Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Midnight Clear

For today's posting, I thought it would be fitting to describe a very special midnight Christmas Mass I attended two years ago, shortly before my conversion.

Until I was about 10, I had attended a Catholic parish with my family, attended CCD classes, even had experienced my first Communion and first Confession.  When my father started attending a different church, my family attended fewer Masses until we stopped going altogether.  It was a completely different type of service, as it had a very Evangelical (and I daresay a very anti-Catholic) tradition.  My 10-year-old brain at the time could not comprehend the difference in theology, and all I knew was that a charismatic service trumped a solemn one.  The teaching at my father’s church became my new religion. 
Fast forward to adulthood: about 3 years after we had married, my husband Greg converted to Catholicism, which to me was the worst denomination any true Bible-believer could be a part of.  I was stuck in a dark place, overcome with confusion, anger, and growing resentment towards my husband and his faith.  For at least a year we tried to awkwardly avoid confrontation, but I sought opportunities to fire all my misinformed theological gunfire in an attempt to catch Greg in a trap.  I mistakenly believed that if Greg had rejected aspects of my faith, which is a significant aspect of my identity, he was ultimately rejecting me.  Consequently I had little respect or patience for his newfound faith, and I found myself constantly on the defensive.
But with God all things are possible, even the softening of a Grinch-y heart like mine. 
Two years ago, as we had done in years past, we drove to my parents’ home to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.  The route to snowy New Hampshire passed through quaint New England towns, antique homes adorned with Christmas wreaths, garlands, and white lights.  Greg was visibly uneasy.  He slowed down considerably as we passed through each town, eyeing each church.  I know what he was doing, but neither one of us said anything.  He was looking for a Christmas Eve vigil Mass that he could attend, and thus minimize an awkward interruption of our Christmas morning (and considering my dad’s harsh view of the Catholic Church, this was a sensitive move on Greg’s part).  Each church we passed had a Mass that either started much later than our trip allowed, or had already happened.  I was growing impatient to get to my parents’ home.  And yet, in some sort of Christmas miracle, I sympathized.  I realized that he was trying to discreetly find a Mass and celebrate one of the most important days of his faith without offending my (albeit rather ridiculous) belief system.  As he was having no luck finding a Mass on our way, he said he would go to a midnight Mass in my parents’ town after everyone had gone to bed.
Christmas Eve with my family was cozy and festive.  The fire roared in the fireplace.  My mother’s decorations and my father’s cooking created an inviting atmosphere and a pleasant yuletide aroma.  We ate until we were stuffed, watched some football, and started dozing off while watching a cheesy TV special.  Slowly we each retired to bed.  Greg and I were the last ones watching the TV.  I started to feel bad that Greg would have to wait by himself for another 2 hours until it was time for Mass, and I also started to worry that he would get lost either to or from the church.  I offered to stay awake and go with him. 
At 11:30 we bundled up and snuck out.  It was a cold and clear December night.  Millions of stars sparkled bright and their reflection glistened on the crusty frozen snow.  All was still on the way into town of Jaffrey.  An ice-covered swamp bordered by tall, snow covered pine trees dazzled under the moon’s light.  We didn’t see one car until we approached the church.  The light from inside the building poured out onto the street and revealed a long line of cars parked at the curb.  Families walked close together to stay warm, and greeted others with a strong handshake as they entered.
We were able to find a seat, but there were few remaining.  An usher wearing Carhartt pants, work boots, and a flannel shirt led us up to a pew.  I gulped; it was the second pew from the front.  As much as I had boldly argued the pitfalls of Catholicism with Greg at home, walking up that aisle made me feel meek and timid.  The family already sitting in the pew squished together to make room for us, and greeted us with warm smiles and a kindhearted “Merry Christmas”.  Although they did not know me or my bitterness, their welcoming faces seemed to demonstrate forgiveness.
Each progression of the Mass weakened my presumptions of Catholic Masses as dull and empty; it intrigued me.  Parishioners sung loud, the homily was profound and fiery, and the sign of peace was heartfelt and full of hugs.  Most touching, however, was the serving of Communion.  People of all shapes and sizes, all manners of dress, all ages, and all states of health made their way up front.  The line seemed unending.  Such a genuine display of faith!  I was amazed to see that the priest seemed to know most of people he served, as he gave a knowing smile to young and old.  Not at one point did I feel excluded or unwelcome because I was not Catholic.  On the contrary, the strangers around me shared their joy that I could celebrate the birth of our Lord with them. 
Finally, as we sang the final hymn and we all filed out, a strange and amazing mini-miracle occurred.  I held Greg’s hand so as not to get separated in the crowd, and for the first time in many months I felt connected to my husband.  The months after his conversion had made me feel inferior and confused, but this night I felt united with him.  We continued to hold hands as we walked our way to the car.  The cold air was abrupt yet refreshing, and the clarity of the stars reminded me of the simplicity of the night’s celebration:  on such a starry night the brilliance of the angels flooded the vast shepherd’s fields, and lit the manger where the Holy Family made their shelter.  No theological rants, no complicated relationships, just pure love and adoration.  The midnight clear drove out the darkness that had cloaked my soul for too long. 
The softening of my heart was irreversible at this point.  The moment was too romantic, the stars were too bright, the night was too clear to deny my newfound openness towards my husband’s faith. 
For the next couple weeks, I did my research.  I read books written by Catholic converts, looked up many informative sites on the internet, and found material that directly confronted my skepticism.  Three weeks after that Christmas Mass I sought out the chaplain at the school where I work, and he led me through my first Confession in about 20 years.  Later that morning I had my first Communion at our school’s daily Mass.  When I texted Greg about the monumental decision I had made, he sent me a message back saying he had been in Confession at the same time. 
And a few weeks after that we found out we were expecting.   (We wouldn’t find out I was having twins until several months later… that is, a few weeks after my Confirmation.)
There is a lot more to my conversion story than just that one Christmas night.  I know it was the result of many people praying, and most certainly by God’s mercy and grace.  Our Lord came to the world to bring peace, and that on that Christmas two years ago, He most certainly did: peace to a rocky marriage, peace to a wounded heart, and peace to a family united in Christ.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Delayed Gratification

