Wednesday, December 31, 2008

8 Lessons Learned in 2008

(Thanks to Elizabeth Foss and Conversion Diary for the promptings to write this post.)

1. This world--and in particular, my world-- is full of generous people.

For some reason, this surprised me to no end. I have known for some time how blessed I am with family--in particular, this year I realized it because it was only thanks to the sacrifices of my husband and mother that I was able to have the time to complete my studies for my Master's degree. I consider that degree a gift not only from my professors and the saints, theologians, and thinkers I read in order to complete it, but also from all those who made it possible for me to physically sit in the classroom. (Another thank you must go to the Knights of Columbus whose scholarship funded a big part of my studies.)

My pregnancy and newborn son also brought a flood of generosity from all directions in all forms. When I was having back problems, a massuese neighbor gave me a massage for free, and the chiropractor gave me a free session because I was pregnant. A neighbor threw me a baby shower I wasn't expecting. Thanks to family, friends, neighbors, and complete strangers from our church(es) I didn't have to cook a single meal for over a month after Peter was born. And many people have entertained my exuberant older son for a couple hours, or fed him or put him to bed, so I could have some much needed rest with the newborn.

2. Generosity can't be directly "paid back". It can only be passed on.

I've always been pretty dutiful about writing thank-you notes for gifts. Recently I've begun to realize that this duty was almost equated in my mind with a sort of "payback" for the gift or favor received. I think I've revised my thinking about "thank-you's" for the most part. I still think they are important--after all, I would like to know if possible if the faraway person I sent a gift to had indeed received it, and hopefully with some sort of delight. But I think I now realize that the beauty of the generosity I have been showered with is that it has prompted me to open my eyes for opportunities to be generous to others. An ever-generous neighbor has inspired me to be more friendly to the people in my neighborhood--people I may not know well, who may not be the kind of people I "usually" spend time with, but nonetheless people who are in the orbit of my existence and who are often in need of something or the other.

3. When my body is happy, I am happy...and I am a better wife and mother.

A.K.A., my chiropractor was my best friend when I strained my back and could barely walk back in September. The days were filled with impatience with Gabriel and shortness with my husband. Each night ended with me in exhausted tears, unable to do anything but fall into bed. Certainly post-partum has brought a new wave of exhaustion, and similar endings to the days, but at least I know this will pass. The back issues were somewhat frightening in that regard because I didn't know what was wrong with me. This extends to nutrition too. All those generous people who gave us meals also gave us lots of yummy desserts along with them. And now it is Christmas, so of course, my favorite cookies are hanging around the house. I can't resist them, but I think I can tell I just don't feel all that great with all this refined sugar floating around in my blood. There were a couple weeks while I was pregnant that I gave up sugar all together, and during this past Lent we gave up buying most processed foods. I think both really made a difference in how I was feeling, and my moods. I'm almost excited for the sweets to be done so I can cleanse my system a bit. I’ve dabbled a bit with Weston A. Price’s theories on food in the past, and I finally ordered Nourishing Traditions. I don’t think we will ever go full-on with his nutrition advice, but I like the recipes for traditional foods and broths and look forward to trying them.

4. Nature is often the best playground (and healing-ground) for young and old alike.

Thanks to some neighbors with kids Gabriel's age, I've been inspired to spend a lot of time outdoors with him--on nice days we could spend 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the late afternoon. Even if tempers are short as we put on shoes and jackets, the moment we step outside the door , it is so much easier to be the mother and son we are supposed to be. Gabriel is free to run and yell and be 2 years old and I am free to enjoy him without all the piles in the house staring me in the face and daring me to clear them off the stairway...or the dresser...etc.

I also realized this is true for our family as a whole after a delightful camping trip to Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland. I forgot to bring any toys, which was probably a good thing. Gabriel spent his days happily playing with sticks, as well as a harmonica some fellow campers passed on to him; I spent some time reading; and Michael spent hours trying to start a fire from scratch. All were content and happy, and there were far fewer squabbles and moments of impatience. I think we came home from that trip a closer family than when we left.

5. I am a better (meaning more patient, creative, cheerful, etc.) wife and mother when I have something--even something small-- outside the home that challenges me to think.

I had this "outside challenge"--as well as time to be "just me" rather than "mommy-me" built into our everyday schedule while I was in school in the beginning part of the year. I have not had this as much in the latter half of the year, and I am feeling the lack. Certainly, being at home full time means I have time to see other friends who are at home all or part of the time, but it is often hard (and frustrating) to think and converse at any profound level while keeping one eye out for the children's antics. I am a bit lost at the moment, wondering where I should turn for this "outside challenge", but I know with time something always comes up.

