Thursday, August 28, 2008

Saint Augustine's Feast Day

There are so many reasons to love this dear Saint. I'm reading "Confessions" today and stumbled upon this wonderful passage: "I learned all this, indeed, without being urged by any pressure of punishment, for my own heart urged me to bring forth its own conceptions." Such a lovely description of the joy of "unschooling." Just what I needed to read today!

From Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, "Confessions":

Chapter 14. Why He Despised Greek Literature, and Easily Learned Latin.

23. But why, then, did I dislike Greek learning which was full of like tales? For Homer also was skilled in inventing similar stories, and is most sweetly vain, yet was he disagreeable to me as a boy. I believe Virgil, indeed, would be the same to Grecian children, if compelled to learn him, as I was Homer. The difficulty, in truth, the difficulty of learning a foreign language mingled as it were with gall all the sweetness of those fabulous Grecian stories. For not a single word of it did I understand, and to make me do so, they vehemently urged me with cruel threatenings and punishments. There was a time also when (as an infant) I knew no Latin; but this I acquired without any fear or tormenting, by merely taking notice, amid the blandishments of my nurses, the jests of those who smiled on me, and the sportiveness of those who toyed with me. I learned all this, indeed, without being urged by any pressure of punishment, for my own heart urged me to bring forth its own conceptions, which I could not do unless by learning words, not of those who taught me, but of those who talked to me; into whose ears, also, I brought forth whatever I discerned. From this it is sufficiently clear that a free curiosity has more influence in our learning these things than a necessity full of fear. But this last restrains the overflowings of that freedom, through Your laws, O God—Your laws, from the ferule of the schoolmaster to the trials of the martyr, being effective to mingle for us a salutary bitter, calling us back to Yourself from the pernicious delights which allure us from You.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Portfolio Review-Or Liking The Thing You Thought You'd Hate

As further proof that God uses all things for his glory, I have now become the biggest fan of the "portfolio review." For those of you blessed to have either "school in a box" or a State that doesn't micromanage your home education curriculum, this sounds odd.

I live in the 16th largest school district in the United States (Montgomery County) in a state with some of the most stringent home schooling laws.

The way home education works in Maryland is that you choose one of three options. Option A, is the portfolio review, where you meet up with a public school administrator twice a year for a review of your child's school work. If the work is not up to par, you get a 30 day remedial period. If the child hasn't made satisfactory progress, you kid is immediately placed in public school.

Option B is to go with a special correspondence school (only two are licensed in the whole State.) Option C is to go with an approved home education curriculum. Under Option B and C, the local school board has nothing to do with you beyond filing a piece of paper. All assessment of your child's progress is left to be completely monitored by the home ed school of your choice.

Everyone who home schools in my parish assured me that it was "impossible" not to go with Mother Seaton, the only Catholic Home School curriculum approved by the State of Maryland. (Which I find hysterically ironic that there are multiple Amish, Mennonite and Free-Will Baptist curriculum available, but only one Catholic curriculum in the state where American Catholic Church began!) Even with the Mother Seaton set, I was strongly advised to sign up for the Home-School Defense Fund and remain on guard for unmerited reports by concerned neighbors to Children's Services.

Going the easy way is never really an option with the Benjamin Family. We prayed and prayed and prayed. It seemed pretty clear that while Mother Seaton has beautifully educated one of my favorite people (Maria from Ordinary Time), it isn't a good option for Hannah. As my husband blithely said "you can either have the daily stress of trying to enforce a curriculum that doesn't fit, or you can have two days of great stress as you meet with the school board each semester." We opted finally for the two days of great stress.

So now I'm trying to figure out what goes into the portfolio? Which is a much larger questions "how do you document unschooling?" and "if you measure something does it change the thing you are trying to measure?"

I'm going to print out the state kindergarten guidelines for Math, Language Arts, Science and Social Studies. I'm just going to file them in the back of the portfolio and check them off as we go along. I also invested in a Teacher Planner Book. There's no grand plan. Rather I just stop every so often and write down what we did that day.
The benefit is that while, I think that we spend most of our day simply "hanging out together", in hindsight there is quite a lot of learning activities going on that would make even the most stringent public administrator proud. That hungry crocodile game just appeared during one quiet nap time.

The benefit of the portfolio review is that it forces me to better reflect and record what happens each day. I'm please to realize in a concert way that what we call "living life" has other official educational names. For example, Hannah's home-made comic book is also called "mastering the concept of return sweep." I feel like I've moved from "Teacher" with a capital T, to 'scribe' with a small s. In my heart, I know this is where God means for me to be.

One of the most complicated thing I had to do as a swimming instructor was teach a kid how to float. There are lots of guidelines in the Red Cross handbook about how to teach the arm movements in free-style or the breaststroke kick. There is no strategy for teaching a kid how to float. Yet, all of swimming depends on that basic building block.

The problem is learning how to float is counter-intuitive. You need to completely relax in the water and "trust" that this "dangerous" substance will hold you.

To teach the youngest swimming class, I didn't focus much on this one critical skill which determined whether the kid passed or needed to repeat the class. Instead, I focused on gaining confidence in the water. I played crazy splashing games. We pretended the water was a boa constrictor that ate us slowly, first the feet, then the knees, etc.

