Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mary's Rockin' Eve

OK, maybe "rockin'" is going a little too far. We just ate some brownies, and we're now sitting by the fire, watching what appears to be a Disneyworld infommercial on the Travel Channel. My dad and step-mom (and Chiara) have already headed off to bed, and it's not even 10 p.m. Noah and Olivia, on the other hand, say they're in it for the long haul. We'll see who survives until midnight. Noah, of course, makes it to midnight every year since he not only rings in the new year but his birthday as well.

It's hard to believe we're on the brink of another new year. I'm not one for New Year's resolutions, so you won't find any of those here. I do, however, like to set some "goals." Last year one of my main goals was to go on a retreat for the first time since high school. I went on three in the span of six months, so, as you can see, I take my "goals" very seriously. This year my goals once again lean toward the spiritual side. I would like to look into getting a spiritual director, something that intimidates me for a number of reasons, and I'd like to go on another retreat. Although I can't go on a longer retreat, I would like to go on something that will challenge me in an intense spiritual way. Last year it was the silent/contemplative retreat that forced me to stretch. I would definitely like to do another silent retreat since that was really a phenomenal experience and one that has had a lasting impact in my life.

I'd also like to learn to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I simply cannot get this prayer routine, no matter how many times I give it the old college try. You might as well hand me an instruction manual and tell me to land a plane. I open that book of Christian Prayer and my eyes glaze over. I wonder if some of it has to do with the fact that I'm always trying to learn on my own and I could really benefit from the communal prayer experience. Another part of me thinks it has to do with my lack of connection to the Psalms. I know the Psalms are important. I know many saints and spiritual greats say that the Psalms are imperative to their prayer life, but so far I haven't experienced that profound Psalm Aha! moment. I'll keep working on it, but if anyone has any secrets to the Psalms, please pass them along.

Finally, one of last year's unmet goals, will roll over to 2009: I want to spent a weekend with my dear friend Dorothy, which would be an awful lot like going on private retreat with a spiritual director. So maybe I'll be able to fulfill all three goals in one big spiritual extravaganza.

That's about it. It may not sound like much, but, trust me, those spiritual goals are quite a challenge for me. If I can be even half as successful with these goals as I was with last year's goals, I'll be happy. I don't put time pressures on myself with these goals. In fact, I don't really put any pressure on myself. I just put the ideas out there into the universe and begin to take baby steps toward achieving what I want.

Feel free to share your goals or resolutions. Maybe we can help each other along the way. Happy New Year! May 2009 be a year of blessings and spiritual surprises for all of us.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A gift hidden in sorrow

Our dear blog friend Emilie Lemmons died in her sleep on Dec. 23 while her husband held her hand. You can read his last post on her blog and the last quote she wanted to share with all of us by clicking HERE.

I wanted to post about Emilie's passing as soon as I read the sad news on Christmas Eve, but I found myself unable to put into words the strange grief I was feeling. As you know, I never met Emilie, never even spoke to her by phone. I knew her only through her blog and our common bonds as mothers, writers, bloggers and spiritual seekers. I was awed by her strength in the face of tremendous hardship, in her ability to enjoy every minute with her young sons even while she was dying, in her grace and honesty right up until the end. When I learned of her death, I wept, not a few sentimental tears for a stranger's sorrow, but hysterical, overwhelming, sob-inducing tears. I found it odd that I could feel such strong emotions for someone who was never in my life in any concrete way.

It just so happens that throughout Emilie's last days (which I knew of from reading her blog post about going into hospice care), I was experiencing a terrible professional betrayal. And let's just say, I wasn't handling it well. The fallout, which is by no means even close to over, paralyzed me. Suddenly I wasn't sure about anything -- about my career (which also happens to be a vocation), about my obviously misguided hope that people will do the right thing (especially when they work for a Catholic organization), about my next step forward into whatever unknown I was about to face. I found myself unable even to read my Advent reflections, no less pray about them. I felt empty and abandoned. I felt a spiritual darkness I have not felt in a very long time. But through all of it, my mind kept coming back to Emilie, and I would realize that despite my seeming inability to pray, I was praying for Emilie -- constantly.

At night, when I was lying awake in bed worrying about how to handle my work situation, I would think about Emilie awake in her bed worrying about leaving behind her husband and two sons. And I would pray. In the morning, when I would stare at my computer as if some magical fix would arrive by email, I would think of Emilie starting her day and wondering if it would be her last. And I would pray. For several days running, the only thing I could pray about was Emilie. And that was Emilie's great gift to me. At a time when I could not find the words or the inclination to pray for the guidance and trust I needed in my own situation, at a time when God seemed very far away and maybe not all that interested in my little problems, Emilie kept me in God's presence when I most needed it. Without her even knowing it, in the midst of her great suffering, she was still giving to other people, still making a difference in the life of a complete stranger.

I didn't realize all of this until days after her death, until I finally found the words I needed to pray. I honestly didn't think I would make a spiritual rebound so quickly, and I don't think I would have had it not been for Emilie. That's not to say I'm out of the dark spiritual woods I've found myself in lately, but at least I'm on a well-marked path.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sign of love

And now a few words from the home office as we wrap up our Christmas celebrations:

"God's sign is simplicity...he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby -- defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love; so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love...God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him and love him." -- Pope Benedict XVI

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We're in the home stretch

Well, we are in the final countdown to Christmas. For the first time in the eight years we have lived here, we are not going anywhere for Christmas and we are not hosting anyone here. Kind of weird in a peaceful and calm sort of way. We decided to give our family a rare but much-deserved holiday without highway travel. Today is incredibly quiet. We're not even heading out to the overcrowded vigil Mass today since we can go tomorrow morning. Noah will serve Mass on Christmas day, which is especially nice.

A few incidentals to report as I reflect back on the last few weeks:

I managed to follow through on my plan to make it through the entire shopping season without setting foot in a mall. I have not darkened the doorstep of either big mall in our area since way before Thanksgiving. In fact, I can't even remember when I was last there. While I did a lot of shopping online, I did everything else right here in town. It was a very stress-free shopping experience.

I am also happy to report that the Christmas stocking tradition was given a reprieve. It required some last-minute visits to stores, but since my self-imposed rule meant not leaving the boundaries of my town, it was no big deal. In fact, I could have walked to the stores had it not been about 7 degrees outside. (I should note that while I would not walk to a store in 7-degree temperatures, I did see three people out jogging. That's just insane.)

We made it through all of our various Christmas-related events. Here are a few photos from the girls' "holiday dance demonstrations."

As I write this post, the girls are sitting here in the family room talking about Christmas. Olivia is reading to Chiara -- a book called "Silent Night," and she's asking Chiara if she knows the most important thing about Christmas: That Jesus was born, and we all get that present. Now Olivia just yelled, "Only seven hours until we go to bed." Somehow I have a feeling that the seven-hour itch has to do with more than Jesus' birthday.

Chiara's Christmas intensity has been increasingly obvious the past few days. She worried aloud last night that Santa might forget what she wants. She can rattle off her list at the drop of a hat, right down to the "new place mat" she requested. Every night, when we light the Advent wreath and pray before dinner, she insists on "reading" from a prayer book. She always says the same thing: Thank you God to giving the baby Jesus to Mary. One day at lunch last week, she continued her "reading" by saying that Jesus was home with Mary and they were playing games and that Joseph had gone for a walk to take out the trash. Sounds like life in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago was an awful lot like life right now.

So I guess this is it. Merry Christmas everyone. I'd like to think I'll post some sort of reflection for Christmas, and I may even write one in my head, but will it make it to the blog? Probably unlikely. Just know that I will remember all of my wonderful blog readers in my Christmas prayers. Thank you for being part of my journey. Peace.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas column

This is my December "Life Lines" column, which ran in both Catholic New York and The Evangelist. If you saw the Evangelist version, you read an abbreviated column. Here's the original in full. Enjoy.

Lessons from George

When we first moved into our house eight years ago, we couldn’t help but wonder about the little cottage behind us. Somewhat neglected and almost hidden behind overgrown shrubs and towering oaks, it seemed as if it were out of another time. Then we met the owner, George, who was a lot like his house – quiet and unassuming. An older single gentleman, George lived the life of a hermit, or at least that’s how it appeared to the outside world. He often looked disheveled and unkempt, which belied what we knew about him – that he was quite well to do, given that his family had once owned all of the land on which our little neighborhood now sits.

