlerhood. Enough so that instead of having her fourth princess party in a row, this year’s birthday theme is Doc McStuffins. I really liked the books in the princess themed bag though. I like The Very Fairy Princess series (written by Julie Andrews) a lot, and both Maggie and I loved Princess Grace, which is a very sweet alternative take on all things princess.
Since the parenting section is in the children’s section, I even had time to browse for a few books of my own. I know, I know. Living the dream.
The top two books are mine, but since I am reading them right now, they are on the pile.
I haven’t started The Museum of Extraordinary Things yet, but I am enjoying the other library books. French Kids Eat Everything is so interesting and challenging as it highlights the differences in French and American attitudes to food and parenting.
The top two books, Cravings and Weightless are both written by Catholic authors and deal with body-image, food issues, and spirituality. If any of that sounds familiar to you, I can’t recommend both of these books highly enough. I have been slowly reading them the last two months, because there is a lot there in terms of spiritual work and material for reflection.
So there you have it friends. What we’ve found exploring our new library and some titles we’ve been enjoying during this late spring sort of early summer lull. What are you reading now?
I’ve been watching the series on the early Church, A.D.:The Bible Continues, since Easter. It’s quite well done, not 100% accurate, but very compelling and entertaining since after all, it is a network TV show.
In the show, you see the Sanhedrin and Pharisees a lot, since it is basically telling the story of Acts of the Apostles. I’ve had this image in my mind for a while, because of the show, of all the leaders of Judaism together in the temple discussing the minutiae of the law while life in the city swirled around them.
They argued with one another, sometimes very heatedly. They abused non believers, up to and sometimes including stoning. Ask Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith in Christ.
With me in the back of my mind as I sat down to prayer this morning, I was struck by the words of the Gospel:
“And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me…that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17)
Immediately two things sprang to mind: that image of the Sanhedrin pouring over the minutiae of the law and the very old hymn
We are one in the Spirit
We are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit
We are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love
Could it make more of a contrast?
They’ll know we are Christians by…
the combox on Catholic blog posts?
our first reaction when we say “well, what was she wearing/drinking?”
our ambivalence towards the violence that permeates every pore of our culture?
our indifference to the poor in our midst, our willingness to humiliate them as a condition of receiving service?
dedicating much time and bluster to admonishing the tiny fraction of Catholics who use NFP, presuming to know their sinful hearts and minds, and accusing them of selfishness?
turning away from those in need because its too messy, too complicated, and what if they wreck my plans?
Listen friends, I am or have been guilty of most of these at one time or another. I’m not talking to anyone else more than I’m talking to me. But, you know its true.
They’ll know we are Christians by our love isn’t so much a statement as it is an indictment.
The members of the early Church drew people in because they were open. They fed people without asking them who was at fault for their hunger. They shared with people without waiting to see if they deserved it. They baptized and entered into community with anyone who asked to belong.
They offered the kind of radical charity and openness that God offers us every day of our lives. He feeds us his very self knowing we have put other hungers before him. He shares his body, blood, soul and divinity with us, knowing that we could never be worthy of the gift. He welcomes into community of his Church all who ask and seek with open hearts.
The early Church did this because they allowed themselves to be filled with the radical love of the holy Spirit, which descended on Pentecost and filled them with the fire of God’s blazing love for humanity and all of his creation. This same spirit stands ready to fill us and send us out fearlessly for the work of offering radical charity to a world that is hurting and lost.
I’m convinced that the only way we will ever see our unity restored, the only way they will know we are Christians by our love is through the sanctifying, transforming power of the holy Spirit. May it descend upon us this Sunday, the feast of Pentecost and remain. May the Spirit “annoy” us (as my pastor is fond of saying) until we are moved to more love, more justice, more reaching out.
