Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The little things can become the big things

We can all probably recall a time when we first noticed an ant trail marching back to its colony. And perhaps how we fought the temptation to stomp on a few, just to see what would happen.  It is human nature to ponder the frailty of life, and also how it can persist against all odds.

It was one such moment like this that I taught our eldest son his first lesson on respecting life. We were walking with friends and we happened across a preying mantis. After much oohing and ahhing and picture -taking, no one realized that my toddler was about to stomp on the unsuspecting preying mantis.  We didn't catch him in time and he did stomp on the bug. Fortunately it scuttled off looking no worse for the wear.  No bugs were harmed in the making of this story. But the incident presented a teachable moment. We talked about how we would never hurt something unless we were trying to keep ourselves safe (or hunt, for those who do). Now as our young sons begin to practice martial arts, that's a lesson that is repeated in many different ways each day in our home and in our conversations.

The little things can become the big things.

As our children grow, the issues we face as a family are changing. We still talk about being nice to bugs, but the respect for life mentality has developed into discussions of how to treat people who are different from us at school, to why we seek to buy goods and services that support fair trade practices. Our children are not yet at an age where we discuss current news events, and issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and embryonic stem cell research, but we know the time will come. We also know that we have no guarantees that our children will always make the wisest choices, but we know our duty is to equip them to do their very best.

As parents we are our children's first and most important teachers. What we underscore in our homes, they will carry with them in their hearts. It is never too late to step in as a parent to initiate these discussions. The Advent challenge I post for us all today is to discuss one of these topics with our children today, or to choose a family activity which especially inspires a culture of life.


- Create an album of ultrasound pictures from your pregnancies, or take out your children's baby books while they are still young and impress upon them how sacred their own life is and how much they are loved.
- Life is a gift from God to be cherished. Let our children hear us give praise to those who work each day to protect, defend and improve life for others.
-Remind our children that their bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit.
- Teach our kids that every person has value and God-given dignity, regardless of how people appear or what they do. We are all made in God's image.
- Show respect to the elderly, encourage children to care for the elderly members of your family in small ways.
-Ask your child to have the courage to reach out to a student that seems lonely, or picked on, and show kindness.
- Be mindful as a parent and monitor inappropriate and violent media. Listen to your instincts and act on them.
- Collect baby items or clothes to deliver to a ministry for unwed mothers/pregnancy outreach center.
- Visit an animal shelter and help feed the animals or take them for walks.

Let us pray that as a nation, we can encourage each other to work together to form children who are sensitive to life at all stages. And may we never doubt that our words and actions, as parents and teachers, have the most profound impact on our children.

“The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally prolife: who will acclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation.  A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” 
Pope John Paul II

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thinking outside of the "gift box" at Christmas

The other day, I was kindly asked what my children would like for Christmas. So, I surveyed their bedrooms, looked through their toy bins and took stock of their clothes and shoes. But I came up totally empty.

My husband is an unabashed geek and being technologically savvy is the bread and butter of our existence, but we try to keep our kids as unplugged as possible.  So they don't have hand held devices or even the Wii, and the little screen time they are permitted is more than slightly policed.  Scratch out video games, for the time being anyway. 

Feeling a bit lost, I sat down with a catalog that came in the mail, and tried to narrow down a few things. But I couldn't run away from the vision of the lego debris all over the floor (that never seems to subside in our house), and the matchbox cars that I find under the piano and in my purse on any given day, and the stacks of old board games which no one seems to have the time to play.  Stacks + Piles + Debris = dusty garage sale items. Eeek. Scratch that.

Then I began thinking along the lines of practical things, like fishing gear, a tool box, a telescope or an archery set. But those require time to acquire a certain skill, time which is hard to find at this stage of our parenthood. 

The only thing that makes sense to me is books, since we love to read with our children and reading is my favorite way to spend time with them. If I had to ask for anything, books are the clear winner (cue the confetti!)

But stuff? No, we don't need any more stuff.  Recently we were generously given  by family some great new board games, puzzles and a few fantastic movies. I will wrap those up, with some new shoes that I bought for the boys.  My hubby is launching some secret backyard project, and maybe this will be the year we will get that bike trailer so we can take family bike rides. And we will all be giddy about that!

We are a country of blessed abundance, but that can turn into a culture which makes us feel like we are depriving our children, and ourselves, if we are not showered with gifts at Christmas. It is way too easy to get caught up in the commercialism of giving store-bought presents instead of adoring Christ’s holy presence. It can turn into a fanatical frenzy of trying to find the “perfect thing” for everyone, when really the “perfect thing” is simply to spend time as a family worshipping our Lord and sharing loving acts of service with our community.

