The Challenge of Achieving Zen When Your Kids Are Wrestling On The Floor


The women of the 2017 Liturgical Composers Forum

I spent last week hobnobbing with my fellow liturgical composers…which means I got to geek out about hanging out with people I have looked up to since I was old enough to pay attention to the names in the copyright line at the bottom of the hymnal pages. And yes, I am fully aware that this paragraph outs me as a complete Catholic nerd. But I don’t think that was a big surprise to most of you, so…y’know. It is what it is. I am who I am, and all that.

(Bracing for the lightning strike.)


Long days and late nights….my camera tells me I took this picture of the Eagles jam session at 10:45 p.m. That’s an hour past my bedtime. 🙂

It was an intense three days, during which I played for two morning prayers, an evening prayer, and Mass. Oh right, and the big Forum concert. But it was also very calming. Which is surprising, in a way, because I realized about 12:30 on Day One that I was poised at the edge of a spiritual cliff—a result of an extended neglect of the quiet stillness that keeps me spiritually and emotionally healthy.

I knew I was pushing it a couple weeks ago. You can coast for a while, but sooner or later you have to feed the soul or you fall to pieces. At least, I do. And I could tell I was getting close to the danger zone, but there’s just so little time this year. Last year, Michael was in a.m. preschool and napping after lunch; this year I only have afternoon preschool. And there’s always a dentist appointment or a Christmas party to attend. (Or a kid’s birthday gift to buy, as was the case today, because doesn’t everybody wait until two days before their daughter turns ten to think about what to get her?)

So my daily mantra this year has been, “Next year…kindergarten…next year…kindergarten…” A way to keep myself from getting too frustrated at the lack of work time. And I’ve been substituting mantra for spiritual food. I haven’t taken the time to go out and sit by a creek or under a tree.

So when, last Tuesday afternoon, I recognized the first stages of anxiety and a potential for a real crisis of faith, I knew I had to ignore the feedback on two novels sitting in my inbox and focus entirely on faith and music for a few days.

The great thing about a conference, even one with an intense schedule, is that I can do that. Somebody else is responsible for the cooking and the cleanup and I’m a hundred and twenty miles from the chauffeuring and the “did you brush your teeth?” and the “where are your shoes/coat/backpack?” and the “is that any of your business?” Oh yes, and the “so-and-so forgot his homework, can you bring it to school?”

Last week, even though I had very little down time, I was focused on what I was doing. (As opposed to this moment, when I’m sitting on the couch at the piano teacher’s house and trying to decide whether to intervene in the wrestling match going on between my oldest and youngest.) I prayed several times a day. I played my flute every day.

And I came home tired—very tired—but also much more calm, with my heart in alignment.

While he's still small enough to hold like this...

While he’s still small enough to hold like this…

The trick, of course, is figuring out how to carve time out of real life to hold onto that calm. How to import a modicum of last week’s spiritual focus into days when I am, once again, on chauffeur and KP duty, and trying to make sure I don’t waste the last days of small childhood—that I spend time playing Blokus with or reading Batman to Michael.

And if you’re expecting some pithy resolution, I’m sorry to say you’re going to be disappointed. This blog is about my wrestling with questions, not providing bullet point answers. I just share my journey in the hopes that others will recognize themselves in my words and know we’re not going through it alone.


A Love Letter To My Choir


Photo by Mary Sherman, via Flickr

When Christian and I left our previous parish so I could I start working full-time as liturgy & music director in 2000, it was a tough transition. We had met, fallen in love, gotten engaged and married  within the arms of the music ensemble at Newman, and the idea of leaving for a place where I knew almost no one was heartbreaking.

But in my new position I was in charge of a small army of volunteers, so I met a lot of people in a hurry. Christian wasn’t so fortunate. He didn’t even have assigned slots to play piano for a while. He’d sub in with a cantor, but he was a pretty sad little Italian piano player for a couple months.

Shortly after I got him onto the schedule, a guitar player came up and asked if he could play along. Then a bass player. Then a second guitarist. A couple months later, one singer joined, and then another, and another. The husband/“roadie” for one of the guitar players picked up a triangle and became the percussionist. And without ever recruiting or making any effort at all, the Contemporary Group was born.


2005. All those babies are now in middle school, including the one in my big belly.

The thing people outside a regular church music group don’t really “get” is that it’s not just about singing or playing, and it’s not just about worship. Choir is a safe place. People who make music together are bound by some mysterious alchemy no one can really explain but everyone knows is there. People who share a faith and make music together become a community.