We had just finished dinner and the kitchen was a mess. I love to cook, but I hate to clean up after. Thankfully its getting warmer again, the longer days and higher temps a lifeline to parents of young children. Atticus took the kids to the backyard so they could get filthy while he did some landscaping work. Clearing plates I thought of my plan hatched earlier in the day: to go for a walk alone after dinner. I had done it before, I knew it was possible again. Especially with all the kids distracted in the backyard. No one would notice my escape. Now was the time.
Then I looked around at all the plates, pots, cooking utensils to be washed or loaded in the dishwasher and felt the familiar tightening in my chest that comes right before I let go of something I want to do, in order to do something that needs done. You know what I mean, right?
I sighed thinking, “Oh well. I better clean up. I can take a walk tomorrow.” Yeah, right.
Then something in my head, I’d like to think God’s voice, said:
Your body is more important than your house.
My body is more important than my house.
In that moment, something shook loose and I knew, without a doubt, that the voice was speaking truth. I laced up my sneakers and took a nice long walk through my neighborhood in the evening breeze. I felt free in a way I hadn’t for a long time. I started to feel that perhaps my body is more than the “meat suit” I use to drag my soul around. Maybe my body is something more than fodder for the highlight reel of everything I hate about myself. Maybe my body is something other than the stuff that skinny women’s nightmares are made of.
Since that night, I’ve been thinking a lot about both my body and my house. There are some parallels, or at least there could be.
We take care of our homes not because we want to punish them for being bad, but because we are grateful for them and the shelter they provide. Yet how many of us use exercise or crazy diets as a form of punishment for our bodies failure to be perfect, rather than viewing activity and exercise as ways to thank our body for the gift of carrying us through life?
We know this about our children, that caring for them is more important than our homes. There’s that old rhyme:
The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.
Bodies don’t keep either. Our bodies are the paintbrush God has given us to craft our one “wild and precious life” as poet Mary Oliver wrote. Yet, how can we craft it when the brush is not well cared for? How long will a neglected brush last, and what kind of masterpiece is it capable of creating?
Listen friends, I am saying all this to myself, in the mirror, hoping my body will forgive me for all the years of hating her and ignoring her needs for rest, nutritious food, and movement. Exercise isn’t punishment, and if yours feels like punishment, perhaps your body is trying to tell you something.
Our bodies (my body) isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s part of God’s creation to be loved, respected, and cared for with an attitude of stewardship. This is not about weight loss, it’s about connection. Somewhere along the way, and probably as a result of the Fall, we’ve lost the integrated wholeness of our body and soul.
Taking care of our bodies, accepting them for what they are, and loving them accordingly re-establishes that lost connection. This is not about being thin. Thinness as a yard stick for your self-worth is society’s doing, is the Enemy’s doing, not God’s. Its fruits are perpetual dissatisfaction, obsession with comparison, and using food and exercise as punishment. Self-care is God’s invitation, and its fruits are joy, peace, and contentment with our bodies as they are, knowing they are well loved by God and us.
We are all busy. Some of that busyness is the necessary price of being the main caretakers of our families. And some of it is invented to keep us preoccupied with things that don’t matter, so we won’t focus on what does. To keep us chasing hard after Pinterest kitchens instead of chasing hard after our “one wild and precious life”.
Listen, no one gives a shit if your house is messy.
When you die and we go to your funeral, no one is going to waste one single breath talking about how clean and organized your house was. Not anyone you’d want at your funeral anyway. Our homes are meant to be places where we live and love each other, not museums to make other people jealous.
If you have friends who give you a hard time if your house is messy, find new friends. Really though, if we dig deeper I think the truth is closer to this: our friends don’t care, but we do. Because just like the size of our waists, we women tend to tie our worth as people to how Pinterest worthy our homes are. But listen, none of this is what really matters, and if we’re treating our sacred bodies like garbage cans so we can achieve this, something is very out of whack.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t care at all if our homes are filthy, or shouldn’t try to keep them as neat as possible. But home decor and cleaning schedules shouldn’t come before taking care of our bodies or our souls. Deep down, we know this. The times in life when we have been in right relationship with ourselves, we have known this.