In the spirit of St. Nicholas' generosity on his feast day today, why not challenge our families to do something a little different this year.  Children are hungry for meaningful experiences, and really benefit from family growth opportunities. These are lessons that might shape their future careers and families.  Here are some ideas of how we can think outside of the box with gifts we can bring to Jesus and to each other this year. 

Gifts of Service
  • Buy gifts for needy children through the Angel Tree project at the parish. You can also volunteer to help wrap those gifts as a family, or deliver them to homes.
  • Visit a hospital, or the elderly at a nursing home as a family or offer to serve a meal at the nursing home close to your home or a soup kitchen. Our family sings Christmas carols at our local nursing home, and it’s a beautiful way to share the love of Christ on His birthday.  Many are lonely and without family on Christmas Day.
  • Sign up to deliver Christmas dinner to the needy, or have your children help you stuff grocery bags to deliver to a nearby food bank.
Gifts of Worship and Prayer
  • Attend the Christmas cantata or concert at your parish as a family, they are usually free!
  • Share an extra adoration hour as a family
  • Visit a “living nativity scene” and bring some neighbors or friends along to witness the true miracle of Christmas. This is a very special experience for young children!
  • Read the Magnificat as a family and write about your reflections, take turns faith sharing with your friends or family.
  • Attend the Advent penance service as a family
  • Sing Christmas Carols in your neighborhood.  Talk to a few neighbors ahead of time so they know to have egg nog and cookies for you, or at the very least go out of town ;)
If you’d like to do spend your money in a way which can bless a family or community, there are numerous non-profit organizations which devote themselves to breaking the cycle of poverty in underdeveloped nations in very innovative and effective ways. These are a few of my favorite organizations. You will be amazed what a few simple U.S. dollars can do for a family across the world.

Gifts that give twice.
  • Work of Human Hands Sale sponsored by Catholic Relief Services– Purchase Christmas beautiful handcrafted gifts by artisans from impoverished nations. The money you spend goes directly to the person who made your gifts! Also, you can even set a sale up in your own parish! Visit website.
  • Heifer Ranch International – End world hunger by buying a chicken, or a rabbit, a tree or a cow for a whole village to share. For just a few dollars, you could help feed a whole community of people, who will then be able to save their wages to send their children to grade school and eventually college.
  • Christian Foundation for Children and Aging - Catholic organization for sponsoring children  and the elderly
  • Make a donation to Catholic Relief Services  to help bring aid to people facing true crisis, here in the States and across the world, such as those still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. (
Peace be with us all at the beginning of this Advent season. As we prepare our hearts to enter the mystery, let us all be inspired to believe that our prayers and our actions can make small miracles happen that may ripple throughout the world at Christmas, and continue in the New Year. Let us give ourselves permission to quietly step back from the frenzy, and invite others to follow us, because we have something far more important to be doing.

Let us look to the manger for the greatest gift of all and remember what He asks of us. Love, and more love. 

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.  ~ John 1:14

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Perfectly Imperfect


Pinterest is a dream come true for the aspiring perfectionist. If you have not encountered pinterest yet, it is a virtual and endless pin board where people can post and save photos of projects and ideas. (Be prepared to stay up until 4 am creating your pin boards, by the way). I was browsing the other day looking for homemade gift ideas, and found myself gleefully in the midst of tips for creating the perfect indoor garden and how to tie my scarf into an artfully fool-proof knot. Life is so beautiful on pinterest, picture-perfectly within our reach. I started to click on “how to make a pine cone garland” and was distracted by a pin which simply stated “I will hold myself to a standard of grace, not perfection.” I’m not sure if the author of this quote intended this to have a religious interpretation, but I received the message in the light of faith.

Over the past few days, I have been thinking about how deeply this simple message applies to every area of my life. As we approach the Advent season, there is so much pressure to have everything tied up nicely with a bow, and on time. But not from our Savior. He does not ask us to be perfect in order to be worthy of His love. In fact, the bible even reminds us that we should delight in our imperfections because they point to our need for a Savior.

If it’s not pinterest, then it’s the parenting article that makes us wonder if we’re loving our children enough. Or the well-meaning friend who tells us about the amazing way they organize family photos that makes us feel like crying. Maybe it’s the family member who reminds us that we’re never going to lose weight if we eat two slices of pie instead of one. If we look for it, the message of “I just can’t be perfect” is everywhere.

But there is a message of love and acceptance that is also everywhere, if we choose to look for it. So simple that is is overlooked so often. Just the way a precious baby might go unnoticed, sleeping sweetly in a manger. We are loved as we are, just as we have been created. Our Savior does not ask us to be prove ourselves worthy to be loved. The world does.