On the last few classes, I held the kids in the water on their backs. My only direction was "put your ears in the water." I held then with both hands until I could feel the tension in their bodies relax. I asked their permission first to drop on hand, and finally simply hold up their bodies with the pressure from one finger. The way I taught kids how to go from "non-swimmers to swimmers" wasn't written in any textbook. I simply hung out patiently in the water with them for 8 weeks. When they were ready to try to float on their own, they told me. I was there to catch them if they sunk. In a class which was supposed to have a 35 percent average failure rate, I never, ever had a kid not be able to easily pass the critical floating test by last day of class.

I hope that this "hang out in the water thing" will work in a similar way for reading and math. As my kid's teacher, I naturally go for the more unstructured "wait, follow the kid's lead" approach. I'm so blessed to have this extra time together. I love hearing Alex theorize that the "red ball" will go faster in our gravity experiment because "red is the fastest color."

I'll leave you some notes on my blog from our journey this year. It's a little intimidating in the beginning, but we are already blessed with beautiful views.

Math Games

Here's a fun way to explain "greater than" and "less than".

Take a small piece of paper. Write a "<" sign. Embellish with crocodile teeth. On the opposite side write a "=" sign.

Play Go Fish (or any other card game).

Have you kid deal the cards, counting out the right number for each person.
After the first match, explain that this is a special kind of hungry crocodile. His hungry mouth always wants to point to the person with the most pairs of matching cards.

Change the crocodile around whenever another player has more in his match pile.

Whenever there is a tie, flip the paper over to show "equals."

Hannah loved this visual way of keeping score. The whole greater, less than, and equal concept made complete sense to her in this circumstance. I was surprised to discover the >, <, = symbols are listed as 3rd Grade math.

As an added bonus, this concept cut down on her innate competition. She didn't freak out that I got a match as much as soon as she figured out that a score of 4 matches Mom to 6 matches kid, didn't flip the hungry crocodile around. (Did I mention that my kid easily beats me in Go Fish?)

Just another day messing around ias an unschooler. I love these type of "happy accidents."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Amazing Olympic Story

My "paste" button isn't working today. Don't miss an incredible story behind the Catholic Olympian who served as the flag bearer for the United States of America.

Lopez is a "lost boy" from the Sudan. At age six he was kidnapped from his parent's side at Catholic Mass! The rebel soldiers broke into Church during Mass and stole all the young children at gun point. Can you imagine what his parents felt staring at the tabernacle after their children were stolen?

I can't imagine the intensity of those prayers. Prayer works, because it is an incredible miracle that he survived. After living in starvation circumstances in a heavily guarded rebel camp, some older boys took pity on this child. They helped him escape through a hole in the wall. The teenagers carried him for 3 days to Kenya. His little legs were too small to walk run that far. When runaways arrived, the older children were deemed too old to enter the refugee camp. Those boys were returned to the Sundanese government--probably to die. Only this little six year old got into the safety of the camp.

The refuge camp life was horribly hard. His education consisted of learning how to write letters in the dirt. After 10 years, Lopez (who got his nickname from Catholic missionaries) was told to "write an essay on why you want to go to the United States." Lopez said it was the most intense test he ever took in his life. For two days he sat in silence staring at the paper. Then he just wrote what was in his heart. He said it was a total mess, half in English/ half in Swahili. He didn't even notice the language switch before he turned it in.

He got picked to come to the United States. Catholic Social Services moved him into a Catholic family near Syracuse New York. His adopted mother described his crazy first day of school at age 15. "The English teacher assigned an in class essay titled "write about a book you read last summer. Lopez was called on second. He stood up and said "I've never owned a book. For the next twenty-five minutes, out tumbled a long auto-biographical account of his life. The entire class sat in amazed silence. I had my phone ringing off the hook with all these parents saying "is this true about Lopez?" She said "it's amazing. Lopez is in an all-white suburban school and by the second day, he was best friends with everyone." (This family ended up taking 5 Lost Boys from Sudan).

Now Lopez is an Olympic distance runner! It's incredible. I have even more respect for our Catholic Bishops after reading that they were the one's who got the US to change their immigration policy about unaccompanied minors in order to let the Lost Boys immigrate into the United States.

St Jane Frances de Chantal Feast Day

What an amazing saint! Saint Jane loved her husband dearly. He died after being accidentially shot by a close family friend in a tragic hunting accident. Her husband forgive his friend on his death bed. "Don't commit the sin of hating yourself when you have done nothing wrong."

Jane struggled to match her husband's mercy. At first, Saint Jane made herself greet the man on the street. After some time, she made herself invite the man to dinner. Then she invited him into her house for dinner. Soon she had reconciled herself so completely, she served as godmother to the man's child.

This experience brought St. Jane close to God. She eventually developed a close spiritual friendship with Saint Fracis de Sales. St. Jane founded her own religious order taking in many of women who were deemed to old or sick to join other religious orders.

Saint Jane pray for us! Help us to forgive those people who severely hurt us. Help us to find the share you same peace in God during our most difficult struggles.