That phrase – Your body is more important than your house – shook something loose in me and I’m looking forward to sharing that journey with you.
So tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
It seems like I write a post about Mother’s Day every single year. Mostly, I think this is because I find myself blindsided by it every single year. My mother’s been gone for 24 years and this will be my sixth (!!) Mother’s Day as a mother myself. Yet every year around the first week of May I start seeing the posts about it, and think, “No, it can’t be Mother’s Day AGAIN – we just had Mother’s Day last year!”
It’s an annual thing. Sort of like grief.
Grief is not a straight line like a highway. Grief is more of a spiral or a labyrinth. It’s not once and through, it’s the tide swelling and receding in the human soul. It’s every damn year when Mother’s Day jumps out of the closet and yells “Boo!” and I have to figure out who I am in relation to it all over again.
Today, I went for a pedicure, a little present to myself for Mother’s Day. Trying a new salon in our new town, I made small talk with the nail tech, an older woman who I learned is the salon owner’s mother. As we were chatting, I mentioned that I am a writer, and I write a lot about grief. I mentioned my mom and she looked up from buffing my nails with that look that says, “Me too”. I too know this grief. Her mother died when she was young, and like me, was raised by family members. There is an invisible sisterhood of motherless daughters. When we meet and “find out” about each other, it’s an instant connection. We spent most of the remaining pedicure talking about our families, our lives, and how we glued the pieces of our broken childhoods together enough to make it through this life and find our ways into healthy marriages and motherhood of our own. How each of us has been paid the compliment of “not looking like we’ve been through so much”.
As I paid and was leaving, I wished my new friend a very happy Mother’s Day, adding, “because I know how hard it is, even 24, 45 years later. It’s always with you.”
It’s relatively easy to talk about my grief in this space, but I don’t often speak of it “in real life”. And certainly not with people I’ve just met. I took a chance this morning, and my vulnerability gave not only me, but my new friend, a chance to tell our stories and to connect. Those of us holding grief and life in tension don’t need to file it away, put on a false front, or any other silly cliche we are told when it’s “time to get on with life”. As if any authentic living can be gotten on with when you haven’t embraced your grief. What we need is to be unafraid to take that chance of sharing our stories, so others can feel they finally have permission to tell theirs.
Hope Edelman, author of the wonderful books Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers, shared an open Mother’s Day letter to motherless daughters. It’s chock full of wisdom and love, and permission to feel whatever you are feeling as Mother’s Day approaches.
The early loss of your mother has already set into motion a chain of events that are going to lead you to places you can’t even yet imagine. And you will, one day, be able to recognize good things that have come out of your loss, things that you cherish or are proud of, things that otherwise might never have occurred. In the 34 years since my mother died, some really bad shit has happened to me as a result (let’s block out most of my college years, shall we?), but some crazy good things have happened, too. Because she died I wrote Motherless Daughters, and because of that I met a motherless woman who introduced me to my husband, and 18 years later we have two daughters who have brought more joy and laughter into my life than pessimistic little me ever thought possible. And because my mother died of undetected breast cancer so young (at age 42) I get regular check-ups and mammograms and do everything I can to preserve and maintain my health. I know it’s not all in my power. Still, I try. And when I sit at my older daughter’s high school graduation next month, a milestone my mother never got to celebrate with any of her three children, it will be perhaps the greatest accomplishment of my life thus far, just the simple act of being there. I have outlived my mother’s age by eight years now, and I wake up every morning so damn grateful just to be alive. Of all the gifts my mother gave me from her life and death, gratitude may be the most important one of all.
Me? As this weekend approaches, and I look at the freshly planted lilacs – a gift from Atticus because they are my favorite – in our new back yard, I feel hope and sadness. I feel anticipation over what kind of surprise my amazing family has cooked up for me on Sunday. I’m eager to spend the day with these lovely, accepting, challenging little monsters who call me mommy. For the first time this year, I think I’d like to tell Maggie about my mother, and maybe show her a photo of the woman frozen in time, without whom none of us would exist. Sadness over what is lacking, memories of loss and imaging what could have been mingle with the joy of what is here in front of me and overwhelming gratitude for all that has been given me. Perhaps on a day like Mother’s Day, that’s the best any of us motherless daughters can do.