I must clarify that I happen to be pinterest’s number one fan. I have always been a creative person inspired by the creativity of others, but I lack organizational skills which pinterest makes possible. I think pinterest is a wonderful tool and resource. But just like other forms of technology in our society today, I think it can leave people with the feeling of just not being able to do enough, or be enough. But let us be Christians who try to hold ourselves to a standard of grace and not perfection in the days leading up to Christmas. Let us let the world see the peace inside of us which Jesus gives to us, and the gift of love He wishes us to share with the world. Let us be patient with ourselves in moments of imperfection, and strive for the humility that reminds us that needing God makes us not weak, but strong.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell within me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. “ ~ 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Keeping the airwaves clear

I agonized (in the midst of fervent praying) for several years about the school decision for our children. As a mother, I know I am not unique in that.  We discerned many options for our eldest, ranging from Montessori school to Catholic school to half-day school and even homeschooling. After a great deal of information gathering and speaking with many families,  we decided upon our neighborhood's public school. We have been blessed with amazing educators and great opportunities for our son there, but of course no situation is perfect and we worry sometimes about influences. Things could always be subject to change, and naturally children within the same family can have different needs. But for now, we feel like we are where we need to be, for a number of very good reasons.

I try not to cross-examine my children, but when they come home from school, I am like a pot boiling over with the need to know what is going on in their minds.  Granted, "middle son" is four years old and in preschool, so he's usually contemplating the nature of puppies and pondering the curious shapes of clouds. But "eldest son" is in second grade and quickly approaching the age of reason. He is making connections and observations and asking questions all the time.

The other day he was coloring with his middle brother and he said something that caught my attention. For a moment, I thought he said something off color. In our house, words like "idiot" and "stupid" are outlawed, and people who are caught making flatulent sounds at the dinner table are handed bathroom cleaning supplies and sentenced to scrub the potty, so it doesn't take much to ruffle my feathers. I listened again closely and heard him repeat the phrase which turned out to be completely innocuous. And overcome with relief, I squashed him with a hug and a kiss and said "you are just such a sweet boy!" Yes, he thinks I'm nuts. No, he's not off base.

Our children are sheltered at home and we try to protect their innocence as much as we can. When I first became a mother, I perceived the realities of the world like a poison which our children would have to build immunity to, day by day, so that one day they could take it on without flinching. I still feel this way.  It's not that I view the world as the big, bad wolf all the time... on the contrary, I feel that God reveals Himself to us in ordinary situations with His extraordinary ways. So many times we will feel the impact of our decision to send our son to public school, when we hear from other kids how glad they are to know a friend like him and a family like ours.
But as boys, my sons don't communicate with me much. I'll hear a brief anecdote about a favorite assignment, or maybe how someone else had a hard day. But that's about it. When I was a child, I could narrate the setting, mood, and events of the day right down to the smells and sounds - not that anybody had time to listen - but I could do it.  With boys, I'm doing well to hear "I need bactine on this scrape," or "where are my favorite socks" or most famously "what's for dinner?"  This is difficult for me, as I am an over-communicator and an over-analyzer and a recovering helicopter mother.  (And no, I didn't send my child to school with a camera implanted in his shoe but I did give it serious thought).

I try not to waylay my children with my neurotic behaviors, because I studied enough of Psychology to know why that's not good for them. Basically, parents are going to do something wrong no matter what. (But it's all good and so is God!)  So I try to be subtle....putting clothes away while they are building lego battleships, or sitting outside and reading a book while they are digging tunnels in the backyard.  As my mentor told me, "just make yourself available, and things will bubble up to the surface when they need to."  Another friend said "start by telling your child something that happened to you that day, and how you felt about it. See where the conversation goes from there." My sage father refers to this as "opening up a channel" in communication. It still baffles me that communication doesn't always mean talking. It means listening and keeping the airwaves clear.

My grandmother, who recently passed away at 92 years old, used to tell her children to "just let it all out" when they would come home from school in a bad mood. She'd let them cry, or stomp, or react however they needed to when they just couldn't articulate their feelings. I don't always know what our children come across each day, or even how they impact others. But I do know that our goal as parents is to provide a safe haven for them, where they have the freedom to feel and process things. We don't want to send the message that the world is "bad" or that anything they are grappling with is "too big" for us to handle. We want them to understand this world so that they can help make a difference in this world. And we want to extend the love in our home to the people we can reach.