H/T: "Saints and Angels, Catholic Online"

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Remember in an earlier post when I said "Our Lady tends to eschew theological discussions." Well, that certainly needs to be amended to "Our Lady tends to hold off on deep theological discussions until we are ready to truly listen. Man, did my head get expanded by this amazing lecture by our new parish priest, Father Avelino.

Father has taken his priesthood formation training from seminary and adapted it to us laity aspire to holiness. The basic idea is that the four elements of healthy humanity need to be developed equally in all of us: our relationships, our spirituality, our intellect and our apostolic ministry.

His talk was so deep and multi-layered. I'm sure that I'll be posting about different parts for the next few weeks.

Sitting in the lecture I had two overpowering thoughts. The first one, is that I'm clearly being called to join the lay Carmelite order. My husband and I have both discerned this call for awhile now. For months, I've started to see signs every where. Father mentioned the lay Carmelite order, just in passing during his speech, and I felt this tap on my head. It was a purely physical reaction my body had to those three words. It's becoming more and more obvious that this is where Jon and I are supposed to go.

The second over-powering thought is that I finally have a verbal words to all this vague feelings I had about my reasons for home-schooling.

In my life, I grew up with the intellect entirely separated from the rest of my soul. My parents are both strong Protestants, they are both college professors and they both actually teach at a Methodist college. Yet they raised me to have this strict wall between the "reason" part of my brain and the "faith" part. I went to public school and learned stuff there. Then I went to Sunday School and learned other stuff in that classroom. The stuff in the two classrooms never mixed.

The most extreme example of this division came in law school. We were trained by our professors NEVER to make value judgments. We couldn't argue one outcome was "better" or more "fair." We couldn't say "justice demands this." I had to check my heart at the door and make decisions on abstract legal concepts, which were more "fair" for being cold, reasonable and above feelings or emotions.

I know now, that the law does not operate in a vacuum. Real flesh and blood judges made decisions on gut feelings or sympathy all of the time. This artificial division of a law based on "pure reason" isn't accurate.

My hope for Hannah, is that she pursues her life as a Catholic. Being Catholic means someone who has faith, reason, passion all integrated in her life. The intellect is a means to "know God." It's important for her to learn how to read and write. Yet those are not goals in and of themselves. Her intellect has value only in so far as she uses her mind in harmony with her faith. That harmony is something I hope to model as Hannah's mom and as her kindergarten teacher.

There are so many wonderful, wonderful saints in the Arts and in the Sciences. My hope is that every thing we study, from addition to astronomy to the ABC, keep pointing us back to a deeper understanding of our faith.

I'm teaching because I want to be there to help heal this false division between reason and religion. I'm teaching because I'm excited about standing in that gap.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Curious George - Better Together, Jack Johnson

Who knew "Curious George" was so religious?
The authors were German Jews who had to escape the Natzi's on bicycle with a copy of their beloved children's book as one of their few possessions. Curious George was based on a little boy with Down Syndrome who escaped from an institution back in Early 20th Century Hamburg, Germany. His name has been lost in the ravages of WWII. It's believed that he was killed by the Natzis.

Jack Johnson - Talk of the Town (Audio)

Fantastic song I heard during Curious George.

Coming Out of the Fog

Thursday, I dragged a sick dog and three kids to the vet's office office in the midst of the Thunderstorm. I had one of those "should I really be doing this?" moments. It was a crazy dash to get the over-due library books into the car ahead of the rainstorm. Then I struggled to arm the troops with correctly sized plastic raincoats and spiderman umbrellas. None of those precautions had much effect since the dramatic rain soaked everyone as I struggled to find the seat belt buckles which are buried deep under a mash of three car seats in a single back seat.

When we got to the vet, it was similar chaos. A small baby to keep dry, a jumpy dog, two pre-schoolers who are not the most reliable in taking directions in crowded parking lots. I decided to leave the stroller in the car. A mistake I had to correct when the receptionist mentioned a 45 minute wait. That would be 45 minutes with 3 kids + a dog in a gigantic tempting pet warehouse. (Our vet hospital is inside our local Petsmart).

All my effort to get us to the vet during Thursday's free office visit hours seemed wasted. The dog's suspected UTI meant we had to pay the office visit fee. She needed $90 of antibiotics and expensive dog food. The worse part, is that Alex was beyond feral during the long wait inside the vet's office.

There's the point of motherhood when the demands on your time are so crazy, you just can't believe they are real. Most of the time, I can handle things with grace. We make up silly games to entertain ourselves. We talk about dog teeth, and cavities, and make up crazy lists about animals that can eat you.

Then there was yesterday. I had a female vet trying earnestly to explain complicated things about dogs and kidney crystals, while I held a 3 year old, who for some sudden and unexplained reason started biting my shoulder and kicking off his croc sandels, while my baby cried to be picked up out of her stroller, my 5 year old asked loudly when we were LEAVING, and my sick, scared dog tied circles around my legs with her dog leash.

People look at you in those chaotic moments of motherhood with complete judgment and utter lack of sympathy. And then they help you out.