Everyone who sees me with the twins claims that although two may be a lot of work, “they will always have each other”.  I’ve even heard from other mothers of twins that the terrible-two’s are not so terrible because “they have each other”.  Unfortunately, such has not been my experience.  Admittedly the girls are not quite two, but instead of playing nicely together, they have started to fight over toys.  The first time I had to stifle a giggle (I know it is technically misbehaving, but it was pretty cute).  Both were playing with a toy, when out of nowhere Margaret grabbed Elisabeth’s toy and Elisabeth started whimpering, not fully understanding how her toy ended up in Margaret’s hands.   Now that it has become a daily occurrence, I don’t find it quite as amusing.  Elisabeth has figured out that she can start a tug-of-war to get the toy back, but when Margaret gives in and lets the toy go, it smacks Elisabeth square in the face and she topples over backward.  Two babies crying equals one exasperated mommy. 
It amazes me that the girls don’t seem to realize what they already have in their hand.  As soon as they see the other one’s toy, they have to grab it that second.  Even if they want the other’s toy, and I switch their toys, they are almost instantaneously dissatisfied and want the original toy again.  This proves to me that the girls have to be taught the idea of delayed gratification.  Up to this point all the major milestones have been achieved after some practice and simply play without much intervention on my part.  The fine motor skills need to eat table food?  Figured out after some weeks of grabbing self-feeders and sippy cups.  Standing up?  Much practice pulling themselves up by our furniture.  Walking?  Months of crawling, standing, cruising, and walking with some help.  And yet the impulsive fighting over toys is a behavior that needs to be instructively corrected.
The idea of delayed gratification came up on NPR on my way to work one February morning.  The reporter for the broadcast quoted a study that links self control learned in the preschool years to success in adulthood (you can read the transcript on http://www.wbur.org/npr/133629477/for-kids-self-control-factors-into-future-success).   I almost choked on my coffee, not because it was so shocking, but because it was actually newsworthy.  So if I teach my child now that she can’t get what she wants immediately, she will be a well-adjusted adult later on?  Who would have thought?!  Nevertheless, what I did find interesting was that the psychologist concluded that self-control is not an inherited trait…it has to be taught.
As an adult I find myself daily struggling with accepting delayed gratification.  And understandably, as our culture becomes ever more addicted to the latest technology, it is easy to become frustrated when we don’t get what we want right away.  Think of the whole concept of online shopping.  Browse products artfully photographed, and simply click to buy.  If you buy often from the same site, you don’t even need to take the time to type in your payment information.  Click and done.  I recently bought a Smartphone, and I am blown away by how fast and easily I can check my e-mail  and Facebook page at anytime and almost anywhere.  The technology industry advertises speed in their gadgets, and by doing so they are able to expand in this slow economy.
Greg and I were considering buying a house.  We’ve looked at a couple homes (and kind of panicked when we calculated the costs) and ultimately decided to put the search on hold.  On the days when I am tripping over the baby toys in the living room and running out of spaces to place things high enough so curious hands won’t be able to reach, I dream of a cute little cape on a dead-end road with a cute little garden growing in a charming little yard.  When I am out for a walk in our current neighborhood, I covet the neatly landscaped yards and wooden swing sets.  Sometimes I take advantage of the peaceful time outside and pray for a home for our family.  I know that in my prayers I sound like Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “But Daddy, I want it NOWWW!”  But through contemplation I have begun to realize that nothing has value unless you have to work at it.  Those beautifully landscaped yards have a lot of time and money put into them.  My desire for a house has consequently progressed from frustration to thoughtful steps towards purchasing one.  And I have accepted that it will take some time.
Our Heavenly Father has placed so many systems of delayed gratification in our life to teach us patience and gratitude.  Look at some examples: the years of education before starting a specific career, the period of engagement before getting married, and a nine-month pregnancy before the bundle of joy arrives.  So I guess He wants us to grow into well-adjusted, successful adults…or perhaps more accurately, Saints.  As the verse from the book of Jeremiah is so often quoted, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope”.  Many Protestant translations use the phrase “plans to prosper you.”  Although many Christians have found success and prosperity financially, it is easy to overlook the fact that prosperity can also mean happiness and satisfaction with our lot in life.  I had a blessed Thanksgiving as I reflected on the many invaluable things in my life, such as a steady job, good health, enough money for food and shelter, and my family above all.  The opposite of poverty is enough, and by that standard my family lives like kings. 
Of course, the greatest example of delayed gratification is entering into Heaven.  I’ve learned in the Catholic faith that salvation is not achieved in a moment of reciting the universal sinner’s prayer accepted by many Protestant denominations.  Achieving salvation, surely by the Grace of God, can only be achieved at the end of one’s life, after the completion of the race St. Paul describes to Timothy.  God wants us to learn delayed gratification in the little things in order to experience it in the greatest way.
So I will sit in between the girls and show them what they have in their hand is good enough for now, and that their instant happiness is not dependant on having that other toy immediately.  I will patiently wait until they start to appreciate the fact that “they have each other”.  And it is my daily hope and prayer that they will learn these vital lessons, not only so they will have a successful adulthood (according to NPR), but so they will also grow to love having enough, and understand and experience the ultimate prosperity God has for them.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Superwoman of Proverbs