In the fall of 2000, I didn’t really appreciate what was happening, and what it would mean for my (and our) future. The CG took over the 10:00 Mass most weekends. I sang with them so I could worship with my husband, but they rehearsed at the same time as “my” choir, so I felt a little on the outside for a few years.


Singers, Christmas 2015

But when I stopped working, I became an official member—and co-director. People kept coming and coming. Young people, with babies and little kids. Middle-aged people and retirees. My aunt volunteered to watch kids for a while. Then one of the teachers at the school. We started having Christmas parties, then mid-summer pool parties at a member’s house. We started Christmas caroling outside Wal Mart and Schnucks to boost the kettle ringers’ success. Then we started caroling around neighborhoods and collecting canned goods for the Food Bank. This fall, one of our members began bringing a woman from the community who has a disability. And now every week at some point during rehearsal we sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider.

It’s the most amazing group of people. We don’t audition, and I know from other pastoral musicians that there are some really strong and difficult personalities out in the world of church music–but for some reason our group hasn’t attracted those. We have people who don’t read a note, and people who read solfege only, and we have band directors—in the plural. (It can be intimidating to conduct that ensemble these days, me with my one semester of basic conducting.) We have a high school flutist and two brass players. We’ve been through two drummers and are currently without.

It’s often exhausting to do this with four kids. It would be easier to tell the music director to stick the two of us on the schedule as a pair and leave it at that. We’d never have to practice a note. But when it’s just the two of us these days, it feels flat—musically flat (though not pitch-flat), emotionally flat, spiritually flat. Our choir members support each other, and they support us.

They make fun of us, actually. (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that we probably deserve it.)


Instruments and Christmas Eve Psalmist, 2016

We pray. We laugh until we cry. Sometimes we just cry. They go through every piece of music I write before it gets submitted to the publishers, and they’re even starting to be honest with me when I wrote it wrong. (Sometimes.)

When I think back to that group of four who started playing for Mass together sixteen years ago, I’m always in awe. How did something so small become so central to the expression of our faith? How can it have been that many years? What did we do to deserve this group of people with whom we are maturing into a knowledge that doing music for Mass isn’t all we’re called to do? That there is more we can give to the world?


Instrumental rehearsal in our basement, 2016. Why yes. In fact, that is Michael Keaton as Batman on the wall.

This year, we’re doing something new. We realized we spend the entire fall preparing prelude music for Christmas, and after that one night it’s done. We decided to pull that program back out after New Year’s, after school is back in session, for a “Farewell to Christmas” concert on Epiphany weekend, as a free will offering to benefit our local St. Vincent de Paul Society. (January 7. 7p.m. Our Lady of Lourdes.)

Concert poster 2

Not that I’m advertising.

This is my–our–love letter, our Christmas message, to our choir. You guys have made us who we are. We are privileged to be among you, to walk with you, and we appreciate everything you are and everything you do. You are God’s gift to us.

(P.S. to my CG members: I have once again demonstrated my complete technological ineptitude. Apparently I did not even get that brilliant rendition of Rise Up Shepherd on video last night. Maybe we really SHOULD do it that way on Christmas Eve! 😉 )

Rest and InSpiration


michael-lashesI came downstairs after my shower yesterday—midmorning, post-workout—to find Michael lying on the couch, half-covered up by a throw and staring out at nothing. I had intended to take him to the basement and let him play with the multitude of toys there while I worked at the piano on edits for the last piece for my Easter collection for flute & piano. But it’s been a rough transition for him, going from morning preschool and afternoon nap to afternoon preschool and no nap at all. So instead, I laid down on the couch beside him and wrapped him up in my arms. “You tired, sweetie?”

“Yeah,” he said in his “forlorn” voice.

“You want to take a nap?”

An extended nod, there against my chest. Then an extended shake of the head. I laughed, and so did he.

I knew I should just cover him up with the throw, kiss his cheek, and go do my work. An unplanned nap? In the morning? This is a gift from God, wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a bow.

But I was sleepy, too, and he felt so good in my arms. And maybe, after all, the gift was a different one: the gift of stillness, one I could embrace—literally—or toss away in favor of an extra half hour of work time.

I closed my eyes, and we snuggled down in the quiet house. My brain treated me to a tour of all the things I could and should be doing, but I pretended it wasn’t talking, and the shrieking faded to a dull roar.

I love being snuggled up with a child in the moment when they go to sleep. The breathing changes. The body relaxes. I couldn’t sleep myself, but I laid there with his head on my arm, eyes closed, opening them every so often to look at those impossibly long lashes, then closing them again to rest in stillness.

