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.