So the vet broke the rules, and let the vet aid walk my sick dog outside to get the necessary testing sample. The Pet Smart employee let me hold up the line to find the dropped prescription label for the uber expensive medical dog food. When I finally got all the kids strapped into the car, I found out


In the midst of the crazy exit in the rainstorm, I'd completely forgotten that I'd left the lights on. Since this entire vet episode took two hours, that ended up being a long time.

I hadn't even fully processed that I had a dead battery miles from home, before a helpful woman in the car next to mine offered to jump start my car. It didn't work, but her kindness was appreciated.

I raided the glove compartment but couldn't find the Geico road assistance card which is always, always in there. The windows were all rolled up. There was no way to unroll them without electricity. So the jumpy dog joined us as we decamped the car and headed back into Pet Smart. I borrowed a cellphone to call my husband.

I don't even know what my voice sounded like, it must have been pretty bad. "I'm at Pet Smart. I've been here since 3. I've got all the kids and the dog. We've had a rough time and now the car battery is dead. I forgot and left the light on. I can't find the Geico number anywhere. You've got to call a tow truck for us."

That's when we officially hit pathetic. We're the last people in America without a cellphone. We don't have a second car. We live in an apartment complex where everyone works, so there is no friendly neighbor to call for help.

It's just me, and the kids, and the dog at Pet Smart with a broken car.

Yet God adores the pathetic. He always helps.

The wait for the tow-truck ends up being an adventure. Alex says he's hungry. (Its 5:15 PM) I joke that the only thing in Pet Smart is dog food and does he want some. The kids with their laser eyesight insist they did see people food inside the store. I head back inside and find cracker-jacks and bottled water. We have an impromptu picnic on the entry way where all the grocery carts are kept.

The awful thunderstorm has returned. After a while 30 people join us in the waiting area. No one wants to venture out to their cars until the thunder stops. We're no longer odd balls for hanging around the shopping carts.

The amazing part, is that all three kids, who misbehaved so awfully during the long wait at the vet's office, suddenly turn into sweet angels. There was lots to do and see. There was cracker jack prizes to look for and seconds to count between lightning and thunder claps. There were rain rivers to stare at. They named a stranger's new gold fish "Spiderman" and "Ben." Finally, there was Mr. James, our smiling tow truck operator who got our battery restarted in the pouring rain.

When I got home, my husband rushed out in a panic. "You poor, poor thing!" he said.

"It wasn't that bad. It was sort of fun!" I told him. I was shocked to realize that it was true. When I first left the vet's office, I felt so discouraged, back when I thought I still had a working car. After the dead battery, my kids really surprised me. They didn't seem so very young, or so very much work anymore.

We're a humble family, us Benjamins. We've got some strikes against us. We live in a very expensive city. We had outrageous amount of student loan debt. We're the only Catholics in our family. We insist on having too many children, too close together. We get wet and tired and hungry and cranky. Yet we are also resilient. Only we can have fun together while being stranded at Pet Smart.

Sometimes things have to get worse, before they get better.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


On Monday, I got into a screaming match with Our Lady. A no holds barred yelling and crying bout with our Blessed Mother in the "private" family restroom in a rest stop off of Maryland's East Route 68. To clarify my mental state slightly, I wasn't actually yelling "at Mary." I screamed and cried at a blue tile above my head which caught my eye during my frantic Haily Mary.

I emerged from our crowded PT Cruiser in a panic. I left Jon to deal with the tangle of car seat straps, errant strollers and sleepy kid limbs. I'd spent the last two hours crying into my jacket sleeve after the emotional fog of a visit to my childhood home. Two babies slept on the ride back, but the mentally acute five year old was busy writing her "novel" with a new Hannah Montana pen.

Being careful of "little pitcher ears" sort of put a damper on communication with my husband. For two hours our conversation went in an endless loop.

Me: "I feel like a crushed bug."

Him: "I'm so sorry. Can you tell me about it."

Me: "Well, I'm feeling bad because -----" and off I'd launch into some angry observations which were left sort of intentionally vague and said with names or pro-nouns to protect my listening five year old.

Him: "You cannot say that. I understand how you feel, but you can not say that. I'm pretty sure it's a violation of the 4th Commandment."

Me: "Are you sure it's a violation, because technically I didn't...."

Him: "We're supposed to honor the spirit of the commandment Abby. The spirit..."

At which point, at least my "listen to your husband training" kicked in. "He's here to help me get into heaven," I'd think to myself. "He probably has a point." In a few minutes my temper would cool. I forget and forgive whatever petty grievance I had in the moment.

And then I felt MISERABLE. Without anger or gossip or superiority to distract me, I kept falling back into this giant puddle of goo. This foggy depressive midst that somehow envelops whenever I touchdown in my small hometown with 4 stoplights on Main Street.

"How was your trip? How was your trip?" the kind voices on the telephone will ask me in a few hours.

What do I say?

I was supposed to be posting about how cool it hear small town quiet again. How you can hear distinct sounds while sitting on a front porch on Main Street. The insistent buzz of the sawmill five blocks over, the puncture of barking dogs, the crawl of pick-up trucks that automatically go 25 miles in town, or strange insect noises you can't indentify.