Every once in a while you could get George talking, and, if he was in the mood, he might keep you for an hour, covering everything from the beautiful wildflowers that his mother had so lovingly tended to the local folk festival that was an annual tradition for him. On rare occasions, I’d bring him some muffins or watermelon or a piece of pie. But mostly we left George alone because that’s the way he seemed to like it.

One morning recently another neighbor knocked on our door to tell us that George had died. We weren’t surprised. We had seen him out walking and knew that it looked as if his health was failing. I knew I had to go to the funeral, not only because I expected it to be sparsely attended but also because George was one of the few neighbors who came to both of my local book release parties and purchased copies of my books even when I knew he wasn’t interested in the subjects. I guess that had a lot to do with the soft spot I had for George.

When I walked into the funeral parlor, dozens of family members joyfully greeted me. The room buzzed with laughter and smiles and an endless stream of stories that spoke of a man very different from the one we saw on occasional walks around the block. One after another, nieces and nephews stood up to bear witness to a beloved uncle who they said was better to them than many parents are to their own children, a man who expanded their world by encouraging them to try new things, go new places and always take the time to learn a little something on the way there. At one point, when all of us were singing “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” I couldn’t help but cry for the loss of this man who was so much more than what he seemed and who may have had some things to teach me if I’d been able to see beyond the exterior trappings.

I was out in my yard recently cutting back plants and preparing for the long cold winter, when I stopped to look over at George’s darkened house. I couldn’t help but wonder how often I am too quick to judge by appearances or shy away because I think I know someone better than I really do.

And then I thought about this season, this time of year when we await the arrival of a baby in a stable. We have the good fortune of being able to view the birth of Christ with 20/20 hindsight, but would my vision have been so clear and so certain had I been in the field that night 2,000 years ago? Would I have looked at a poor baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, nestled among some farm animals, and walked away, sure that I didn’t belong there? Or would I have knelt down and let the baby touch my heart with gifts and graces hidden from human sight?

The Rule of St. Benedict says that we should welcome all people as if we are welcoming Christ himself. Would I have welcomed Christ into my life if I had been tending my flock in Bethlehem on that first Christmas? Do I welcome Christ into my life today in the people around me, regardless of how they seem on the outside? Looks like maybe George had something to teach me after all.

Copyright 2008, Mary DeTurris Poust

Friday, December 19, 2008

Prayers for Emilie

Every now and again I have asked you to pray for another Catholic writer and mom named Emilie. I link to her wonderful blog, lemmondrops, over in the left column of this blog page. Emilie has cancer, and she is now in hospice care and facing the final chapter of her life. Please go to her blog by clicking HERE and read her post, and, if you have time, follow her link to her most recent column on finding light in the darkness of Advent.

I am awed and amazed by Emilie and her faith and her will to live even while she is dying. I don't know why it has to be this way. Why she has to leave her two young sons and her husband. Why someone who has so much to teach the rest of us would be taken so young. This is one of those things that leaves me asking the big questions. I don't know Emilie personally. I know her only through her blog, and yet I feel connected to her and inspired by her. I don't know how she's managed to remain so positive throughout her incredibly difficult ordeal. She was handed something that none of us want to face and all of us fear, and yet she has done it with grace under pressure.

Tonight, when I am feeling crushed under the weight of minor problems, I think of Emilie and wonder how I can be so easily beaten down when someone else can muster up so much courage in the face of such suffering. Please pray for Emilie and her husband and children this weekend, and then go give your children a hug.

The great Christmas stocking debate

OK, here's the question of the day: Is the Christmas stocking important or irrelevant? This debate rages at our house each Christmas season. For me, the Christmas stocking is key when it comes to under-the-tree goodies. For Dennis, it's completely unnecessary and incomprehensible. He says he didn't get a Christmas stocking as a child, which I think might qualify as child abuse in some states. I, on the other hand, continue to get a stocking from my dad and step-mom. Granted, it doesn't come in an actual stocking anymore; it's in a Christmas gift bag. But my dad always hands it to me and says, "And here's your stocking."

In my family, the stocking was critical Christmas booty. It wasn't filled with extravagant gifts but that didn't take away from the excitement. Sure, you'd get toothpaste and lip balm and a new hairbrush. But you also might find a little gem in between all the practical flotsam and jetsam -- a candle, scented bath soaps, a little piece of costume jewelry, or, better than anything else, some little trinket that didn't require a lot of cash but did require a lot of thought. The stocking is where creative givers can really shine.

So, this year, in deference to a simpler Christmas and to Dennis' family non-tradition, Dennis and I are not going to exchange stockings. I will see how I fare without one. I don't think I'm going to like it one bit, and I have a sneaking suspicion that in a few weeks or months, when Dennis is looking for shaving cream or razors or Goo Gone or some new little gadget -- like the meat tenderizer he got in his stocking last year -- he, too, will come to appreciate the significance of the stocking.

I will, of course, continue to give the children Christmas stockings. They can decide once they are adults whether they believe in a stockingless Christmas or one filled to overflowing with all sorts of little doodads and goodies.

So what's the concensus at your house: Thumbs up or thumbs down to the beloved Christmas stocking?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A different kind of white Christmas

My friend Michele forwarded an email Christmas story to me this morning. At first I didn't have time to read it because, as usual, I was racing around with my list of things to do, but when everything came to a stand still because plans were unexpectedly delayed, I went back to the email. The story of how one family created a Christmas tradition that honors the true meaning of this beloved holiday is so worth the few minutes it will take you to read it.

Click HERE to read "For the Man Who Hated Christmas." Get some tissues. And thanks, Michele, for making me stop and think for a minute.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The longest snow day ever

So last Thursday the kids were sent home from school at noon because of an ice storm. Up until 30 minutes ago, they were STILL here. That's almost a week off -- and not because the weather continued to be bad but because National Grid did not return power to our school until last night. Then, this morning, in a cruel twist, we had a two-hour snow delay to boot. It's been some week, and we were among the lucky, lucky few who did not lose power in our town. I don't know how we managed to slip through those cracks, but what a blessing. So many families we know had no power for five days. No heat, no lights, flooding basements, spoiling food. It got to the point where I felt bad telling people that we hadn't lost power.

Still, those who did were in amazingly good spirits. They talked about the kindness of friends and neighbors, about living by the heat of a wood stove and realizing that they were living like those from Colonial times, about the sense of community that was evident as people slept over friends' houses and stopped by to do laundry. We did offer our house to one family. They said they were going to the shelter at Town Hall instead. Dennis pointed out that it really wasn't surprising that someone might choose a shelter over our crazy house and that sometimes he'd like to go to a shelter. Nice.

Today things are back to "normal," or as normal as they can be at this point. Chiara will have her holiday dance recital in a few hours, and our school will go ahead with its Christmas concert tonight. As I sit in my warm and well-lit house, for which I am more grateful than ever, this weather-related event seems very much in season -- in more ways than one. Sure, we expect storms and cancellations and power outages in the winter, but this week, as we await the Gift of Light that changed the world forever, how fitting that we spent so much time these past few days reflecting on the darkness and how lost we would be without light in our lives.

And on that note, I must end with my favorite Bible passage:

"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness
and the darkness has not overcome it."
-- John 1:1-5

Sunday, December 14, 2008

We're in the pink!

It's the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice! I am, as I always say, a "stickler" for the third Sunday, the rose Sunday, of Advent. I think it comes from the fact that so many people expect the rose Sunday to come up fourth, as the grand finale, not realizing that it is instead a reminder to us that Christmas is getting close and we'd better hop to it with the spiritual preparations. When Noah was young he learned -- incorrectly -- at both children's liturgy and faith formation class that the rose candle was lighted on the fourth week of Advent. It drove me crazy, especially when he refused to believe me when I explained he'd been given inaccurate information. Not long after, we pulled him out of faith formation and put him in Catholic school, which might seem like a rather dramatic move, but this week, when our pastor asked the congregation if anyone knew what the pink candle signified, and Noah, who is almost 12, responded, "joy," and then explained that the purple candles signified repentance, I was feeling pretty content. Sure, he'd heard it from me over and over, but he'd also just re-learned it in school and I think that's what made the biggest impression.

