Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Growth

This year I'm hosting my first Thanksgiving. We've had happy Thanksgivings on our own as a little family. This year it's the first time we have company counting on eating our Turkey!

My husband requested that I get "Grandma Ida's" stuffing recipe. I happily called my Mother-in-Law and nearly fell on the floor in mirth. My own maternal grandmother's stuffing recipe is simple. Buy 1 Package of seasoned Pepperiage Farm bread crumbs. Add onion and celery. Bake in a casserole dish next to the turkey.

My husband's maternal grandmother recipe calls for an extremely long complicated list of instructions which begin with hand drying the bread 48 hours in advance and ends with the reassuring statement, "Don't worry Abby, you probably won't get it right for the first DECADE!" 10 years?

Anyway, at that moment, my panic exported. A stuffing recipe that takes ten years to master? Last year, that would have seemed ridiculous. This year, I embraced that cross with love.

I pictured teaching my girls at 11 & 15 how to finally make Great-Grandma Ida's stuffing. I saw myself explaining the complicated concept of "mealy-ness" to my future daughter-in-law. Grandma Ida is the reason that my family is Catholic. (On Ida's deathbed she made my mother-in-law swear a promise to get my husband confirmed in his faith.) This stuffing recipe seemed just such a special way to keep her close to our family's heart.

Despite my careful notes and my days of prep time, I couldn't reach my Mother-in-law at the crucial stuffing the turkey juncture. We ended up with chive flavored soup instead of stuffing. Thankfully, I had some hard Pepperiage Farm bread crumbs on hand. It won't taste like Grandma Ida's recipe this year. Yet in the November that we performed indulgences for both Grandma Ida and my Grandma Jean, it seems fitting to have a stuffing which reminds us of how much maternal love we have in heaven.

God thank you for the gift of family. Help us grown in love on this day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

St. Lucy Day Prep

Are you inspired recreate Kristen of American Girls St. Lucy's Day at your house on Dec 13, but still nervous about a 5 year old wearing actual candles on her head wreath? I found a solution at Target. A 4 piece Flickering Tealight Candle Set which comes with the batteries. It's listing as $12 on, but I snagged them for only $6.50 at my local Target today. I think we'll be making a simple wreath out of a paper plate and green felt leaves this year. I couldn't figure out how to put a more sturdy one together at Michaels. (If your very devoted to St. Lucy, there's a $20 super serious battery operated wreath on most of the Swedish American holiday websites.)

Advent- Holy Detachment

In the midst of my freaking out about the possibility of permanently living in a 800 square foot, 4 room house, Saint Joseph kindly arrange for my Rosary Group to host an incredible speaker, Abby Sasscer.

By my nature, I'm allergic to routine. The hardest, hardest part of my Mothering job has been making a housekeeping routine and sticking to it. I've read almost every Oprah, anti-clutter book ever written. My usual response is "these suggestions would be great, if I was a completely different person."

What makes Abby's notebook so unique, is that she a super, super Catholic. Her advice isn't "You should write a will. It's really hard on your family if you die without one." She says "my husband and I have had way to many relatives that spent their last hours on earth filling out Health Care Power of Attorney Forms. You have your whole life to prepare for the earthly things. Lets take care of them now so that one your death bed you can solely concentrate on your friendship with Jesus."

Having a solely Catholic focus, made all the difference for me.

I'm not battling clutter just to be a good Mom. I'm fostering the value of "Holy Detachment" so that my spouse, my children and myself are constantly focused on thought of heaven and not distracted by three coats sitting in a pool of mud on the floor.

Here is the link to her Home as A Haven website. She has instructions on how to download a free copy of her notebook. (A full book is coming 2010.) The best part is that there is a free, 1-800 number to call for a personal consultation. She calls her visit her "Elizabeth visits." I can't stress enough how loving and helpful her advice will be for you. If you are struggling, or if you just want to up your game, take advantage of this women's talent.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Stone Soup

One Saturday in Ohio, I discovered that I'd completely miscalculated our grocery budget. The pantry was beyond barren. There was a half opened box of spaghetti, a few withered garlic cloves, and a bag of frozen Starbucks coffee beans. (Ah, the days with only one five month old, when we could still afford to be fussy in our taste in coffee beans!)

