Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Spiritual Seatbelt

Alex, my four year old, informed me on our Friday morning trip to Home-School Pre-School, "No Mama! I can do it myself! I can do everything myself. I can shut the car door and buckle my seatbelt. Daddy says I can do it alone now!"

I end up letting him shut the PT cruiser door himself and then stare stupidly at the glass. Evidently Jon's Father/Son trip to the library the night before sparked some major in-road to independence. Yet how did my husband accomplish this exactly? Once outside the "shut door" how can you tell that a four year old has correctly buckled his seat belt-- a gross motor skill made even more complicated by the fact that he has millimeters of space between the seat belt buckle and his toddler sister's car seat.

What if my son didn't get his seat belt latched in correctly?

I gave up and reopened the door.

"NO Mama. I can do it. Daddy said I can do it. Daddy said I did a good job!"

"Alex, I believe you. Daddy has to tell Mommy how he watched you. I can't let you make a mistake while when we're about to go 65 miles on the highway."*

He shrugged his shoulders and reluctantly let me "baby him" by doing his seat belt for him.

After Pre-School, we hit Old Navy to stock up on $2.50 flip-flops for the family. Alex chose red for himself and blue for his Dad. Hannah insisted that she and I have matching brown ones. I picked up two cover-ups for modesty for us girls. Then I paid for my purchases with my Dad's credit card.

Even thought I had express permission to stock up beach supplies from my Dad, who incidentally is also paying for our trip to see my paternal grandfather, I had a squeamish feeling in stomach.

I'm 34 and I just used my Dad's credit card.

I hadn't really realized that I had started praying about it, until I got into the car and received this answer "What does it matter if the money to buy summer clothes comes from your Father, your husband or your Father in Heaven."

What does it matter?

It's all a gift.

I mean, I'm not earning a penny right now. Every physical need that I have for myself and my children is covered by my husband mostly, with occasional gifts from my father and my father-in-law. Yet all of this comes from my Heavenly Father.

Why am I splitting hairs over whose name is on the credit card?

The answer is "secret pride."

You know that ugly pride that keeps hiding under nice sounding names like "being responsible with money."

It's socially acceptable to use your husband's money. It's not socially acceptable for an adult child to still "need" help from her Dad.

I would never, ever voluntarily pick to be humiliated in this way. When I was in my twenties, I thought that embracing "poverty" as a poverty lawyer would mean that I'd be skipping the $5 raspberry margaritas to embrace a meaningful work. I wanted to save the world while still wearing cute Anne Taylor suits.

(There are many, many glorious days in stay-at-home motherhood-- none of which gave me the slightest opportunity to wear a cute Anne Taylor suit.)

I drove on the highway pondering about the "virtue of poverty" and how far that concept seems to be lost on me now that I'm the one who accepts charity on other people's credit cards.

"It's like a spiritual seat belt."


(This is how the Holy Spirit works in my brain. A thought sort of floats on my inner consciousness which I never would have initiated. My first reaction is always "What are you talking about???)

A spiritual seat belt.

After a few more miles, my rational mind starts to warm up to this idea. A seat belt. I would never have made most of the spiritually sound decisions in my life, if we had extra money. Hannah would most likely be Catholic school, rather than being home-schooled, if we could have afforded her tuition. Jon & I would still survive the challenges of parenthood by going to the movies instead of reading the doctors of the Church. Would Carmel have half the appeal if I had a regular babysitter for my children?

Poverty is the seat belt that keeps me closely tied to my Heavenly Father's will.

There really isn't a way other than to be little, humble, prayerful and thankful since we don't really have enough money to do things "our way" anyway.

Someday, I might rejoice in that "blessed are the poor in spirit" bit. Meanwhile, I'm afraid I'm more like "materially poor but stubbornly proud in spirit".

This Lent is open season on my "sneaky pride" thing.

A Spiritual Bouquet for Conversion Diary Jennifer

You've nodded your head at the funny, insight posts of my friend Conversion Diary Jennifer. On Monday, Miss Jen will have her labor induced for a new wiggly little girl. You've read her unique quest of having to give birth with squeezing anti-blood clot boots. Now here is how you can help!

I'm starting a spiritual bouquet for Jennifer and her daughter. According the American Bible, a spiritual bouquet is "the offering of spiritual benefits gained from indulgenced prayers, Masses or other devotions which are given to another".

Here's what you can do. Click on the comments and let Jen know what act of prayer you will perform on her behalf. Ideas include: Rosaries, Divine Mercy Chaplets, Offering of Communion during Mass, or any other activity you would like to do for Jen.

We hope to see a smiley newborn baby girl on Twitter soon!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Beach Trip

Light Blogging next week as I'm off to a trip to the Beach with my clan.

(The funny part is that this actually counts as part of my Lenten Penance. I hate the beach. I have super fair Irish skin that gets the worst lobster sunburn imaginable. I hate the wind and the gritty sand sandwiches and the menacing seagulls. However, my husband is a beach bunny and all of my kids inherited his adoration of the ocean. At least I'll get to watch my family have fun while I hid under my beach umbrella and 50+ sunblock.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sing a New Song Onto the Lord

I just got back from my first ever Catholic retreat. My first time leaving my husband and my children overnight for four years. My very first time hanging out in silence with God for 72 hours.

I think my 40 days of Lent post series will all be about things I learned on my retreat. (Who knows how my blog and Lent will turn out since I'm trying now to be more about "Being" and less about "Doing." If you click her for six weeks and keep finding odd, short, unstructured posts you know I'm taking those "more Mary, less Martha" lessons to heart.)

I did want to share a completely unexpected outcome of vanishing for an entire weekend. My first act of solo parental discipline of Hannah on Monday ended with the usual "NO, Mommy, NO" tear festival. Then, she suddenly quit crying and started dancing on our breakfast chairs. While she danced, she made up her own, unique song.

