Vignettes

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…At 9:00, Christian and I make our way upstairs to do a little spiritual reading before going to bed. He turns on the strobe on his phone and checks the kids as he does every night, scolding, teasing or re-tucking-in depending on circumstance. Tonight, he comes into the bedroom laughing afterward: Nicholas is not asleep. In the center of his bed sits a pile of blankets almost two feet high, with no sign of footed jammies anywhere. “Nicholas, where are you?” he asks.

“Wight hee,” says Nicholas, from the opposite corner of the bunk. “I tuck my bay in!” Sure enough, Christian finds a two-inch-high stuffed Christmas ornament bear peeking out from beneath the Leaning Tower of Blankets…

…Attending Mass at Newman a few weeks ago leads to Alex begging to participate in their Christmas pageant. Because he’s not a member, he can’t have a speaking role, but he is playing a shepherd, who is to be led to the manger by an angel. Conveniently enough, his partner angel is his best (girl) friend from school. He comes out of rehearsal in high spirits. “Mommy, E__ and I are walking down the aisle together!” he says. “We hold hands!” He doesn’t understand why Mommy and Daddy have to pinch our lips to keep from laughing—or why we won’t explain it to him…

…We haven’t been down to the woods as much this year as in past years. Pregnant, tired mommy? Writing-busy mommy? Or just lazy mommy? In any case, there aren’t many days left to enjoy in the woods, so one morning I take the little ones down to the creek. I sit down, sharp rocks poking my heavy bottom, as Nicholas throws rocks. Julianna stands with her toes at the very edge of the creek, throws a rock or two, and then, quietly, without fuss, comes over to me and plants herself on my left leg for a snuggle. Fine brown hair against my cheek, body nestled against mine. We look up together as an unexpectedly warm late-fall wind sets the bare sycamores and russet-crowned oaks to dancing. “Buh-buh-buh,” she says as a bird flies overhead—one of many protowords she uses now. And it is a perfect moment…quiet, serene, and all too fleeting…

Head of a fetus, aged 29 weeks, in a "3D ...

…I sit at the computer desk, and my insides flutter. I know that by bedtime I’ll feel bloated; in the middle of the night, the baby will shift so far to one side that I’ll moan as I try to roll over–that by morning, my back will ache from lack of support. But in this moment, the raindrop-trickle of little limbs and fingers on my insides feels like grace itself…

There are so many things to be thankful for, this week of giving thanks. I whisper the list silently skyward, but these I preserve and share.

May the coming holiday be full of grace, and peace, and love. I’ll see you all back here on Monday.

The Aftermath of an Apocalyptic Dream

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Kleenex logo

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I had a dream last night. It began as a movie preview for an apocalypse: the earth split and pulled back, and then, in equal and opposite reaction, came rushing back, oceans rushing over everything in tidal waves the likes of which Hollywood hasn’t yet imagined, the face of the earth rearranging to such an extent that our whole concept of geography shifted.Indianabecame west ofColorado,Californiacomprising the East Coast, that kind of thing.

“EAST…MEETS…WEST,” said the preview voice.

Being a dream, of course, it didn’t stop there. I was in the middle of it, observing in a detached, Godlike sort of way. First I just watched the waters rearrange the earth; then I began thinking about what it must be like to be the people caught in it, and immediately I began to see it. They were lucky, those who died in that apocalypse. Instantaneous, all over without time to experience pain or fear.

I half woke, long enough to remind myself there was no reason to keep thinking about it, and then slipped back into slumber, where I was trying to round up my family. We stopped by Julianna’s preschool and I went room to room, scavenging without conscience. What was I scavenging? Not what you’d think.  Not food and clothing. No, I was after Kleenex and ibuprofen. Tylenol I was really keen on, because of course, being pregnant, I can’t take ibuprofen. (Never did find that.) I went back to the car and we drove, and drove, and drove. My cell phone in my pocket, it transpired, was unlocked and I was inadvertently sending nonsense, wasting precious prepaid minutes.