The woman described in the Book of Proverbs, chapter 31, both inspires and intimidates me.  No matter what I do, I just can’t keep up with her.  I envision a youthful woman sewing clothes for her family and servants late at night in the waning candlelight, bartering with stingy merchants for material during the day, and generously giving poor beggars money and even warm bread whenever the opportunity arises.  She stands proudly beside her husband at social engagements.  Her clothes highlight her physical strength, which further complements her stunning beauty.  “She laughs at the days to come” because she has no anxiety. 
My life is certainly not all that put-together.  I nod off in the evening with my to-do list grossly incomplete (I think the last time I used a sewing machine was in my home economics class).  I guess I am physically strong…at least I was before the babies came (now I am just out-of-shape).  Fashionable?  Not really, and it’s not like I have ample free time to go shopping.  Free from anxiety?  Definitely not.  How can anyone be like her?
In my task-oriented mindset, it is always easy to measure myself according to what I have not accomplished.  But recently a good friend recently changed my perspective.  She pointed out a few key verses that I do achieve every day.  So I present to you ways that the very ordinary woman can be extraordinary and a true Proverbs 31 woman.
1.        Verse 28: “Her children rise up and call her blessed; / her husband too, praises her”. 
Although my babies’ speech is still limited to babbling, I do understand their praises.  In fact it begins when they first wake up.  It’s the best part of my day.  After the initial glance-at-the-clock-and-cringe, I get up and walk to the babies’ room.  The door creaks open.  It’s still dark.  Two silhouettes are standing straight up in their cribs.  They see me.  The chipmunk chatter starts up and the two silhouettes start bouncing, Elisabeth bounces rapid fire style, and Margaret is slower, squats all the way down and pulls herself up.  I pick up one, bring her to our bed, and retrieve the second.  When the babies were really small, we would all cuddle up and snuggle as a family.  Sometimes we would fall asleep for a few more minutes.  Now that they are almost toddlers, they are crawling over us and to each corner of the bed.  No more chance to snuggle and fall asleep, but it’s still the best. 
There is another moment that I cherish.  It’s when I pick the babies up from day care.  I sneak in the door, and watch while they play with the older kids.  So cute.  It’s not long before one of them looks up and sees me, and then comes the crawling across the floor on high speed.  Little baby exclamations of delight and the pit-pat of baby hands and feet on the floor: that’s a pretty good moment too.
2.       Verse 12: “She brings him profit / not loss”
I have to remind myself daily why I work.  When the time constraints of the day allow me only a couple brief hours with my babies, I tell myself that I work because we need the income.  And yet I struggle with the day care cost.  It’s a catch 22: If I didn’t work, we would be down to one income, but the fact that I do work creates the biggest expense of our monthly budget, besides housing.  It’s an impossible dilemma that I know many families face.  How I lament our society’s lack of sympathy for working mothers and their families! 
As a working mom I bring my family profit, but stay-at-home moms also save their families much money on day care.  It can be an impossible choice, but I respectfully consider either option profitable.
3.        Verse 30: “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; / the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
May we never lose sight of our true purpose as mothers: to raise children to love God and to serve others.   To-do lists are not the measure of success, and true beauty is not limited to expensive clothes and a pretty face.  The spiritual aspect of motherhood can transform any Plain Jane into a supermodel celebrity.
So I have come to two conclusions: First, even if I can’t weave clothes for everyone in my household, I have a husband and children who give me praise.  I contribute to our family’s well-being both financially and spiritually, which is just the same as the wonderwoman of Proverbs.  Second, why do we women spend so much of our precious time comparing ourselves to other?    God did not create me to be this perfect superwoman.  He sent His Son to die for me so that I could be the best-version-of-myself.  The woman of Proverbs, albeit very successful and talented, lived in a different culture and a different era.  I was created to live today, to run my unique race.  The comparing of myself to others is thus major distraction and wasted energy.  Although I can find inspiration in others, they should not determine my own success.  I will let my babies’ delightful goos and gahs measure that.  And by that standard, I’d say I’m doing just fine.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Floating