It doesn't mean it isn't scary, because of course it can be. As I watch our eldest son maturing, I realize it's not that he needs me less, but that he needs me in different ways. As he presents himself to the world, we can see how he is embodying the values we have been striving for since he was so small, and it makes us beam with pride. This doesn't keep me from reminding him regularly "you know, you can always homeschool, if ever it becomes the best thing for you, we're always ready."  He squints at me as if I'm teasing him, and seems to consider it for a moment. He can read between the lines.  I know that he understands that we'll be there for him and his brothers, that we're always open to what is best for them, no matter what.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Month in Mumbai - a college essay

I am eight years old and living with my family through a hot summer in the neighborhood of Santa Cruz in Mumbai, India.  We are preparing for my Grandparent's fiftieth wedding anniversary party, and family has flown in from all over the world. So much of Santa Cruz reminds me of our life back home in Florida. I see exotic palm trees and brightly colored sunrises. I hear the sounds of horns honking in the streets and savor the aroma of spices wafting through the humid air. All the windows in Grandma's flat are open, and the early morning breeze tickles the lace curtains until they reveal the sunrise, boldly orange.  I help my Grandmother in the kitchen to make "chapatis" with flour and oil. We roll out the dough and sprinkle flour and bake them in a clay oven. Later we enjoy them with butter and jam.


It is time to go with Grandma to the market I see the women dressed in traditional saris and men in salwar kameses. I hear the sound of dry feet beating the pavement as men run their auto rickshaws. In shop windows we find the saffron and burgundy colored fabrics embroidered with golden thread, and elaborate gem stone jewelry. The smell of fresh mangoes and pomegranates fill the air. Grandma negotiates for some fresh cuts of fish to make fish curry, and we walk back home for some respite from the sun.

As the sweltering sun sinks slowly in the sky, we venture outside again with my parents. We pass the street walls plastered with colorful Indian film advertisements on our way down to the park to play. The willow trees droop down to touch as we walk down the lane. I am amused to see that my father grew up close to the beach, just like I have so many miles away from here.  We walk past Dad's church, Sacred Heart parish and his school of the same name. The next day, Dad walks us through the boys school and they all giggle when they see me and my sister, since girls go to the convent's school.

We return home, and Mom warms some goat milk for us before bed. Grandma comes to pat us on the back until we fall asleep in our beds, and I pretend to be asleep just so she will feel she can rest. Outside I hear the sound of the night watchman walking and slapping his cane on the ground to ward off any criminals. A few hours after that, a devout Hindu can be heard walking through the streets singing his prayers in a lulling, mystifying tone.  Before the break of dawn, we stir once again, to hear the early morning venders calling up from the street with their carts of fruits and vegetables. We come to the window in time to see women with heavy pitchers of water placed precariously on their heads, gliding gracefully with the assurance of generations gone before them.

Grandma is cooking again today, and I hear her giving instructions to the servants in the predominant regional language, Hindi, which I can not understand. My Grandmother's golden bangles make a jingling musical sound when she bustles around. I feel her soft but dry hands on my face, lovingly pinching my cheeks. I marvel at how she maintains her household and fusses over her guests to see that they are well fed and comfortable. The home is busy with preparations and many family members visiting.


While Mom soaks my nails in a bowl of gelatin because I am biting them too much and this is supposed to help them grow again, my brother and sister are down below on the street with Dad enjoying their first pony ride. I am sulking because I want to be riding the pony. Later, Dad takes us all to the beach, and makes it up to me with a camel ride along the seashore. We drink our "thumbs up" soda and giggle at the men with the monkeys who dance and steal coins from our pockets. We watch with awe as men charm cobras from wicker baskets.


We return home, and at night I hear the sounds of fireworks cracking continuously for the Hindu festival "Diwali." My family is Catholic as many families in Santa Cruz are, so we do not honor the festival, but we enjoy the lights from the balcony. Over the din of chattering family and popping of fireworks, we hear the bowl drop and roll on the hard floor. Even above the noise, I hear the whimper of my Grandmother.  Even at the age of eight, I know in my soul that my ailing, sweet Grandfather has just passed. It is two nights before their fiftieth anniversary celebration. My father and his siblings have just returned from a trip to the store, and rush to comfort my Grandmother. We turn off the television and Mom ushers us quickly for bed.

The next day, I see Grandpa lain in his coffin in the middle of the main room of the flat. I am not afraid. I approach the coffin and he looks so peaceful. The breeze blows the lace curtains behind him, and the hum of traffic is the reminder of the world going on. I wish I could have held his hand one last time, or heard him play the piano once more. I remember he was smiling the last time I saw him, sitting on the piano bench. Around us people are expressing their condolences to my Grandmother, she has a faraway look in her eye and never lets go of her little white handkerchief. I see my cousin and my sister running in their puffy dresses, meant for the party, playing hide and go seek, unaware of the significance of the moment.