I never did reach the fabled meeting point where I would reunite with my family. Fortunately, my alarm went off.

It was just a dream—nothing truly earth-shattering (I’ll never look at that term the same way again!). But I woke up thinking about the things I take for granted. There are the obvious things, like family and a home and sleeping in security, knowing the most precious parts of you lie safe in their beds. But there are so many things in my life that don’t even register on the gratitude scale: acetaminophen, facial tissue—tools we use and throw away without thinking. When a kid gets a runny nose in the third world, what do they do? The dichotomy between what we think is so important and what we find actually matters keeps smacking me in the face.

Today I head to our diocesan Teachers’ Institute, where I’m slotted to wax eloquent on Advent and liturgy for school kids, and to play piano forMass. Today I set myself this task: to be cognizant of the small luxuries that have become necessities without my ever noticing…and to be grateful for them. While I’m offline, won’t you look around and see what insignificant, extraneous things in your life you’ve ceased to notice enough to be grateful for?

The Best House Guests Ever

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The doorbell rang at 5:15 p.m. on Friday. “Hey, guys, Mr. Kyle’s here!” I called, and went to open the door for my good friend from grad school. I’ve been looking forward to this visit for months, but I wasn’t prepared for my children’s enthusiasm. As I stepped back from greeting them with hugs, Nicholas pounded across the living room: “Aaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiyyy!” colliding with Kyle’s legs and hugging them tight. Julianna tore forward, her face split by a goofy grin, giggling as she threw herself into Beth’s arms.

It’s been two years since we saw Kyle, and Beth was a new acquaintance. And yet there are friends with whom somehow you can always pick up right where you left off—and with whom there is no awkward, formal getting-to-know-you stage. We didn’t stop talking all weekend. Completely geeked out about liturgy and faith (they both work for the Church), agriculture, families—barely touched on reminiscing about school days.

They were so good with the kids, too. So often when adults try to visit it’s like a wrestling match: who gets my attention, the kids or the guests? But the kids spent the entire weekend crawling all over the visitors, who by all appearances reveled in the chaos. My children multiplied their usual hyperactivity several times over. They were so excited. Every morning, when the guests came upstairs, the squeals of delight reprised. Sunday morning at breakfast, Kyle lifted his head. “What’s that sound?” he joked. “Is that quiet? I haven’t heard that all weekend!”

We went bike riding on Saturday, and the four adults spent Saturday evening crowded on and around the air mattress in the basement, snacking on popcorn and talking till our throats were raw, joking about how it felt like a sleepover. After Kyle played through some new music and critiqued it for me.

It’s rare to have the privilege of hosting people who are at home with you from the first moment. Who feel comfortable enough to help themselves to the M&M bag—and instead of being annoyed, you rejoice in the level of their comfort. I didn’t touch the dish sink all weekend, because by the time I got ready to start, they had the dishes well underway.

And they gave us a Shakespeare’s gift certificate.

Sunday morning, Kyle sang with the choir for Pentecost, and afterward we said our goodbyes and they headed home. “Did you enjoy their visit?” Christian asked Alex as he backed out of the parking spot at church.

“Yes, only…” And suddenly Alex wailed, “it wasn’t long enough!”

I agree, my boy. I agree.

Today I am grateful for…

The best house guests ever

a perfect day for a bike ride (except for the mosquitoes)

the beauty of the river

picking up where we left off

new friends

a grown-up “sleepover” (especially nice b/c at the end of it I got to sleep in my own bed, not in some uncomfortable sleeping bag!)

An amazing Monday morning sky as the clouds drift in:

     the air yellow and intimate

     cornflower blue sky dotted with salmon-colored clouds in the southwest

     smudgy gray clouds, almost disappearing into the sky, outlined in brilliant white-silver

     cotton ball blobs atop shimmering gray-yellow formations in the east

     the low grumble of thunder

My love for my sick child

The end being in sight for all my deadlines

An improvement in attitude

Sunday Snippets and Gratitude List

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It’s time for another roundup of Catholic bloggers over at This That and the Other Thing. Hop on over and join us! My contributions for this week:

I’m including my 7 Quick Takes b/c there’s a reference to a shout-out by the Denver Redemptorists, calling for Catholic moms’ opinions on St. Gerard Majella.