A job requirement for all parents is a good sense of humor.  The goofy faces, the high-pitched sing-song explanations of the produce aisle at the grocery store…everything for the sake of our children’s growth and development.  Of course, as parents we are often called to oscillate between the seriousness of adult obligations and our children’s education (and entertainment!).  One such event occurred in our home not too long ago.  One of my good friends had told me that she was up for a job promotion and that she had given my name as a reference.  Her place of employment soon contacted me and a representative asked me some very serious questions about my friend’s character and ability to perform well at the job.  Ever considerate, my husband Greg gave me a little privacy by bringing our twins into the other room.  Greg loves to play kids’ songs from YouTube, mostly to help the girls fall asleep.  This day, however, he was giving them a lesson on numbers and the letters of the alphabet.  (Our girls are only 10 months old, and their vocabulary is limited to mostly just mamamama and dadada, but with two teachers as parents, they will be getting a head start in their schooling.)  As only parents can appreciate, the repetitive nature of children’s songs can make a lasting impression in the brain.  Greg had found a perfect example on YouTube, the Phonics Song.  A is for apple, ah ah apple…B is for ball, bu bu ball… and so it continued with all 26 letters of the alphabet with the same rhythm and beat.  Meanwhile I struggled to focus on the representative’s question.  “What can you tell me about S----‘s ability to handle multiple tasks at once?”  I think I came up with a coherent answer, but I really can’t say because all I remember is  H is for horse, huh huh horse… 
Floating between different situations is not just a job requirement for parents, but for all Christians.  Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:
To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.  All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.
I love this passage, because it explains our duty as Christians to evangelize as real people.  In the Protestant church in which I grew up, there was heavy emphasis on reaching the lost.  Admittedly the importance of winning lost souls for Christ is a lesser priority for many Catholics.  Nevertheless, I think the pressure in my childhood church to witness led to a superficial method of evangelization.  Explaining the Gospel to everyone in the same charismatic way does not necessarily reach the heart of a person.  Sincere evangelization requires understanding and compassion.  You can’t address the questions and skepticism of a person if you don’t understand where they are at in life.
St. Francis of Assisi said to “preach the Gospel to all peoples, and if necessary, use words.”  My conversion to the Catholic faith was in no small part to the very gentle yet authentic way my colleagues at Montrose School lived their daily lives.  Not one cornered me or pressured me to convert, no one gave me pamphlets with theological explanations of why Catholicism was the only way to heaven, and no one ever made me feel inferior for not sharing the same faith.  Nevertheless, they were sincerely interested in my faith journey and my beliefs.  My heart slowly softened to Catholicism as we engaged in genuine conversations.  Mostly, however, they demonstrated their faith through their actions.  I admired how their work life and faith life were so complementary.  I could ask one teacher for strategies in how to practice verb conjugations and in the same conversation she would tell me some of her very personal prayer intentions.  And although they never pressured me to convert, they did care deeply and rejoiced greatly when I did.  I even had several colleagues attend my Confirmation a few months later.  Their desire to see me return to the Church was focused through prayer and friendship as opposed to simple proselytizing.  When I first arrived at Montrose, I carried a lot of anger and some deep hurts.  I was skeptical of the Catholic faith and was definitely NOT going to be convinced by a theological rant.  And my colleagues understood that.  Their approach was gentle and respectful.  They floated between their deeply spiritual and holy faith life and my weak and doubtful one.  They spoke my language.
Think of how Christ interacted with His followers while on Earth.  He fished alongside His apostles, He rejoiced at weddings, He enjoyed late night dinner conversations, and He even mourned over the death His dear friend Lazarus.  Even though He knew He was going to raise His friend from the dead, He wept.  He expressed an authentic compassion toward both the crowds and the individual.  He became one of us in order to save us.  When you ponder the depth of Christ’s humanity, you can start to appreciate the profound grace in His divinity.
Now that I can boast the title of motherhood, I have also come to learn and experience the beauty of evangelizing to my own children.  I share the Gospel with the twins every time I make them laugh, every time I sing a lullaby.  I also have begun to realize that I share the Gospel through the menial and less-than-glamorous tasks too: washing out bottles, wiping up a spit-up, or even a diaper change.  A mother preaches the Gospel though all these small acts of love; this is the baby’s language.   So make a those goofy fishy faces and sing those silly alphabet songs with pride; you’re evangelizing! 
(As a small side note, I have discovered that the few minutes it takes to wash out bottles is an opportune time to spend in prayer.  In fact, all of our motherly duties can be offered up as small prayers…not just for our own children, but for all souls.  What a beautiful aspect of our vocation!) 
May we always remember that there are many people in this world who are babes in their faith journey.  They need the simple love and kindness of a caring friend, not necessarily a preachy sermon.  Let us love people where they are at, and practice the art of floating. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Finding Gratitude While Shopping for Diapers