Hannah's Song

"You better listen to your Mommy.

She's a very special woman.

Your Mom's a great woman.

She's a very lovable woman.

She's a great one."

These were Hannah's exact words. She had me write them down so she could sing her song to her Dad at night.

That's the power of hours of straight Adoration. You come home to the same kids, the same mess, the same "I don't want to sit on the naughty chair" problems. Jesus just happens to add in some extra incredible acts of beauty just to remind you that your vocation is pleasing to Him.

How to Know That Your House is Catholic

Hannah: "Mom, Alex just kicked me in the face . . .

But don't worry . . .

I already made him drink the whole jar of Holy Water.

Now he's extra Holy!"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Medieval Times

For the past two weeks, I've complimented Alex's interest in Knights with some in depth study of the Middle Ages. We found a great list of Children's games from that time period: stilts, piggyback rides, wrestled, climbing trees, marbles, balls, hoops & sticks, make-believe swords, tag, leapfrog and hopscotch. Hannah invented her own hoops game by rolling my wooden bamboo steamer around the house.

One of the "unit studies" I'm working on is the History of Medicine. We found a great book called "Medieval Medicine and the Plague by Lynne Elliot. There's nothing like see a doctor with a giant bird beak designed to stop the plague germs with fresh smelling flowers.

Of course, many of the Medieval History books have a lot of anti-Christian bias. One of Alex's Knight books shows the graphic burning of the stake of heretics by the Knights of Templar. (Weren't these Knights the heroes that built the first set of hospitals?) Other books complain that women only wanted to become nuns to get out of marriage.

The great Caldecott Honor book, "Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction" by David Macaulay starts with these words: "For hundreds of years the people of Europe were taught by the church that God was the most important force in their lives. If they prospered, they thanked God for his kindness. If they suffered, they begged for God's mercy, for surely God was punishing them." pg 1. This book celebrates the mastery of Medieval Architecture while ridiculing the engineers "outdated" belief in the Divine.

My favorite anti-Catholic lines come from the Medieval Medicine book. "People in the Middle Ages were not sure what cause diseases, including the Black Death. Many of their ideas came from their religious beliefs. They believe that God sent illnesses as punishment for people's sins or to test their strength and faith. The cure was to pray to God or give charity to the poor. Other people's theories about illnesses were based on scientific ideas of the time. They thought that the movement of the planets caused bad air, which affected people's health and caused diseases." (I love that astrology is classified as "scientific" while caring for the state of the soul is "ridiculous.")

One fiction book we love is "Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page" by Richard Platt. Fun illustrations, a poachers trial, and a jolly Saint Stephen's Day Party put us all back in time.

As a Catholic the study of the Middle Ages is fascinating, deep and familiar. This quote is from "Children and Games in the Middle Ages by Lynne Elliot. "The word "holiday" comes from "Holy Day", a special day in the Christian Church. Christmas and Easter were among the holiest days in medieval times." pg. 28. These days are still holy in my house. Here I thought I was living a retro 1950s life, but really I'm a 1050s type of gal!

Yet another reason that I'm happy to be teaching at home. Who knew anti-Christian bias in non-fiction history of the Middle Ages textbooks are as warped as the Marxist theories contained in 1950s Soviet history books?

Belated Our Lady of Lourdes Reflections

My sister-in-law’s Catholic Church has a giant plaster recreation of the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto behind the main alter. A soft spotlight hangs over a plaster statute of a kneeling St. Bernadette, and the vision of Our Lady practically glows in the dark cave.

I sat in this church with my nephews a few months after my conversion to Catholicism and thought “Good grief, that’s over kill!” I felt smug reassurance in my catechism that devotion to private revelations was optional. “I might be a Catholic now,” I sighed looking at the rough plastic face of St. Bernadette, “but I’ll never be one of those crazy, relic carrying, Lourdes water touting ones.”

Oh course, God had other plans.

Two years ago, my husband and I ordered “Song of Bernadette” from Netflix. That movie had us gasping in recognition. We were St. Bernadette’s parents. Her family is so human. I adore St. Bernadette’s mom. Her daughter is honored to see the Blessed Mother with her own eyes and her Mom replies: “All of this trouble, and now this! My daughter’s gone crazy and starts seeing things.” That would be my response. “We’re broke. Your sick and now you start seeing things!”

Through everything: the police arrest, the dismay of the nuns who are stumped that she saw Our Lady yet doesn’t know her catechism, severe asthma & poverty, there remained a simple young girl who told the truth. She stayed humble. She fought her pride.

St. Bernadette is a saint not because she saw the Mother of God fifteen times, but because she lived an exemplarily life as nun who united prayer and suffering.

So I love St. Bernadette. She reminds me that suffering is “like sugar.” She’s the antidote to my greed, my pride, and my vain intelligence. She reminds me that Faith is not defined as knowing the all the answers to Bible trivia or quoting St. Augustine’s definition of the Trinity. Faith is much deeper and more profound than mere book knowledge.

Instead, Faith is hearing a strange Holy wind, getting frightened, pulling a rosary our of your pocket and praying some Hail Mary’s with the Mother of God.

The Imitation of Christ

The Imitation of Christ*

“None of us is fit to receive the understanding of heavenly things if we have not submitted ourselves to bear adversities for Christ.

Nothing is more acceptable to God, nothing is more profitable to you in this world than to suffer cheerfully for Christ.

And if you had to choose, you should rather choose adversity for Christ than to be refreshed by a multitude of consolations, because in this way you would be more like Christ and his saints.

For our merit and our spiritual advancement does not consist in comforts and sweetness, but in bearing great adversities and trying experiences.” pg. 115

Prayer: Lord, give me a cheerful heart. Let me suffer cheerfully for you.