“Mama’s On The Radio” is about my experience being on a radiothon…with my kids.

Then there’s Julianna, being cute with my flute.

“Searchability.” This is a fun exercise for bloggers to do.

And “Let Everything That Has Breath,” in which I recorded and reflected on the most amazing dream I’ve had in a long time.

It’s been super busy lately, and by week’s end I began to recognize the signs of burnout. So my gratitude list for this week focuses on the Missouri Writers Guild Conference–my first-ever writing conference–which I attended Friday afternoon and Saturday in St. Louis:

  • The grace to meet and talk with people without feeling awkward or socially inept
  • Which led to making connections with writers who write what I write (what a concept!)
  • Which led to being introduced to an editor I was pitching the next day, and getting to make a personal connection with her ahead of time
  • And because it was so natural a progression, I wasn’t nervous or awkward with HER (because it’s in my nature to make an idiot of myself around people I respect
  • The chance to see an old friend of my husband’s, and spend time with her and really make her my friend, and someone who amazes me at every turn
  • Good, beautiful conversation with her, covering topics of so much greater importance than writing–but that, too!
  • Inspiration
  • Motivation
  • Encouragement
  • The overwhelming expansion of my reading list (didn’t need that, but it’s still a good thing!)
  • A brief, but nice, visit with my aunt and uncle, who loaned me a bed for Friday night
  • A successful pitch or three, both fiction & NF (none of them guarantees of publication, but successful nonetheless)
  • A spur-of-the-moment visit with my sister on the way home
  • A great CD to listen to, inspiring a change of heart
  • Arriving home on Saturday night to a house that I left in a disaster, and found in a state of almost-cleanliness! (Yes, my husband rocks. No, you can’t have him.)
  • And last but most certainly not least, the reaction of my children when I pulled in the driveway and came inside.

I had a pretty profound insight on the way home…amazing what thoughtful ground you can cover when you don’t have three children bickering, asking “how much longer” or making sound effects in the back seat. I’ll share that one on Tuesday. Tomorrow I have a guest post coming up.

Let Everything That Has Breath (or: Beating a Dead Horse)

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Just before my alarm went off, 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I had the most amazing dream. We were attending Mass at the Newman Center, and singing the new Mass parts. They were chants, as a matter of fact, but the most gorgeous, melodic chants I’d ever heard, and expanded into gorgeously rich harmony that made the very air hum. And ringed around the exterior of the church stood dozens of people, children and adults, bearing small percussion instruments—agogô, cabasa, güiro, and others I know by sight and sound but for which I know no names. It was a tight ensemble; I looked around and marveled at the way even the children kept the complex rhythms locked to the voices, the joy filling up the space, and my heart lifted up in gratitude not only for the existence of God, but for the power of what He created here on Earth.

It is sometimes suggested that what I describe crosses into irreverence. It is called banal, feel-good, happy-clappy, and so on. People I deeply respect in all other areas use the word “beauty” to mean “high church,” unable (or refusing) to acknowledge that beauty crosses aesthetic lines, finding itself equally at home amid chant, praise bands, contemporary ensembles, solo cantors and classically-trained choirs.

Only in the constant frustration of trying to moderate the online rhetoric do I finally realize how blessed I was to grow up in a small, rural parish where there was little pretension and a great openness to all forms of beauty in music (even though, being a small parish, we were incredibly limited in what we could do). It wasn’t until much later that I realized how strongly so many people equate God with solemn, humorless sternness. I’ve never understood it. Why must reverence equal silence, holiness equal formality? Why do we shush children, try to make them behave (defined as sitting still and being silent, things utterly not in their nature, things which cause them to yell “church is boring” and help them not at all along the road toward understanding what’s going on and becoming active in participation)—why, when Jesus very clearly said “Let the little children come to me” and “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it”? Why do we use worship as another venue to drive wedges between people, to separate them into groups that can be labeled “Us” and “Them”?