The logistics of parading twins in retail stores is more complicated than it seems.  A small thing like the type of entry at a particular store can require a significant amount of creative and critical thinking skills.  I usually chauffeur the twins around in a fantastic double stroller (this thing is an engineering marvel!), but despite it being easy to push and turn, it is awkwardly wide.  It can fit through most doors, but occasionally I discover mid-way through the doorway that it is about one inch too narrow.  Consequently I have memorized the locations of stores with double automatic doors.  The stroller has plenty of cargo space underneath the seats, which is how I manage to do the grocery shopping.  I always try to make each trip a quick in-and-out procedure, just in case we have a double meltdown. 
There is one exception to this near perfect system I have: shopping for diapers.  The bulky boxes can’t fit in the stroller’s cargo space, and one box is too heavy to comfortably carry in one hand while I steer the stroller in the other.  Recently when I took the twins diaper shopping I came up with the crazy idea of abandoning the stroller.  I took a regular shopping cart for Margaret, and carried Elisabeth in a front carrier.  Thus I had plenty of space for several boxes of diapers in the cart, and as an extra bonus, the girls could face each other.  They were loving every minute of it!  I paraded around the store with an air of confidence and pride.  I even grew brave enough to leisurely walk around the store, since I clearly had everything under control.  I picked up a door gate and gently laid it on top of the boxes of diapers.  Not to worry, everything was under control.  Shall we check out the latest summer clothing?  Sure, because everything is under control.  Margaret enjoyed the different perspective and was curiously looking behind her as we passed a couple aisles.  She even pulled one knee to her chest so that her foot was innocently resting on the seat of the shopping cart.  And then my sense of control crashed and burned as Margaret managed to stand up in the shopping cart seat.  I realized too late that I had stupidly chosen a shopping cart with a broken safety belt.  As I sat her back down, the door gate teetered off the boxes of diapers onto the floor.  Now I had to pick it up with a baby strapped in to a front carrier, while holding onto Margaret in case she stood up again.  I got the safety gate on top of the diaper boxes and the leisurely stroll through the store turned into a panic-driven race to the checkout.  One hand balanced the items in the cart, my other hand firmly held Margaret’s shoulder, and the whole time my back was in a very awkward position and the muscles strained from Elisabeth’s weight in the front carrier.  I don’t remember how I was able to get out my debit card and get through the checkout, but I’m sure a few guardian angels had a role in it.
As I was reflecting on this latest episode of our real-life sitcom, I thought I would use it to describe how the unexpected can suddenly ruin our perfectly planned and controlled life.  But Greg suggested another perspective: how often do we unwisely decide to stand up in the shopping cart, because we want to see more, we become over confident, or perhaps because we think we know it all.  God sees the dangers we put ourselves in, but we react because we impulsively want.  This is not to suggest that God becomes a panicked and frazzled mom trying to fix our problems.  On the contrary, God is always in control, even when we are dangerously close to a fall.  What I am pointing out here is that we have the power of changing a good environment to a dangerous situation because we think we know better. 
Which leads to the thought that has also been in the forefront of my mind lately: being contentedly grateful.  Let me explain the context of my recent reflections.
Now that both babies have discovered the excitement of mobility, it is becoming increasing more difficult to help them settle (and stay settled) in their crib at night.  Everything will seem fine as I leave the room, only to hear Elisabeth screaming after two minutes.  Margaret’s idea of fun is to corner her younger twin into the corner of the crib, usually leaving poor Elisabeth with her face smashed against a crib slat, and sometimes even getting her hair yanked into Margaret’s mouth.  The simple solution would be to get a second crib.  Unfortunately, our small apartment leaves us few options.  Every time I walk into the baby’s room, I cringe.  The closet seems to be “oozing” baby gear and clothes.  The car seats create a barrier in front of the bottom drawers of the babies’ dresser.  It will take a room-rearranging genius to be able to fit that second crib in the room.  I put it off because I know how much more cluttered the room will seem, and quite frankly, I become too frustrated to think clearly.
For the past couple of months I have been skimming the advertisements on Craig’s List for 2-3 bedroom apartments in the area, and whenever I take the babies out for a walk, it becomes a compulsive and neurotic examination of every house we walk by with a “for sale” sign.  The conclusion is always the same: we simply can’t afford to buy a house right now.  We have quietly decided to stick it out one more year in our 2-bedroom condo in order to save up.  It has been a huge struggle for me not to give in to the sins of covetousness and ingratitude, but I remind myself that renting a bigger apartment or even purchasing a small house would be like standing up unrestrained in our financial shopping cart.   
One recent morning I prayed the prayer of abandonment to God’s Providence.  If you don’t know it, it reads:
My Lord and my God: into your hands I abandon the past and the present and the future, what is small and what is great, what amounts to a little and what amounts to a lot, things temporal and things eternal.  Amen.
During nap time that same day I sat down to read a magazine, and in it contained an article about real families who get their food from a food pantry.  These are educated and hard-working families who have run into hard times, whether it be a lay-off, an unexpected medical issue, or some other unplanned hardship.  One family in the article was a husband who, even though he has a Master’s degree, had been underemployed for over two years.  Ashamedly, I exited out of Craig’s List and peeked in the babies’ bedroom.  I gazed at the two sleeping beauties who are daily growing strong, healthy, and happy.  Even though it can be a struggle to make ends meet, I realized I don’t need to choose between food for my babies and paying the electric bill.  I don’t have to visit my children in the cancer wing at the hospital.  My obsession for a bigger space seemed so trivial, and I started to count the many graces I have been given.  Instead of complaining about the low salaries of teachers, I thank God to have a job, and one that I love.  Instead of getting annoyed with my husband for leaving his wet towel on the bed, I am thankful that he is truly a team player when it comes to taking care of the kids.  Instead of becoming frustrated about the size of our small condo, I am truly grateful that I have enough food to cook in our tiny kitchen.  I realized that during my morning prayer I had abandoned my desire for a bigger place (which now seems to be "what amounts to a little"), but I had also had not thanked Him for "what amounts to a lot".  Lord, have mercy. 
There are days when I still get frustrated by our overstuffed closets.  I know there are plenty of families out there who much more than we have.  However, I also know there are a lot of families out there who have much less than we have.  It’s going to take some time to save for a down payment on a house, but I am going to remain seated in the shopping cart God has for me.  Just like the babies, our limited perspective prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.  What we immediately want, even if we think it is good, may be detrimental to our souls.  Fortunately our heavenly Father knows what is best, and I must trust His protective hand to direct my path. 
And whether I live in a mansion or a one-bedroom studio, I can always be grateful for His eternal love, the greatest grace of all.  