And then, after a handful of minutes, inSpiration trickled through the synapses and sang me the solution to my editing quandary. Regretfully, I maneuvered his head off my arm and onto the couch pillow and went downstairs, knowing I’d probably solved the problem more quickly by NOT doing than I would have if I’d gone straight to the basement as planned.

And filled my heart in the process.

Off Making Music


Item 1: Time plus focus = momentum, the anti-writer’s block.

Item 2: I have neither time nor excessive amounts of focus.

Net Result: I frequently feel a frustrating lack of inspiration when writing music, even though I feel more alive when I write music than with anything else I do.

It is, perhaps, divine irony that in de-cluttering and re-packing my computer bag today I threw away an unread, torn-out page of a Writer’s Digest issue on nurturing creativity and saw the suggestion: “Vary your creative pursuits.”

I salute you, WD, and I obey. This week I am off to the Mercy Center in St. Louis for the Liturgical Composers Forum, soaking in the collective wisdom of people with a lot more experience than myself. I will blog if there is time; if not (as I suspect), I’ll be back next Monday. If you are near St. Louis, we’ll be ending the week with a concert on Thursday evening benefiting the Mercy Center. More info and ticket link are here (tickets must be purchased in advance).

2015 LCF concert. Image via Mercy Center STL. Used with permission.


On Any Given Sunday….

Log cabin beside the river, a historical marker for the origin of the city of Des Moines

Log cabin beside the river, a historical marker for the origin of the city of Des Moines

On any given Sunday, you might be sitting in the front row at Mass, trying to look like a respectable family who actually has any business giving a presentation on faithful parenting later that afternoon, when your three-year-old flings himself to the floor and wails. And when asked what’s wrong, his response might be: “I’m sad because you told me to pay attention to Father!”

On any given Sunday, you and your husband might lead an afternoon devotional event as a guest artist while weighing the relative disruption that would be caused by a) leaving the music area to make your kids behave, versus b) just letting them run around the church.

On any given Sunday, you might invite the kids in the assembly to come up and lead hand motions for a song, only to have your fourth grader flail backward on the pew with an audible, and public, “Uggggghhhhhh!” (Note: you might also find that Preschooler’s hand motions default to “air guitar” as soon as your back is turned.)

Hand Motions

(The rest of the kids didn’t want to come up the second time.)

On any given Sunday, you might be leading “Go In Peace” from the cantor stand for a small but enthusiastic group of worshipers, when you suddenly spy your three-year-old, the one you thought had gone to cuddle with Father, instead hanging over the edge of the church balcony. To which the only response is to step out of the hottest part of the mic and whisper, “Get down. DOWN. DOWN!” while pointing vehemently at the floor.

On any given Sunday, you might pack up after the liturgies and the presentations and find, right where the only well-behaved child was sitting, this :

Vulture Droid

Evidence of sneaky bad behavior. They don’t outgrow it, they just get smarter.

On any given Sunday, you might be taking a farewell picture with a good friend… Kyle, K & C …while pretending that this was not going on in the background:

The Basi Band

“Ev-yyy-fing is awesome!” Because somebody didn’t know how to turn off the sound system!

Michael drummer On any given Sunday, you might find yourself driving east on N. West street, only to turn right and drive south on N. East Street.

On any given Sunday, you might find that Google sends you down a gravel road as the fastest route from Des Moines to mid-Missouri. Google Gravel Google Gravel 2 Or you might find that Google can’t find you at all. Or that your signal vanishes altogether, such that you find yourself navigating by…gasp…a map. Ever heard of one of those?

All poking fun aside, we had a lovely weekend doing our first marriage-and-family-life presentations in the diocese of Des Moines, Iowa. The kids were wild about the Iowa Science Center, and we walked along the river and the triple-A Cubs stadium. The Hyatt where the diocese put us up was amazing. I wasn’t even in the room yet when the kids’ reaction told me we were going to be living in style for two days.

I’m always overwhelmed by how beautiful Iowa is. I know it, but it steals my breath anyway. In the two years I was driving back and forth from northern Iowa to Central Missouri, I was always torn between the soul-filling beauty and the homesickness. These days, when home comes with me, I find myself longing to pack up and put down roots in some place of long, rolling hills and black-walled drainage streams cutting through the green, of fields and woods and grasslands that stretch for miles in every direction, unbroken by city lights.

We come to the end of the weekend worn out and worn down, with a van so cluttered by the detritus of a road trip that we lost my folder of flute-and-piano Easter pieces between playing them at Mass and playing them at the afternoon stations of the empty tomb. But also grateful for the reminder of where we’ve been and where we are now. God is good.