*The Imitation of Christ is a book written by an Augustine monk, named Thomas a Kempis, around 1430. It was a favorite read by Theresa the Little Flower. I picked up the 2008 Revised English translation from Paraclete Press as my birthday present from that beloved Pauline Bookstore in Old Town, Alexandria.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Turning Your Back on the World

In one of the grace filled moments that Conversion Diary Jen talks about, my Mom called me in the midst my son's full scale temper tantrum this morning.

My four year old son is going through some sort of "disintegration" period as the parenting manuals so helpfully put it. To give you an idea of the recent magnitude, Alex's usual punishment for stealing his baby sister's pacifier in the car is the removal of a shoe. (There are only so many punishments you can administer inside a car hurling down a D.C. freeway. We found out by accident that one of my son's currency is to always have a pair of his favorite Spiderman shoes on both feet.) The threat of a shoe removal was always a "sure fire" method in our correction tool belt. On Sunday, Alex was so terrible on the car ride to Alexandria he lost both shoes and both socks. My husband ripped off that last sock at the Pentagon Exit, and looked at me in horror. We had miles to go before the King Street Exit and no leverage left!

Then on Monday, my husband kindly suggested using his AMC movie Christmas gift card and to take the kids to see "Hotel for Dogs." My son started immediately screaming "I will not see a movie about Dogs! I will not see it! NO DOGS!" Of course, fifty minutes later he's laughing hysterically with both sisters about the jinx of a homeless mutt.

Today when my Mom called me at 11:00 AM, my son was losing his cool yet again about my enforcement of the one hour computer time limit.

So it wasn't rare that I struggled to enforce a time outs with a strong willed, and strong armed four year old, but it was extremely rare that my Mom chose to call me. Usually, I call her. As in that's such a pattern in our telephone conversations that the last time she's call me in the past five years was to report my paternal grandmother's death.

So it's sort of rare for me to pick up a ringing phone and hear my Mom's voice on the line.

"I'm in court," she says happily. Then "what's going on?"

As I report the current time out battle with Alex, she burst into giggles. "That's what they say, four, four four..." (My Mom is a Educational Professor who specializes in Child Development, so "they" refers to someone official like Piaget, Dewey, Erickson, one of her favorites.)

So my Mom kindly listens as I retell my weekend and state that I'm expecting a call from the Geneva Convention since Alex has officially decided that making him watch Nickelodeon movies starring dogs is a new form of torture. She doesn't have any advice other than "You just live through it" which is really one of the most reassuring and most helpful things a fellow parent can say.

Then when we've exhausted the subject of her grandson, my Mom says "I'm in court. Whenever I'm in court I think about you and I have to tell you that you made such a right decision quiting law. The law is so boring."

To which I reply "What are you talking about?" Meaning, you've never thought it was a good idea for me to have multiple children, let alone quit my job to take care of them, where is this change of heart coming from?

Yet my Mom takes this comment to mean that I've never recognized before that the practice of law is dull.

"Abby admit it," she tells me. "The Law is really boring. I just came from a hearing where the school's lawyer droned on and on about 'rational nexus.' She insisted there must be a 'rational nexus' between the misconduct and public safety. Abby, I don't know why these people plead guilty to a crime and then tell us "I didn't do it so don't take away my teaching license." Don't you think it's foreseeable that if they plead guilty to a crime that then they might also lose their right to teach? Isn't that a 'rational nexus?'

And I don't know why these lawyers have to drag out these cut and dry cases all afternoon! It seems like the more simple a case in on paper, the more some lawyer has to drag out the court hearing. One of my fellow jury members found an Anne Klein suit on sale for $20 at the Mall last night. She promised herself that she'd run downtown and pick up that suit after we finished our case at noon. Now we're not going to get done by lunch. We've still got six witnesses to go & we just found out they reserved this courtroom until 5 PM. We're going to be in this hearing until dinner!"

(That's my Mom on her freelance job as a juror for teaching license removal hearings in our State Capital. It's hard to see which makes her more indignant, felons thinking they can remain as public school teachers, boring lawyers or missed Anne Klein sales.)

"So honey, I know exactly why you quit being a lawyer. You made the right call."

At this point Alex's shrieks stop only long enough for me to hear the crashes of all of his and Hannah's toys coming off their shelves. In his anger at being confined to a "room time out" as opposed to a simple "chair time out", Alex has decided to destroy his bedroom. I cringe as I think of the hours we spent organizing all of the kids' toys yesterday on Jon's day off. "So I made the right call . . ." I said distractedly.

"You made the right call!" my Mom said with assurance. "I told all my friends in the jury room, this is exactly why my daughter quit practicing law. That law job was way beneath her talents. She needed to focus on something worthwhile. So now she raises her kids!".

That made me laugh. "Raising my kids." It makes me sound like I'm raising prize winning geraniums or something.

Anyway, I drank it all in.

That's grace. Sometimes Mommy Mary will show up herself to straighten out your life. Sometimes she'll send your own Mother. Either way, you'll always get a steady pat on the back for leaving worldliness behind and helping to build up the Kingdom of Christ.

If You Pray in the Chaos of Calcutta, You've got Good Company

Sunday was Carmelite Day and I have a fun story to share.

A mother in our Aspirant Class asked for advice for how to fit handle Carmel's requirement for thirty minuets a day of "prayer of the quiet" in a house with young children. I confessed that although I'm not hitting that goal each day yet, I did find it helpful to follow the suggestion to break up the prayer time into two fifteen minute segments.

"One fifteen minute segment I do at night with Jon after the kids are in bed. But the morning one, I have to do it in the midst of chaos of everyone."

I explained that we have a two bedroom apartment. Our Marian alter is in the dining room/living room which is one big space. I found that if I try to pray in one of the bedroom, a fight will usually break out. Yet if I just set the timer and start to pray in dining room, the kids can see me and are content.