We are deep in the throes of Advent here. Yesterday Noah was helping with our parish's Giving Tree preparations. Today Olivia was practicing for Angel Choir. This week will include our school's performance of Christmas carols at a local mall as well as our school's annual Christmas concert. Add in a few dance class recitals and a reconciliation service and you've got some serious holiday spirit in the making.

I'm trying to take these days leading up to Christmas at a slower pace despite the myriad commitments. I gave up writing Christmas cards this year (so don't feel bad if you don't get a card from us), and I've toned done the shopping to a minimum, not because I'm not feeling generous but because I'm not feeling frenzied. I want this season to be about the important stuff.

On that note, I recently saw this little video clip on Ironic Catholic and wanted to pass it on. It is, at first, amusing and light-hearted, but then it becomes more serious and inspiring. In fact, I had goosebumps at one point and, by the end, I was applauding all by myself in my family room. It is Bobby McFerrin and his audience spontaneously breaking out into a rendition of Ave Maria. Enjoy, and happy Gaudete Sunday. Think pink.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The ice man cometh

We woke up this morning to a world coated in ice -- and no cable, telephone or internet service. It's crazy how dependent we've become on those little wires that connect us to the world. It was a bad time to find out that our one radio didn't work anymore, so we had to call a friend to find out if school was canceled. It was. By 7 a.m. Olivia was asking me to sew a doll with her. By 7:15 a.m. Noah was asking me to play chess. That was followed by requests for eggs, smoothies, video games, play dates with school friends who live on the other side of town, more sewing of the aforementioned doll, yoga, cocoa, popcorn. You get the idea. It's only 1 p.m. The day is young. Who knows what they'll come up with over the course of the next eight hours before bed time arrives.

Here are some quick shots of the ice-coated trees in our yard. (If you click on the photos, you'll get the full-size version where the ice is more visible.) We were lucky not to lose any limbs or whole trees so far. Some neighbors and friends did not fare so well. Now, as things warm up, you can hear the sheets of ice sliding off the house and crashing to the ground and porch. It sounds like we're under an attack of some sort.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering Thomas Merton

Today is the 40th anniversary of Thomas Merton's tragic death by accidental electrocution while at a conference in Bangkok. I managed to forget the date (Dennis reminded me), despite the fact that I read at least a line or two of Merton almost every day. So much of what he wrote resonates with me. Sometimes I don't even quite understand it on an intellectual level but on a spiritual level it makes complete sense to me.

I couldn't possibly do justice to Merton by picking one quote that sums up the power of his gift, but I will quote the one passage that I have hanging next to my desk:

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually do so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone."
-- Thoughts in Solitude

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Under the weather

I'm not feeling so great these days. Hence, the low level of activity on the blog. I hope to be back to my normal routine later today or tomorrow. In the meantime, here's a little thought to ponder:

When I was reading my Magnificat reflections this Advent, I came across this one line that has stuck in my head for days on end.

"The Lord is not scandalized by our unworthiness; he waits for the faith that welcomes his Presence."

Doesn't that just make your shoulders relax? God knows we're unworthy, but he loves us anyway. Yes, we should try to be more worthy, but with all our faults and all our weaknesses we are still beloved by the Beloved.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Looking for Christmas gift ideas?

We are cutting way back on Christmas shopping this year, and I have vowed that I will not set foot in a mall. I'm really not a mall person anyway. In fact, I am planning to do all my shopping within my town, which could be really challenging. I'll get some stuff online, but beyond that we're talking about our local bookstore and the odd little peace shop that seems to be able to stay in business. Cool store, but the choices are really limited to the few people I know who will put up with incense-scented gifts. Hey, I like it, so if you get a Buddhist prayer bell or some wacky peace pot, you know who to blame.

If you don't want to spend your days fighting for parking spaces and traipsing around an overcrowded mall or hitting every Target and Pier One in sight, what can you do? Well, you can get creative. Now the ideas I'm going to suggest certainly aren't for everyone, and I don't know if any will suit children, but I'm just going to throw some suggestions out there and maybe one or two will stick.

For the coffee lover, check out Mystic Monk Coffee by clicking HERE. I have not yet tried this coffee, but I've heard good things and I'm all for supporting the Carmelite Monks of northern Wyoming. I'm hoping to try this coffee soon since I am, in fact, a coffee lover. Hint, hint.

For the cheese lover, visit the venerable Trappist monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani (of Thomas Merton fame) by clicking HERE. I recently received a lovely selection of Gethsemani cheeses from a good friend. The monks also make bourbon fudge and bourbon fruitcake. No bourbon in the cheese, as far as I can tell. I want to visit the real Gethsemani some day, not just the web site. It's on my long-range "to do" list.

Speaking of Trappists, I can't forget the monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass. They make 28 flavors of preserves without any artificial gunk or preservatives. You can check them out by clicking HERE. I have a Trappist friend who lived at Spencer for a while, so I have a soft spot for this abbey, which is also on my list of places to visit and is more likely to happen since it's not that far away.

For the cheesecake lover on your list, visit the Orthodox Nuns of New Skete by clicking HERE and checking out the rather pricey but obviously delicious offerings. Amaretto and creme, chocolate amaretto, eggnog, Irish creme, Kahlua, pumpkin, and more. Yum.

And then there are the more eclectic offerings to be found at In-His-Steps by clicking HERE. I bought a beautiful and funky handbag from this group when our parish school held its annual craft fair. I bought it as a Christmas gift for someone, but I'm going to have a hard time parting with it. Perhaps I can get the intended a bourbon fruitcake instead? In all seriousness, this group does great work in Cambodia, helping orphans and widows, abused women, and victims of human trafficking to get their lives on track. They sell at craft fairs and other offbeat places, so check out the schedule on their web site.

Now, I've given you quite a few creative gift ideas, but equally important is to tell you what you should NOT buy. I'll just offer one warning: Stay away from the "Nativity Rubber Duckies." I'm not kidding. They actually make such a thing. Here's a photo, in case you don't believe me.

Why? Why, I ask you, would anyone need or want rubber duckies dressed as the Holy Family and assorted shepherds and magi? It's beyond bizarre. Almost as strange as the Maximilian Kolbe doll for children. Some things just shouldn't be toys. Enough said.

And this leads me to my next suggestion. Perhaps, if for any reason we feel compelled to buy something like a Nativity rubber duckie, we have simply purchased far too much. Perhaps we should reconsider Christmas and what our giving is all about. One organization, Redefine Christmas, is promoting that idea full force at its web site, which you can visit by clicking HERE. Redefine Christmas is all about giving gifts of charity. Maybe the person who already has everything doesn't need another sweater or tie. Maybe he'd get more satisfaction out of knowing that his gift helped someone who doesn't have enough money to buy food or who can't afford to give their children books. Check it out, and if you don't like any of their ideas, pick your favorite charity and strike out on your own.

Christmas gift giving has gotten out of hand. This year the economy is threatening to bring everyone back to their senses, but maybe, just maybe, we should be giving more thoughtfully and more simply regardless of the economic outlook. It's not about the gifts; it's about the Gift.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A trying week, and it's only Wednesday

You may have wondered why I'm posting elf videos and cat flicks instead of writing anything meaningful. Well, aside from the fact that the videos made me laugh, they also gave me a break from blogging during this unusual and difficult week.

Chiara has shingles and had to see four doctors in five days. Thankfully, it looks like it has peaked and is starting to fade. The stuff near her eye had us in a panic, but it seems like the worst is over now.

Just as Chiara fell into a deep sleep this afternoon -- her first nap in days -- I got a call from school saying that Noah was in the nurse's office throwing up. Nice. So I woke Chiara, which was a bit like waking a bear in mid-hibernation, and we headed to school. Now Noah is in bed, and Chiara is dressed as a princess, barking orders at everyone -- Princess Scarface.

Olivia just arrived home on the bus with her school portrait in her hands. Why do they give children expensive portraits to carry home in backpacks and on buses like a piece of scrap paper picked up off the floor? We had one minor bend in the photo, which I think I can cover with the frame, but, still, come on people. These photos cost a lot of money. It would be nice to get them without creases and crinkles.