6. Stuff is stressful; simplicity is soothing.

Now that I am home and staring at it all the time, I realize how much stuff we have that we don't need. Often this stresses me out because of the clutter that it creates around the house (and the number of objects I am constantly tripping over now that I can’t see where my feet are landing because I have a baby in a sling in front of me). But I’ve realized that when I think about getting rid of things, I’m often thinking about me. Granted, it is probably spiritually profitable to live with less, so there is a personal benefit to simplicity. But it just hit me how much more ambitious I should be about passing on things we don't need or use to others who could use them when I called the crisis pregnancy center to see if they would want any baby items. They said of course, they're taking everything they’re offered, especially because the hard times with the economy has caused an influx of clients for them. I looked at the huge pile of unused baby blankets that we have, thought about how I haven’t really given much of a second thought to the financial crises because it hasn’t impacted us much, then thought about babies that might legitimately be cold and actually need the blankets...I decided it was time to get serious about weeding out unneeded baby items, and whatever else doesn’t need to be here.

7. Prayer can be fruitful even in “arid” times.

I was talking to my spiritual director last month and lamenting that although I often attempted to pray, I felt like I was doing it more to “check off” my duty for prayer rather than out of love or desire to pray, and that my prayer often just seemed to be just that: dutiful, done, but not overly enjoyable or consoling. As we chatted, however, I realized that in several areas of my life where I needed some clarity, or some consolation, I had received great insights. They had come along in the midst of dishes or putting Gabriel to sleep or driving, and they had been mulled over on the back burner of my brain while I was busy doing other things, until God finally brought them to the forefront of my mind. That, he pointed out, is the fruit of prayer. Not to mention all the moments when I am able to be more gentle or more patient–all that is the fruit of the Spirit’s work in our lives, and thanks should be given for this particularly in days when “prayer time” itself seems more dry.

8. If there is time and energy enough to eat, there is time and energy enough to pray (and participate in the Sacraments).

Gabriel and I, and sometimes Michael, had a good routine of praying Morning Prayer as a family for a while this year. Then I convinced myself after Peter was born that we didn’t have time to pray as a family, or that it would be too exhausting to corral Gabriel in the prayer room. After considering how much time and energy I spend putting food on the table and cleaning up from the meals, I figure even half as much energy can be put into our personal and familial prayer and sacramental life. We are now starting to try to pray Morning Prayer, the Angelus, and Night Prayer. So far, one week down. 51 to go. We’ll see how we do! The most fruitful moment of prayer for me has been the Angelus, as noon always seems to find me going 150 miles an hour without stopping for breath–we’ve usually just come in from playing, or groceries, and I’m zooming around the kitchen trying to get food on the table for lunch. Suddenly the alarm on my cell phone will go off to remind me that it’s 12:00. Gabriel seems entertained by it–he looks at me with a grin and says “What time is it?!?” I stop, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and together we stand and pray the Angelus before an icon of Our Lady in the living room. It has a wonderful way of calming me and reminding me of all that is good and true.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas!

(Now I am beginning to realize the complexities of the family photo with more than one child...we failed to plan this before Peter was comfortably napping in his car seat all ready to head out to the next celebration, and Gabriel was wiggling all over the place. Before this photo he had a blanket over his head that he was refusing to remove; smart Daddy pulled it off a millisecond before the photo to make him laugh just at the right moment. Phew. It was good practice for the 13-person extended family photo we took at the next house!)
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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Baby Peter's Christmas Debut

After many protests on my part, Peter made his debut on the big stage on Thursday night in the Christmas pageant at the school where Michael works. Yes, he was "Baby Jesus"! I had my doubts--picturing hordes of winter-germ-laden kindergarteners petting Peter on the head, or a crying Peter bound to a manger of straw for a half hour. But after much encouragement from Michael, I reluctantly agreed. It all turned out okay in the end--Peter cried for half of his part--which was only about five minutes at the end of the show anyway. Then he settled down and seemed to be making happy faces at "Mary" for the second half--he must have been doing something cute because the young girl who played Mary was smiling down at him--genuinely. At that point I was glad I had finally agreed despite all of my "mommy fears." It seemed like a powerful "pro-life" moment, if only for the girl who had the opportunity to hold him in her arms and marvel at the beauty of his littleness and newness.

I've often thought about the pro-life movement as I have been pregnant and mothering in the past two years. I have never been very active in this movement in the expected ways, but I have often hoped that my presence and witness as a mother play some small part in advancing the respect for unborn life in our country/world. And so I try to be somewhat put together for the day, rather than in sweats and sneakers, even if "all I do" is stay home or pop into the library. I try to have a positive, joyful attitude when I address my children in public, and avoid negative comments about them in the casual conversation I have with the person in the grocery store check-out line. Recently all this has been harder, what with the challenges of being a mother to two, and the challenges of Gabriel's two-year-old-ness. I will continue to try, however, because I know how powerful and encouraging it has been for me when I have been having tough times as a mother to see other moms exhibit cheerfulness, creativity, and joy with their children...often in small, simple ways that they probably don't even realize I notice.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

While I was stirring the oatmeal....AKA a typical morning at our house

(no little brothers were harmed in the creation of this photo)
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Monday, December 15, 2008

First place for Most Profound Christmas Card...