"So I just do my "quiet prayer" in the midst of all the chaos. Sometimes the TV is on. Sometimes the kids are jumping on furniture. I try to pray anyway. I figure learning how to tune out all those loud, external distractions is a good practice because inside my mind is still noisy, mindless distractions anyway."

My class leader go so excited at this comment.

"If you Pray in the Chaos of Calcutta, You've got Good Company!" she said.

She reported that her eldest two children just returned from a pilgrimage to the original convent of Blessed Mother Theresa in Calcutta, India. They prayed in the same room as this saint. The surprising thing was that the convent was so noisy. It was one big room that was poorly made. There was lots of sound from clattering carts, and sick people needing help, and loud noises from the street.

"We think of Mother Theresa as having this perfect serene place to meet God. Yet that whole relationship was created by praying in this imperfect, noisy place."

Mother Theresa pray for us. Help us to tune out the noisy distractions of the world and listen to the small, still voice of God.


On Friday, I leave for my first ever Catholic retreat. I'm leaving my husband, my three kids, my arthritic dog, probably a huge pile of stained laundry, and I'm going to hang out alone with God for seventy-two hours.

I'm terrified!

This is supposed to be great. This is every mother's dream. Time to say a TWENTY decade rosary without interruptions from small people asking for one more drink of water or help in finding the lost Bionicle arm. Time to pray after Communion. Time to chat leisurely with other women over lunch without worrying that every extra minute stolen at Panera away from the grouchy sick kids is another minute directly subtracted from your husband's life expectancy.

So what am I feeling instead?

Dread. Terror. Anger. Anxiety.

I'm worried about what God is going to say to me as he snatches me out of my regular life.

The last time I went on something close to a religious pilgrimage was a trip to Ireland in 2002. You remember how that ended, of course, me deciding that this Catholic stuff was real and throwing away some sinful condoms. Seven years later life has changed dramatically. Here I am now-- a Daily Mass going, stay-at-home, home-schooling mother of three who desperately wishes for another baby.

Part of me feels like: "I don't want my life shaken up anymore!"

While the outside corners of my life look the same, same apartment, same telephone number, same iffy Verizon internet connection- inside my life is changing at lightening speed. There are all of these new concepts, new stretching exercises, new painful pulling out of the root causes of sin. I don't recognize myself on the inside from the girl who attended a Papal Mass in April.

All that change has left me grouchy and depleted.

I'm in need of a spiritual rest.

I guess that's why God's pulling me into a Catholic retreat.

Prayer: St. John of the Cross, You said "So... do not be like many heartless people who have a low opinion of God; they think that when they cannot understand him or sense or feel him, he is further away- when the truth is more the opposite: it is when they understand him less clearly, that they are coming closer to him"*. St John of the Cross, pray for me to not be a heartless person. Pray for me to gain the virtues of courage and perseverance.

*(Spiritual Canticle, second redaction 1. 12).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Our Lady of Lourdes

St. Bernadette is such a dear saint to us. Yesterday we have a lovely Our Lady of Lourdes Day.

At Daily Mass, Father Avelino described how he made a pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1998 to pray for help in discerning his vocation to the priesthood. As he lay down in the water, he committed himself to the church in a second baptism. Then during the 150 anniversary year in 2008, he celebrated Mass in Our Lady's Chapel.

I heard this whole homily while pacing in the back with baby Maria. I remembered my prayer to Our Lady on Dec 31, 1999 and how it ended with a rich family life and a wiggly baby in my arms. It's unbelievable there are so many "taps" into the priesthood, religious life, and married life in the late 1990s. It makes me think the church is ready for a new springtime in Faith.

Then we had a simple Our Lady of Lourdes Tea with a new friends from our parish. Marissa came over with two of her four girls. We had pretzel sticks for St. Bernadette's "wood" and flower butter cookies for the yellow roses on Our Lady's feet.

Last year we shared this feast day with Maria from Ordinary Time and she shared with us her visit to see the uncorrupted body of St. Bernadette at Nevers. This year our guest Marissa shared with us the impact of seeing a real miracle happen at Lourdes.

Here's Marissa's story: "we saw this severely disabled boy get plunged in the water and come out saying "Mama." You could tell by the families reaction that they had never heard their son speak before. Then this group of priest came out and ushered the family into a quiet chapel to deal with this miracle. They were all organized about it, you could that sort of thing happened all the time."

I loved Marissa's observation that these miracles happen all the time at Lourdes. There are priests just "hanging out" by the fountain--ready to to help you deal the amazing miracle of your kid talking for the first time in ten years. What wonderful gifts of Faith our guests bring!

This year I'm reading "Bernadette Speaks: A Life of Saint Bernadette Soubrous in Her Own Words" by Rene Laurentin. This is a rigorous history done by a priest published by the Pauline Sisters. Reading this book feeds by brain and my heart.

If you haven't seen "Bernadette" by French filmmaker Jean Delannoy, rent it from Netflix. This is the movie that made this vision come alive for me. Jon & I saw so much of ourselves in the less than perfect Soubirous parents. I love it when Louise Sourbirous points to the mildewed walls of the family home & shouts "All this trouble and now this! My daughter is now seeing things and going crazy in her mind!" That would probably be my first response to my daughter informing me that she's been the recipient of the incredible gift of a Holy Vision of the Mother of God. The Soubirous are a real inspiration that all parents can work with God's Will to make their children into Saints.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Saint Isidore the Farmer

Jon & I pray a very simple prayer to the St. Isidore the Farmer's angels whenever church commitments seem to conflict with the necessities of work or home life.

(St. Isidore was a medieval farmer who reported to work late because he attended Daily Mass. His co-workers grumbled to their boss, but since the angels came down to help St. Isidore with his plowing after Mass his productivity didn't leave much grounds for complaint. You can read more about this humble, married saint at :

Yesterday, I left home for the St. Paul lecture at 7:00 PM at a bad time. Jon was in the midst of an ugly discipline moment with Alex. The house was beyond a disaster. And I faced company the next day for an Our Lady of Lourdes feast. When I shut the front door, everything in me wanted to turn back. I knew that when I came back at 9:30, there be so much work left to do & I also felt terrible leaving Jon alone to deal with sick, grouchy kids.