I went to college in Maryland, and while I now live in the mid-west, I have many friends and connections in the DC metro area, including Baltimore. My perception of Baltimore may be somewhat different from others, since I’ve only been there a handful of times and when I was there, did one of two things: go to the inner harbor and do tourist stuff, and visit death row. I used to write to a man on death row in Baltimore’s “super max” penitentiary, and made a visit with him once. I also stood in prayer vigil with others as Maryland executed Wesley Baker in 2005. So for those of you who live in and love Baltimore, you’ll forgive me if my perception of the city is a bit warped by only having seen the best and worst of what it has to offer, and not much in between.
That said, I can’t stop thinking about what has been happening there. And what, for so long, hasn’t been happening there. Namely, anyone in power giving a shit about the systemic destruction of the community where these uprisings are now occurring. Namely the systematic isolation, redlining and other tools of social engineering that have created communities where dysfunction, trauma, and poverty run generations deep and those of us who have not known social chaos born of generations of unhealed trauma can’t begin to understand. But no one is talking about this, unless its to blame the people themselves for not being better, for not magically knowing how to be more like “us”.
Where was the news media when West Baltimore was ravaged by the scourge of sub-prime mortgages which subsequently left thousands homeless and with trashed credit to boot? Where were the arrests for destruction of property when predatory lenders offered upside down mortgages to people they knew couldn’t pay?
Something else that has gotten to me lately, is the way we talk about people on the margins. I’ve just begun noticing this, but now I can’t stop seeing it. People on the margins are always discussed by those in power as problems to be solved, not persons to be loved.
Women have experienced this when we are told that our bodies are a problem to be solved, and if we just cover them “right” and don’t go to certain neighborhoods, and police ourselves, we won’t get raped. Because our bodies are the problem. Maybe the same view is at work in communities of color, when the discussion is always framed around how black communities are one big problem that needs solving. Too violent, too poor, too uneducated, too sad. But yet, a community is nothing more than the people who make it up. And if I’ve learned nothing else from my faith, it’s this: persons are to be loved, not used, and not written off.
There’s been so much emphasis on the challenges that urban communities of color face, and not enough emphasis on the people who make up these communities. People with goals, dreams, hopes, fears, traumas and problems, yes, but also courage and hope. What if what people of color need from us is less of us telling them how awful their communities are, and more of us listening to their stories and offering help that they themselves think they need? One principle of Catholic Social Teaching is subsidiarity, which offers that decisions ought to be made by the smallest possible unit to do so. Don’t communities of color know what they need? Perhaps we should do more asking and less telling? Martin Luther King Jr once described a riot as “the language of the unheard”. After what we’ve seen time and time again in the wake of the killing of unarmed citizens by their police, I’d say we are hearing from these communities in ways we do not like, because we’ve refused to listen or understand in the past.
The larger passage that quote is taken from is particularly telling, in that it was written more than 40 years ago and could have been penned last week.
“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. BUT it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – MLK Jr.
I myself have been guilty of this view, of seeing people are problems to be solved ahead of persons to be loved. From this sin, dear Lord, deliver me, and all your people.
Oh, Death! Where is your sting? Oh, Hell! Where is your victory?
Oh, Church! Come stand in the light, the glory of God has defeated the night!
A picture is worth a thousand words. Someday, we will have holiday photos with 3 out of 3 children looking at the camera or maybe even smiling. Dream big, right?
Happy Easter from our circus to yours!
“And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfillment.” –TS Eliot
This is a love story. An often painful, sometimes messy, always grace-filled love story. To tell the journey of my faith, it must begin this way. Dostoyevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” My story is one of a beautiful love that, when all seemed lost, saved my life.
