Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Encouragement for the Hidden Artist

There is something about the "hidden" artist with a reputable full time job that is a little forlorn. One of the most cruel things I ever did as a new wife (unintentionally, I might add!), was drag my husband to an art show for attorneys during an annual State Bar Conference in the middle of his studies for a Masters in Fine Arts Degree.

The Attorney Art Show was so pathetic. There were were about 30 canvases of oil paintings and water color paper, unevenly tacked up with thumb tacks on a burlap boards in the center of the room. Most of the paintings were so bad, they hurt my eyes. In the back of the room there was this huge cheese tray (I practiced law in Wisconsin after all) with meat, and nuts and white wine. There was a knot of about 250 people gaily chatting by the food tray.

Not one person stood by the Art Show Display.

Except for my husband!

Fortified by I guess, four years of Student Critiques in Art Class, my husband slowly and methodically looked at each and every piece of art. He stood looking at the paintings, long after I cringed away in discomfort and went to get us drinks from the wine bar.

As I was coming back with our two glasses of chardonnay, (Baby, we were such newlyweds, I didn't even know yet that you preferred red wine back then!) I saw my husband talking with another attorney in front of painting. When I got up close, I realized with a start that my husband was talking with the artist himself! The artist of what I considered a really, really novice work. "What is Jon going to say?" I thought.

God bless him, my husband never lied. He never said one compliment about that painting that wasn't true. My husband, the professionally trained artist, was completely authentic and completely encouraging. His words even had me reexamine the work and think "I guess there is more going on there than I thought!" Then I thought immediately, "I really don't like it. That guy should just keep practicing law and keep painting as a hobby."

My judgmental heart took a beating when I made eye contact with the attorney/artist. Remember the Scripture passage where the woman tells Jesus "Even the dogs are fed from the scraps of the table?" This man's eyes were so hungry for positive feedback from his artwork. His eyes had he hungry, grateful look of a sweet cocker spaniel begging for table scrapes. This man easily had 30 years on my husband. His suit said that he made "real money." Yet I could see that this man was in a desert artistically. There was no one who talked kindly about his artwork in his life. He looked at my husband with unfamiliar awe and wonder.

I sipped my wine from about 6 feet away and reevaluated my opinion. "Anyone who looks that grateful when a total stranger talks about his use of Color Theory deserves to be a painter. I wish him well!"

I remembered this story when I burst out laughing at this list of "politico thrillers" from sitting members of Congress from Booklist today.

Just the intro from author Irene Cooper made me laugh. She titled her piece "Washington Insiders Who'd Rather Be Writing,"

Considering how little Congress and the White House get done, perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the folks wandering around Washington, D.C., have time to dash off a novel or two in their spare time. And, surrounded as they are by greed, corruption, and character assassination (if not actual murders), why wouldn’t they write about crimes, political and otherwise? Getting a book published is obviously easier than getting a bill passed.

I'm not sure why it is that the fact that both Barbara Boxer and Barbara Mikulski wrote novels makes me laugh so hard. I just think its so cute.

I'm determined to read every book on this list, even if some are really bad. After all, its the effort that mattes, as my kind husband taught me long ago. Getting every writer to write, can only be better for the whole economy overall.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Random Thoughts Before Turning 40

I'm five months out from turning 40 and I'm having an identity crisis. I feel like I'm back to asking the big life and career questions that I last asked myself as a senior in college.

I'm sure this is a perfectly ordinary stage of development, yet I'm having trouble finding empathy within my own little Catholic world. My calm, unflappable 42 year old husband says "Age is just a number, why are you flipping out about it?" My closest In Real Life friend has 11 children. She has a child who is married and recently adopted a special needs toddler. I was about to ask myself over to her house for tea this week so I had a sympathetic ear to figure out all these weird, conflicting feelings in my heart. I know that she'll be a great listener, but I found myself pausing before asking for help. "How is that conversation going to go?"

I started researching my questions online. There is lots of advice for Stay-at-Home Mothers returning to work, but it all assumes that the most hands-on part of mothering is already over. God willing, in 12 weeks, I will have a newborn, a 2 1/2 year old and a 4 year old. I'll also be the primary elementary school teacher for kids in Grade 2, 4 and 6.

What the heck am I doing trying to find an "intellectually engaging work project" to complete in the next 6 months?

I feel this urge to reexamine "Who am I?" after 10 intense years of building a family. I'm about to take on a super intensive, all consuming project of raising another human being for the next two years. Right now I have this slight gap between my children. Abigail Clare is 2 and more independent than just a few weeks ago. My health during this pregnancy has gotten more steady.