We attend the funeral in the same parish where my father was an alter server and sang in the choir as a child. He sings the requiem for Grandpa at the back of the church, from the rafters, where no one can see him shed a tear. But I detect a waver in his voice and it makes me feel ill, because my Dad is always strong. After Grandpa's burial, we make a trip to Goa, the island from which my father's family originates. We play on the white shores, picking up shells and splashing around in the surf as Mom and Dad sit watching us and holding hands, being very quiet.

We return to Mumbai for a few days before our trip home to the states. My father takes us on a train ride to see some sights. We ride "third class" because we arrived too late to buy any other ticket. I see a small moment of distress on Dad's face, but we hop aboard.  As the world starts to blur, I see children naked and abandoned in the streets. In "third class," we see homeless people hobbling around without limbs, begging us for rupees. When we get off the train, we see dirty-faced people without teeth who stare at us and don't look away. A woman came up to us and begged for milk, holding a dead baby in her arms. These are incidents that are considered common place in India, but to us they are beyond comprehension.

Before the last Mass we celebrate in Santa Cruz, my six year old brother brings all the rupees he has saved and tells me he is going to give them to the beggar who we would see there each week. As we walk up to the church, the beggar approaches us, and my brother nervously hands everything he has to the man, so anxious to feel like he could make an impact on India the way India impacted us. After Mass it is time for family farewells and packing suitcases. We say goodbye to Grandma, who holds our faces between her hands so tightly with endearment, and I still see her waving goodbye to our taxi with her white handkerchief which she never lets go.

In those last days, I witnessed all the horrors of a third world country from which I had been so sheltered. Not just in America, but in Santa Cruz too. I knew I couldn't go back to hiding behind lace curtains in my Grandmother's beautiful home after seeing what I had seen in the city. I had spent a month eating mangoes and drinking milk in abundance, playing in parks and on beaches, riding ponies and camels and wearing pretty dresses. Every night I had a clean bed and safe roof over my head. Those experiences changed my childish views of the world because I encountered human suffering that I could not rationalize, and I lived through the first death of a loved one. I returned to my home with a deep love for India and my heritage, and with a profound gratitude for the abundance we enjoy in America, but with a new understanding of the human experience. I would never be the same again.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Way

A few weeks ago, my husband and I pulled "The Way" from the redbox machine at our local grocery store. Just the cover art alone had intrigued me, and I was pleasantly surprised to read the description. Once dishes were put away and children were scrubbed and tucked into bed, we started the movie. Much to our dismay, the dvd skipped and froze all throughout. My husband, who often falls asleep during movies and even just when I talk to him sometimes, drifted off peacefully on the couch and so I finally called it quits on the dvd.

Thankfully, we were able to find "The Way" via a well-known movie rental company and watched it streaming online a few weeks later. Films about journeys are always my favorite type, and this one was no exception. This is a story about relationships, forgiveness, grief, hope and the search for life's meaning.

The story begins with a grown son who has just left graduate school and is talking to his father, an opthamlogist, about going on a pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago through the Pyrenees mountains. His father is Tom, a lapsed Catholic, who is unsupportive of the idea and thinks his son should be doing more practical things with his life. Nonetheless, he drives his son, Daniel, to the airport and declines a final plea to accompany his son on the trip.  The two are not portrayed to be especially close in their relationship. The father and son are played by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, who also directed the film.

Tom is contacted a few days after his son's departure and told that Daniel was found dead in the mountains after a terrible storm. Tom immediately catches a flight to Spain to identify Daniel's body and collect his belongings. In an impulsive moment, or perhaps divinely inspired, Tom decides upon cremation for his son in Spain instead of going back to the United States for a burial. He then decides to walk the pilgrimage himself, and finish Daniel's journey for him.

He sets out to do this very matter-of-factly, almost as if he is running a race rather than taking a journey. Along the way he meets a few characters, who are each dealing with their own "vices" in life, similar to the pilgrims in "The Canterbury Tales." Each have chosen to walk "the Way" for various reasons - none of which are specifically religious, but they are each seeking. Tom makes it abundantly clear that he prefers to be alone on his quest, but he eventually acquiesces to his persistent companions. Over time these companions become loyal friends to this stubborn, enigmatic man and they help him grieve his son and look at his life through new eyes.

This group of "peregrinos" (pilgrims) travel from town to town, encountering many new people. My favorite was a gypsy community which teaches them a lesson in forgiveness and honor. Throughout their travels, it is evident that the true joys of life are not material and can not be quantified, but only shared. As they reach the shrine near the northeast coast of Spain, they attend a beautiful Mass at the  Cathedral of Santiago of Compostela for pilgrims who have finished their walk. They decide to join Tom on the last leg of his journey, as he walks to the sea to bring Daniel's remains to the water.