We desperately needed to grocery shopping, but there was no money in our bank account until the next payday. Jon & I discussed our options over a napping baby. We could use our credit card. We could transfer some money from our savings account.

"Or, instead of spending ANY money ..." I announced, "we can host a huge Stone Soup Party!"

God graced me with an incredible husband. Jon didn't say "What crazy thing are you talking about Abby?" Instead, he mildly responded "I'm not sure I've ever heard of this Stone Soup thing."

"That's because I just made it up!" I said happily.

I reminded him that last Christmas we'd given his nephews a beautiful children's book called "Stone Soup." In the Middle Ages, three monks went to a new village to beg for food. Everyone they asked for help, refused. "What shall we do?" a hungry monk ask. An old, wise monk responded "make stone soup."

So the monks took out their large iron pot, placed three clean stones in the pot, filled it with water, built a fire and started cooking "stone soup." A little boy came by the road and asked the monks "What are you making?"

"We are making stone soup," they replied.

"Can I have some?" the little boy asked.

"Sure!" the old monk said. "The soup will be ready in a little while. But you know what would really go well with stone soup, is some carrots. Mmmm, I'd really like the taste of Stone Soup with carrots."

"We've got carrots growing in our garden!" the little boy replied.

"Go ask your mom for some carrots, and we'll add them to our soup!" the monks said.

Then a little girl walks by. The same thing is repeated, only this time the monks ask for some potatoes.

Again and again, curious villagers stop by and the monks end up adding celery, meat, turnips, and salt into the stew. Finally, the monks work is done. The entire village comes out to eat a delicious "stone" soup. "I brought the carrots!" the little boy said. "I brought the salt!" says another. Everyone agrees it is the best soup ever.

So I reminded my husband of this story. "Instead of being embarrassed that we are broke this weekend, we should celebrate it. All of our friends have been in this same place. Lets do what we do best, we'll host the party. We'll have the music and the fun. We'll let everyone else bring bring the soup supplies."

So Jon located the smooth river rock we'd picked up during our trip to Wyoming. We filled our largest stock pot with water and turned on the gas stove. Then my husband cleaned our apartment. I called everyone we knew in the small town of Athens, Ohio to invite them over to our house.

"We're having a Stone Soup Party," I said. "Pick two things out of your pantry right now that can go into a vegetable soup and bring them to our house at 6:30. The only rule is that you can't go to the store to buy anything. The ingredients have to be something that are in your house right now."

My friends were mostly Legal Aid attorneys and school teachers, so this impromptu party was right up there alley. We had at least six guests, maybe more. People brought all kinds of treats, including many extra cans of beer which made my husband very happy!

I remember this sweet moment of cooking with my former boss, Anne. I'd never made homemade soup in my life, so I had no idea what I was doing. Anne brought vegetable stock cubes. She taught me how to saute the vegetables and also insured we added enough salt.

At around 7:45 PM, we sat down to the yummiest stew. Someone had brought good bread and Olive Oil. Someone else brought wine, beer, and fancy bottled water for a nursing mother. My husband placed his favorite CDs on our stereo. Everyone was so jolly. There was something about providing their own food that made our guests extra relaxed and comfortable. It made everyone laugh that my husband and I'd had thrown a party without providing any food. "Only Abby & Jon could throw a party with an empty pot!" one friend said.

"We brought the rock." Jon kept saying, whenever they teased him. "Don't forget, we had the most important ingredient in Stone Soup. We brought the rock!"

I thought about that funny party yesterday in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Recently, I've started exploring the "gift of my poverty' in prayer. I used to assume, that the virtue of poverty referred only to material things. It seemed obvious that the Franciscan monks single habit was "better" than a socialite's closet filled with designer duds. Now, I know the spiritual dimension of "blessed are the poor" is even more true.

What is "spiritual poverty?"

I used to think that I had to put on my best thoughts and feelings before I talked to Jesus. Sort of like putting on a nice dress to go to church. I didn't dare talk to Jesus when I was angry, bitter, put out or feeling stepped on.

It was a bitter cycle. The times when I most needed help were the times when I felt most ashamed to talk to Jesus.