I'm using this break in time to ask myself these big questions. "Who am I?" "What do I like to do?" I feel like I'm searching around for an anchor inside of a clear self-identity because I know the next few months of child-rearing are going to be rough.

I feel guilty because it's supposed to be enough of a self-identity that "I'm a Child of God" right? I picture St. Teresa of Avila talking to me through her writings and its like "Why are you looking for a career? You're career is God's will!" And yet, sometimes I picture her being more friendly and sympathetic. She's a woman who radically changed her entire life at age 40.

All I know is that I feel this shifting from responding 24/7 to requests from outside forces (the laundry, the need to settle intra-sibling disputes, house-hunting) to asking myself "What thoughts/actions/plans do I have in me that need to come out into the world?" It's scary to me that I've had such little practice directing my own life, rather than adapting to other people's immediate needs and wants. The few inventive things that I've done have come out really well in the past year. I want more of that!

I feel like I'm all alone, struggling with these feelings with God himself as my only guide. "What are you asking of me?" The move for me this summer, doesn't feel like mere geography. It feels like other pieces inside myself are moving and changing around too.

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for me.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Why I Love Being Catholic!

This story on CNN.com about the religious captivity of Christian Meriam Ibrahim pulled at my heart. I often "pray the news." If something hard (or wonderful) happens in the world, I add it to my prayer intentions for a few days. I remember this story had stops and starts. Ibrahim was released from prison and but then recaptured at the airport. Everything seems so hopeless. She was so far away. I wanted to give her a hug, but that was impossible. It's one of those situations where I keep praying but inside worry that my prayer is useless.

From what I understand, Ibrahim is a Christian, but not a Catholic. After her release, her first stop was to visit Pope Francis in Rome, rather than coming immediately to America. It's this beautiful reminder that our Pope, my Papa, is the Father of all Christians (and indeed everyone in the whole world.) Pope Francis cares so intimately for people. The pictures of Pope Francis gently stroking Ibrahim's tiny daughter are so beautiful. I feel like my Pope is standing in for me, and for all the Christians around the world, who prayed for Ibrahim. This is how we greet our Christian sister in our hearts, with warmth, gentleness, thanksgiving, and admiration for her bravery.

I read of Father Ed's blog, a fact that I never heard on CNN.com. Ibrahim's daughter saved her life! She was condemned to death for deserting her Muslim faith, but she got a deferment to breastfeed her baby. During that time, international pressure became enough to demand her release. What an unexpected pro-life story.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for Ibrahim family to heal emotionally from their trauma. Protect and bless all who suffer religious persecution in the world today.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Practical Usefulness of Prayer

It's embarrassing to admit as a Carmelite, but I dislike to pray the rosary. For a long time I blamed it on becoming a Catholic late in life. (My introduction to the rosary by Sister Rita through a group recitation of my 20 member RCIA class at age 27 was such a painful 45 minutes process that I think a piece of my soul said "never again!") During my Catholic life I heard one priest say "I don't pray the rosary. My brain doesn't work that way. I meditate on the mysteries instead." I felt such a sense of relief. It's not just me. I'm one of those few people where all the words and the repetition of a Hail Mary seem to clutter my brain instead of calm it down.

The rosary is an incredibly powerful prayer. For me, personally, I do it as a special act of love for Mom. I pray the rosary "the right way", with all the prayers in order, because that is a prayer gift that she likes to receive. In the same way an errant kid produces a Mother's Day bouquet with a flourish, "Ta Da, I actually remembered you this year!" My full rosary recitations to Mary are rare and a little haggard.

Yet I like to pray the rosary "wrong." I like to say a Hail Mary slowly. I like to pray a decade whenever I'm feeling stressed or scared. I love to immerse myself in the mysteries of the Rosary.

I've received so much comfort thinking about the Mystery of the Nativity while I'm in a difficult pregnancy, especially the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. I've heard beautiful theological reasons for this special gift given to Mary, the Mother of God. I've never heard anyone talk about the practicalities of that gift, however.

For some reason, God wanted Mary to give birth alone. We know that the Jewish tradition of midwives was extremely developed in 1st Century Palestine. (I think we even have the names of the Jewish midwives from way back in Moses' time as being especially talented and holy women). The Jewish religious laws at the time were so strict regarding the separation between men and women, I can't imagine that St. Joseph, as a pious man, had ever attended a birth before. Menstruation, child birth, etc., that was firmly an "all women's territory." That means that even laying next to a loving, holy husband, Mary was very much alone during the birth of her son, Jesus Christ.