 While the film presented some very overtly Catholic themes, I found so many elements of this movie to have an appeal that could cast the net wide to reach an even bigger audience. In fact, I think that was what I loved most about it. The beauty of "The Way" was that all were welcome to make this pilgrimage to encounter our Lord, in beautiful churches and quiet moments as well as in friends and strangers alike. This film brings to light the human longing to seek something beyond what our material world can offer us, solidifying the suspicion that most things around us are mere distractions from our true destiny. How we try to see "The Way" in our daily lives is the challenge, I think. We are all pilgrims on a journey, and what matters most is to try our best to follow the Way, the Truth and the Life and lead fellow travelers to Him with love.

The cinematography of the vastness of the Basque region of Spain was captured so beautifully, and the soundtrack naturally flowed between meditative and upbeat. I just didn't want this film to end, it left me satisfied and hungry all at the same time....which brings me to my next thought....I should probably mention that after seeing this film, you may find yourself wanting to book a flight to see what awaits you on your own pilgrimage. Or maybe you don't need to go anywhere to see your path ahead of you. Either way, "Buen Camino" and "Vaya Con Dios" to all my fellow peregrinos.

Read all about the story behind "The Way."

The film contains brief partial rear nudity, drug use, a couple of instances of profanity and of crass language as well as references to abortion and sexuality. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

My Meaning of Life, a Mother's Day reflection

"Breakfast in Bed," Mary Cassatt.

 As a young girl, I was always given the message that I could do anything. With hard work, of course. But I was never told plainly that I must one day grow up, get married, and have babies. Nonetheless, I grew up with sisters and barbies and accessorizing and an endless string of crushes on little boys who were blissfully oblivious. I didn't give much thought about my future back then. But what I do recall is a deep longing to be a mother one day, and the fear that I might not get that chance.

It sounds cliche, but growing up in an academic family, it was just as important to be intelligent and successful as it was to be family-oriented. I grew up in a community where women sought out professions and were not often married before 30, let alone procreating. I grew up around women who "did it all" and figured I would just follow suit.

Then my family moved from Florida to Texas, my senior year in high school. Which will have to be its own story for another day, but suffice it to say that in time I've realized - for me personally - I can't do it "all." At least not well enough for my standards. I am nurturing a career at a pace which revolves around motherhood, but what has changed for me over time is my confidence in saying that "achieving" motherhood and living that calling out to the best of my ability will be my greatest accomplishment, my crowning glory.

Of course there's nothing which is seemingly glorious as I look back on the last 7 years of my motherhood, as I fondly recall how many poopy diapers I have changed, how many sleepless nights I have had, how many storybooks I have read one-hundred times over, how many mornings I've spent at the EXACT SAME PARK, how many times I've broken up a fight and shouted "no handstands on the couch!" or "keep your hands to yourself!" Or, what about the two-trillion times I've nursed a baby to back to sleep or flew a little boy to bed like an airplane, or like superman. I've lost count of how many legos I've picked up (and stepped on, screaming simultaneously), how many times I've missed phone chats with friends, and cleaned up milk spills and dried wet little heads after baths. And tantrums. Dear Lord, the tantrums. I have greatly improved the number of tantrums I have each day as well as the quantity of dark chocolate I keep around the house. :)

Many times I've wondered what I'm missing "out there" and what it would be like for one day to be "at work" instead of hanging out on Sesame Street. These days can be agony. But these days are fleeting, too.

And that's when I remind myself to savor the every day moments I've shared with the best people in the world, to kids! And the unbelievable Mom friends who have sustained me and lifted me up, taught me, encouraged me and strengthened me - the bonds which I hold dear. And I think about how much our children have changed me, and taught me...about patience, forgiveness, trust, compassion, only 7 short years, what I have learned about myself and others, about the love of God, about the meaning of life. And I wonder, how much more I have to learn? 

It has taken time for me to "forgive myself" for not fully mastering a professional career at this point in my life but to instead delight in what I have crafted with my own hands, with my prayers, my laughter. My blood, sweat and tears. The years will come when my hands will feel so empty again.

There's a crown all right, even though it may be made out of paper mache and twigs and leaves. It's a symbol of how fragile these days are, and it's splendidly glorious.

Tomorrow we celebrate Mother's Day, and we will honor our two beautiful mothers who have given us life, all of the mothers in our families and amongst our dear friends, our Blessed Mother Mary who brings us to close to the sacred heart of her son Jesus, and all women who give life to the world in so many ways. Thank you God, for my own Mom, who spent many days living patiently on Sesame Street and who taught me how to give my all. Thank you for my sacrificing husband who has made me a mother, teaches me daily, makes me laugh always and who aids me in all that I do. Thank you for my wonderful 3 sons Lord, and for the gift of my vocation, my very highest purpose in life - please help me to be worthy of the name "Mom!" Happy Mother's Day!!!