Now I understand that when I pray to Him most especially when I don't "feel" like it, when I'm in sin because I'm small, and hateful, and harsh-- I'm bringing Jesus the gift of my poverty.

"It's like Stone Soup!" I said in front of the Blessed Sacrament. When I pray, even when all I have is a small stone of envy and the boiling water of rage, it's like stone soup. I make a gift to Jesus of my poverty. He responds by showing down graces. He brings the carrots, and the onions, and the meat, and the salt. He even reaches down and removes those stony grudges from while I'm busy swallowing.

This metaphor is completely true.

A few weeks ago, I had the most emotional and uncomfortable interaction with a fellow Catholic at my church. "You don't need to go over that family's house, anymore. It's too hard on you," my husband told me.

"I don't think that's how this Catholic thing works," I said.

"Well, we're supposed to be friendly with everyone, but we don't have to be friends with every single family in our parish."

"I think we're supposed too try," I said. "Well, I'll at least pray about it."

I walked over by the dishwasher and gave Jesus the smallest, meanest prayer ever uttered.

"I know I'm supposed to love this person. I know I'm supposed to pray, even for an enemy. That's an impossible standard. I'm only here out of obedience to you. Here's my tiny prayer, I pray to have a better relationship with this person."

Fifteen seconds, and then I started to peel off the mustard stains from my plates and load them into the dishwasher.

A few weeks later, this same person, who I KNOW did not approve of me as a Mother or as a Catholic in any shape, left the longest, kindest message on my answering machine to invite me to join the Vacation Bible School Planning Committee. "It's mostly a chance to have a Parent's Night Out. Please join us."

"That's my prayer answer," I thought as I listened to the voice on the answering machine. I did not pick up the phone. I did not call this person back that night. I did not call this person back for several nights."

Two weeks later, we ran into this family at a rare Sunday Night Mass. We never usually go at that time. We were all there to support to my husband's first time as a Lector. I saw the family during Mass and prayed for them. Later we joyfully ran into them in the aisle. My husband was floating after his Mass experience. I felt so bouyed up by his Hope.

"It's so good to see you!" I said. There was no smile on this person's lips. Nothing bad was said. But no words or cheerful looks were returned. The conversation was like a bad four square game. My husband and I would toss out jolly remarks and we'd watch as blunt, negative responses would flatten the conversation. Mostly, I felt desperately, desperately uncomfortable.

"Well, that was rough," my husband said. "That all happened in front of Jesus, immediately after Mass. I guess were excused from pursuing a relationship now."

"I don't know," I said. "I don't think this church thing is so simple." I'm pretty sure I neglected to pray to Jesus after that remark.

Last night, after three hours of pouring over the Children's Baltimore Catecism with my husband (YUM! THE best book for converts ever!) I heard the phone ring and then a familiar voice on my answering machine.

"Hello, Abby. I hope you are having the best Feast of Christ the King ever! I hope you are doing lots of prince and princesses crown things with all of your kids. Isn't this a beautiful feast?"

"I'm so happy to hear from you," I said as I rushed to pick up the phone. I couldn't believe how much love was pouring out of my heart. "You know, I planned to do all these tiara things with the kids, but instead Jon and I have spent the whole day reading the Baltimore Catecism. You know, we're new to our faith. This little book is such a gift, it answers so many of our perplexing questions."

"Oh, that must be so beautiful to see the mysteries of our faith with fresh eyes," this person intoned.

We had this wonderful loving talk. In the middle of it, I knew I had to address the non-returned phone call. I prayed quickly to Jesus for help.

"I'm so sorry I didn't return your phone call about the Vacation Bible School."

"Oh no, problem!"

"No really, it is a problem. I actually need to ask for your prayers. I'm drowning in my first year of home-schooling. I love teaching, but I'm not getting my other Mom tasks done. I don't have one free night a month to donate to a church event. I don't have any time. I'm behind in all of my work. I'm not getting basic things done, like returning phone calls. I'm really, really struggling. I really, really need your prayers.

This veteran Catholic said that not only would s/he pray for me, but that every Tuesday, s/he would offer up all of her/his sacrifices so that I'd have an easier time with Motherhood."