Friday, July 1, 2011

Summertime Adjustments

The babies are on the move.  Three weeks ago Elisabeth showed off her new tricks from just rocking on hands and knees to tentatively sliding one knee forward.  And during that same evening, she sneakily managed to pull herself up to a standing position using a coffee table.  Mom and Dad beamed with pride and glowed with excitement.
That was three weeks ago.  Since then, both babies are crawling wherever there is enough room for their small bodies, reaching at everything, and Elisabeth is practically scaling up walls.  She is even so bold as to hold onto furniture one-handed.  All this in three weeks?  Yikes.  Makes me nervously wonder where we will be at in a month from now.  Is there an age minimum for a little kids’ road race? 
Coincidentally, school got out for the summer three weeks ago.  Thus I have been fortunate to witness this exponential development while being home.  Nevertheless, there have been a lot of adjustments.  Not only the obvious baby-proofing adjustments (which often is hard to foresee until a baby tries to do crazy acrobatics on a piece of furniture), but also adjusting from being a working mom to stay-at-home mom.  One might think that suddenly life has gotten so much easier for me now that I am home full-time, but it’s actually been much more complicated.  As abruptly as the school year ended, there were still loose ends that needed to be tied off after the students left.  The responsibilities are as diverse as my students: janitorial work (cleaning off my desk and bookshelf), bookkeeper (documenting the lesson plans so that the curriculum is up-to-date), and project managing (writing up a summer workout plan for next fall’s cross-country team).  All this took up most of the first week of my summer vacation, and it certainly took longer than I planned with two little ones making me aware of unsafe areas in our small condo. 
However, once I finished up the teacher duties, I still had to mentally switch to full-time-mommy-mode.   It took at least a week for me to realize that summer vacation does not mean I can just sleep in, but rather that my day starts even earlier than a school day (babies wake at 6:00 and…they’re off!).  It’s not an easier or harder job than teaching, it’s just different.  Perhaps caring for twin infants is not as intellectually challenging as say, planning a lesson about medieval French literature to a group of 18-year-olds.  But on the other hand, it does require much more quick decision-making skills (two babies are crying, who do you attend to first?) and deductive reasoning (why is she still crying?).   Both jobs require an immense amount of energy and patience, even if for different reasons.
Being at home also demands prioritization skills and discipline.  When the babies nap (although since they are discovering so much these days, it is becoming harder and harder for them to settle), I have to decide which household duty needs my attention the most AND follow through.  I would love to sip my coffee and read a good book, maybe even take a nap myself, but I should really attack that laundry monster that is starting to creep out of the hamper and spread across the floor of the bedroom.  
I’m sure there are some year-round stay-at-home-moms rolling their eyes at my lamenting household chores, and probably some year-round working moms muttering that they don’t get an “adjustment period” for the summer.  My intention is not to highlight my own struggles, but to attempt to describe how complicated a mom’s job can be.  My good friend just told me over the phone last night that she had read how moms develop their leadership skills greatly because their role demands so many decision-making and executive skills.
One strategy I am learning is to offer up my day every morning.  No matter how mundane or icky a task is during my day, it can be a prayer to God.  When I don’t feel like folding clothes, I remind myself of those families who can’t afford to clothe their children properly, or those families who don’t even have access to clean water so they can even wash clothes.  Admittedly I sometimes choose comfort over holiness (i.e. I flip through a magazine while the dirty dishes sit in the sink), but I do find purpose in the household chores when I offer them up, and a greater motivation to be disciplined. 
Offering work as a prayer is a concept I never really learned in the Evangelical Church growing up, and in retrospect, it made my everyday work feel separate from my faith life.  Ironically as an Evangelical I was warned not to keep God in a box, but by ignoring God in the simple things and building my faith life mostly out of isolated prayer times and devotionals, that is exactly where I placed Him.  Obviously prayer and spiritual reading are still as important to me now as a Catholic, but my relationship with God is intertwined in my daily activities more than ever.  I know that there are Evangelicals out there who understand the lessons I have been learning as a Catholic, who can say that their relationship with God is evident in everything they do, but since my conversion, I am finally beginning to understand that concept in a much deeper way.  In becoming a Catholic, these teachings have finally begun to click (and that adjustment has certainly taken more than three weeks). 
Always dynamic and never static: ongoing adjustment and growth is the beauty of our life in Christ.
If you don’t know the morning offering prayer, here it is:
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the holy sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in thanksgiving for your favors, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father.  Amen.
I also sometimes recite the “Prayer Before a Day’s Work”:
Direct, we beg you, O Lord, our actions by your holy inspirations, and grant that we may carry them out with your gracious assistance, that every prayer and work of ours may begin always with you, and through you be happily ended.  Amen.
Now back to beating that laundry monster into submission…

