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.

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