I think you can tell that I'm feeling a little cranky today. OK, a lot cranky. Tune in tomorrow to see who's home with what illness.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Too good not to share

I thought I'd lighten the mood a bit after yesterday's heavy start-of-Advent post, and this is just the thing to do it. Maybe it's just me, but I think this video is hysterical. Thanks to Ironic Catholic for the heads up.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The waiting begins in earnest

"Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come." - Mark 13:33

And so begins Advent. I love that the Church launches into the new liturgical year and the four-week period leading up to Christmas not with the joyous news of Mary's fiat or her visit to Elizabeth or anything Christmas-related but instead with a reflection on the second coming. Yes, we are working our way toward the celebration of the first coming, the Incarnation, the moment when God became one of us, but let's not forget that this life journey we're on is supposed to be about preparing ourselves for the moment when Jesus comes again. Very poetic, I think, the connection of the two comings at this time of year.

Sometimes it's hard to think of Advent as anything more than just a happy time, brimming with excitement. Certainly at our house, Advent is fraught with fun. Every day the kids tear a link from the purple and pink Advent paper chain hanging from the kitchen window, open a door on the Advent calendar, hang an ornament on the little evergreen Advent tree, and gather around the Advent wreath before dinner. For them, this season is all about the countdown to the big day.

Unfortunately, that has a lot to do with our culture. In a society where people are willing to trample a fellow human being to death in order to get a cheap digital camera or TV, it's pretty clear that we've kind of lost sight of the big picture and certainly the overriding message of this season. Advent becomes one big warm-up for the main event, and these days the main event seems more like a WWF throw down than the coming of the Prince of Peace.

For a long time, I was caught up in a spiritual version of the Christmas obsession. I had forgotten what this time is meant to be. I would declare that I was a Lent person, not an Advent person. Advent always used to seem a little too happy and optimistic for my taste. Then I started paying closer attention. While Advent certainly is a time of hope and joy, it is also a time of penance and sacrifice. It is at once a time of anticipation and a time of reflection, a time to rejoice in what we know is coming but to make ourselves ready for what is still to come.

This year I am in an Advent state of mind. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because the first dusting of snow set the scene for the start of the season. Maybe it's because a big work project is done and I feel a little less overwhelmed. Maybe it's because I really do love, love, love Christmas and can't hide my childlike excitement. Whatever the reason, I'm hoping I can find a way to go deeper in the true spirit of the season.

When I think about this season, I keep coming back to a Thomas Merton quote that resonates with me:

"God approaches our minds by receding from them. We can never fully know Him if we think of Him as an object of capture, to be fenced in by the enclosure of our own ideas.

'We know him better after our minds have let him go.

'The Lord travels in all directions at once.

'The Lord arrives from all directions at once.

'Wherever we are, we find that He has just departed. Wherever we go, we discover that He has just arrived before us."

I find that quote very appropriate for this season, when we're trying to fit God into our vision of Christmas instead of fitting our lives into His version of Christmas. But the God we're looking for comes in His own way and in His own time. We just have to step out of the way, watch and wait.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Meet 'The Egg Lady'

Yesterday's pre-Thanksgiving post about our experience with Mary House Catholic Worker of Austin way back when sent us searching for the woman mentioned in the column, The Egg Lady, aka Lynn Goodman-Strauss. Dennis found this great little short film about The Egg's Lady's ministry on YouTube. Is there anything you can't find on YouTube? So here it is. I hope you'll take a few minutes to hear about Lynn and about her work because this is a woman who practices what everyone else preaches. She is out there living the Gospel every day. After watching this film, I realized how blessed I was to serve even one day in her presence.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Thanksgiving blast from the past

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I got to thinking back to the first Thanksgiving Dennis and I spent as a married couple. We had moved to Austin just a few months before and decided to give thanks in a different way that year. So today, I am rerunning a favorite Life Lines column in honor of the holiday and in recognition of all those folks who will not sit down to a feast of food on Thursday. Here it is:

In the past, whenever the dolls and Legos would overflow our kids’ toy bins, we’d give things away to charity. We figured it was a good way to do something nice, clean our closets, and teach our kids the importance of giving to others all at the same time.

Ever since Noah turned 2, he knew that many of his toys would eventually go to “the poor.” We never really put a face on “the poor,” but whenever a toy was conspicuous by its absence, Noah would ask if they had it.

We thought we were teaching him a valuable lesson in Christian charity. Then one night he took the globe off the coffee table, spun it around and randomly put his finger on Egypt. “Is this where the poor live?” he asked.

I tried to imagine what was going through his head. I had visions of hungry children on the other side of the world opening boxes filled with Teletubbies and beeping plastic steering wheels.

And so began our quest to teach our kids just how many people are desperately poor, not just on the other side of the globe, but on the other side of town. We tried to find ways to drive the point home: a brown bag full of cans from our pantry at Thanksgiving, a gift for the Giving Tree at Christmas, an Easter basket for a needy child. They were all lovely sentiments – and important in their own ways -- but hardly enough to convey what the Gospel challenges us to do.

The first Thanksgiving after Dennis and I were married we volunteered to serve breakfast to hungry men and women who didn’t have plans for a home-cooked meal, or a home for that matter. A woman who ran the Catholic Worker House was happy for the extra hands and told us to be at the day labor corner at 7:30 a.m. to hand out hard-boiled eggs, tortillas and hot coffee.

The woman was known around town as “The Egg Lady” because she was out there with her eggs not just on Thanksgiving but every day. She drove homeless people to AA meetings, let them shower at her house, gave them clothes and offered them prayers. She reached out a hand where many would recoil in fear. She told us how one man she’d been helping stole her car. She said it without a hint of anger, without an ounce of regret. Then she boiled more eggs and went back out to the streets.

Now that is a lesson in Christian charity. Talk about living the Gospel. It’s not nearly as neat and easy as throwing some canned corn in a paper bag. In fact it’s the kind of charity that I find downright scary. But it’s exactly the kind of charity we need to embrace if we’re going to teach our kids about compassion and our duty to make sure people have eggs and coffee and a generous serving of dignity and respect.

Maybe this year we’ll hold onto the extra Elmos and try a different approach – like talking about the fact that there are poor people right here, that they’re just like us except they don’t have a way to pay for food or doctor visits or heat during the winter. Bags of food and boxes of toys are a good start, but they won’t end poverty. We end poverty, and not just with a checkbook but with a change of heart. Maybe that’s a naïve idea, but people like The Egg Lady put it to the test every day.

Unfortunately there are plenty of opportunities to test our mettle. Spin the globe. Put your finger down. Anywhere. That’s where the poor live.

Originally published in Catholic New York, November 2001

Friday, November 21, 2008

Raking: The Sequel

So the raking continues...What was I saying about it not being cold enough for me? Check that off the list. It is freezing. Like it's January, not November. The girls and I did a little raking and clearing yesterday afternoon. Despite my fear of Lyme ticks, I let them jump in the leaves and lay down in the leaves.

Might as well just roll out the red carpet for ticks and anything else looking for a warm host for the winter. We are just about done with the leaves. A little bit more on the side yards and stuff clinging to and stuck inside all the holly bushes, the least Zen-moment of the raking experience for me. That requires patience, patience, patience, which I lack in abundance. Can you lack something in abundance?

I will be signing off for the weekend. I am heading to New Jersey to give a presentation at a catechetical congress. Send some positive energy down the NJ way since public speaking is not my favorite thing in the world to do. I think it comes in right behind skydiving and being buried alive.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bringing kids to Mass? Help has arrived.

If you have small children and you bring them with you to Mass, you probably know all too well the challenges of not only keeping them quiet but of engaging them in something that is often beyond their understanding. We've tried everything, from snacks when the kids were very young to prayer books and books on the saints as they got a little older, to Sunday missals -- traditional or MagnifiKid-style -- when they reached First Communion year. It's not easy, is it? Even now, our 8-year-old needs help as she tries to understand the readings, and our 3-year-old, well, let's just say we have a ways to go there.