The summer I was seven, my mother finally died. It was a long time coming. She had been in the hospital for over a year. Every Saturday I would climb into the car with my grandparents for the long drive to visit her. We would sit in a hospital room that stank of disinfectant and fear and make small talk. I would tell my mom about my school, maybe read her a story or hear one read. I would give her something I made in art class. I don’t really remember, but I’d like to think I did those things. I’d like to think her suffering was made a little less by my presence.
My mother was no stranger to hospitals. Eight years before I was born, her kidney disease was discovered. She was pregnant, and partway through her pregnancy, she got dangerously ill. The doctors discovered that her kidneys were not functioning. Her baby, my half-brother, was delivered early and died a few days later. My mother nearly died as well. It was while she was in the hospital that she began thinking of becoming Catholic. There was a priest there who answered some of her questions. Without knowing all the details because she is not here to share them with me (how I wish she were!), she decided to become Catholic and completed RCIA.
A few years later she met my father and they were married in the Church. My father was a cradle Catholic, though he certainly didn’t live his faith in any meaningful way. I was their only child, as my mother only had one working kidney; one pregnancy had been risky enough for her.
By the time I started kindergarten, my parents were separated because of my father’s substance abuse problems. Mom and I moved in with her parents, my Nannie and Pop. Around the same time, Mom got sick again and needed another transplant. She had one; there were complications. Thus began the year of Saturday car rides and hospital visits. It was pretty clear that if she didn’t make it, my father would not be fit to take care of me, and I would stay with my grandparents. Before she died, my mother made a request of them. Although they were not Catholic, she asked them to make sure I would be raised in the Church. They respected her wishes without question. Of all the things for which I owe them gratitude, this gift is chief among them.
I received all of the Sacraments. They came to all the parents meetings, met all of my ccd requirements. They made sure I made it to Mass with neighbors who were Catholic.
This is probably no shock, but I was enamored of Mary. I loved the statues and windows which depicted her beauty so exquisitely. I didn’t quite understand that she was my spiritual mother, but in my little soul I longed for her serene smile to comfort me.
As a child I attended Mass; somewhat reluctantly as I got into my teen years. I always went to Sunday school, and really liked it. I didn’t receive the best formation, but it certainly wasn’t bad either. All of my teachers really were faithful, if not always ready with answers for my many and varied questions.
I learned the basics; the prayers, the sacraments, the Bible. What I didn’t learn then, or for a long time afterward, was that I could carry my scarred and broken heart into the arms of a God who knows the true meaning of suffering. What I couldn’t even begin to understand as a sad, broken, abandoned girl was that there was a Father who loved me enough to suffer with me and give me peace, by holding nothing of Himself back from me.
I was a sad, lonely teen and young adult. I desperately craved love and affection, and as many, many girls do every day, sought real love in the arms of boys who were incapable of giving, only taking. Each time my heart was broken, I would crawl back to God, licking my wounds, begging for another chance. I had rejected His love again, for the promises of the world, and was let down time after time. I wanted to believe that His love was enough, but I lacked trust in God’s goodness.
After all, how could a good and loving God let my mother die and my father abandon me? Isn’t that the question we all have to ultimately wrestle with: Why do bad things happen to good people?
I didn’t know, and the lack of answers made me angry. I was so angry that I stopped going to Mass when I went to college, despite being at a very Catholic college. I was also angry because I had been reading a lot of feminist writing, and believing their (misunderstood and misleading) words about the Church and women. As an angry young woman who had been hurt by men, I found it easy to believe the feminist rhetoric.
Through my first couple of years of college, I continued to feel both angry at, yet drawn to, the Church. I still believed that the Catholic Church was the place where Jesus was most fully present, in the Eucharist. This made my flirtation with other denominations feel silly and forced. As time went by, and I returned to the campus chapel late at night to pour my sorrow out at the feet of Jesus after each heartbreak, I knew I had to make a choice: Either be Catholic, and live it, or to walk away altogether. There could be no halfway.