I love that God was so practical and loving that he gave her a unique, Virgin Birth. Our God is in the details. The Mystery of the Incarnation means that God is fully involved with the messy details of our human lives. Our God cares for us. The spiritual gifts that He gave Our Blessed Mother are spiritual, mysterious, deeply personal. The gift is also practical. Mary, the Mother of God, didn't have a midwife, a mother or a female friend to help her during the birth of her first born son. She had God! God is enough! Out of his profound love, God blessed her childbirth process in a unique and holy way.

I like thinking of God as being so practical and trustworthy. None of this Christian life makes any sense here on earth. Many times it seems really impractical to cultivate an inner spiritual life. There are 600 other urgent tasks I could do in my house at 6:15 AM, rather than read the Bible and pray. (Lectio divina for the fancy Latin folks). And yet, none of that work is worth a hill of beans unless I first line up my own will with his! Because I serve a practical and involved God who splits open the Red Sea whenever I urgently need Him!

My favorite new book for prayer has a totally embarrassing title. Trust me, it is amazing. Here are some quotes:

"Directness in prayer leads to directness out of it. If one is eccentric, or worse still, egocentric in prayer, one will be the same all along the line. In man's dealing with God, the first essential is that of worshiping "in the spirit and in the truth." (pg. 36)

"Most of the mistakes that people make about religion come under two headings. Either they look upon it as something that exists for their own personal convenience--taking it up for what they imagine they can get out of it, instead of what they can give to it--or else they make the whole thing such a duty, such a routine affair, as to allow no room for the following the individual attraction of grace."  (pg 45)

"Once you desire to spend time in the way God wants rather than in the way that you want, there should be no further difficulty.... Be assured however that if you offer your freedom to God-whether it is a question of time or affection or place or anything else-He will take it. He will take it, and you will not longer be free in the same way. But He will give you a far greater liberty instead. You will be free with the liberty of the children of God." (pg. 57)

I had never heard of this book before ordering it on a lark off of Amazon. I was shocked to get to the "Recommended spiritual reading" at the end and see this quote " I also recommend everything written by Spanish mystics and Church Doctors St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)." I laughed and thought "Well, that explains everything! Any true friend of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross is a helpful guide to me too!"

The title is "Holiness for Housewives and Other Working Women," by Hubert van Zeller, Sophia Institute Press, 1997. I'm pretty sure that my used copy cost $1.99 from Barnes and Noble. This is a book that is geared towards Stay-at-Home Moms, but has super useful advice for anyone trying to combine a prayerful attitude with hard work. My husband loved it. If you've heard of the Carmelite Brother Lawrence, this book is an inspiring modern update on his Christian philosophy.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why I love to Homeschool

Today I took the three little girls to the grocery store with me at 7 AM. When we got to the fruit section, Mimi picked up a single apricot. "What is this Mom?" I told her it was an apricot, sort of like a mini peach. Then I started laughing. "You're drawn to all things French!" (This past weekend, I bought Mimi her first French Baguette from Panera. She was hilarious in her total rapture over the bread on our way home from church.)

"You look like a Scot, but you totally have a French heart!" I teased her. My 7 year old is a walking image of Princess Merida from Disney's Brave. She has curly red hair, fair skin, and a smattering of freckles across her nose. We checked out while Mimi carefully held her apricot to keep it from bruising. As soon as we finished she said "Now I'll imagine I'm at a picnic by the Eiffel Tower" and took a bite. The resulting taste brought a smile to her whole face.

I looked at her with her Scottish looks and her French heart and said in passing, "We should study Mary Queen of Scots today."

I pictured a quick 5 minute biography lesson suitable for the second grade. Instead, Mimi and I laughed over the crazy plots twists of English Royalty for over an hour. We found out that Mary, Queen of Scots attended on March 9, 1566, in my daughter's words, "the worse dinner party in the history of dinner parties!" The former Queen of France and present Queen of Scotland was eating delicious French food from her imported French chefs in a private dining room, when her husband and several evil buddies broke into the room, threatened the heavily pregnant Queen and killed her secretary, David Riccio in front of her. It takes two geeks to get each other, but my daughter and I laughed ourselves silly imaging the French chef asking "How did they like my new dessert torte?" and a messenger saying sadly "The effect was sort of ruined by a dead body falling into it!"

Unschooling does not mean, no schooling. I'm in charge of making sure that my 2nd grader learns how to write her letters from left to write, instead of backward. I make sure she leaves my house knowing the basics of history, science, reading and math. And yet.... letting my kid take the lead in her education makes the whole schooling thing such a party! It took the girl with the heart of a chef to make me recognize how ridiculous it is to spoil a good dinner party with a murder.