And that is why I am so happy to introduce and recommend to you a new book that is sure to be a help to all those weary parents trying to find a way to make the Scripture readings relevant to little ones. Jonathan Stampf's newly released book Hear My Voice: A Children's Translation of Gospel Readings of the Catholic Mass for 2009 is a perfect addition to any family's library. The Gospel readings are not watered down or sapped of meaning. They are simply written in a style that children can appreciate, with the actual Scriptural text in a box to the right. Parents and children can read the Gospel story together the night before Mass and talk about what it means, making the Mass experience that much more fulfilling for everyone involved, including the folks two pews away who might otherwise be trying to hear over the din of unhappy children.

What I especially like is the fact that the children's version of the Gospel would be perfect for our 8-year-old, but to the left of the reading on the pages with beautiful color illustrations by Robert Conrad, is a one-line synopsis of what's happening in the Gospel story. Those one-liners are perfect for our 3-year-old. She can look at the picture and try to absorb not the whole story but that one line. So I think this book can work on many levels with children of various ages. You can check out more by clicking HERE to see sample pages, or if you're ready to buy, you can click HERE. Better buy it quick since the new liturgical year starts Nov. 30, the first Sunday of Advent, which is just around the corner.

We need more books like this, books with contemporary artwork and simple but faithful translations of Scripture. Let's hope there's more to come from Prayer Press.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

New columns to share

I just posted my two most recent Life Lines columns on my Web site. You can find "Different Retreats, Same Goal," my reflection on making three retreats in the span of six months, by clicking HERE.

And I continue to search for a way to make contemplation happen amid life's chaos in "Clearing the Counters in Search of God," which you can find by clicking HERE.

I'm guest blogging today

Head on over to the Festival of Hope at The Tail End today by clicking HERE to read what I have to say about true and lasting hope in a cynical world. You also have a chance to win a signed copy of my book if you leave a comment. (Look for the post that includes the photo of my book cover. That's where you should comment. It's after my hope post.)

Thank you to Barry Michaels for inviting me to participate in the Festival of Hope, which is running throughout the month of November. It's a great idea, and much needed during these uncertain times.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Zen of Raking

I just finished cutting down all my perennials and raking our front lawn. Quite a job, but one I actually enjoy. I find raking to be calming, almost prayerful, although the wet leaves made it more of a challenge today.

Raking to me is very Zen. Slow and deliberate, a moving meditation. I clear the leaves, all the while knowing that more are falling from the sky and littering the ground behind me, making the raking an effort in futility. It's a little like those Tibetan monks who make sand mandalas and then blow them away. OK, not exactly as labor intensive as that, but if those monks had three kids following them around they'd probably settle for raking over sand mandalas too.

Dennis sees the leaves from a different perspective. He's all about the leaf blower, and quite a leaf blower it is. It requires ear muffs to prevent hearing loss and can blow away not only leaves but small children in its path. That is his preferred mode of leaf clearing. I'll take raking any day. The only thing that really dampened the experience today were the balmy temperatures. Too warm for me. I attempted a jean jacket, but even that had to go. When you're raking leaves in upstate New York in mid-November without so much as a sweatshirt, something is terribly wrong. I'm hoping tomorrow the temperatures will cool, as promised, before I attack the backyard. It's that time of year -- clear everything out, batten down the hatches, take St. Francis and Our Lady of Guadalupe in for the long cold winter. They're not used to New York temps. They winter in our sun porch, saintly snowbirds.

So I'm waiting for the weather to catch up with the season here, a season that, despite the drab skies and warning signs of winter, is incredibly beautiful to me. There's something sacred about this season, this dying time. I love watching the trees shed their leaves, the plants die back to the ground. Everything retreats, waiting for rebirth in a few months. Spring is wonderful with all its bright green and new life but late fall has a wonder all its own. It's like a deep sigh, a spiritual shrug. All things must pass, the visible worlds says. And we nod our heads and hunker down.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tag, I'm it!

OK, I received my first blog "tag." I feel as though I have arrived! What happens -- in case you don't already know -- is that I am "tagged" by another blogger and given a set of rules and a set of questions. So here we go...

Here are the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you. That would be Roxane Salonen at Peace Garden Mama, who is already listed in my "Blogs worth a visit or two" in the left-hand column of this page.
2. Post these rules on your blog (Voila!).
3. Tell about your six quirks (Check the list below. I'm cringing already).
4. Tag six bloggers to do the same. Let's see...Roxane already tagged one of my favorites, so I'll have to work extra hard. I'll be tagging Lemmondrops, Conversion Diary, The Tail End, From the Field of Blue Children, Sustainable Mom, and Happy Catholic.
5. Leave them a comment to let them know you've tagged them.
6. No tag backs.

So...six quirks...I'm sure the people who live with me would find it hard to believe that I could possibly have six quirks, but I'll see if I can surprise them:

1. I like my hot beverages extremely hot. I mean, burn the inside of your throat hot. I have finally found a coffee maker that can produce coffee hot enough for my taste, and I do have taste. It's not just about the heat. Gotta have taste and heat.

2. I have a giant stack of magazines -- Health, Fitness, Vegetarian Times -- on the stereo speaker next to my favorite spot on the couch. If I sit near them, I'm sure to get some benefits, right?

3. I refuse to enter church from the front side entrance. I must enter from the back and walk up the aisle, not down the aisle, much to my family's chagrin.

4. I have a habit of yelling, "Come on, Grandpa," when I'm driving behind someone particularly slow. So much so that Chiara often thinks that her grandfather is actually in the car ahead of us.

5. For the life of me I cannot remember the stations I need to know on TV. Drives Dennis crazy. But even worse, apparently, is the fact that I will sit there watching a show in standard definition when it is available in high def elsewhere. Oh the humanity.

6. I am the rare woman who hates shoe shopping. I have been known to spend an hour in LL Bean, trying on four different hiking boots, climbing their pretend mountain, only to walk out dissatisfied. Duck feet. It's a curse. I buy most of my shoes at Payless, I'm afraid to say.

Words of hope

The Festival of Hope continues over at The Tail End with a very moving reflection by Regina Doman. Click HERE to read "The Story's Loose Ends." I was reading Regina's beautiful essay surrounded by my three children -- one home from school with a sinus infection, one home from school with a pulled neck muscle, and one crying from her upstairs bedroom because she didn't want to nap. I was at my wit's ends, and then I read Regina's story and remembered how blessed I am and how quickly life can change. Suddenly it doesn't seem so stressful having my three children at home with me on a November afternoon asking for hot chocolate and grilled cheese and biscotti and television and monopoly and and and....

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rest in peace, Greta

This has been a very emotional day. We had to put down our beloved dog, Greta, who was 10 1/2 years old and had become very ill very quickly. After a weekend that included a midnight run to an emergency animal clinic and a rapid deterioration of the lovable chow-shepherd who was still often mistaken for a puppy despite her advanced years, today's news was not a surprise. But that doesn't make it any easier, does it?

The kids have been beside themselves with grief all day. They left for school this morning, running to catch the bus with tears streaming down their faces because they had just said good-bye to their dog, something we suggested they do "just in case" because we did not know how the vet visit would unfold. Chiara said good-bye and patted Greta's head before heading off to her nap. When she awoke, the first thing she said was, "Is Greta gone?" The afternoon has been pretty rough -- lots of tears but also lots of reminiscing about our dog, who was very gentle, very friendly, and very patient with children. Everybody loved Greta.

Noah is convinced that there must be dogs in heaven because paradise wouldn't be paradise if something you loved wasn't there. He's got a good point. So we say good-bye to Greta, who sometimes drove us crazy with her barking at the back door but who never failed to be loyal and protective and everything a good dog should be.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Remember those leaves I mentioned...

In yesterday's post I said that the oak leaves had yet to fall. Well, apparently a memo went out last night informing the oak leaves that they should fall at once. Maybe they read the blog. This morning our backyard was ankle deep in oak leaves. Look at the photo at the top of this page and then look at the photo below. That's a difference of about 15 hours and 15,000 leaves.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friday free for all

Well, after a couple of contentious days in the comment section of NSS, I thought we'd take it down a notch and talk about something other than politics. So here we are. It's Friday afternoon, and I'm just going to let my mind wander:

First. Pet peeves. It really irks me when the person on the arc trainer next to me at the YMCA doesn't have headphones on. This means a. they can hear me huffing and puffing as I struggle to make it to 45 minutes at a cardio-pumping speed and b. they probably hear me singing under my breath to Matchbox 20 or U2 or whatever else I'm blasting into my ears. Of course, I'm guessing that guy next to me today might have a pet peeve about people who insist on singing under their breath when working out in public.