...goes to Dr. Schindler, Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. No "happy holidays" inside his Christmas card; instead, a thought from St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

"The fact that man was created gratuitously, out of nothing--and in such dignity--makes the duty of love still clearer...If I owe all that I am in return for my creation, what am I to add in return for being remade...? 'What then shall I give the Lord for all that he has given me?' In the first act he gave me myself; in the second, he gave himself; and when he did that, he gave me back myself. Given and given again, I owe myself in return for myself, twice over."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Two good Advent reads (for kids and grown-ups alike)

I have to admit I am enjoying the re-discovery of the children's section of the library that Gabriel, now 2, has prompted. We brought home an armful of Christmas books from our last trip. Here are two that I've taken particular delight in myself.

The first is The Nativity--the basic biblical text--accompanied by illustrations by Julie Vivas. OK, so the reason I am loving this book is not only that the angel Gabriel has enormous translucent wings andd announces the birth of Jesus over a cup of tea to a Mary who appears to have just come in from hanging laundry to dry. I also love the reality of motherhood that Vivas paints into the story of Christ's birth. She shows Mary's delight with her ever-growing womb. The journey to Bethlehem begins with St. Joseph straining to help a very pregnant Mary onto her precarious perch atop the donkey. (And I thought riding to the hospital in our car was uncomfortable...!) After Jesus is born an exhausted Mary snoozes in the hay next to some curious chickens, while, leaning against Joseph, who cradles the swaddled baby. When Joseph and Mary ride off into Egypt, Mary carries Jesus in a simple sling. I suppose it could sound almost a tad irreverent, but it’s not. Perhaps “earthy” would be a better word to describe the illustrations–to me they seem to gently the tangible, physical, reality of the Incarnation, and the amazing humility of the situation in which God chose to become flesh.

The second, I admit, Gabriel has not yet let me finish, nor is he quite old enough yet to appreciate: A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. We’ve ventured farther into the book than I thought he would allow, because the first section of the book features firemen. Reading even a bit of this book aloud, however, was a treat for me, because the vivid poetic language rolled so easily and beautifully off the tongue. Here’s a bit I particularly enjoyed:

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Now I remember...

Our late autumn gift, our new little Peter, has been out of the womb for three weeks as of yesterday. Slowly I am beginning to recall why I started this blog soon after Gabriel was born. With the arrival of a new baby, my physical, emotional, and spiritual life had turned upside down and inside out. What this meant with my first child and what it now means with my second is quite different, and yet there remain a few similar themes, and I think these are what drove me to start recording my mothering experiences. First, there is a constant storm of “second guessing” accompanying every choice I make as a mother–what will this lead to? what habits am I ingraining now that will be hard to change later? am I being too lenient? too strict? etc. etc. Second, there is an inner struggle with negativity towards myself, a negativity I attribute partially to post-partum hormones, partially to exhaustion, and partially to an insidious power that is trying to attack at the heart of where the initial bond with God is formed.

Certainly cultivating one’s prayer life is the first weapon in the battle against all this, and I have been trying to take some steps back towards stability in prayer in the last few days. Could the blog be a second line of defense? Perhaps. I have doubted the value of this blog recently, and have several times come close to abandoning the project completely. But I think amidst the hazes of new motherhood, good will come from drawing near enough to certain thoughts to define them, from articulating the beacons of goodness that flash through this fog and are often quickly forgotten.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Like this child...

As Michael gears up for the year with a new job and a new schedule, the luxury of our summer days all together has drawn to a close. Michael is gone “full time” now, blessed with the chance to pursue two great opportunities in the realm of his career and his education. This means that Gabriel and I–and our ever-bigger son-in-the-womb– are now home together “full time.” There have been some tough times in these first two weeks Michael being gone, many involving Gabriel’s new tendency to want to micro-manage every element of his environment, and the emotional outbursts that result if something–or someone doesn’t follow his directions. The other part of the story is that he just isn’t napping anymore, which causes exhaustion for both him and me and the need for quiet activities to fill the long afternoon hours.

But this post won’t be about all that, as much as I’ve been analyzing it and debating how to best and most appropriately respond to it. I began this blog as a way to remember to smile, to focus on the positive in the midst of the exhausting, draining first months of motherhood. To take note of those moments that peek through the shadows like sunshine spilling through the tree branches that canopy our courtyard, and to realize their beauty.