I also knew there was this seat waiting for me at this heavenly banquet of Scripture study. Jon and I are taking turns attending Tuesday lectures because we don't have a babysitter. It was my turn and somehow despite all the chaos at home, it seemed better to sit in a too small chair in the library of the parish school listening to Father Avelino.

So I got into my car and prayed a short prayer, "St. Isidore angels, you know I'm leaving a lot of work at home. Please be there to help me when I come home tonight."

I attend an amazing lecture on 1 Corinthians. I discovered that this holy woman who is in the Spanish Legion of Mary has grandchildren ages 3 & 5 who live seconds from my house.

Then I came home-- to an immaculate house with a clean stove AND fresh aluminum coverings on stove burners. "That's such a good idea honey! What an easy way to clean up messes," I said.

"I know. I don't know what made me think of it tonight."

That's when I realize that we've been married seven years and we've never thought of this easy way to prevent messy stoves. I notice that my husband is STILL cleaning at 9:45 PM. This man who was ready to collapse from sickness & exhaustion after work at 5:30 PM. I truly left the house thinking that Jon was going to sleep about fifteen seconds after he got Alex & Hannah to brush their teeth & head into bed.

There was supposed to be mountains of housework after I returned from my St. Paul lecture. Instead, all I had left to do was to say my rosary and crawl into bed. I snuggled into those covers so convinced that Jesus loved me.

So say that prayer whenever you get overwhelmed and are tempted to skip a church event. I don't know if the angels actually pick up the broom for you, or if they just inspire your loved ones with supernatural productivity. There are only 24 hours in a day, so your prayers and your Scripture study and your fellowship time are going to cut down on the time available to do housework. We're just blessed as Catholics that God is able to multiple the loaves somehow so that we don't have to chose between developing a deep appreciation for St. Paul & having a clean stove.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Heart is What Makes a Ballerina a Ballerina, not Her Leotard.

At 4:50 PM yesterday, I realized that I lost Hannah’s ballet leotard.

We live in Washington D.C., a city renowned for it’s horrid traffic congestion. Every weekday, men and women sit in traffic for an average of four hours a day. From 8 AM to 10 AM, and 5 PM to 7 PM all the major highways and popular “back road” passes shut down.

This problem is especially acute for those of us who live in Maryland. Eighty-five percent of Maryland's state population lives along one sixty mile stretch of highway that leads from Baltimore to Washington D.C. Even without a daily commute, I still run my life around rush hour traffic. To cope, I use a multiplier of “six” to estimate potential traffic delays. If a kid has a doctor’s appointment at 8:30 AM or a ballet lesson at 6 PM, I estimate that it will take me six times longer to get there during rush hour.

All of this background explains why 4:50 PM, I had exactly 36 minutes to find Hannah's leotard, dress her in the leotard and black ballet tights, pin her hair in a secure bun, find her missing black ballet shoes, and buckle her seat belt, (along with her two younger siblings properly outfitted in their own winter coats, scarves and mittens) in order to make it on time for a ballet lesson at six o'clock.

The incomparable Ms. Meetz, Hannah's ballet teacher, does insist that her students show proper respect by being on time, properly dressed & stretched and with hair that is properly secured and hazard free.

So at 4:40 PM when for the 1500 time on a Monday when Hannah begs, “Can I please put on my leotard? Is it time yet for baaaaa-lllll-eeett!”

I look up from my email to the computer clock and realized: “Wow, we are actually in danger of running late today.”

“It’s time! Go find your leotard and your ballet shoes.” I delegate this simple job to the almost grown-up five year old of the house while I start to finding missing socks for the non-verbal and less-obedient members of Benjamin clan.

‘I can’t find my leotard!’ comes a familiar call five seconds later.

“It’s in the Hall closet, in a white Target bag,” I call back.

Without a moment of pause, Hannah says, “I looked in the Hall closet. I can’t find it.”

“I know I put it in there while I cleaned up for the party today. Look again.” I answer firmly.

“Mom. I can’t. PLEASE!” The dramatic please takes up all 800 square feet of our small apartment.

I join my daughter at the Hall closet. The white plastic Target bag containing the hot pink ballet leotard and the separate white plastic Payless bag containing a pair of size 13 black ballet shoes and 2 extra pair of black ballet tights are both missing.

At noon, five hours before, both bags were sitting on the pile of shoes by the front door. They had gotten stashed somewhere in the forty minutes of clean-up time before our Candle mass party at 2 PM.

For the next twenty minutes Hannah and I searched and prayed fervently to St. Jude. I have absolutely no memory of where I moved Hannah's ballet things.

We search in the closet we search in the kitchen. We search in the laundry baskets; we search in the “catch all” dining room hutch. I search her dresser drawers, I search her clothes closet. We eventually find the Payless bag which contained two pairs of tights hanging up on a hanger under a winter coat, and the ballet shoes wrapped in a box hidden under 15 pairs of unused summer shoes in the bottom of the Hall closet. Rather than helping, these finds convince me that my mental state during the frantic clean up was a bit disordered. I have no idea where I could have easily stashed a beloved hot pink leotard in the five minutes before guests arrive.

The Lord gave me my beloved husband for many reasons, not the least because I’m, in my own family’s words “not a good looker.”

Here’s how my husband approaches something that is mislaid. “Hmmm. This is an interesting puzzle. I wonder where the item would logically be?” With the ease of someone completing a Sunday cross-word puzzle he starts at a logical corner and easily moves out in concentric circles. He has the calm expression while he searches as someone who completes astrophysics problems for fun.