Don’t get me wrong. You know how I crave silence, how I find God in it. I think the lack of silence in modern life is a real problem, one that people are reluctant to address. And certainly I’m not suggesting that we should abandon the pomp and grandeur of high church. I know, without a doubt, that the ideal held up by the aforementioned people has real power to lift the heart to God, when it’s well done. But so do other forms. Look around the world. God created kangaroos and slugs, mountains and valleys and deserts and oceans, skin in black and white and all variations in between, and inspired people in all of them to create unique forms of beauty. How can we claim that there is only one way to worship the God who created such diversity? When any of us try to set up our own personal preferences (whatever form they take) as the only way or even the best way, we put God in a box.

Well, thank God He won’t stay in that box, that’s all I have to say.

What I experienced in that dream would be hard to achieve this side of Heaven. But it reminds me yet again that the human race, in all its diversity of custom and culture, truly is good.

Today I am grateful for all the things that support the song of the people of God:

hand drums and drumsets

electric guitars and keyboards

pipe organs and glorious trained choirs

chants and Renaissance polyphony (okay, so that last doesn’t support assembly song, but it can still lift our souls)

Handel and Haugen

Pope Gregory and Rich Mullins

for the inSpiration that touches all artists, whether they choose to make good use of it or not

for the constant renewal of the Church in the gifts of its members

for the constant tension between embracing what is good from contemporary culture and holding on to truth—however imperfectly the balance is held

for online arguments that remind me never to take for granted the blessings I’ve been given

Counting to a thousand with the Gratitude Community at A Holy Experience

Early Spring in the Woods

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On Julianna’s birthday, Alex came home from school in great excitement. “My teacher said there was going to be an early spring!” he exclaimed. We tried to moderate his certainty, but how do you explain to a five-year-old that the groundhog is a publicity stunt?

When I get up to walk on Sunday morning, it’s already well above freezing. All morning, while we get dressed and go to church (jackets, not coats, thank you), the snowpack melts. As the day goes on, the sound of running water down in the woods crescendoes: first a whisper, then a gurgle, and at last a steady rush. The cul de sac is clear for the first time in weeks, and in the afternoon, Alex and I go outside. He rides his bike for a while, and then we put on our boots to “slop” our way down to the woods. It’ss harder going than I anticipated. Eighteen inches of super-fluffy snow doesn’t just pack down as it melts; it morphs into to a snow state I’ve never seen before. I guess my boots are really shot, because slogging through snow at the threshold of melting ends with my toes being very wet.

The last time I was there, it looked like this:

A pristine wonderland crisscrossed only by animal tracks and a trickle of water peeking from a layer of ice.

Today, Alex and I pause at the edge of the bend in the creek and survey the busy water.

He stands with his hands jammed into his pockets, and watches the gurgling waters round the bend, then says, “Come on, Mommy!” After all, there are rocks to throw.

And vines to investigate, to puzzle the mystery by which they grow up, then down, and somehow manage to loop upward again. How do they do that?

And untouched snow in need of shuffled tracks made by little bare legs.

And fingers to poke into the snowy drifts at the edge of the creek bank in an attempt to make raccoon tracks. I watch, then bend down to do the same, and my fingers sink into something barely cold and soft like velvet. I’ve never felt anything like it. Or maybe I’m just paying attention for the first time. “Look,” I say softly, and point to the creek bank, where green shoots sprout from the soft earth. “The world thinks it’s spring.”

And despite all the stressors, the lack of time, the projects pressing down, the nudging that I’m out of balance, at this moment, this moment in the woods, all I feel is joy.