This afternoon Gabriel and I trotted outside with a bucket of water, some sidewalk chalk, and two large paintbrushes. We would be “water painting”– literally, painting with water on any available outdoor surface, and watching to see what would happen when we painted the chalk with water. It is an ideal warm-weather activity for toddlers–simple to set up, no mess inside the house, and excitingly large scale. I was sitting down doodling with the chalk for a while (and trying to stay off my feet for a bit as the midwives suggested), but Gabriel wanted to start right in with the painting. He brushed a couple times at the sidewalk doodles, and then called himself Painting Man and jumped over to paint one of our courtyard trees. He called me to join in the fun– “Mommy will come?” As nice as it was to sit for a while, I was happy to join in. We dipped and brushed for quite some time, darkening the entire side of the tree with our water

One of my earliest memories–my mother claims I couldn’t have been more than two or three when it transpired– is that of making wet hand prints on the brick-red siding of my neighbor’s house, running back and forth from her inflatable pool to the wall of the house, enjoying the freedom of making my mark somewhere exciting and new.

I had found the idea for “water painting” with Gabriel in a book, but it was already there, waiting for a quiet moment to emerge from my memories. How many other small childhood joys might I unearth from within me to share with my son on these long nap-less afternoons? And how to discover them? Sitting with my planner, filling in which activities to do when, seems too grown-up, too professional, too gridded, too sterile. Thinking about childhood is too distant, too detached; I must become the child that, in a way, I am, but often do not allow myself to be. Recently I have spent the first moments of any quiet prayer times simply allowing myself to be God’s child. I am your child, Lord. It is a reality, a statement of fact, that I must make a concerted effort to be and to know on a level that is more than merely intellectual. Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3).

So often I fail to turn from my to-do lists, my worries, and my strategies of control, and in failing to turn from these, fail to become a child. So often this failure has made my little Gabriel seem a stranger to me, a mysterious puzzle who frustrates and exhausts me. Yet... whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me (Mt 18:5). Any failure to receive my son in appropriate charity–this is a failure to receive Christ himself.

It’s funny how things link together so neatly. A moment when I finally allow myself to receive my son–to turn, to become like a child, and engage in simple play alongside him, when I could have instead stayed seated out of tiredness or distraction–becomes a moment when I receive my own childhood clearly and suddenly. I am your child, Lord. Such moments as these are when I begin to live this reality more humbly and truly, and stumble ever so slowly towards becoming the child I must be in order to be the mother I am called to be.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Happy Birthday, Little Man!

Our just-turned-two-year-old insists that he is a "man" and not a boy, and although Michael has repeatedly emphasized to him that he is not a man and that he will tell him when he is a man, Gabriel continues to call himself by that title. Although I understand and respect the important coming-of-age implications the title implies, I was quite tempted to write “I’m the birthday man” on his birthday crown. True to form, whenever anyone exclaimed “you’re the birthday boy!!” last night Gabriel would just look at them and say “Man. You’re the birthday man.”

Although he’s got quite a ways to go before he can legitimately claim that title, I have to admit there are so many moments when I feel like he’s on to something with it, and I can’t help but smile at them. From the way he paces purposefully while talking on the telephone to someone, to the way that he animatedly discusses some of his favorite activities–grilling and lawn mowing-- with us on our evening walks around the neighborhood, he does seem like a little man.

Of course, there are many occasions when I know he’s not a little man, and still quite a small boy who needs lots of love and patience from his mommy. With the two-year-old days upon us (seems like they’ve been here for a while, actually) there have been emotional meltdowns about who will remove his shoes and when and where it will be done, about teeth brushing, outside time, and struggles with naptime that seem never-ending. But I know that this too shall pass, considering it seems like it was just yesterday that he came from the hospital and I was learning how to wash diapers and cook dinner while doing the little bounce-the-baby-to-sleep-in-the-sling dance at the same time.

My little man, how much you’ve taught me in these two years! Here’s to many more years of mutual education. :)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A glimpse of our son

We had our second little peek at our son on Monday. Yes, we "found out" this time. With our first I thought I had all-out decided that I would never find out the gender of the child before birth, but for some reason I was just very excited this time around to know, and to be able to love and prepare for our little one as a son or daughter rather than as a mysterious "baby". We waited until birth to find out about Gabriel, and who knows, I might do the same again with (God willing) the next baby. But for now we are getting our hearts and our home ready for this little guy.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Those sharp little eyes...

[Father to son:]

Gabriel, I see four noodles left on your plate! Let's finish them up.