Second. November observations. Look at the photo at the top of this page. Those are the trees in my backyard, looking very mid-November. The oaks are always the last to lose their leaves. The steely gray sky (that's a color photo), the semi-barren branches. So why am I wearing a T-shirt? I feel like I'm back in Austin. So much for a light topic. I have a feeling a global warming debate is about to break out in the comment section any minute.

Third. Prayer update. Remember last week when I asked you to pray for Constance, the 5-year-old with kidney failure? Well, keep those prayers coming. Constance is doing much better than expected. And, while you're at it, I have a few other folks who could use a few good words. Please remember Charlie, a friend of the family who was diagnosed with colon cancer, and Bridget, a young girl who was rushed to the hospital today with an undiagnosed problem. Also keep those prayers coming for Emilie, Kathleen and Maureen, three courageous women who are battling cancer and inspiring us all.

Fourth. The weekend. Go do something fun. Tomorrow I will be with 100 Girl Scouts between the ages of 6 and 14, making Christmas ornaments for a nursing home and other locations. Does this fall into the "do something fun" category? That remains to be seen. Based on past years' experience, I would have to lean toward "no." Imagine six tables of very complicated ornaments that require gluing and stringing beads. Now imagine that every time you are halfway done with your ornament, someone rings a bell and tells you to move to the next station. I wonder if that's what it's like for Santa's elves.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What an awesome system

Whether you voted for Barack Obama or not, you have to admit that it was a pretty powerful thing to watch democracy at work yesterday. Seeing the long lines of voters in other parts of the country, the cheering throngs at rallies last night, the peaceful transition of a people from one president to another is so moving to me. I feel that way almost every Election Day. Every year it's a reminder that this is one awesome system of government we've got here. This year the emotions ran a lot higher imagining what this decision much have meant to African-Americans who wondered if and when they'd ever see this day.

That being said, I am deeply concerned about what will happen to the unborn in the years ahead. As we sat and watched the election returns and it became clear that Obama would win, Noah turned to me and said, "But soon our federal tax money will pay for abortions. What do we do now?" We reminded him that, unfortunately, our state tax dollars are already being used to take the lives of the unborn. It was a poignant moment, one when I tried to walk a delicate balance of explaining our family's unwavering support of human life from conception until natural death no matter what and of explaining that our president is our president and we respect the office and the man no matter what and pray that he will do the right thing when the time comes, although I'm not too hopeful considering Obama'a extremist record when it comes to abortion. If, as Obama has promised, he will sign the Freedom of Choice Act as his first order of business, it will mean completely unrestricted abortion at every stage of pregnancy with absolutely no limitations, no ability for those who are morally opposed to keep their tax dollars from paying for abortions, and no way for doctors and nurses to opt out of performing what they view as tantamount to murder. I won't get into his position on partial-birth and born alive, and don't tell me he didn't do what he did, because he did and it counted and it mattered. Anyone who votes against giving care to a newborn who survives abortion -- no matter what the legalistic reasoning -- is wrong, wrong, wrong.

So...there you have it. I can appreciate the magnitude of what happened yesterday. I can tear up with emotion over what it means that this country elected its first African-American president. But I cannot check my conscience at the door just to try to make history. This was a tough election for me, but in the end I had to stand on the side of life, and I will continue to do so even if our president and our Congress do not.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Don't forget to vote!

I don't know how you could possibly forget, but you never know. I just returned from what must be the quietest polling place in America. It was so deserted, in fact, that when I pulled into the empty parking lot I stopped for a moment to consider whether they might have changed my polling place without giving me the forwarding address. Nope. The little American flag at the door caught my eye. I was the only person voting. It took me all of 30 seconds. As I was leaving, another woman with a toddler in tow was looking around questioningly as she got out of her car. I assured her that the polling place was open despite the lack of crowds.

Just think, it will all be over in a few short hours. Make sure you don't miss your chance to be heard. Vote. Now.

And, if you've got an Election Day story to share, or a prediction, please do so in the comment section.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Have you made your choice?

Tomorrow is the big day. Before you walk into that voting booth, take a few minutes to watch this powerful video from Thanks to my friend Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda for the heads up on this one.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day of the dead

Today is the day we remember the dead -- All Souls' Day, or, in Mexican tradition, Dia de los Muertos. And despite sounding somewhat morbid to this death-denying society of ours, this day is anything but sad. It is about connection to the family and friends who have died but live on eternally. It is about resurrection. It is about hope.

When I was waiting for Mass to begin this morning, I was reading my Magnificat and came upon Pope Benedict XVI's moving explanation of purgatory, which of course ties in directly to this day when we pray for those who have died and are perhaps waiting for that moment in eternity when they will finally see the face of God:

"I would go so far as to say that if there was no purgatory, then we would have to invent it, for who would dare say of himself that he was able to stand directly before God. And yet we don't want to be, to use an image from Scripture, 'a pot that turned out wrong,' that has to be thrown away; we want to be able to be put right. Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and stand there in the fullness of life. Purgatory strips off from one person what is unbearable and from another the inability to bear certain things, so that in each of them a pure heart is revealed, and we can see that we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being." -- Pope Benedict XVI

As usual, the pope manages to put in simple but eloquent terms a concept that most non-Catholics and many Catholics find difficult to understand. I have always loved the teaching on purgatory. To me it is such a hopeful and common-sense belief. What could be more hopeful and comforting than the knowledge that even after death all is not lost. We can continue to grow toward perfection, toward the time when we are ready to meet our Maker.

Head on over to my own Catechism Corner by clicking HERE to read my take on purgatory from The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism.

And, if you want to know more about Dia de los Muertos, I must defer to the late Ann Ball, a wonderful Catholic writer who died earlier this year. Click HERE to go to Ann's Web site, which is still up and running and providing all of us with much-needed information and inspiration on so many Catholic traditions.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Join the Festival of Hope

Today marks the beginning of the Festival of Hope over at The Tail End. A big shout out to author Barry Michaels, who has invited Christian writers -- including yours truly -- to serve as guest bloggers throughout the month of November. Every day you'll get another serving of hope, something we could all use a little more of these days. To top it off, Barry will be giving away a whole slew of books (including my Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism) from now until the festival ends on Nov. 30, the first day of Advent.

In case you're wondering how Barry came up with this theme and why now, it's simple, really. Barry's latest book, Your Guide to Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope, serves as a companion to Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi, which will mark its one-year anniversary on the last day of the festival. It's one big circle of hope.

So join us by clicking HERE now.

Friday, October 31, 2008

My little goblins

Another Halloween is over. We've got three tired kids and a ton of candy. We should be set until Easter in terms of chocolate. Here's how things looked before we set out.
That's Hannah Montana, a little ballerina, and a dementor...

Halloween: The Sequel

OK, I almost didn't post this video clip because I figured that if you take the time to watch this, you probably won't have time to read my other Halloween post from earlier today. But, it's a timely, informative and funny clip about Halloween and All Saints' Day by one of my favorite writers, Jesuit Father James Martin, so I just had to post it. Just promise me you'll read the post before it as well. Deal? Deal.

And thanks to Barry at The Tail End for the heads up on this one.


Halloween is in full force here, even if the costumes are still on hangers. By the time Chiara and I had finished our errands this morning, she had a pocketful of chocolate thanks to the bank teller, the woman at the dry cleaners, and the produce person, of all people, at the grocery store. You'd think she'd be handing out carrots or bananas or something freshly grown. Add all that to the big tin of ghost cookies that Chiara received from her Uncle Bill via UPS and you've got quite a sugar rush in the making before anyone even utters the words "trick or treat."

I have to admit that, in terms of costumes, we've had it pretty easy this year. Noah is going to be what he was last year: a "dementor" from the Harry Potter books and movies. It's a pretty scary-looking costume, and, if you've read the books, a pretty scary concept in general. Dementors basically suck your soul out of you. They take away all your joy. I look at the costume as a modern-day version of a vampire or ghost. But, alas, when I went to daily Mass at noon today, and our pastor asked Noah, who was serving as acolyte, what he was going to be, the word "dementor" seemed to echo off the chapel walls and hit me in the head over and over. I felt myself slinking down in my chair. Nothing makes dementor sound even worse than it is than saying it right from the chapel altar. It was a proud moment for me as a parent.