Here’s I how I look for something. “I can’t believe it’s gone. I can’t believe it’s GONE! I spent ninety minutes at Payless today tracking down the elusive size 13 ballet shoes with three kids in tow. And last Monday, I spent 120 minutes at Target tracking down the elusive size 6X leotard with three kids in tow. Now it’s only lesson two, and we’ve already lost all the pieces of the ballet costume. AHHH!”

I’m sure every mother can relate to these moments.

Here’s where I’m unique. I have a social anxiety disorder. It never occurs me to that it is permissible to send your kid to ballet lessons without her ballet leotard.

In my mind, good mothers are responsible, competent and respectful. Good mothers have kids who show up on time for lessons, with their hair pinned back, dressed as the instructor requested and ready to jointly experience the Art of Dance.

Hannah's love for dance class is so intense, she's turned her ballet teacher, Ms. Meetz, into a beloved, strict aunt. I trembled at the thought of “disrespecting” Ms. Meetz's class with sloppy sweatpants. In my disordered, socially anxious mind, a lost leotard is equal to blowing a raspberry in Ms. Meetz’s face.

When I get anxious, my thoughts start to spiral and I get tempted to slide into sin. “This is an impossible job, mothering.” I started to say in a well-worn interior monologue. “Who can expect me to entertain, cook dinner and keep on top of the ballet costume. . . “

When I start the inner-pity party it’s ease to lose my temper and start yelling at whoever is currently preventing my “very important work” at the moment. Sometimes that’s my husband, Sometimes that’s one of my children, Sometimes that’s myself. The yelling fest that follows is always, always awful.

Yesterday, I had this sharp sticking point of truth. Yesterday, was the feast day of my Beloved Spiritual Mother.

Even in my distracted, anxious state, I knew that Truth. You can’t host a beautiful Candle mass party for nine young children, and then turn around fifty minutes and start yelling at your own children. That yelling fest is going to be the part that sticks in their minds, not the lovely blue tulle party favors.

“You can’t yell right now,” I warned myself in the second person. “That is going to undo all the work you did today on that party for Mommy Mary.”

So I kept my temper.

I cried anxious tears. I rumbled through a lot of carefully packed items. I urgently retold the same thing to Hannah “I’ve got no idea where you ballet leotard is honey. Only St. Jude knows. We’re going to have to pray to him to help us.”

I knew that St. Jude knew where I’d stashed the missing leotard. I also knew that I wasn’t finding the leotard.

Slowly it downed on me that maybe I wasn’t supposed to find it. Maybe the best way to honor my Blessed Mother wasn’t by being “perfect” or having the Saints help make up my mistakes, but by putting Hannah in some less than fantastic clothes and having her attend ballet lessons anyway.

I found Hannah’s Gap skirt that looked like a ballet uniform and her double sleeved pink & grey cotton shirt with the giant red heart embroidered on it. I put it on the bed as an alternative.

Several more moments passed. I kept looking, I didn’t find anything. (I’m such a bad “looker,” I think Hannah was the one who found her own missing ballet tights.).

At 5:15, I admitted defeat. I got Hannah’s long hair pinned up in a secure bun. Hannah, of course, after watching her Mother freak out inside Hall closets for twenty-five minutes was in panicked state herself.

“I can’t go to ballet class without my leotard!" she whined. "It’s my favorite one!!!!”

“I know, honey,” I said with more gentleness. “I lost your leotard. My job, however, is also to get your hair pinned up and get you to dance class one time. We don’t want to be late for class on top of everything.”

A friend called to check in for a later chat. It felt good to hear her voice because on top of everything else, on Monday I’d started my period. This event marks the ninth month of a straight “no” to our “please let us have another baby” prayers during our nightly rosary. On those days I’m so tender now. I took the loss of a leotard as a mental “See I can’t handle the three children I currently have well, so that’s why God isn’t giving me a fourth.” I haven’t even connected my fragile mood with my period until I heard the reassuring warmth of my friends voice. (Thank you Meredith!)

I’d had gotten all three kids into their seatbelts in the back of our PT Cruiser at 5:25 PM, when my husband showed up on his bike. (My husband bikes to work to allow me to have our one car. He’s a gem).

“I got home as I could. Can you take out Maria and Alex while I go look?” he said.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to look.” I said. “She’s already in the car. I’ve got to get going soon because of rush hour traffic.”

My husband took the chin-strap off his bike helmet and said seriously, “What is she going to wear! Let me look.”

I realized that my two desperate requests for advice and joint prayers to St. Jude during my desperate hunt for the leotard have convinced my beloved spouse that this is an emergency equal to Alex’s bloody, needed three stitches lip. (Actually, Jon was more calm when I reported that I was off to Urgent Care with a bleeding Alex than he was last night with the news that Hannah would be the only one out of fourteen ballerinas without a leotard. He didn’t rush home early from work on the “our boy needed three stitches” day.)

Now that my spouse was convinced this was a tragedy, there was nothing to do but check my “this won’t be so bad as long as we’re not late” plan and follow him into the house. I left Hannah in her car seat and carried out Maria and Alex. I stayed in the house, thinking that I could help Jon look. Since I’m not a good looker, my help consistently mainly of holding a crying from a sore tooth Maria. I sat on a chair and rocked the sad, sad baby. I watched the digital numbers change on the electric clock.

“Jon, it’s already 5:35.”

“I’m going to find it. Just give me a moment,” he called from deep in our bedroom closets.

I rocked sad Maria back and forth. I watched the numbers change from 5:39 to 5:42. “Don’t say anything” I commanded my agitated lips.

Finally, at 5:43 Jon came to my chair and sad “I can’t find it.”

“I need to go now because of traffic. Pull the Lasagna out of the over when the timer goes off. We’re going to be fine,” I asserted firmly as I handed a doubtful husband my sleepy baby Maria.