Someday, when she is touring Europe, I hope Mimi goes to Holyrood Palce in Edinburgh and snaps me a photo of Mary, Queen of Scots' private "supper chamber." We'll laugh about the "worse dinner party ever." I'm grateful for the extra sparkle that homeschooling gives to our Mother/Daughter relationship.

Monday, July 21, 2014

10 Years of Stay-At-Home Mothering

10 years ago this summer, I quit my job and became a stay-at-home Mother. It was a sea-shift in my identity and something that still shocks people who knew me as a child. I was a straight A student in High School, College and Law School. I loved working. I always had an internship and a plan. I interviewed well and was eager to please on the job. Positive feedback from School, and later Work, was how I measured myself as a successful human being.

Then I got pregnant and life was awful. I couldn't believe that I had done everything "right" and still ended up so miserable. I was 28. I was a star at my Law Firm after 3 years of super hard work. I worked for an all female staff, for little money and what I assumed was greater flexibility in hours. I married the perfect feminist guy who adored me. Jon cooked, cleaned, and happily looked forward to being a stay-at-home Dad 3 days a week, while he worked as a College Art Professor 2 days a week. I had a rented brick house with a huge garden. I even found a trusted babysitter who had a backyard filled with ponies to watch my little girl.

This was the life I'd mapped out at age 21 at my all women's college. Happy marriage. Beautiful, only daughter. "Thrilling" work that was socially important with an all women Law Firm. The only problem was me. I was miserable.

I decided to quit my job when I found out I was pregnant with my second child, and my first was 15 months old. At first it was an easy decision. I refused to be pregnant again at my Law Firm. That was beyond a miserable experience the first time.

For example, I had an appellate brief due at the exact time as my due date. For trial lawyers, appellate briefs are rare and sort of a big deal. There are all these special rules and requirements and super strict deadlines. As a young lawyer, I was supposed to get special mentoring from the Main Office to help me with this assignment. The older lawyers were busy and kept pushing back their deadline for a critique of my rough draft.

I remember writing an email saying "Even though the Court's deadline is March 18, I've got to have a final draft sent in by March 1. March 17 is my due date. It's my first baby and my doctor says I need to be ready to go into labor at any time two weeks before my due date."

Instead of getting an email reply, I got a phone call from THE appellate guy in my 80 person Law Firm. "Oh Abby, you're being so unreasonable...." He goes on to tell me that he has found memories of putting the final touches on his best appellate court brief while his wife was in labor with their third child. "She had 6 hours of labor, so I had 5 hours and 55 minutes of free time to work."

So help me, my first uncharitable thought to a fellow Catholic was "This is why you're now divorced!" I bit that comment back as really not appropriate for a junior attorney to say to someone 30 years her senior. Instead, as an attorney, I went with logic.

"I'M THE ONE PUSHING THE BABY OUT! I can't draft the final edits of my appellate brief while I'm in labor. Lets get this brief finished early!"

It was like a "head slam the keyboard" kind of moment. I had so many of those moments at this workplace.

When I found out that I was pregnant with my son, I drew a mental line in the sand. There was no way I was going through another pregnancy, child birth, maternity leave, newborn period with this Law Firm. It wasn't even what we Catholics call a "Culture of Death." The Culture was "work comes first, always, before everything else." The few female Managing Attorneys who had children, basically had nannies. They had a babysitter who came into their house at 6 AM, dressed the children, fed them 3 meals a day and a snack. They dressed them in their PJs before their Mothers came home at 7:30 PM. This was all on an public interest attorney salary of $35,000 to $40,000 a year. I think the going rate for long-term babysitting by an adult sitter in our area of Appalachia was only $2 an hour. The longer I worked at this Firm, the longer it seemed like a total nightmare to stay there long term.

I quit. I thought I was simply taking a time out--a six month maternity leave, instead of a 3 month leave. I told my husband he needed to support us. He agreed. He was a part-time professor, so he started to look for full-time work in his field. I knew I was probably moving to a new State, which meant taking a new bar exam. I figured that we'd move to where ever Jon found a job. Then I'd get my license and open up a part-time Law Firm. I remember thinking "Art Law" would be fun. I wanted to help artists get started with new businesses.

We cashed out our retirement accounts and moved back to the place where we met in graduate school--Madison, Wisconsin. We had $15,000 in cash which at the time seemed like such a pathetic retirement amount. Now that seems like a fortune!