"Who was that on the phone?"

My husband's face registered his shock. He's shocked I sounded so sweet and loving on the phone. He's shocked I so nakedly asked for prayer. He's shocked that I eagerly accepted a joint family visit during Advent. "That's a big change," he said.

"Oh, I'm sure we're going to be great friends now!"

"What are you talking about?"

"I gave Jesus my smallest, meanest prayer to have a better relationship with Person X," I said. "The poorer the prayer the more He responds with grace and spiritual gifts!"

I'm blessed to be so broken, so mean spirited, so hard-hearted and so sensitive. Those prayers said in the midst of my spiritual poverty, those are the ones that bring the best, best graces into my life.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What we like best

Stomach virus hit the house last Saturday. Jon was at his Catholic Men's group, when it suddenly became apparent that both Hannah & I were down for the count. We laid down next to each other in front of the TV for 10 straight hours. I was so sick, all I could do was sort of touch Hannah's hair with my fingers and mutter "poor baby, poor baby." When she finally came back around 8 PM, Hannah was so affectionate. "I love you Mom. You're the best." I felt sort of guilty, I really didn't do much. Jon poured the ginger ale and found the Strawberry Shortcake cartoon channel. I couldn't even sit up to take the nasty towels away to the washing machine. That's when I realized that sometimes, when your sick, just having someone next to you is enough. Sick days are "wasted" days anymore. They are a chance to do what we like best in our family, show each other the face of Christ.

House. Still. Waiting. Everything is on the back burner while we a) get our loan finalized and b) search for a new buyers agent.

Friday, November 14, 2008

House Hunting, Catholic Style

Three years ago, we moved into a two bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C. We were far from the "hip" art scene in NYC. We didn't rent the downtown city loft apartment of our dreams. Instead, our suburban sprawl neighborhood in dowdy Maryland boasted of hay fields, horse farms and sleek Lockheed Martin office buildings. Yet our new place was safe, and clean. After moves across 4 states in three years with 2 tiny babies in tow, we were thankful to finally have steady work for a young Dad & a "in-house" washer/dryer for Mama.

Over time, we gave birth to another little one. We named her "Maria." We saw the wisdom of God bringing us to "Mary's Land." We found a warm, dynamic parish filled with Latino, African, and Indian immigrants. We taught ourselves how to sign hymns in Spanish & French, and relished the common language of the Pater Noster. We drank in original El Greco's in the National Gallery. We had started regular confessions and trips to Daily Mass. Oh, we also happened to attend a Papal Mass at our humble baseball stadium!

As we fell more in love with our spiritual home in the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., we still hungered for a permanent nest for our domestic church. We buried a statute of St. Joseph next to our patio two years ago. As it buried the statute, Jon secretly prayed for us to find a house of our own. We said lots of prayers as a family, especially whenever rent increase time came. Then we forgot about it. Last summer, Saint Joseph poked his head out of the ground. "I guess he wants to come out now," Jon said and took into work to place on his cubicle desk. (We'd signed our lease for another 18 month extension, so the house thing seemed already settled).

In late October my husband came home from work and announced, "I think we should apply for a mortgage." Internally, I dismissed his idea as ridiculous. The Washington Post carried more dire warnings about the credit crunch each day. People with 720 credit scores were denied mortgages. Our little blemished, heavily indebted with student loan credit score didn't have a chance.

At the same time that I was completely, completely certain that this mortgage application was a complete waste of time, a little voice reminded me that I'd prayed hard at my recent Women of Prayer retreat to "have a more Marian heart." I couldn't imagine Our Blessed Mother saying to St. Joseph "Your a fool if you think we have a chance at a home loan." So with the consoling thought "this isn't going anywhere anyways, so what is the harm", I managed to squeak out a wifely "Sure sweetie, if you think it's that important."

On Saturday, I dug out my husband's ancient Reserve Discharge Papers. I tracked down the paper form of our ING savings account. I tried not to blanch when the mortgage fax at Kinko's came to $11. All the while I secretly practiced my 'oh, don't feel bad about getting denied. The whole country is being denied credit right now" speech.