The Guardians of Time

 The Guardians of Time
by Julia Motekaitis

It is possible that I am delusional enough that I see myself as a superhero, who is shielding her family from a gigantic unstoppable time-eating Monster on a daily basis. If you're picturing it, I'm wearing red, since red is my power color. Also, you can imagine some jewel encrusted arm cuffs and boots. Fierce and fabulous, right?

The greedy time-eating Monster doesn't realize he is my adversary, because it's just who he is by nature. It's just that I made an oath years ago to guard my family from him while time is still on my side.

When I was growing up, Saturdays were family days since we all went to school during the week and Dad traveled often. We typically were not allowed to run off to neighbor's homes, our parents kept a pretty close watch on us. After practicing the piano and doing a chore or two, it was time to go play tennis together or go to the library. Often Dad would take us to a cool festival, or performance. And occasionally someone's friend who couldn't be shaken off the door step would tag along and be the unwilling recipient of a cultural experience. We can look back and laugh about memories of friends who would come over and knock on the door, and ask "what's going on in there? why can't you come out and play?" Typically we'd respond "Can't yet," because it was easier than explaining that we were taking dictation, reading the newspaper or playing "spin the globe and spell that country by memory." Is that a real game? Please lie to me if it's not. 

Yes, Nintendo was probably more fun. But 30 years later I can thank my parents for teaching me the value of contentedness at home, with learning how to occupy myself if I felt bored, and not feeling lost in the presence of a quiet moment. Even though we were each involved in music and at least one sport, my memories of weekends revolve around being at home, or out with family. Sunday Mass was the culmination of our time together. As we got older of course, this was not always the case as activities inevitably kicked up the pace of life. We weren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but our parents somehow figured out (even if by trial and error) how to teach us the value of our faith and family life.

We weren't deprived. We played four square, rode bikes in aimless circles, watched our share of Disney movies and had sleep overs with the neighborhood kids. Dad was able to fly us to Europe multiple times because of frequent flyer miles. But our identity came from our home life. I look back and realize this was their way of keeping us all together in a world that can easily, and unintentionally, pull families apart with things that distract from our ultimate purpose. 

Community is so important, but our children need us just as much. It is empowering for us as parents to realize our children love us just as we are, they just want our time. We are enough for them! As my husband and I raise our children, we feel ourselves being pulled off the ground by so many worthy invitations to be involved in activities. But somewhere deep inside there is this persistent truth that wells up and grounds me, reminding me that our time together is the most precious commodity we have. What we teach our children today about cultivating an inner life and owning their family identity will remain with them always. And if they grow up and willingly come back to see us at Thanksgiving, we can congratulate ourselves then on a job well done.

I may never defeat the time-eating Monster, nor perhaps should I. What I hope to do instead is keep him at bay and in the process, teach our kids how to be their own time guardians one day.

Our own people

 As we set off on the open road, we sat in an awkward silence, still in disbelief that we had actually left home. We kept looking over our shoulders, as if any moment the police would discover us and pull us over for abandoning our children. For one night, that is, with their grandmother, while we took our very first overnight anniversary trip. It felt criminal. Both of us were trying to silence the voices in our heads saying "you know, you could just stay home, rent a movie, get take out....think of the money we could save...besides, we don't really need a break from the kids, we live for the kids."

Feeling ambivalent and mostly forced to do this by one another, we had a hard time convincing ourselves we were really GOING. 5 miles away from home already felt like Timbuktu. But yet we were compelled to press forward, continuing to feel so strange in this car with the absence of little feet tapping the backs of our seats and the intermittent high pitched squeak- sequence for no apparent reason. We still had the vestiges of crushed cheerios on the floorboards and the happy ballads of Laurie Berkner to remind us of who we really were, just in case we forgot.

The strangely quiet country drive carried on, and thirty cow pastures later it occurred to us that we could listen to our OWN music for a change. We indecisively bounced back and forth between Joao Gilberto and Michael Jackson and the Pretenders and Pink Floyd. As the miles mounted on the odometer and we got lost in the music that we once knew, we quickly stepped back in time and become two totally different people. People who could make a spontaneous stop to take pictures of oddly fascinating outdoor sculptures. People who could afford to deliberate for twenty minutes about what they wanted to order at gorgeous, gourmet restaurants, where reading the menu descriptions was almost more fun than consuming the food. People who could explore a historic bed and breakfast for as long as their curiosity desired. People who could swim in a natural, spring-fed pool which seemed bottomless, until we were freezing and pruney and starved. People who could stay up all night drinking champagne at a piano lounge and not worry about waking up at 6 am. People who gaze into each other's eyes and finish a profound thought or a sentence without being interrupted five times. People who could be decadently aimless and not have a care in the world. It was almost like being in Never Neverland, being able to forget a world of responsibilities and schedules, of dishes and laundry, of mowing the lawn and taking out the trash.