Our other costume choices are much more sedate and charming. Chiara is going to be a ballerina using Olivia's outfit from a ballet dance recital years ago, and Olivia is going to be Hannah Montana using last year's hip hop dance recital outfit, although she does have an "official" Hannah Montana wig, and we braved the ransacked costume aisles at Wal-Mart last night in search of a sparkly microphone and a sufficiently hip jacket to go with the costume. We got both after some significant searching, and, although I really despise going to Wal-Mart, I have to say that last night I was happy to be in a store that was selling costumes that look like they belong on children because that is certainly not the case elsewhere.

It was just last weekend that I opened our Sunday paper and had to hide the party store flyer advertising costumes because the outfits -- even for 8-year-old girls -- were so suggestive that it made my stomach turn. If you don't have children or haven't seen one of these flyers, let me tell you, Halloween ain't what it used to be, folks. Children's costumes, specifically girls' costumes, have been hypersexualized to a point of disgrace. If you are foolish enough to allow your fourth-grader to dress up as a French maid, I don't have much sympathy for you. But, if your daughter wants to be Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz or Snow White or some other sweet little princess-like character, beware. Many of these costumes have been trimmed down and tarted up to the point that Dorothy no longer looks fit for the yellow brick road. Today's tiny Dorothys look ready for only one road -- 42nd Street in the pre-Giuliani days.

The dresses are micro-minis. The tights have been transformed into thigh-high fishnets. Usually the midriffs are bare and the neckline is plunging. And we wonder why our kids are so sexually advanced. Gee, I don't know where they'd get that overly sexualized view of themselves. Or, in the case of boys, of the girls next door. Of course, if you flip the page over to the adult-size costumes, you can see where your little pop-tart Dorothy might end up one day. I don't think we're in Kansas anymore! If you are a woman and you want to buy a costume that does not look like it should come with a pole, then you're pretty much limited to the nun costume, which in some ways is just as outrageous as all the other fantasy costumes since there are probably as many nuns in this style habit as there are nurses running around in fishnets and short-shorts. What a world. What a world.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Magic in the air

If you'd like a little late October inspiration, head over to Peace Garden Mama by clicking HERE and read Roxane's beautiful ode to a few steadfast autumn leaves. It's definitely worth the trip across cyberspace.

Your prayers are needed

Please, please, please pray for a little girl named Constance, who is 5 years old and is experiencing unexplained kidney failure in both kidneys. Please also remember her mom and dad, two sisters and brand new baby brother. I can't even imagine what they are all going through at this time. I try to put myself in their shoes and just end up crying over the prospect that we never know what's coming down the road and how helpless that feels, especially, I think, for parents trying to protect their children from anything and everything bad. The only thing it seems I can do at this point is pray, so I thought I'd call on all you good people to join me. Thanks.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The cold, hard truth

Well it turns out that all those friends had very good reasons for not inviting me to their jewelry parties all these years. I'm not going to say I'm cheap because I'm not when it comes to important stuff, but let's just say that I cannot justify $150 on a piece of costume jewelry that I might wear once a month, at most. Although, if I spent that much on a piece of costume jewelry, I think I'd find a way to wear it every day, maybe even to bed each night. I was wildly disappointed. I had hoped to get a lot of Christmas shopping done and maybe even buy something for myself, but I knew I was in trouble when I walked in and saw that none of the pieces had prices on them. There are only two reasons not to put prices on things: Everyone who's attending has so much disposable income that they don't have to consider cost, or everyone who's attending will be so stunned by the prices that if they see the price tag before they try anything on, you won't sell so much as one earring. I think the small group fell into the latter category, although I'll speak only for myself.

I tried on a few very lovely necklaces, and then the saleswoman showed me how I could make those necklaces look even better by layering more necklaces - and hundreds of dollars -- on top of the original. Some of the combos would have been upward of $400, which I find absolutely shocking. I just can't believe people have money to throw around like that.

Of course, I felt like a heel not buying anything, which is sort of the point of these parties. You have some crackers and cheese, drink a glass of wine, talk a bit with the other guests, and suddenly you feel as though you will be ridden out of town on a rail if you don't buy something. So I found one of the elusive catalogs and flipped through until I found some small earrings that were not on display but were reasonably priced. I bought some Christmas gifts for my nieces and called it a night.

I'll be back later with some thoughts on something other than necklaces.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Big night out

So I'm heading to my first jewelry party tonight, which is a big deal for me. Not that I'm so into jewelry. I'm not. But for the eight years I've been living in this town I've been waiting to get invited to a jewelry party, any jewelry party. This doesn't say much for my social skills since you can't swing a cheap necklace without hitting someone who's hosting one of these things. I have been invited to a couple of parties second-hand, but that always makes me feel so cheap. How pathetic are you if you have to sneak in on someone else's invitation? Actually, I do have to admit that I was once invited to a jewelry party given by the sister of a dead friend who lives two hours away -- the sister, not the dead friend. But that didn't work out, and besides, I'm not so desperate that I'll drive two hours to look at some silver earrings.

I have been invited to Pampered Chef parties, decorating parties, skin care parties, make-up parties, and even a couple of Jockey clothing parties. For whatever reason I have not been able to score the big jewelry party invite. Maybe they've seen the jewelry I wear and figure it's pointless to invite me. Anyway, big thanks to my neighbor for taking a chance on me.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pyramid of Cousins: The Sequel

OK, I believe this falls under the category of "You Can Dress Us Up, But You Can't Take Us Out." If you've been with us through the summer, then you know that my cousins and I are prone to forming human pyramids, which seemed quaint when it was happening at a summer picnic. Now, captured in formal wear at one cousin's wedding, it seems a little insane. But, hey, we had fun.

The wedding was great. Lots of good food. Lots of dancing. Lots of family. Perfect recipe. Chiara found a friend in the flower girl and danced the night away. Noah couldn't believe the cocktail hour was not the dinner, and Olivia enjoyed dressing up and stepping out. A good time was had by all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Keep those comments coming

Thank you to everyone who left comments on the blog or emailed me privately to talk about the "lost generation" of Catholics and what you remember from your years in religious education. I'd like to keep the comments on this one open for a couple more days, in part because I'm hoping for more but also because I'm heading to my cousin's wedding tomorrow and won't be around to post.

So...if you have no idea what I'm talking about right now, please read the previous post and join in. If you've already read or commented, please pass the post on to someone else who might have something to say. I'm not necessarily looking for only negative memories. If you had a great experience in religious education or Catholic school and have never felt disconnected from the Church, tell us about that and what you think made it all work.

And thank you again. To those of you who emailed me directly: I'm trying to get back to each of you personally but it may take me a little while to catch up.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Calling all Catholics, sort of

Here's the chance to have your say about being raised Catholic. In the next few months, I will be speaking at conferences in New Jersey and Colorado, and, in anticipation of that, I'm looking for input from Catholics -- practicing or non-practicing -- between the ages of 30 and 50, although if you fall outside that window and have something to say anyway, feel free.

My topic is the "lost generation" of Catholics, those people who came of age soon after Vatican II, when religious education was rapidly changing and not always in the best ways. Yes, the Church gave up the harshness of the Baltimore Catechism but they sort of threw the baby out with the bathwater. In an attempt to help young Catholics develop a more personal relationship with Jesus, a lot of the basic teachings of the faith got left by the wayside. I always say I came of age in the Era of the Collage -- lots of cutting and gluing pictures of happy people, not so many lessons on actual faith basics. I got almost all of that directly from my family, specifically my mother.

Since the publication of my second book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism," I have been hearing from lots of adult Catholics who say that they were never taught many of the things that are contained in the catechism. So my question for you is this: Do you have any recollections of religious education (or Catholic schooling) that make you feel as though you were not sufficiently grounded in the faith? Do you feel disconnected from the Church now because of this? Is there anything specific the Church (meaning worldwide) or your church (meaning local) could do to help you become more involved in your faith or catch up on what you missed out the first time around?

Now remember, this is not a gripe session about specific Church teachings you don't like or don't agree with. This is about the overall approach of faith formation that you experienced and whether you feel you were given the necessary education to understand your faith. If you have children, do you feel they are getting a better education in the faith now than you did years ago?