So it came as a shock on Monday morning when my husband called me with the news that we were pre-approved for a mortgage! Not just any mortgage, but a VA loan, with a 100% financing, PMI coverage, a low interest rate. It's like shopping for a house, old school.

For the next two weeks, I felt panic. Buying a house is a big deal. I didn't think that we "deserved" it. (We had baby after baby instead of following my friend's path of diligently paying off law school debt while working at boring firm jobs.) I wasn't sure we could afford it. I wasn't sure about anything.

For two weeks, we blindly looked a real estate listing on the internet at night. The amount of listings in the five mile radius of our apartment are staggering. There are 2 bedroom condos in bad neighborhoods. There are expensive 3 & 4 bedroom townhouses. There are run down 4 bedroom townhouses in bad neighborhoods.

We had no idea what to do. Did we move further out of the city, with our single car in hopes of finding a decent priced house? Did we commit to living near Jon's work (so that he can still bike) and pay outrageous sums on a condo unit? What was going to happen to going to daily Mass together as a family?

I drove myself crazy with all the what-ifs and what do we do now? It didn't help that Jon and I were instinctively on different pages. I'm a natural optimist. I thought we should look at nice townhouses $50,000 more than our price range and plan on hard ball negotiation tactics to make the final sale. Jon, rather wisely insisted, that we consider our monthly property expenses as leaving enough space for food.

After starting out the research project full of vigor that we "were finally in the game", we ended up feeling exhausted, uncertain, and depressed.

One Saturday Mass, I had this feeling of peace and direction after Communion. To have a "Marian heart" as a wife, meant that you "let" St. Joseph provide you a house. As a wife, you don't bargain, you don't set pre-conditions, don't complain that you didn't deserve shelter, and mostly you don't fear.

I had this mental image of Our Lady, patiently waiting on the donkey, with her cold fingers and contracting belly, full of faith as St. Joseph knocked on inn keeper after inn keeper's door to find her shelter.

After Mass, I walked up to the Saint Joseph statute in our sanctuary and gave him my heart. "If you will lead my husband on this search for our home, I will accept whatever home you find. I will "let" you provide us with a house."

It was beautiful and solved everything for me. I didn't have to be shrewed in our real estate purchase. I didn't have give my husband the "right" advice, or insure we made a great deal. I just had to trust that St. Joseph had his hand on my husband, and was the one leading the way.

Immediately outside of church, before I could even explain my moist eyes to my husband, we ran into a dear couple who attend our parish. The wife is a lay Carmelite with us. Her husband attends Jon's Men of Emmaus Group. We stopped to say hello and the guys immediately start comparing notes on everything from the Catechism to local gas prices Meanwhile Mary & I shivered in the cold. My kids ran around without their jackets, the baby refused to keep on her hat. After the fifth gentle reminder, "Honey we should let the Benjamin's go," my friend Mary finally said "Well, I don't know about your guys, but I'm freezing. I'll wait for you in the car." She put her hands into her coat pocket to pull out her car keys and instead happened on a holy card.

"Oh, I should give this to you."

"It's been blessed," she assured me as she saw a stunned reaction on my face.

In my red, chapped hands lay a picture of St. Joseph, Protector of Homes. On the back was this prayer.

"St. Joseph, protect our home. Pour forth heaven's blessing on our family. Remain in our midst. help us to live in love and harmony, in peace and joy. May the wholesome fear of God strengthen us that virtue may adore what we do and our way may lead to heaven.

To you this day, I give the key to our dwelling place. Lock out all things which could do us harm. Lock my home and my loved ones with me in the hearts of Jesus and Mary. This I beg of you that our days may be like your days in the holy home at Nazareth."

I could not talk. I just nodded at her. I couldn't say anything until later in the car with my husband when I burst with happiness.

That day we found a cute, cottage near our parish church. The place is humble, 800 square feet with only 5 rooms in total, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom & 2 bedrooms. Outside is a huge fenced in backyard. The house is located next to the priests' house, and the site of our new parish convent.

My heart got deflated when I looked into the 11 by 11 foot kitchen. It's an empty shell, with every appliance ripped out. "We'll be able to design a new IKEA kitchen from scratch," my husband said happily.