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Evening Lullaby

Transitions are difficult for both the parents and the babies.  I noticed this today especially, after coming home from a joyous Easter celebration at my in-law's.  The girls were showing off their newly-found skill-- babbling-- to all who were interested in listening.  It's amazing how the simple repetition of dadada in various high-pitched tones and squeals can captivate a whole room full of adults.  For several afternoon hours, the girls were passed from adoring arms and held up to bright and cheerful faces: constant stimulation in both sight and sound.  At one point, as a sort of second Easter miracle, the girls actually fell asleep for a nap at the same time.  (Not for long, of course; THAT would've been truly miraculous.)  In any case, the girls were up for many hours, and amidst lots of action.  So it was not that surprising to see them fuss as we packed them up in their car seats and drove back home.  The vibration of the car motor helped them to fall asleep, as it usually does.  We entered through the door of our dark and quiet apartment, set down the infant carriers and unclipped the harnesses, all the while hoping they would remain in the very precise state of ZONKED OUT.  No such luck.  When we gently put Margaret down in the crib, her eyes popped open and looked at each of us in desperation.  She held up hands and shook them the way she does when she is truly upset.  Elisabeth needed a diaper change and new pj's, and although she seemed to appreciate the fresh diaper, she too looked grumpy.  It was undeniably a transition thing.  I took Margaret to nurse, as she was the more vocal one, and Greg did his best to console Elisabeth (and teach her the virtue of patience).  And as it was a warm spring evening (it has been a very cool spring; the balmy temperatures today were appropriately welcome) he stepped onto the balcony humming the German folksong "Du, du liegst mir im Herzen" with our little Elisabeth.  The poor girl was clearly challenged by the uncomfortable transition of busy social interaction to quiet, settle-down-before-bed time.  The following scene will be imprinted in my heart forever.  It was quite possibly the most beautiful scene I have ever witnessed:

Greg had propped Elisabeth up on his right arm, and gently swayed to the simple tune he was humming.  Elisabeth was distracted by the fresh air and Greg's low voice, and hushed as she looked across the yard and the silhouettes of the neighbor's yard across the street.  Her tiny hand lay on Greg's bulky shoulder, as his thick fingers gently held her miniature torso.  The swaying became a sweet, sweet dance that only a father and daughter can know.  The dusk showed deep purple and blue lines that outlined the figures of Greg's football shoulders and Elisabeth's teeny body.  The birds complemented the low humming.  A soothing breeze kissed Elisabeth's soft and fluffy hair.  As she sucked on her two middle fingers, I sensed her relax, as if she had taken a calming deep breath.  Just as she had not understood why she felt discomfort in her fatigue, she did not understand how her caring father soothed her.  She only understood his gentle and protective hold.  Pure magic.