I took some "arty" photos of an old rope swing on our apple tree or a house a block from my house with a weather porch and peeling paint. I never expected to get nostagic about peeling paint. Where I live now, all the houses are new brick or plastic siding.

The problem with going home, is that it's never one thing. It's never simply sweet. Yes, there's the hilarity of watching Hannah turn mental cartwheels over my sisters 30 year old vintage My Little Pony Collection. Maria taught herself how to climb stairs and plunk piano keys. My son told my 92 year old Grandfather that "he loved him" and "he missed him."

At the same time, there's just layers and layers of layers of sadness. There are awful, awful memories I have associated with that environment. Those memories show up in the most innocent moments. Suddenly I'm creeped out that my kids are here chasing humming birds.

Here's an example. Friday morning was the county-wide garage sale. If you planned on having a garage sale in the summer, you chose August 8th. People came from several county's to drive around down-town hopping from one yard sale to the next one. My mom suggested that we take the kids to the Episcopal Church to check out the giant toy sale sponsored by the Literacy Volunteers of Upshur County.

I stood in front of a heap of old, dusty toys trying to help Alex decide between spending his dollar on the broken remote controlled Monster Truck or the no-longer battery operated plastic Christmas Train set.

Then this memory of standing in the same parish hall intrudes. The last time I was in the church was for a funeral of a grown-up that I only knew slightly yet I really adored, who had committed suicide. I was 18 years old. I came to the funeral at the Episcopal Church with my Mom.

The funeral service marked the first time I heard the true West Virginia anthem called "My Home Among the Hills." The service was light and airy. The music sounded gorgous. The light from the stain glass windows were soothing. The pastor said some kind words and quoted some vague Bible Verses.

I sat frightened in that church pew with my uncommunicative Mother and tried to piece my insides back together. The music helped. "It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay. Somehow this is all going to be alright."

My mom asked if I wanted to stand in line to greet the young widow after the service. I said yes. My heart felt stronger and more certain after that church service.

I stood in the long condolence line in the parish hall. The line moved slowly. We were there for a long time.

I started look around. There were dozens of pictures of recent parish events. I looked them over distractedly.

Suddenly, I was eyeball to eyeball with the Dead Guy.

"I can't believe he's dead," I thought.

I stared closer. He had glasses. A funny old-fashioned beard. Eyes that crinkled.

"He always looked so happy. He had so much fun. . . "

Then I start staring at the date stamp below the man's face. I do the mental calculations.

They took this picture ten days before his death. Before his suicide.

I had this intense moment of understanding and fear, and disbelief all at once. I couldn't explain it to my Mom at the time. I think I can only hint at it now, at age 34.

Somehow, it hit me that this was wrong. You weren't supposed to be able to be happy at a church pot luck supper and then ten days later shoot yourself. Church was supposed to mean more than that. Church was supposed to protect you. Faith was supposed to "matter."

If my friend who showed up for nearly empty pot luck suppers, who tithed generously, who fulfilled countless community service hours . . . My friend, an actual adult, if my friend could do all the things we were "supposed" to do and still fell off the face of the earth hours later, what hope was there for me?

I'm probably not describing it well. Mental illness is complicated and often tragic. I know that now as an adult. I don't think I'd be as freaked out now if I went to a "happy funeral" where a suicide victim's cause of death wasn't addressed, where no prayers were offered for the dead, where only happy songs of "home" were sung, I don't think it would matter so much.

As a kid, however, I was far more vulnerable. I felt like I smashed my toe against an uncomfortable truth. There are real, real consequences to being in a church that in my language of the time "wasn't real." (Now I'd say, "without valid sacraments"). That knowledge of a disconnect between the familiar actions of 'social' church and a deep interior sense of protective Faith and peace, scared me.

I remember wanting to run away. I remember telling my mom over and over that I wanted to leave. She told me that we couldn't change our minds now, "it would look rude." I remember not having any words for the young widow. I remember being the only one in line who couldn't speak because I kept crying instead.

So that is the memory I had while standing in the Parish Hall, filling out the pro-con list of non-working plastic items with a 3 year old, and suddenly staring at a Yellow Bulletin Board with a mosaic of "What the Transfiguration Means to Me!" I don't remember now what the happy Crayola crayon written statements said, but none of them seemed remotely right to me. "This church isn't Catholic," I thought. Then WHAM. That memory came back in a tangible way. I wanted to leave immediately. It was hard to make myself stand patiently in line to pay for the plastic Christmas train.

So that is what happened to me, 700 times over the short weekend break. There were good things, of course. I found a book of poems written by the Mom of a high school classmate. I found out that a real live children's book series is based on my hometown. I found out that an dear friend is also considering home-schooling.

There were also just lots of sad, sad moments.

Everything added up to a miserable, depressed car trip home.

I got into that restroom, alone for the first time in four days, and starting to wash my grimy hands. In the mirror ahead of me, my eyeballs were pink. "Better pray, while I can."

I started out the same. 'Hail Mary, full of Grace. . ."

I caught a flash of blue tile in the border above me. "She's here. She can hear me."

"If she's here, I'm got something to really talk about!"

And right after "pray for us now," I launched into my angry pray request list. Out loud. With emphatic hand gestures that flung water droplets all over the bathroom.