 But it was the memory of those little, sweet faces that put our feet back on the earth, those little beings for whom we gladly pour out our lives. Our most precious investments not only in our future, but the world's future. Our greatest contributions to the human race. Our meaning of life. Our purpose in life. Suddenly the transition back to real life was not as abrupt as we had expected. We may not be the free agents we once were, our identities are much more complex now. But we do know that beneath the layers of who we are now, we are still our own people, and it feels sublime to remember that when we have the chance.

White flag day

The other night, my husband took the boys to karate and I stayed home with our toddler to get a head start on dinner so it would be hot and ready when they returned. This is our normal procedure and works beautifully normally.

Realizing that hot dogs were on the menu by special request and our toddler was occupied, I thought I'd try to send out some writing samples while the house was relatively quiet.

We all know how difficult it is to maintain a train of thought and form a complete sentence with children around, so I'm not exactly sure why I thought this was a good idea. But I stubbornly persisted. Several times I stood up to rescue our 22 month old from rifling through cupboards and standing precariously on stools, and then I would sit back down to piece together my thoughts.

When I heard the sound of water pouring, I tuned it out. When I connected that it would have to be the science experiment our eldest son had left out, I jumped up to take care of it and returned to resuscitate my fledgling paragraph. 

Shortly after that was when the miniature fall gourds started to be thrown at me from some undisclosed location. Stubbornly, I persisted. But the breaking point was inevitable. I calmly sat our toddler down with some books in his room, finished my paragraph, picked up the placemats from the table that he had scattered on the floor, and broke down in to tears.

I proceeded into my litany of mumbling self pity/prayer...."why.....why....whhhyyyy!!! I never ask for anything for myself. All I want to do is write a few paragraphs that might help someone else! Why is it so hard? " and I allowed myself to come completely unglued, a luxury I rarely afford myself.

And softly as always, God's patient wisdom answered me in silence. The way only He can hold a mirror to my face so that I can reveal the answer to my own questions. "Yes," He said. "Why, why, why. So that you would come to Me. You can not do this on your own."  I knew this to be true, and my sniveling was quieted. Only You can bless and multiply my efforts, my sweet Lord. Please forgive me for my foolishness and pride. I know I can do nothing good without You.

I surrender to Your perfect wisdom.

(But did it have to be gourds?)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Writing has been a dream of mine since I first graffitied the walls of my sister's bedroom with a green crayon. In any group of which I've been a part, any position I've held, any event I've organized....I have gravitated to the aspect of that role which allows me to write. If I could rewind time, I'd ignore every person who told me I'd never make any money and instead focus on those people who told me it was most important to do what you love. 

A few years ago, I pressed pause on a promising Master's degree in Counseling and took an interview to write features for a local publication. After writing for three years, I still stumble over the admission that I am a writer. At first I thought I'd only feel comfortable admitting it once I was published.  Then I thought I'd only feel comfortable once I was paid. As it turns out, I'd probably feel more comfortable sky-diving in a tornado while holding five rattlesnakes than admit that I am "writer." No, I am far more comfortable saying I'm writer in the works.

Writing is a bit tricky in our world today when every goldfish swimming in a fish bowl has their own blog and the definition of "published" is a moving, ever-changing target. The pressure to stand out as creative and strong, authentic and not cliche is more than ever, to me. Just gathering my writing samples, updating my resume and trying to understand what a "media specialist" means is almost enough to make me reconsider. Recently I decided not to approach my writing so formally as a career, but to "find where your gifts and your passions intersect" as my wise mother told me years ago.  I realized that if I have anything to offer the world, if God truly did give me the gift of writing, then I must only write what He finds useful for me to say. Additionally, it may behoove me to reign in my run-on sentence habit. *

My recent decision to begin writing in my own voice has taught me something critical already....  creativity can not be commanded, only inspired. I am grappling with this, since my insights have a tendency to show up unannounced and only when I have a half-melted crayon and a children's bulletin within arm's reach.

Thank you for following me in this dream. I am not sure where it might lead but I hope to make it worth your while.

*Note to self: find some editor friends willing to work pro-bono. Supply plenty of wine so they will be totally honest.