When I got to the car, poor Hannah was a crying mess. “Why did you leave me out here for so long! Where is my leotard.”

“We didn’t find it, honey. I’m sorry.” I gave her a little hug and got her seatbelt refastened.

This was not the answer my five year old wanted to hear. “I can’t go to ballet without my leotard. It’s my favorite. I can’t go!”

“Hannah,” I said meeting her gaze. “We can stay home. You can do a make-up class. But think about how sad your teacher will be today without you. You can do the class without the leotard. The heart is what makes a ballerina a ballerina, not her leotard.”

Taking her mystified look as permission, I got myself strapped into the front seat and shifted into reverse.

“What are you talking about the heart of the ballerina, Mom?” Hannah asked through gulps of air.

“Your heart is what makes you a ballerina. Not your costume.” I said with Holy Spirit confidence.

Driving in awful traffic across two major highways, I had the pleasure of telling my oldest about my role as Peasblossum in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream. I was only nine, but a real costume designer from New York City made my fairy costume. I had a big speech which opened the whole Enchanted Forest scene. I got to dance around with these gorgeous frothy sea green wings. My wings dropped off my arms and danced around during my speech.

During one performance, I forgot my wings in the green room. I was ready to turn back to get my needed wings, when Oberon (an adult) caught me. “You don’t have time to go back. Your cue is coming.”

“I need my wings. I can’t do my opening speech without them!” I pleaded.

“You’re Peasblossum, with or without your wings” Oberon insisted.

I went on stage and felt naked, without my wings,” I told Hannah in the car. “I found out that people believed in the Enchanted forest because of me—not my fabulous designed in New York City costume.”

“I just shared with Hannah the subject of my college admission essay,” I thought. I also remembered that kind Oberon died of complications from AIDS about six years after our meaningful conversation. I was in the middle of a prayer for his soul when Hannah’s voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Mommy, what does 5 5 5 mean.” Asked Hannah reading the dashboard clock. “Do my lessons start at 5 5 5? Are we going to be late????”

In front of us there was a solid row of red brake lights. We were in the midst of yet another traffic jam.

I covered up the clock with my left hand. “We on God’s time now, Hannah, we’re going to get there on time.” In my mind, I refused to mentally review how many times I had checked the clock earlier inside our house. “It’s important to listen to your husband” I repeated calmly to myself. “God will take care of it.”

We got lost. Hannah’s ballet class takes place in the posh dance room of a posh new middle school in a brand new, almost looks fake subdivision. All of the streets in the subdivision look exactly the same. I ended up on some dead-end street with no middle school in sight.

“We’re on God’s time. It’s Mary’s Day.” I kept reassuring myself as I drove lost through the suburb.

We did make it. We were the last student who slipped inside the door as Ms. Meetz started to close it at 6:01. I’d frantically changed Hannah from street shoes into ballet shoes immediately outside the door.

“Oh you forgot her shirt” a grandmother called in a thick Spanish accent. “Do you want me to open this door?”

I looked at her in confusion. “You forgot to change her out of her tee shirt. My mom just wanted to remind you,” a younger mom said with clearer and more confident English.

“She’s only wearing a tee-shirt,"I sighed. "I lost Hannah’s leotard today. It’s missing. That’s why we are late.”

The two ladies nodded sympathetically. “Oh yes. It’s so hard.” Their daughter (and granddaughter) was named Iris. We had a friendly chat about five year olds and ballet lessons and a necessary love of pink while looking through the windows of the dance studio.

Because my husband had kindly come home to watch Alex and Maria, I had an unusual amount of time to chat and to gaze for a long time through a door window at Hannah. She’s so big. She commands that room with such confidence. All the former sadness and panic were gone.

Afterwards I walked through the middle school hallway and gazed curiously at the Art Displays.

At about 5:45 PM, as clear as day the voice of my former therapist came into my head. “It’s not a crime to lose a ballet leotard.”

Giving birth to my second newborn in eighteen months, and the no job, no health insurance, and parental disapproval that accompanied this second birth, triggered my first experience with panic attacks in January 2005. While I termed everything in my life "a mess," there was one particular thing that lead to repeated panic attacks. I’d misplaced Alex’s social security card in the hazy post-partum period after his birth in October 2004. Our urgent need for a tax refund in early January of 2005, meant that I faced the unpleasant task of appearing in person at the Social Security Office in Madison, Wisconsin in order to request a duplicate card. My mind shut-down in fear. I had heart palpitations when I thought about facing a United States government employee and having to admit that I'd lost such an important, official document as my son's Social Security Card.

I needed help. I found a therapist who was so kind and gentle with me. I think we spent a full one hour session on this single issue. She said “I understand that you’ve got a sensitivity to authority figures in your life, and this unknown stranger in the Social Security office stands for the full authority of the United States Government in your mind, however, it’s only a lost card, it’s not a crime.”

Me, the girl who aced three years of Law School Exams, looked at her with skepticism.

“Oh, it’s a crime.” I responded.

My therapist looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“It’s sort of like a crime,” I asserted.

My therapist calmly replied “It’s not a crime.”

“It’s bad. I'm irresponsible. I lost an official piece of mail from the United States Government that I was supposed to safeguard for my minor child.” I said.

“A lost card social security card is unfortunate. It might even cause this unknown government agent to have to do a lot of extra work. It might be a big hassle to go wait for three hours in the Social Security Office waiting room with a newborn. However, it’s not a crime!"

"Abby, if you show up and say that you lost Alex’s Social Security Card they are not going to lock you in jail. You’ve got to start telling your panicked mind: THIS IS NOT A CRIME!”

“This is not a crime,” is the mantra we used through three months of therapy to get my mind out of the frequent anxiety/panic attacks as a new mother and back into more normal functioning mindset.