[Gabriel, frowning, inspects his penne noodles, which have spaghetti sauce on them as well flecks of spinach "hidden" in the sauce. He holds one up critically, not liking the sight of that extra green stuff:]


(Yes, it's a year-old photo, but the look on his face was VERY similar to this...)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Education is a Life

Except for a couple intermittent years, and my most recent degree at the John Paul II Institute, I am (academically) the product of public education, from elementary school through my undergrad days at UVA. I must admit that much of the rote memorization, fill-in-the-blanks type learning that Charlotte Mason, a turn-of-the-century English educator, seems most concerned about seemed to have fallen out of style, at least when I was in school. Perhaps with the heavy emphasis on standardized testing (coming back just as I was leaving for college) there has been a renewed interest in memorization? In any case, in both my elementary and high school experiences, there was a heavy emphasis on creative writing, group projects, problem-solving, skits, and role-playing, as well as hands-on experimentation. I remember my parents even expressing concern about the fact that we were not forced to drill much of what we learned into our minds through rote memorization. By the time middle school rolled around I used a calculator for all of my math classes, so the necessity of recalling even basic math was for the most part eliminated. Yet there were still plenty of history, vocabulary, and grammar textbooks with bold-faced words and questions at the end of the book that told you “what you needed to know”; I became an expert at attacking tests armed with this somewhat formulaic knowledge.

Emotional Connection
I have been skimming through Karen Andreola’s A Charlotte Mason Companion in company with Education Is.... She points out that a key element in making education truly a “life” for a child (or adult) is forging an emotional connection to the subject matter. She quotes Charlotte Mason as she describes successful education as that which kindles a “touch of emotion” in the child with regard to a particular subject matter. Certainly this rings true with common sense– anyone dedicates themselves more diligently to that which they care about, rather than to that which they are bound only by duty or the pressure of evaluation.

I tried to ponder what has stuck with me most in my educational life. Literature, history, and language classes were always fascinating to me and received my primary attention; math, science, and any technical or computer classes elicited a “who cares?” feeling from me. I did the work out of duty; I always got “good grades,” but what I perceived as a lack of “human interest” in these classes made me feel that they were irrelevant to my life. Even now I am somewhat at loss to figure out how to present such subjects, particularly at higher, post-elementary levels, to someone without a natural affinity for them, in a way that they might care about them.

Recently my interest has been peaked by different environmental issues; I realize how much science of all kinds (biology, chemistry, statistics, etc.) goes into identifying and creating approaches for solving different environmental problems. Perhaps if my chemistry class had begun with a “big picture” such as the environment, describing how changes in the environment impact us and others directly, then moving from this to the necessity to understand the hidden chemical workings behind it, I might have been more inclined to care about it than I was when we began with the abstract “little picture” of the elements, their atoms, etc.

Gender differences?
One question I have regarding this particular topic (the important of emotional connection) has come to me because so much of what I have read about Charlotte Mason has been from the female point of view. In much of my studies of late, (interesting books like What Could He Be Thinking? by Michael Gurian, The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen, and Taking Sex Differences Seriously by Steven E. Rhodes) I have found a lot about the differences in the male and female brain and the best ways that, on average, males and females learn and engage in the world. From what Baron-Cohen writes, I think it may be more important for the feminine brain to forge emotional connections with subject matter than for the masculine brain. Why is this? Baron-Cohen describes the typical female brain as one with neural connections built more strongly for empathizing. What is empathy? He describes it as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion” in order to understand, connect, or resonate with another person emotionally. On the other hand, the typical male brain is built with neural connections that promote a higher degree of systematizing–analysis, exploration, and construction of systems, in order to predict the behavior of the system or to invent a new one. Systematizing requires a degree of detachment, whereas empathizing requires a degree of attachment. There is much more that could be said–his book is a fascinating read–but I think the short conclusion I’d like to draw here is that my above inference about females vs. males and emotional connection to subject matter is probably true to a certain extent.

My husband is my “common sense” case study for this: he enjoys figuring out problems (physics, chess and other similar games, math equations, etc.) just for the pure joy of solving problems. This baffles me, as it is so different from my own natural inclinations. Yet his insistence that this is why he enjoys solving problems proves to me that there is another way of being, learning, and acquiring knowledge out there that is very different from my own. (My husband is not a purely “technical” guy by any means–his main pursuit is teaching and learning music; he is a singer, an excellent artist, and a not-too-shabby writer as well.) In addition to my own little “case study”, I recall that most of the more enthusiastic members of my computer classes and physics classes in high school were male. Certainly there were many women at my school who also excelled in these classes (I went to a science and math-based high school; that’s another story for another time!), so these male and female brain differences are not a hard and fast rule.

In light of all of this would be quite interested to hear about CM-style education from the perspective of a male educator, or from those who have educated males through the high school level in this fashion, given that I may be in the position of guiding the education of my son, who quite possibly has a mind that will work and learn in ways very different from my own.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Happy Father's Day (Week), Daddy!