Having children has demonstrated to me, in countless ways, how little and helpless we are next to our Heavenly Father.  As I watched Elisabeth settle in Greg's right arm and absorb the spring evening, I thought of how often we, as Children of God, do not understand why we feel discomfort when the over-stimulation of the day comes to an end.  It is so important for our bodies and souls to take the time to transition, just as a baby needs to settle before going to sleep for the night.  And like little babes, we do not understand how to handle the quietness.  Yet if we allow Him to rock us, we too can experience the peace of an Easter evening.  All we need to know is the soothing refuge of our Father's arms.  I've found prayer and meditation to serve as that gentle swaying.  The rhythmic reciting of the Rosary resembles a low voice humming in tune with the swaying.  And just like my little Elisabeth, I may not understand how it works, but I trust anyway. 

The beauty of Catholicism is that there are prayers and methods of mediation that have been passed on to us from centuries of practice.  If we follow the examples of the Saints before us, we can come to understand deeper ways of loving God and hearing His voice.  Our religion is not vain repetition of prayer, or man-made decrees that we blindly follow; it is a spiritual game plan that gives us insight to a fruitful relationship with God and others.  We have the traditions from the apostles themselves, and the wisdom of holy men and women from countless cultures and historical time periods to guide us.  What I have come to realize in my personal conversion experience is that the Catholic Church, when compared to other Christian churches, is not more RIGHT than the others, but more COMPLETE.  There is a depth to Catholicism that I appreciate more and more each day. 

And similar to a little baby finding comfort of her daddy's presence, I too will remain close to my Father.  I look forward to developing a relationship that only a Father and daughter can know.

I hope you and yours had a blessed Easter.  Christ is risen!  Alleluia!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Transitions

When I used to coach nordic skiing in Maine, I would spend a lot of time with the kids working on transitions: from a flat to an uphill, from the crest of the hill to a downhill, from a tight tuck position on a downhill onto a flat plain.  No matter how fast you were going up to the transition point in a race, a poor transition could be costly. 

It's been a couple years since I've coached nordic skiing, but the concept of transitions has been on my mind ever since my return to work after my maternity leave.  It seems as though I am constantly in a state of transition.  The two greatest transitions in my day are in the morning and afternoon, going from mom to working woman, and the reverse.  Then there are the other smaller transitions throughout the day, and as a French teacher at a all girls' Catholic school, they are numerous: switching from English to French, engaging in the daily Mass and then back to the hustle and bustle of the school day, going from firm and demanding instructor to the compassionate advisor.  And just like many sports, no matter how hard you are working up to the transition point, you could lose all your steam in the transition. 

But unlike sports, which often allow time for breaks and recovery, it seems as though being a working mom is all transition with no water break.  Not even Gatorade. 

A baby's whine at 5:00 is the gun shot that starts my race everyday.  Get the babies dressed, give them a bottle, quick shower, grab some breakfast.  A poop-through, a big spit-up, and now I need a new shirt.  Of course, finding a shirt takes twice as long as it used to, with my oddly shaped post-partum belly.  Driving the short way to the day care provider's house gives me a moment to take a deep breath, and dropping off the babies at her house sometimes feels like halftime: it's a snuggle, a kiss, and a minute to watch them get comfortable in their surroundings.  Another deep breath.  OK.  Babies are OK.  I'm OK.  We're doing OK.  And....gotta get to work!  Halftime's over, and I jump back in the car to make it to class on time.  And since I have a class right at 8:00 almost every day of the week, I run up to my classroom in order to beat the students and try my best to look calm and collected.  When first period is over, I find my way back to the office and finally feel (somewhat) sane again.  That was just a four hour sprint.  And no Gatorade. 

Nevertheless, a transition can also be the moment when an athlete passes the competition.  Likewise there are transitions in my morning routine that give me a quick refuel.  The first transition is probably my favorite part of the day: the few moments when I can cuddle and snuggle with the babies right after I take them out of the crib at 5:00.  Another great transition moment is right after I have dropped the babies off, and I can pray a rosary while dodging yellow traffic lights.  And finally, I cherish the transition into teacher mode for my 8:00 class, as we always start with a prayer.  All of these moments are not only a chance to pause and breathe, but they also remind me why I run this crazy race every day.  We are called to love God and to serve others.  Period.  In the short prayers and quick baby hugs, I also have chance to ask God for more of His grace so that I can continue to carry out my vocations.  And on days when I didn't have a chance to put on two darling outfits that match, or days when my explanation of French grammar is less-than-exciting, I am reminded in the transitions that we are not called to be perfect, nor are our imperfections any reason to wallow in self-pity.  St. Paul writes to the Hebrews: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.  Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart." 

The way to make a smooth transition in a ski race is to constantly focus on the next step, to know where and when exactly the skier will change his tempo and body position on the skis to maximize momentum and minimize exertion of energy.  Similarly, every transition of my day requires my intent focus on Jesus and the very simple purpose He has for me.  "For the sake of joy..."

Thank heavens for God's grace given during all those transitional moments everyday.