When a gentle voice said: “It’s not a crime” in my mind at 6:40 PM in the middle of Lakeland Middle School it was a mental short hand for all kinds of reassuring thoughts and feelings.

I realized in that hallway that I’d blown this leotard thing all out of proportion.

I'd let my disordered thinking see an emergency when there wasn't one in front of me. Moreover, on their, Hannah and Jon probably wouldn't have blinked at the "no leotard for ballet class thing." They are both very balanced, calm individuals. Yet because they loved me, my daughter and my husband had followed me on this trail of anxiety and panic. I’d caused Jon to leave work early. I’d caused Hannah to cry and get anxious.

The Mom is the emotional center for the family. I might never heal this social anxiety and my great fear of upsetting authority figures. That weakness already has a negative impact on my family.

Yet at the same moment that I realized that sad thought, I also had this happy one.

I didn’t yell.

I didn’t yell.

I had a panic attack on the high range of a seven or eight and yet I didn’t yell. I didn’t fall into sin.

By me not yelling, Jon and Hannah could recover fairly easily and painlessly. Their night wasn’t “ruined” due to their own hurt and black responsive mood. Hannah was happily dancing out her heart now and Jon was tending to a teething baby and rescuing almost burnt lasagna.


I might never be able to be a) the Competent Mom who doesn’t misplace hot pink leotards or the Social Security Cards of newborns, or b) the laid-back Mom who rolls with the punches.

I might always be the Mom who floats between slightly frazzled and overwhelming frazzled. Yet I could model resilience. I could model how to have an amazing “I got to be line leader even without my leotard” for my daughter or a “we can work together under an urgent traffic deadline” for my husband.

A gentle, yet still imperfect Mom is a good goal for me.

I love feast days in the Catholic Church. I love the minor days, the ones no one notices in the daily rush of Ordinary Time. The liturgical year is filled with mini Ash Wednesdays. Times that stretch us with feast and fasting.

Happy Candle mass Our Lady. I love you

Monday, February 2, 2009

Happy Candlemass!

Today is the Feast Day of the Presentation of the Lord, or Candlemass. (See Luke 2:22-40)

Today marked our first year of actually getting to church on this beautiful feast day. Hannah and I decorated a candle with blue ribbon, blue flowers and white turtle doves. Alex had a "manly" candle with an inscribed cross on it's pristine white wax. Both candles were promptly dropped in the dirty gravel on our way to church. Yet I felt peace. It's always better to have dirty Holy candles & noisy children in front of a friendly priest for the special Candlessmass blessing on February 2, than to have no children and pristine Holy Candles!

This afternoon we will have friends over to celebrate Mrs. Alice Gunther's amazing "Candlemass Tea. (By the way, I can think of no greater tribute to Mrs. Gunther's engaging "how to extend Christian hospitality" tips on her website and recent book "Haystack full of Needles" than to give the example of my own transformation. Before finding Cottage Blessings, you could not have found a more retiring shy violet when it came to playing the hostess. Jon and I moved into this apartment in 2005 with two kids ages 2 and 1. We didn't even have our parents over to eat! If my parents were hungry when they stopped by, I took them to the Italian restaurant across the street.

Alice made me realize that your apartment is never too small, your kids are never too noisy, and you are never too "unprepared" to make use of your little domestic church to the wider community. Her engaging teas practically BEG to be shared with other families. She also develops an inviting long list of Catholic 'club' ideas for joint home-schooling projects to encourage "socialization."

In 2007, I started with a teeny St. Nicholas Party with Maria, from Ordinary Time and her delightful clan. In the past two weeks in 2009, I hosted a coffee for our parish priest, a meatloaf dinner for an African immigrant, and a Candlemass party for young nine kids. The virtue of Christian hospitality is an underused treasure today. Visit Ms. Gunther's site and get some tips from a Catholic Master.

For more Candlemass ideas, "vist the Loveliness of Candlemass Fair 2007 still posted by Blessed Among Men.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Saint John Bosco-Feast Day 1/31

"It seems to me that the words of the Holy Gospel which speak to us of the Divine Saviour come down from heaven to earth to gather together all the children of God scattered all over the world, could be applied literally to the young people of our times. They constitute the most vulnerable yet valuable section of human society. We base our hopes for the future on them, and they are not of their nature depraved. Were it not for struggling parents, idleness, mixing in bad company, it would be so easy to inculcate in their young hearts the principles of order, of good behaviour, of respect, of religion, because if they are ruined at that age, it is due more to carelessness than to ingrained malice. These young people truly have need of some kind person who will take care of them, work with them, guide them in virtue, keep them away from harm. .....

Sometimes it might seem to us that a young person was taking no notice of our advice, whilst deep inside they were well-disposed to cooperate, and meanwhile we were ruining him by our harshness which they cannot understand. ....

Everything at its proper time, says the Holy Spirit. When there is the need to punish, great prudence is required to choose the right moment. Nothing is more dangerous than a cure applied incorrectly, or at the wrong moment. We can get to know the right moment only from experience which has been fine-tuned by the goodness of our hearts. First of all then, wait until you are in control of yourselves; do not let it be understood that you are acting because of a bad mood, or in anger. .....

Young people often need convincing that we have confidence in their ability to improve, and feel there is a kindly hand to help them. You can get more with a friendly look, with a word of encouragement that gives his heart new courage, than you can with repeated blame, which serves only to upset, and weaken enthusiasm. Using this system, I have seen real conversions among those one would otherwise have believed impossible. All youngsters have their off-days - you have had them yourselves! ....

Remember that education is a matter of the heart, of which God is the sole master, and we will be unable to achieve anything unless God teaches us, and puts the key in our hands. Let us strive to make ourselves loved, and we will see the doors of many hearts open with great ease, and join with us in singing praises and blessing of Him who wished to make himself our model, our way, our example in everything, but especially in the education of the young." John Bosco - 1883