"Why Did You Send Me On This Assignment! It is impossible!" I listed my long list of grievances. And I complained about the strict code of conduct imposed on me by the 4th commandment. And I plead for grace. Actually, plead sounds to much like a politely worded request in front of a District Court Judge. I demanded grace. "If you going to give me this ridiculously impossible assignment, you better provide ALL of the forgiveness part, because I've got NONE right now."

Again. This was not a mental conversation in the quiet of my heart. There was nothing "quiet" about my demeanor.

This was a spirited discussion, a serious of words screamed at a blue tile five feet above my head on a rest room wall.

At some point in my tirade, I thought "Someone might hear me." I pictured someone breaking down the door and dragging me to the lunacy ward. Then I started having a mental conversation with the lunacy ward captain while still verbally screaming my complaints to Our Lady.

The mental conversation went something like this. "I know this blue tile isn't the Virgin Mary. I don't actually see her. But she's real to me. She's everywhere. She hears me. So I might as well emphatically imagine that this blue tile is Our Blessed Mother. Because she's here. Because she's real."

The answer I got wasn't the patient explanation of why suffering occurs or how my life struggle contributes to the building of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Our Mom seems to eschew theological discussions.

Instead, she sent me a little 5 year old who persistently knocked on the "private" family room bathroom. "I need you Mom, I need you!!"

She wouldn't come into my bathroom. She demanded we go into the regular girls bathroom. As I left, my husband quickly filled the empty family restroom with a son who needed urgent bathroom attention. That left me alone with 2 girls for a period of 15 minutes.

After finishing the bathroom duty, we went outside. I slumped over the stroller for awhile feeling miserable. Then I convinced my daughter to study a road map of Maryland and let me lay on the nearby grass and stare at cloud shapes.

Sometime after we were staring at massive geological rock exhibits on the other roadside stop, as we geeky home-schoolers are meant to do.

Mommy Mary's answer sort of floated into me. "This is your cross."

This is my cross. It stinks. I'd much rather sign up for the thrilling adventure of "Bringing Catholicism into the Heart of Mongolia."

Instead, my cross seems at once lame and at once impossibly hard. My family of origin is broken inside. They hang around other, equally broken people. My hometown is filled with a bunch of hyper enthusiastic Christians who are desperately hurting at the same time they think Jesus is as simple as a coloring book drawing. They have Jesus. They have the Church. What do they need with all of this silly mumbo-jumbo hanging out in Daily Mass stuff. They are fine. My visit home are hanging out with the walking wounded who insist they are all "fine."

Meanwhile, my visits home bring this painful awareness of how much I suck at being Catholic. Completely, Completely Stink!

I started a yelling match with our Our Blessed Mother!

I felt a little embarrassed to write the post. I sort of procrastinated telling the truth. I thought of much "better" things to write about.

There is something that consoled me after feeling so foolish a few hours later. "I yelled at Our Blessed Mother! What irreverent girl does that?"

"Honey," Our Lady responded gently in my heart. "You had a real conversation with me because I'm real to you."

So that's all I can say, after weeks of consecration, months of Daily Mass and years spent struggling over the rosary. I'm still a teeny baby Catholic. I still mess up all the time.

At least Our Mom is real to me. At least I've started to trust her with my real emotions. You can talk to her, because she's real. "I believe in the communion of the saints." A line from the Apostle's Creed, I said often as a Protestant but am only starting to understand now as a Catholic.

I love you Mommy Mary! Thanks for calling me. Thanks for handing me grace, even when I forgot to say "please."

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Marking Time

Eight years ago, I flew to Sydney to visit an Aussie friend whom I met in college. My August trip celebrated the end of the Bar Exam and the start of my first real job in September. An ocean crossing as the last hurrah of student travel before real life and real responsibility began.

I toured the Olympic Park in Sydney a few weeks before the Summer 2000 games began. I checked out the impressive architecture and took fake photographs as an athlete. I remember the famous Opera House, the kangaroos who lounged on golf courses, and the kolas who seemed to drip from the trees.

That trip also marked the time I had this strange feeling of loneliness for a certain non-serious boyfriend named Jon.

We were in the middle this swimming pool at crazy STA student resort in Queensland, Australia, off the Great Barrier Reef. My friend wanted to know if I'd gotten an email from Jon.

"Yeah, he sends me sweet notes saying that he misses me. I'd forgotten to sign the check for the rental deposit in my new apartment. Jon sent me four emails trying to track me down and tried to call my parents. Then he just left this sweet note saying that he was sorry for all the frantic emails, he decided to just pay the $300 deposit for me to make sure the apartment stays open until I come back."

My friend hopped off her lawn chair and looked me in the eyes. "This is serious. Paying your security deposit. This could be the one."

I remember changing the conversation pretty quickly. Some thoughts are too personal to speak out loud.

That trip to Australia was so meaningful not because of the emails I found in internet cafes, but because of how often I missed Jon. No one traveled as well as him. No one could appreciate art museums and new fangled palm trees. No one listened to my stories in the same way. No one was him.