It's been a Father's Day "week" at our house. Gabriel shared his first ice cream cone ever with his Daddy on the porch on Wednesday night. (Note: this was mostly fun, but slightly stressful because of the constant squeals of "Gabriel HOLDS IT!!" Next time he got his own cone. He's definitely not a baby any more!) On Thursday night I took my "lazy boys" who had just slept for a 3.5 hour nap together out on a "family date" to Huong Que (Four Sisters) a yummy Vietnamese restaurant in Falls Church. Gabriel was quite excited and continually requested to eat "noodles at the restaurant" as we were driving there. After dinner we visited Home Depot, A.K.A The Man Store, to buy Daddy his Father's Day present. I'm not sure who was more excited, father or son!
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Happy Father's Day, Grandpa!

Gabriel cruises on his Great-Grampi's old tractor (lawnmower) thanks to 100% Grandpa horsepower.
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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Poetry in the heat

Present: An entire shelf in our living room filled with poetry books from my various lit classes, writing classes, and used bookstore adventures.

Problem: Their woeful loneliness and lack of attention over the past few years.

Solution: A tall glass of ice water, the resolve to ignore a couple things around the house, and a quiet moment on the couch during nap time to contemplate a few poems each week.

The beginning: A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz

A thought from today's reading: From Milosz' introduction to a poem: "In a way, poetry is an attempt to break through the density of reality into a zone where the simplest things are again as fresh as if they were being seen by a child."

Monday, June 09, 2008

Gratitude and shadows

Yesterday I went through my nightly ritual of opening Gabriel’s door and peeking in on him before retiring for the night. It is always a gentle, sweet moment, to see him sleeping with his arms tucked up around his head and his legs for once relaxed, but on this night in particular I was just overwhelmed with God’s generosity to me in blessing me with my little family. Michael, Gabriel, and our “baby-in-the-belly”, all with a roof over our heads, fresh and abundant food to eat, and a circle of generous family and friends extending out around us.

My husband and I have committed to pray the Magnificat daily as a couple (part of the endeavors of the Teams of Our Lady group we are a part of) and so often saying this prayer can seem like just dutifully reciting a stream of words together after dinner. Last night, however, it was a gift that I knew these words by heart, because they seemed to fit my sentiments so precisely–the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name!

One thing I struggle with, however, is that my moments of gratitude are often tinged by fear, a shadowy fear that seems to whisper that I shouldn’t rejoice in these moments too much because they are precariously perched on the edge of an uncertain future, and an accident or sudden unforseen circumstance could change things instantly, bringing suffering and sorrow.

I was comforted and challenged by the words of C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves (the recent discussion book for our Team). He speaks of how in all of our earthly loves and joys are really just faint echoes of the heavenly life of love that is the Trinitarian communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which we will hopefully one day participate in. This is a consoling thought, because it is so often hard for me “desire heaven” when I consider it as an unknown, unexperienced “place” rather than something I have known and desired–in all of my desires–all along. I think this is all tied to the fact that for me emotional, affective love of God has of late been an elusive element of the spiritual life. (Lewis himself characterizes such “emotional” love–attachment to God that basically “feels” the same as our attachment to our loved ones on earth– as a supernatural gift, and thus not something to be attained or acquired by virtue of our own effort or willing.)

I thought Lewis’ thoughts below on this topic seem like a good elaboration on St. Paul’s words in 1 Cor 13:12: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.”

“We were made for God. Only by being in some respect like Him, only by being a manifestation of His beauty, loving-kindness, wisdom, or goodness, has any earthly Beloved excited our love. It is not that we have loved them too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving. It is not that we shall be asked to turn from them, so dearly familiar, to a Stranger. When we see the face of God we shall know that we have always known it. He has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within, all our earthly experiences of innocent love. All that was true love in them was, even on earth, far more His than ours, and ours only because His. In Heaven there will be no anguish and no duty of turning away from our earthly Beloveds. First, because we shall have turned already; from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain, from the creatures he made lovable to Love Himself. But secondly, because we shall find them all in Him. By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we now do.”

Friday, June 06, 2008

Continuing thoughts on Charlotte Mason

These thoughts continue the online discussion that was started over at Elizabeth Foss' blog on the free e-book Education Is... I've been using my reading of this book to try to develop a "big picture" vision of how Michael and I can best care for Gabriel, because I have found the parenting books filled with step-by-step strategies and tactics and ways to respond to different behaviors to be somewhat dissatisfying. Better to have a vision, I think, and develop strategies that fit in with this vision, than use things that other people suggest haphazardly.