You can respond via the comment section in this post, by e-mail, or, if you don't like to write and want to talk, email me and let me know and I will gladly give you a call. For those who live close by, I would like to hold a "focus group" within the next few weeks, where I can have some of you over to my house to discuss some of these things in person. Coffee, tea, wine and desserts will be provided, if that helps draw you in.

So please, respond -- write, call, e-mail, send smoke signals, whatever it takes to get you to tell me your Catholic faith story. I will not use any names if/when I incorporate information into my presentations. Everything is as confidential as you want it to be. Thanks!

Friday, October 17, 2008

A conversation on prayer

First, let me say thank you to all of you who left comments on the blog or emailed me privately since yesterday. You are such a nice group of people! We all need to get together for coffee some time.

Now, on to the matter at hand. Yes, yes, the way to begin a prayer life is to start small. Small but consistent is the key. Jill's suggestion of 15 minutes is excellent. Unfortunately, based on my own experience or maybe my own personality and prayer style, 15 minutes is still too long for me as a starting point. This whole conversation made me recall a time about eight years ago when I went to confession to a very cool priest at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. It was just before Olivia's baptism. He asked me to give myself a penance. I chose five minutes of prayer every day, not because I saw it as a form of punishment (which is not what penance is about anyway) because I saw it as the only thing that might get my spiritual life on track once and for all. Eight years later, I'm sad to say, I'm still not committed to five minutes a day. That's not to say I don't pray at all. I do. A lot. I may do 20 minutes one day and then nothing for a few days. I may do five minutes before bed or five minutes in the middle of the day, but not five minutes day in, day out, which is how it needs to be in order to make it stick so we can move on to bigger chunks of time.

I think the time you spend in prayer at the beginning also has to do with the kind of prayer you're doing. If you're saying the Rosary or praying the Liturgy of the Hours, 15 minutes might go by in a flash. In fact, it might not seem nearly long enough. If you are doing contemplation, 15 minutes can feel like 15 hours, just sitting there in silence, waiting for God to say something, which is what I've been working on. And usually, when I do pull off some time in contemplation, I end up feeling like I must have done it wrong because nothing happened, which I think is just part of our human tendency to want to see some visible progress when we work at something, even prayer.

So last night I did go down to my prayer space to sit in silence, thinking that maybe some prayer was just what I needed to shake that whiny, self-doubting mood I was in yesterday. But before I started, I decided to read a few pages of a book by a Catholic writer friend -- "The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim," by Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda and her husband, Michael Scaperlanda. Now, I'm not planning on any big pilgrimages, unfortunately, but I am working on something that relates to pilgrimage, so I thought Maria's book might be helpful. Boy, was it ever, in a deeply personal way.

In the chapter called "Developing a Pilgrim Heart," Maria talks about her home office writing schedule, something that appeals to me since I, too, write from home. She talks about how she takes time for contemplative prayer before she ever leaves her bedroom each morning and how she writes in a journal each morning and then allows herself to write an entire page of "whatever comes out" before she gets down to the business of the day. She also talks about how this is a difficult discipline, one that requires trust."My soul waits for God, and that involves trust," she writes.

Then Maria goes on to talk about the amazing pilgrimage she made to Europe with her entire family back in 2000, and she addresses the "load we carry," not only in our actual backpacks when we are on physical pilgrimages but in our figurative backpacks when we are going about our days and trying to get right with God and the people in our lives.

"So maybe I am not as materialistic as some people. However, I carry another burden that is just as taxing. It is the question, Am I good enough? A little voice sings this out-of-tune melody in my ear: I am not worthy (of a nice home, cars, things, trips). I am not good enough to be loved. I will never be good enough to be loved and don't deserve the goodness and bounty that God gives me every day. This spiritual burden is one I wish I didn't carry in my backpack, but I do, all too often. It's a pattern, a habit really, that I have allowed for so long to shape my behavior that I have to consciously and deliberately fight it almost daily." (p. 31)

By the time I finished this passage, I was in tears. It was as if Maria read my heart, spoke my mind, felt my pain. Those words could not fit me more perfectly. Maria summed up exactly what I face, what I feel every day. But my tears weren't tears of sadness. They were tears of hope. Here was someone I have known for a long time, someone whose work I respect, and who seems to be many, many spiritual years ahead of me even if we are almost identical in human years, and she, too, regularly battles the demons of self-doubt and unworthiness. Wow.

You have no idea how this passage about heavy spiritual backpacks lightened my own burden last night. All I can say, is Thank You, Maria. Gracias, amiga! Your words were the jolt I needed to remind me of what I already know: Even when I feel unworthy, even when my prayer life seems plodding and unproductive, I am loved by a Creator who put me here for a reason.

Five minutes, 15 minutes, two hours. Whatever amount of prayer time we can pull off makes a difference. I think I've said in a previous post, that we can even use everyday things -- like the dryer buzzing or a car horn honking -- as a moment of mindfulness that calls us back to our center and reminds us to focus, even for just a few seconds, on God.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wading my way through the clutter

Well, last week, when I vowed to take control of the clutter in our house and free my mind from the visual chaos that bogs me down, I did not think it was possible to end up with more clutter. But, alas, that's where we are today. Work deadlines, kids' activities and Dennis' recent back injury joined forces to defeat my best laid plans. Instead of throwing out reams of paper, the kids just brought home more. Yesterday, as I searched for a square inch of empty counter space in order to sign yet another permission slip from school, I realized that things are reaching epic proportions here.

At the same time, I'm battling writing demons that keep taunting me with the possibility? reality? that I'm really just writing for myself, and, if that's the case, should I be writing at all? (I have to go back to the clutter and chaos and convince myself that all of these negative vibes are tied together somehow.) So I spent my "free" time yesterday, which basically means the five minutes it takes me to drive to Chiara's preschool, pondering this thought, wondering if perhaps my writing days are nearing an end, and, if so, then what? Meanwhile, I picked up a book I had on hold at the library, opened it up, and was given the exact quote I needed to read. It was a collection of famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton's journals called Entering the Silence, and this is what it said:

"Let me keep silence in this world, except in so far as God wills and in the way He wills it. Let me at least disappear into the writing I do. It should mean nothing special to me, nor harm my recollection. The work could be a prayer; its results should not concern me." -- December 14, 1946

Imagine that. Not worrying about the results of my writing? Not thinking about the fact that my first book from almost seven years ago never has and never will result in a royalty and cannot be found on any bookstore shelves anywhere? Not thinking about the fact that other than a few dedicated readers -- I'm talking to YOU -- this blog is really just a private journal put up for the world to see? Not wondering if there's any point to what I do here day after day? That's a big leap for me. So much of myself is wrapped up in what I do and how well I do it, which I guess is the case for a lot of us.

And then I found another quote that really did tie up all these loose ends I'm dropping all over this blog. The feeling of chaos in the clutter, the feeling of uselessness in my work, the inability to make progress in contemplation. Just as I suspected, it's all connected.

In his book "The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering the Felt Presence of God," Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, writes: "When self-worth depends upon achievement then very few persons are going to spend much time in prayer or contemplation since these are by definition nonutilitarian, pragmatically useless, a waste of time, a time when nothing is accomplished. One of the major reasons why we are not more contemplative, why we do not pray more, and why we do not take time to smell the flowers, is that these activities do not accomplish anything, produce anything, or practically add anything to life...In pragmatism, contemplation dies, not through badness but through busyness."

Bingo. Contemplation and prayer, the things I need most in my life in order to conquer the chaos and make peace with myself and the busyness around me, are left by the wayside because they don't have any earning power -- at least not that we can see. Contemplation and prayer don't bring in a paycheck, they don't help the kids score As on their tests, they don't help us drop pounds and shed inches like working out at the YMCA. In short, time spent in contemplation and prayer feels like goofing off, although both are much harder than typical goofing off activities. So, how to get past this monumental hurdle, which shows up again and again and again? To be honest, I have no idea. I guess the starting point is to make a real prayer schedule that doesn't get changed just because we're tired or busy or stayed up late to watch the post-debate chatter. I have a feeling that this hurdle is going to be harder to jump than that big pile of clutter I've been whining about all week. But I'll carry on and see what happens...