I called him to picked me up in the airport. Jon sounded a little unsure about coming to pick me up. "Should I just take a cab?" I asked. When I saw him, I felt a little silly. I kissed him with reserve, just in case all those "serious" signs during my trip were only in my imagination.

Jon said that our shy, awkward greeting was not the "camera spins around kiss" that he'd expected. He picked up my heavy backpack. We walked out of the airport without holding hands.

I didn't know that a homemade engagement ring sat in Jon's pocket.

He proposed to me two weeks later.

I watched the Olympics 2004 with my husband, my one year old, and a giant belly which contained Alex. We had just moved to Madison, Wisconsin. We had one TV propped up on a milk crate in our bedroom. We watched the whole two weeks together as a family while Hannah chased our two dogs around our bed.

We could watch the whole event because Jon and I had just quit our jobs. The future we'd carefully charted back when we were single got all smashed up when we converted to Catholicism. The law degree. The adjunct teaching job. All those high career aspirations formed during a painful time in graduate school, none of it seemed to matter when a sweet baby girl with blue eyes entered our lives. If Alex appeared a little unexpectedly nine months later, we were doubly blessed. We got shoved out of our old roles by necessity.

I remember rubbing my belly with great hope.

In February 2006, my husband and I watched the Winter Games on an even older TV set in my grandfather's basement. The business venture which seemed so brilliant in Madison had failed. We'd been living with various relatives for 4 months while Jon searched for work. Jon finally landed a decent job in January.

Yet February was such a bleak time. We owed money to everyone. I couldn't see us moving into our own place until the bills were repaid. That meant months longer of living with a 2 year old and 1 year old in the decaying basement of someone else's house. (Alex ended up getting a minor case lead poisoning from the old, peeling paint.) My husband disliked his new job. Jon missed working from home. He disliked the two hour commute. He disliked being so far away from us each day.

We went from a family which spent every hour together for two years to a family who "lost" their Dad for up to 15 hours a day. I used to get so lonely that I'd wake up at 5:00 AM to walk Jon to the bus station. Standing in the dark with him at the bus stop was the only time we ever got to talk.

In the middle of this miserable feeling of living a life I didn't want, the Olympics were a bright light. Each night we could at least catch some ice-skating and ski jumping together. On a little TV, with the bad lighting and peeling lead paint, the Olympics were a gift. Something to focus on far bigger than ourselves.

In a few days, the 2008 Olympics begin in China. I'll be watching on another old TV set, with rabbit ears, that is currently perched on top of the sweater rack in my kids' closet. I'll be watching the track and field events with three kids, one dog, and one husband.

Today I got to explain to Alex "you've never seen these Summer Games. The last time there were held, you were still in my tummy."

"And you, Miss Maria. You were not even a twinkle in your Daddy's eye!"

I don't know where we'll be in another 4 years. I know I'll no longer be able to watch the games on old TVs with rabbit ears! I hope to be able to share the couch with a few more Benjamin bodies. Even if that doesn't happened, I've been greatly blessed. I didn't know the treat I had in store for me back when I was first missing my "could be serious boyfriend" in Sydney's Olympic Park.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Soul Food

Maria B just sent me an interesting article about how the Slow Food Movement, Organic Farming and Crunchy Conservatives all collide.

I've been all over the map on these types of issues. If my parents could sign up for an "anti-recycling" movement, they would have. I grew up hearing that "composting was for fools" and only idiots restricted their kids access to donuts and Little Debbie treats.

Then at age 14, I moved to an area rich in strip mines. Hearing about how kindergartners choose orange crayons to draw the sea because in their area all the local streams were orange with coal run-off, really freaked me out. As kids in WV "Conservation Camp" we were devastated to learn that WV was too small a population to support aluminum recycling ventures. We couldn't recycle our pop cans at camp even thought we wanted too.

My first two babies were born in the green enclave of Athens, Ohio and Madison, Wisconsin. Both places had a lot of hippie dining establishments. I used to be able to walk up to the nicest organic baby store with Alex on my hip. Some days, when I'm trying to find diaper covers for Maria via on the internet, I rue the day we moved.

But we did move the metro D.C. Our rent is too expensive and our dentist budget is too cheap. I've acquired Whole Food's tastes and I'm working with a Bottom Dollar budget. There are too many choices living in a city, and at the same time, not enough.

The thing that I know now, is that you've got to put your "needs" in the right order. Spiritual needs come before corporal needs. That means you feed the soul first, then the body. It's beautiful every morning that we go as a family to Daily Mass. We eat the Eucharist first, and then feed our bodies at breakfast. On the few nights I get out with Jon, we follow this same pattern. We'll go to adoration first, then we'll go out to eat.

This "right order" is important on so many levels. I think there's a tendency in the green Berkeleyish clan, to make dinner "spiritual." People go crazy in describing the "spiritual" benefits of eating good food. It's important to draw a firm line in the sand with them. The Eucharist is the Eucharist-- and no goat cheese pizza at Whole Foods can compare.

However, at another level, they've got a point. Eating healthy "good" food, makes our bodies feel better.