"This must be the wrong house," I thought. "This can't be from St. Joseph. We can't fit in here with 3 kids."

As I prayed, I looked around the lovely yard. There were three roses in bloom in the backyard. (In mid NOVEMBER!). "Well, that's from Little Saint Theresa" I shrugged. "This is it."

I went home and tried to get my head around the sacrifice of living in a small space. Instead of moving "up" with a new playroom/school room & a garage, we'll actually be losing an extra bathroom & four closets. My kids might have the smallest house on the block. How would that make them feel?

That night as I prayed the rosary, Jesus himself reminded me of what is important. "Your kids have the chance to grow up next door to priests and nuns. They will go to Mass with me everyday! How can that compare to an extra romp room or more space for art supplies?"

I had a picture of our new house as a natural extension of our parish church. I saw my favorite priest stopping by for a quiet cup of coffee and a chat about his seminary experience with Rome while my kids ran around pretending to be airplanes in the yard.

When I ended the rosary, I found out that my husband had the same vision of "St. Joseph's house" as being a blessing to our busy, overworked parish priests.

On Thursday, we had our first walk-through with a new real estate agent. After all the happy bankers we talked to, it was abrupt to have a negative buyer's agent. "This place is to much work. REO's are a pain to deal with. We'll find you another house nearby."

I absorbed this statement while holding a tape measurer in my hand.

"Your standing in my living room!" I wanted to say. "This is our house! Whatever negative response you fear from the seller, it's not going happen. St. Joseph gave us this house. He's on the case!"

I didn't know how to translate all of this into secular speak, so I just went outside and joined my husband in the rain.

This morning, we got an email from the seller's agent. They are eager to sell.

So please pray for us. We hit a snag with our VA loan and will need extra approval before placing an offer on this property. Please pray that the buying process goes smoothly and quickly. Pray that we get an affordable price. Please pray also for my sanity as I attempt to juggle a move, my first home-school review & Christmas all at the same time!

Meanwhile, many, many thanks to St. Joseph, who provides our families with all of our necessities. Blessed be St. Jospeh's holy name, forever!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Building the Civilization of Love

Yuck! What an awful night. I couldn't sleep. The free Starbucks coffee I downed after my free Ben & Jerry's Ice cream cone at 8 PM didn't help. (There were lots of free treats for those with a voting sticker in D.C. yesterday.) I woke up feeling more grouchy than both my exhausted daughters.

Yet the Lord is good. Father Avelino gave a rousing homily that our job is ever the same, to build a "civilization of love." During communion I received this comforting image, a snow drop struggling to bloom in the snow.

I am a small, fragile, anxious voice for the church. Yet I am also an undeniable sign of the Springtime of the faith.

Today, I cheerfully cleaned out a gross children's bathtub for my Lord. Meanwhile, my 5 year old wrote her first letter to the President-Elect.

"Dear President-Elect AMABO,

(we're stilling working on that consistent left to right thing)

You were once a baby. Did you forget? Should we kill the babies? NO!

(Well, actually she said "I can do this part myself Mom and proceeded to write ON in giant letters. We decided to fix that by making a huge arrow which indicated to turn the letter upside down.)

Hannah cheerfully stuck on the stamp (her favorite part of the writing letters job) and said a prayer while I looked up the zip code for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "Don't worry Mom, he'll change his mind" she said as she galloped out to our apartment mailbox.

Will our President-elect, get the message to go from "On" to "No"? We've cast our ballot. The results are in. Now our job is to pray, pray, pray for our President-Elect to have a change of heart.

Many blessings.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Our schedule so far:

6:30 AM Mass

7:15-9:15 Voting with 2 parents, 3 kids

(My kids did pro-life apostolate by running around the school playground entertaining the long line. Every time someone smiled at them, I mentally prayed "Remember to Vote for Life!")

9:30 Free donuts at Krispe Kream with your "I voted today sticker"

9:45 Home

Sunday, November 2, 2008


During All Souls day, the faithful can receive an indulgence by visiting a parish church, reciting an Our Father and a Creed. From Nov 1- Nov 8, the faithful can receive an indulgence by visiting a cemetery & praying for the departed.