Still I rebelled. Like a petulant child in the arms of an ever-patient parent, I pushed away while simultaneously grasping. In my mind, I knew the truth of the Church, and God’s love, and a life of virtue. In my heart, I wasn’t ready for radical acceptance. I wasn’t ready to let God love me, and to let go of my past mistakes. Like the prodigal son and so many others, I let fear of being rejected keep me from seeking forgiveness. Like the prodigal son, God loved this prodigal daughter enough to run out when I was “a long way away” and meet me where I was.
I wish I could say that after this revelation just before my senior year of college, that I turned over a new leaf. It would be more apt to say that I sprouted a new blossom. A place that was dead inside slowly came to life. However, the rest of the tree was still standing, and there was so much pruning left to do.
Then I moved to Chicago and all hell broke loose. No, really. Stay tuned for part two; that’s where it really gets good. If I can say that. I think I can.
“Your love is like a shadow on me all the time…” – Bonnie Tyler
Is it wrong to start a blog post with lyrics from “Total Eclipse of the Heart?” Well, if it is wrong, I don’t want to be right. The song is very cheesy, but it’s good. And the above line, it’s just the perfect one for starting part two of my story. God’s love has always been as close as my shadow. It took me so very long to turn around and see it.
When I graduated from college, I had really started to embrace my faith. I was back to attending Mass weekly, and I had even added theology to my studies during my junior year. The last semester of college had been so bittersweet; I was going to really miss The Mount (what we call Mount St. Mary’s MD), and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do post-graduation. I thought about going for another degree, perhaps in Theology. But the truth was, I had grown weary of academia, and was itching to do something “real”.
I’d done three service learning trips during spring and fall breaks at the Mount, so the possibility of doing a year of volunteer service after graduating appealed to me. Two girls who graduated the year before me had gone on to Maggie’s Place and ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education), respectively.
I liked the idea of ACE, so I applied for the program. I also applied for several other programs that were similar, one of which through Loyola University Chicago. LU-CHOICE. As it turned out, I was wait-listed for the ACE program, but accepted into LU-CHOICE and decided to go with the sure thing, rather than wait and hope for a spot in ACE. I was headed to Chicago.
Let’s pause there, while I tell you something about me. I grew up in a small town, a small, small town. We got a McDonald’s when I was in high school, and it was a huge deal. I’m not even kidding. Then I went to a college that was the same size as my high school, and which was located in a town whose population declined by half when the 1,200 or so students from The Mount went home for the summer. I went from that to Chicago. Not just Chicago, the south-side of Chicago. You might be able to see where this is going, and add a “rut-roh” for effect. I, on the other hand, was about as ready for what was about to happen as those gents on board just prior to The Perfect Storm.
I graduated in May, moved to Chicago one month later. I’d live on the Loyola campus for the summer, have 8 weeks of training on how to be a teacher, and then be put in charge of my very own 6th grade classroom in a under-resourced Catholic school on the south-side. I spent the summer trying desperately to learn how to be a teacher, and not even beginning to realize what I was in for.
You might be wondering what this has to do with my faith story: bear with me please, you’ll find out why it’s important.
Spiritually, Loyola was a different world from The Mount. What was I supposed to think when I went to daily Mass my first week there and a woman read the Gospel and gave the homily? I was so confused, I actually thought about leaving, but I didn’t want to be rude. The Mount was the first Catholic school I had ever attended (I was public K-12), so I just figured all Catholic schools were basically the same. Not so my friends, not so.
Since I had added theology as part of my studies, I had learned a lot about my faith and the Church. I knew a lot about God’s love and grace, and all about the importance of the sacraments and prayer.
In French, there are two different verbs for “to know” – one means to know in the factual sense, “I *know* that the sky is blue.”, the other means to know in the intimate, real sense, “I *know* Paul well.” One could say that I *knew* all about God’s love and grace, but I did not *know* it.
Or, to put it another way: I knew all about God, but I still didn’t know God all that well.