Jon hung out with a recent immigrant at our church playground. "Indian kids do not act like this," the man said pointing to my son throwing wood chips in the air and running under the falling chips." My husband braced himself for a long lecture about American parenting mistakes. Instead the man kindly asked how much high fructose corn syrup Alex had in his diet. "I don't know?" my husband answered honestly. The immigrant proceeded to explain that Indian kids don't have any such "junk" in their diet. That corn syrup stuff was made up by Americans because sugar has such a high import tax. Now we're the only country in the world drowning all types of food in that toxic stuff.

Five years ago, I would have dismissed such thoughts as foolish. Now that I'm starting to see how much sleep directly influences my toddler's personality, being more concerned about her diet is a bigger factor.

It's all a big balance. Having a spiritual house in order comes at a sacrifice. I'm not working now or plan to ever again. That "lost" paycheck hurts sometimes. There's no vat of "Yo Baby" yogurt in my fridge, at the same time none of my kids spend time in day care.

It's a rough world we live in with so many choices not available to Laura Ingells Wilder. At the same time, there are a lot more foolish choices that she didn't have to entertain either. Laura might have lived her whole life without ever tasting a banana. However, she would have thought it was pretty ridiculous to hear the "family dinner hour" is now endangered.

Chuckie Cheese & Me

Saturday afternoon I had a surreal experience. I stuffed cold pizza into jolly Maria's mouth and made small talk with our new neighbor's two celibate aunts, one 19 and one 54. I chatted about college life with one and internet business plans with another. There was one of those natural lulls in conversations between complete strangers. The 19 year old gazed at my fuzzy red headed daughter and said "Do you think you'll have any more?"

"We're open. I just love babies." I leaned down to give my littlest one a kiss.

I looked up to find complete horror on both maiden aunts' faces. "How could you want more! I'm NEVER having kids. They are such a pain in the neck" the 19 year old shouts.

"They're dirty. They're noisy. They are so much work. How could anyone tied down their life with children?" the 50 year old shouts even louder.

I sat there in meek silence. I feed more cold pizza to Maria. I rubbed her fuzzy hair. I broke eye-contact with the angry aunts to concentrate on helping Miss Maria sip Coke from a big girl cup.

After a few minutes, it was apparent that these dual objections weren't the usual fight about my "too big" family size, it was 100 % anti-child in general because "Kids ruin your life!"

That's when I started noticing the balloons bobbing over both aunts' heads. The bright writing that cheerfully announced "5". Those birthday balloons would belong to the little nephew who lives with the older aunt.

"We're having this "why do people bother to have children?" debate in the middle of a 5 year old's birthday party at Chuckie Cheese," I thought.

Crazy. Crazy.

I miss our parish nuns, who also "choose" to live a life without children-- but the nun's choice makes them rumple my baby's hair all the more affectionately at Daily Mass.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Secular Friends

It's time to revise that hip tag line to my blog. "How do I fold my post-modern thinking into the new truths of faith."

As I ramble along in my Catholic journey, my view of my past has started to shift. I used to think, "Wow, that Catholic church is so lucky to have me." A former Protestant. A big-shot feminist. Someone who had choices in her life and yet "picked" that Catholic faith.

Now my past life isn't simply 'the past'. My past is filled with mistakes, and sin, and a misery that was so vast the slime coated your skin.

I sat in the wading pool with a cradle Catholic, each of us watching the unsteady legs of our third child. "Was it hard for you to give up your job and transfer to stay-at-home motherhood. I imagine it was hard. I imagine you must miss it some days?"

I look at her sincere face. How could I explain that her question doesn't even make sense to me anymore. The life that I had as a lawyer, and not even a big shot corporate lawyer, but as a humble one who serviced the poor of Appalachia as a legal aid attorney, that life hurt every day. Each day that I put on my Ann Taylor stripped suit and dragged legal precedence out to indifferent Judge, I begged to be a tool for God. I begged to make a difference. I begged to be important. I begged to change a life.

The experience that I had (since poverty is actually a theological virtue) was of doors being slammed in my face, of client's disappointing me, of judges saying no. I felt stripped down and exhausted each day. When I prayed, God seemed inscrutable and aloof.

Now, I'm hanging out in the kiddie pool, passing out pool toys, watching for misplaced goggles, checking on swim diapers-- every movement of mine is as important as asking the right question in a high stakes deposition. God is nearby, handing out graces, pointing out directions, washing my feet.

No matter how hard my days are as a stay-at-home mother, there is no "missing" my old life.

I'm finding the gap growing wider and wider as I start to shed more parts of my old self. I don't like the same movies. I don't read the same books. I don't look at the same art pictures.

And I don't hang out with the same friends. For the past two years I've been in the unintentional cocoon. Having three babies and three major moves in four years is bound to affect my social life.

Now that my youngest is starting to sleep at night, I'm peeking outside more. The landscape has altered.

I've been out of touch with most college friends for 3 years. I'm not sure how many "secular" friendships are going to get restarted.

This future priest had an interesting thought on this subject.

Maybe the point of radical change isn't so much that I'm bringing new insight into the Catholic church (what hubris I held during RICA). Maybe the pointed is to become fully transformed into the orthodoxy of my new faith. Maybe my radical change will point an arrow to many hip, secular friends who normally wouldn't get to experience a Catholic up close.