Something happened when we moved. I feel in love with mothering. I remember clearly the first time I took a walk with my little girl to the post office. Hannah stopped to look at a pretty flower growing inside a sidewalk crack. I was impatient to get my task done, and then I realized "Oh, we're not in any hurry." I stooped down next to her, awkwardly with my big pregnant belly. Hannah wasn't a talker back then. It was her body language only that showed me how interested she was in this plant. So I started talking for her. I mentioned all the cool things about this flower, the purple petals, the spikey stem, the way it smelled. Then I showed her the sign language term for "flower"--sniff, sniff with the nose. Hannah copied my "sniff, sniff" with a smile. Then she skipped off happily in front of me, her blonde pony tail bobbling along the sidewalk.

"What a great kid!" I thought. "She's fun!"

Then I realized with some sadness, this was one of the first times, I hadn't hurried her from place to place. When I was working as an attorney, life was such rush. Even on the weekends. Going to the post office was not an "event" it was a task. We had fun mother-daughter moments, but they were always on my schedule. This was one of the few times that I put myself on Hannah's schedule. It seemed like such an impoverished life for a toddler to never have enough time to examine a pretty plant in the rush to follow her Mom's frantic To Do List.

Ten years is a long time. I'm chafing a little bit after a decade. Right now, it's a lot of nausea and partial bed rest. These are not the Pinterest moments of Stay-at-Home Mothering! I find myself wanting to go back to work sometimes. Not because I think there is something great over there that I'm missing out on. More like "I'd rather be anywhere but here" or "Seriously, two more years of toddlerhood even after I get Abigail and Tess out of this whiny stage?"

Even so, a decade of Stay-at-Home mothering has been good for my soul. I'm calm. I'm clear. I've got more internal resources and a better sense of direction. Even with a new baby, I picture myself doing more projects outside my house next year. I think I'm slowly drifting more into "when" I go back to work, rather than "if" I go back.

I'm really grateful for this pause in my 30s, which isn't really a "pause" at all. It was a fast forward to finding the real me. I'm grateful to my Smith College Professor who wrote me an encouraging email while I was see-sawing on the "should I quit my job" decision in 2004. She wrote me "If you're going to live the exact same life that you planned on before you have children, why have children at all?"

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The MovieGoer: Disney's Planes: Fire & Rescue





I am genuinely shocked at how much my kids and I enjoyed watching this movie together! We have a tiny movie ticket budget and a family of seven. We're ruthless about the distinction between what movies we spend a fortune on to see in a theater and what movies we rent for $1 from Redbox. When we first saw the trailer, this movie didn't make the cut. Free press tickets to a premier made me change my mind--radically!

I love Disney's Planes: Fire and Rescue because its a rare kid's movie that has layers of beauty. The animation is spectacular. The early flying shots remind me of the old films at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. It's thrilling to have that sense of flight inside a quiet movie theater. The bulk of the movie takes place inside a National Park. The artistic landscape scenery is in itself, so inspiring, that I recommitted to someday, somehow, taking our entire family on a long deferred car-trip out West.

Do not attend this movie thinking that it is simply another "Cars 2." Planes: Fire and Rescue is a straight-up action flick with funny, one-line jokes thrown in. My nine year old son said he likes this movie because "It has both action and jokes. Those are my two 'things', and they are so rarely found together." I can't remember another kiddie flick that had genuine suspense built into the narrative. The fire-fighting scenes are real, without being overwhelming.  My 11 year old and 7 year old daughters left the movie saying "I never knew how serious a fire-fighter's job was before!" I'm sure our nightly prayers for the safety of first responders will be more intense during the next few weeks, and this from a family whose Grandfather was once a cop.

As a parent, I appreciate the subtle, non-preachy, values showcased in the story. Disney's publicity experts describe the film as showing "Teamwork & Sacrifice." As a Catholic, I'd rephrase those values as the virtues of obedience and perseverance. In this movie, a know-it all, show-boating newcomer has to learn how to follow the exact commands of his Team Leader in order to not risk either himself or others while fighting dangerous forest fires. It's hard to explain to a sullen kid that the daily grind of "eat your carrots, put on your seat belt, do your homework" is ultimately for the greater good. Against the dramatic backdrop of firefighting, this movie underscores the value of obedience. I'd cheerfully pay $50 for a family movie date that has my 9 year old son say unprompted "This movie shows the value in doing what other people tell you to do." Bingo!

We had the joy of watching this film with a bunch of real life firefighters and their families. I've never seen so many burly men laugh so hard in a movie. This is truly their world! At the end of the credits, there were thank yous to over 20 firefighter consultants. This attention to detail is what makes Disney's Planes: Fire and Rescue more than simply an enjoyable 90 minutes spent in cool air-conditioning on a hot summer day. A children's film that makes you gasp in wonder, makes you belly laugh, makes you grasp another's hand in suspense, and makes you think deep thoughts on the car ride home, is the best kind of movie to share with your kids.