Education is a Discipline
The second prong of Charlotte Mason's educational approach is "education is a discipline", and by this she meant to highlight the importance of cultivating good habits that our children will continue into their adult lives. Good habits are central, she emphasizes, to the forming of good character. She has seven main points regarding education as discipline:
  1. We should put intentional thought and effort into forming habits.
  2. It's not always easy to administer consequences, but our children's futures depend on our faithfulness and efforts to do so.
  3. Habits can become stronger than natural inclinations.
  4. Education should deal with character issues, not just acquiring a certain amount of knowledge.
  5. Incessant watchfulness and work are required for forming and preserving habits.
  6. Cultivating good habits makes up one-third of our children's education.
  7. The effort is in the forming of a habit; once it is formed it is no longer strenuous.
Mirror, mirror...
There are a limited number of habits that it seems Gabriel (22 mos) can work on right now. I have slowly been realizing, as I reflect on his most bothersome behaviors, that if I translate them into my own life, I could stand to work on the same things myself! Surprise, surprise, right? He's young but certainly quite perceptive; perhaps if I start putting some intentional thought and effort into improving, he'll start improving too, with our help, of course.
  • Gabriel is easily frustrated--to the point of moans, groans, squeals, and sometimes tears--when he sets a task for himself that he can't do in the time or the way he wants it done. For example: putting on a hat that keeps falling off, or setting some of his toys up in particular arrangements when they keep falling down.
  • Mommy is easily frustrated in similar situations--throughout my life it has been tough for me to persevere when a task doesn't come easily or quickly to me. Recently I have been particularly frustrated and easily defeated when trying to get Gabriel to nap/sleep in a reasonable amount of time. (I'm pretty sure Gabriel can sense my frustration...)
We both need to work on perseverance and patience under trial, I think! It is not always convenient or easy to figure out the best way to facilitate his growth in perseverance, but I think knowing that I need to work on the same habit will help clear the clouds some when I am faced with Gabriel's frustration in particular situations.

Consequences and Reactions
I must admit that I am stumped about how to teach Gabriel not to act in a way that is inappropriate. In other words, what consequences are appropriate for an almost-two-year old? I am getting the feeling that the key for this age--at least for this little boy-- is in #5 above--incessant and consistent watchfulness and work on the part of mother and father to physically keep him from running into the street, pushing other children away from toys, throwing objects, or standing on furniture. Verbal reprimands seem only to reinforce the precise behavior we are trying to prevent, and to encourage him to do it with more glee, awaiting our reactions! I continue to search for wisdom from other more experienced moms for appropriate methods of response to such behaviors, so if anyone has any ideas, let me know!

Discipline brings Freedom
This point, highlighted in Education Is, reminds me of a point from my moral theology class. It is encouraging when I begin to worry about the repetitive nature of my "teaching" interactions with Gabriel. There will come a point that this instruction enables him to reach a greater stage of freedom!

The first stage of education in the moral life is to practice adherence to the commandments, which often, from the outside, can seem "constraining". Yet it is this first stage that is the bedrock for the true moral life, which is the life of the virtues, as developed to the point of becoming "habitual". "Habitual" virtues are those that can be exercised repeatedly and with creativity in diverse situations. They are not necessarily exercised with ease (although they may be) as even great saints are troubled by great temptations and moral quandries. It is only by complying with the beginning steps of discipline--adherence to the commandments, or in Gabriel's case, to our physical requirement that he not run into the street or push his cousin, that a person is able to experience true freedom in action. This freedom for Gabriel is one of the great hopes that sustains my everyday work of teaching and guiding!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Back to the Blog.... With scraps of a vision for our home

Thanks to an abundance of grace and constant support from my husband and my family, I have emerged from beneath the heavy yet illuminating stacks of theology books and finally finished my Master's degree, even miraculously passing my comprehensive exams in March amidst the throes of an admittedly mild (but still tiring) first trimester of my second pregnancy! I'm back to the blog to facilitate a turning of my intellectual mental energies towards home again.

I was inspired by a post over at Elizabeth Foss' blog to dive into a reflection on the educational ideas and theories of Charlotte Mason, via a short (but substantial) e-book called Education Is... Much could be said about this, certainly, and I hesitate to throw my 2-cents in with seasoned mothers who have much more experience and wisdom than I, particularly because I am only beginning to learn about CM's thought. But perhaps because of my lack of experience it seems like a privilege and a gift to have time to reflect on ideas that ring so true while my son is still so young. My challenge to myself will be to synthesize the ideas I encounter in the upcoming months with some of those I had time to ponder at the JPII Institute these past few years.

Education Is describes Charlotte Mason's approach to education as "three-pronged": "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." The first prong--"atmosphere"-- is what has most provoked my thought, particularly because Gabriel seems to absorb and mimic behaviors , placement of objects, and words so easily. The book points out six elements of Charlotte's thought on education via atmosphere:
  1. Children should grow up in a natural home setting, not an artificial, adapted environment.
  2. Character traits can be learned through the atmosphere of the home.
  3. We must be careful how we live, because our children will pick up attitudes and ideas from us that will affect them the rest of their lives.
  4. The atmosphere of our homes is formed out of the ideas that rule our lives as parents.
  5. Atmosphere is only part, not all, of a child's education. We must also give the discipline of good habits and the living ideas of a generous curriculum.
  6. The atmosphere of the home should encourage freedom under authority and obedience.
In light of these six points, I contemplated what words I might want to describe our home. I kept coming back to these :
  • ordered
  • rhythmic
  • peaceful
  • simple
In other words, in the best of all possible worlds, our little domestic church might echo something of a monastic lifestyle, with adaptations, of course, because the family, just as the monastic community, is called together by God to fulfill man's vocation to love. I spent 30 pages writing a paper for my Patristics course on how St. Benedict's monastic Rule might inspire and structure family life, so I'll try to hit the highlights. Perhaps this is a tangent from CM's atmosphere, but it is the direction my brain went...!