I’m floundering about how to put this, but I was just so unsure. I wanted to trust that God loved me and wanted the best for me, but I did not know if I could. I went to Mass every Sunday, I prayed somewhat frequently, but it was as though I was blocked. I could not get past this feeling that if I let God into every area of my life, I would end up old, alone, and unloved. That somehow if I relinquished control, then I would never find the love that I wanted. I was afraid to believe that God could love me enough to give me something truly good.
All of this was going on throughout the summer, and into the fall, when school began. When I started teaching, I didn’t give much time to prayer, and I even slowly stopped going to Mass. I lived in a house with four other people who were teachers in my program, and weekly community prayer was supposed to be one of the things we did together, in order to support each other. Only myself and one other girl were interested, so after a while with no one else wanting to participate, we just stopped doing it.
Teaching was a million times harder and more draining than I thought it could ever be, for so, so many reasons, that really it deserves its own post. Most weeks by the time Friday came around, all I wanted to do was spend the weekend in bed watching tv. Mass and prayer were one of the first things to go.
That fall and winter, I was in a dark place. I hated my job, realizing as each day passed just how much I was not cut out to be a classroom teacher. I hated my boss and her passive-agressive, non-existent, “leadership style”. I never really meshed with most of my roommates. I was basically small, alone, and miserable in a cold city of 3 million people.
After coming back from Christmas break, I hoped things would be better. They weren’t really. Then they got a lot worse. That February, I’d had enough. I didn’t even know myself anymore, did not like the person I was becoming, the person I had to be to survive the day in that school. I did not want to quit, because it was the first time I was ever truly on my own, and I wanted to prove I could do it. Thing was, I could not do it. I was drowning, and I can remember the exact moment that God rescued me from myself.
I was sitting in my room in our crappy apartment. My room was just off the kitchen, it had probably been the maid’s room once upon a time. The apartment got broken into while we were all home the first week we lived there. One time, we saw a rat climb out of an electrical socket in the kitchen. Then there was the time we found the drunk homeless man passed out in the laundry room because the back gate lock never got fixed. It was a hell-hole.
There I was, sitting in my apartment with the bars on the windows (installed after the break-in), on the floor of my room, thinking about what to write for my suicide note, when I was stopped dead in my tracks. I could literally feel God’s presence in that shoebox of a room; He lifted me up in His arms and said, “Don’t you dare! Don’t even think about it! You have a whole lifetime of work left to do for me, and I am not going to let you throw it away over this.”
I cried so hard, the sobs shook my body. I thought to myself then, “What am I doing?” About one month later, in a turn of events both frustrating and absurd, I quit teaching. I was terrified, but I was free.
During that night on the floor in my apartment, something else happened. Yes, God set me free to recognize how much of a gift this life is. But He also finally broke through my walls. The ones that kept me from believing that He really does, always and everywhere, will only to give us love and goodness. He never wills us pain and suffering; He allows it, but He never wills it.
I always thought, in the end, that in order to have God’s love, I would need to be someone else. Someone who did not make my mistakes, and did not have my hard heart. I always feared that in order to have love in any real way, I’d have to go out and snatch it for myself, because God would not ever give it to such as myself. That night, I felt for the first time the truth that I had always had God’s love. That God’s love was the reason my heart continued to beat, and my legs continued to work. God’s love was the reason I was alive. I didn’t have to do a thing to earn it; all I had to do was accept it. I started to know God in a way I’d had glimpses of in the past, but had never grasped until that moment. It was dramatic, but it was real. It changed everything.
I made a vow that night, one which I thought and prayed about over the following days. One that I had made before, which I knew now I would keep. Despite my past mistakes, I vowed to God that the next man I would be intimate with would be my husband. And even if God saw fit for me to never marry, then I would keep that vow all my life. I had let the pursuit of earthly love, and the fear of being alone, keep me from pursuing the Love of my life. The Lover of my soul. I would never make that mistake again. I didn’t.
Two weeks later, I met Atticus. And that’s a story for another time.