Today I am thankful for signs of coming spring:

Driving with the window down for the first time in 2011

Opening the deck door for a precious half hour to let fresh air into the house

The first day that my early-morning exercise is accompanied by a blush of dawn

A gorgeous sunrise—food for the soul

Riding bikes in the cul de sac

Animal tracks in untouched snow…even if they aren’t destined to remain so

A little boy with fists jammed into his pockets

The mystery of vines

Shuffling through untouched melting snow

Making raccoon tracks in the snow

Green shoots along the creek bank

The whoosh of running water outside my window

Last year’s grasses melting their insulating blanket

On In Around button


Existing in the Moment

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Holy Spirit,

Image by kelsey_lovefusionphoto via Flickr

It’s easier to be thankful in the crisis moments. Crises burn all the pettiness out of life. During them, you really exist in the present. You stop getting angry because the dishes aren’t done and the city didn’t plow your street properly, and your brain hums with awareness of all that is good about the humdrum, ordinary circumstances of life. So really, crisis points are themselves something to be thankful for.

But this was not a crisis weekend. It was just an ordinary weekend at the end of a long week strung with snow days. And I got crankier by the day, for no good reason at all, my vision zeroing in on a snow pile of minor irritants until I had a fight with my husband. And this morning, as I sit down to write down my gratitude moments for the week, it feels fake and super-saccharine to talk only about them, and pretend like the rest of it never happened.

I’m beginning to realize that when I am content, when my brain relaxes, the buzz of the Spirit in my brain signals that I’m existing in the moment. I’m not worrying about the novel without a home, or the novel without a structure, or lesson schedule or getting the carpet shampooed or figuring out Julianna’s future. In those fleeting moments, I simply am.

I had several of those this weekend.

There was the moment Friday afternoon when I sat upstairs, typing Lenten recipes and novel scenes. The sound of giggles downstairs bypassed my usual filters, and I realized—really realized: my children are playing together. They’ve been playing together for half an hour without bickering—just enjoying each other. My fingers paused, my hands dropped to my lap, and instead of thinking or problem solving, I just listened. Listened to the laughter of my children enjoying each other, loving each other. And it made me realize anew how much I love my children.

There was the moment an hour or two later, when all fell quiet for a moment, and then I heard Alex’s voice: “I love you, Nicholas.”

There was the moment Saturday night, when I called my dad and Alex commandeered the phone. And while I tossed clothes in the dryer and got ready for bed, I kept an ear trained on the conversation in the hallway. “I only had school on Monday this week,” Alex said. “I think my mom probably liked it. Because she doesn’t have anything to do except sit in front of the computer all day long.” I paused with my toothbrush halfway to my mouth, a shot of mingled horror and amusement and guilt piercing my chest. Is that all he sees of me? It was like a split-second examination of conscience. I tripped along memories, trying to convince myself that the time I spent with him this week making valentines, playing Batman, reading books and baking, actually counted for something. But it was another reminder that my work is not more important than my children.

And there was bedtime on Sunday, as I sat singing Child of the Moon to my children. Between one word and the next, right before my eyes, Julianna turned to her big brother and smiled, then crooked an arm around him. They looked like high school buddies, not small children. And then Alex turned his head and smiled at her, nose to nose, eye to eye, and love poured out of their gaze and smacked me with the sheer force of its power, stealing my breath for half a second. And in that moment, I understood anew how love can be so powerful that it becomes a physical force in the world, like the Holy Spirit, an uncontainable manifestation of the love of Father and Son.

Moments like these, I ache to capture on camera, but my camera is downstairs in the drawer, and even if I had it on me, by the time I pulled it out and turned it on, the moment would be past. So instead I just sit and drink it in. Ten minutes later, I’ll be mad because somebody hit somebody else or spilled a glass of milk, or distracted by a troublesome manuscript, or the phone will ring and I’ll go back to worrying about NFP presentations and DS support groups…but for that one, brief moment, I am present in my own life.

More gratitudes:

Having babysitting on Friday for the first time in weeks

Getting a lot done because of it

Having the house back, with all family members going where they’re supposed to go M-F.

Alex growing and stretching and relaxing into his role as big brother—and luxuriously enjoying it!

A good book

The first step toward reclaiming my weight

Packing snow

Calvin & Hobbes snowmen, courtesy of my husband

A hush over the creek