The Monastic and Familial "Milieu": Physical, Temporal, Auditory
The monastic enclosure is designed with the recognition that man is both body and soul, and so both physical and spiritual elements of a home must be oriented towards God. Each of Benedict's monastic communities were to have an oratory, a physical space dedicated particularly to group and individual prayer and nothing else. In a similar way, the physical space of the home could be filled with sacred objects and pictures, and a special place might be created for family prayer. This physical space can be the place where the family gathers at specified times, creating a rhythm of daily prayer which fit into the daily schedule of the family. I think in particular the "tide" of monastic life--flowing in and out of the oratory to other tasks and occupations--is what I would like our home to be like. Certainly it will be a challenge as schedules become more complex and little ones start their own activities, but I think such an "objective order" centered on specific times of prayer is important. One of my professors always said that the more one enters into an objective order, the more the order shapes who you are, the way you live, and the way you think. (A chaotic order in life creates a chaotic, scattered person; on the other hand, a rhythmic, prayerful life forms a careful, prayerful person. I know this is true in my own life so I can only imagine my children might be the same way!)

Another element I found fascinating was the reverence with which the Benedictine rule treats material objects. All objects must be treated with the same reverence as the "holy bowls of the altar"--even the most "lowly" bucket or scrub brush used for cleaning. Each item is seen as a gift which God has allowed the monks use of for the purpose of their survival and flourishing. Since we've been married we've tried to keep our home "simple" in terms of the stuff we have and the way we have it arranged in our home (books are our major stumbling block here). What I think has been challenging to us is in this realm is to maintain a proper appreciation for material things in the midst of a proper detachment--in other words, to maintain an appreciation for what we have such that we take the proper time to care for it, rather than adopt an attitude of carelessness with the excuse of detachment. Treating what we have and are able to use as the "holy bowls of the altar" helps keep us away from such carelessness, I think. Reverence towards material goods is also tough to cultivate when so much of what is out there is created really to be "disposable". We try to use as few disposable items as possible (although we really could still do better), not only out of "environmental" concerns but also with the above reverence in mind. It is hard to cultivate reverence and gratitude when we can throw away something once it has been dirtied or used once.

The monastic year as structured by Benedict in the early Christian era was quite dependent upon the seasons for both timing of prayer (due to available light and scarcity of oil and candles) and work (harvesting vs. planting, etc). One might pass over this detail regarding the temporal environment of the monastery as irrelevant to modern families, but it seemed particularly important with regards to the type of attitude it cultivated towards life: a Marian attitude of receptivity and dependence upon God and creation as He designed it. Certainly family life now might not revolve around available hours of sunlight, but the Marian virtues of active, patient receptivity and dependence might be cultivated in other ways--an obvious example might be planting and tending a vegetable garden, as my husband has tried to do these past few years. Such an activity seems to go hand in hand with "eating with the seasons"--possible not only for gardeners but by frequenting local farmer's markets, or at the very least, respecting what is reasonably and locally available in grocery stores (rather than eating Chilean strawberries in January, for example).

The Benedictine monastery was not completely silent, but it adopted specified times of day for silence. Further, the monks were encouraged to avoid "bawdy laughter", gossip, and pointless chatter. Certainly in light of the presence of small children a "rule of silence" even if for particular times is challenging, and even the practice of reading Scriptures at table rather than talking during certain seasons as the monks do has been a tough one for our family, even though I think we have made a valiant effort. I think the most successful way I have tried to "cultivate silence" in our home is to avoid excess noise--certain children's CD's with synthesized backups and annoying vocals can tend to fit in this category--and ensure that the sound that is present is beautiful and uplifting. (Although this isn't too tough when we have got a pianist for a husband/daddy, a nice piano taking up most of the living room, and lessons and practicing echoing through the little house throughout the day!)

Obedience, Service and Hospitality
...are further ways the monastic life and familial life can be paralleled, and further elements that I think would fit into Charlotte Mason's "atmosphere as education". I'll save discussing these for another post, because I think I've gone on long enough today. Gabriel is bound to wake up from his nap soon, and the "rhythm" of our little domestic church is currently quite determined by his sleeping and waking hours, so I must be finished with this post for now!