Advent

from mama to mommy

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He picked it up over Thanksgiving, the inevitable result of spending the week with two older cousins he adores. All their echoes of “Mommy” must have kept ringing in his head long after the plane touched back down in snowy Minnesota, because ever since then I’ve been “Mommy,” too.

And it takes some getting used to.

I never meant to be anti-Mommy. It’s what I remember calling my own mom in my earliest memory, so of course it’s a name filled with love. But when it came time to babble at my own babies, Mama came more naturally.

Blog 002Maybe it was all those Romance languages bubbling around in my head, with their lilting “a”s and their sharing of these most basic words in every tongue.

Maybe it was because its two-syllable cadence closely mirrored my own first name, and I could adjust more easily to the title (and the idea) of motherhood when it reflected what I knew best.

Or maybe it was because it echoed my babies’ own first words, the mouths of little ones full of repeating sounds that over time smoothed into recognizable language.

Whatever the reason, I always loved Mama.

And now, with him, I have to let it go.

. . .

I am starting to learn a few strong truths about parenting from these early years that I suspect will endure till my own children are bringing their families back home for Thanksgiving.

One of these is that I cannot control who my children are or what they need. I can only respond to them as best I know how, with the love and wisdom I’m given at that time.

He does not need Mama now. Of course he needs me, but he is becoming his own boy, full of his own view of the world and his own playful use of the language he is coming to command. He needs to move on when he is ready, and he needs me to catch up.

He needs me to let him go, little by little, word by word. So that when the bigger steps come - the kindergarten bus and the solo bike ride round the neighborhood and the sleepovers and the middle school dance and the driver’s license and the high school graduation – I will be practiced in all these smaller releases.

This has always been the way mother love works.

But every goodbye is a tiny sorrow, too. A turning from the comfort of what was to the unknown of what will be.

. . .

For a few days my husband kept wrinkling his nose every time he overheard “Mommy.”

“When’s he going to drop that?” he grumbled, himself the bearer of “Babbo,” an Italian endearment for daddy. Maybe he saw himself next, losing that link to his own father and the family he loves.

(Or maybe the nasally whine so easily attached to Mommeeeeeee was starting to grate on him, too.)

“I don’t know,” I shrugged as we each stood at half of the kitchen sink, rinsing the dinner dishes.

“Maybe it’s just a phase.”

Or not, it seems. Every day the insistence grows stronger: Mommy, can you help me? Mommy, can you get my breakfast? Mommy, what’s 72-31? Mommy, will you read my story for bed tonight?

Once in a while when he cries, from a bumped knee or a brotherly wrong or the sheer exhaustion of being four, he still calls out for Mama. Old habits die hard, and the earliest words are the easiest to wail. The hardest to root out completely.

But we seem to be firmly planted in the new land of Mommy. My ears are still adjusting. Clearly my heart is, too.

Someday, I remind myself, I will be mourning the loss of Mommy for Mom – so short, so crisp and curt, so easily tossed over the shoulder on the way out the front door. Then I will long for one more syllable to pull him back towards childhood, back when my lap could be enough and my kiss could heal his hurts.

This is only one more first step. Only one more last. 

Of course there is still his younger brother who clings to Mama with a koala’s claws. And there is another on the way who has yet to babble a single syllable. Mama will still echo off these walls for years to come.

But now we have new words, and every linguist knows the subtleties mean new realities.

And I always have to squirm a bit before I settle into someplace new.

. . .

This week I’m reflecting on Advent and the power of names at CatholicMom. What does it mean to choose a name? To be given a name? To live into what a name might become?

Perhaps it’s a dreamy part of pregnancy, this playing with possibilities, this lying in bed at night wondering what we’ll call him or her.

But I find it a daunting prospect each time, to name another person. To shape the beginning of identity by vowel and consonant. To help mold their life by the meaning of what they are called…

I wonder what Mary and Joseph and Zechariah each thought when they received a mystical announcement of their child’s name.

Did they love the choice from the moment it slipped the angel’s lips? Would it never have made it onto their own mental list of possibilities? Did they have to grow into the idea just like they had to grow into the surprising prospect of parenting—one couple before they were even married, the other couple long after they thought the chance had slipped them by?

Click here to read the rest at CatholicMom.

the shortest days. the longest nights.

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We’re inching towards a day I dread on the calendar. The winter solstice: shortest day of the year. As a lover of light and warmth, I cringe at the cold, recoiling from the longest dark.

When I worked outside the home, I hated these December days even more – commuting to work in the blue-black before dawn, driving home after the sun had already set. All the life seemed sucked out of the hours before I ever got a chance to enjoy them.

Small consolations twinkle: Christmas lights flashing through dark neighborhoods, a thick cover of snow that glows luminescent all night long. But still I long for summer’s bright yellow light and stretching evenings. Pulling tight the curtains in the kids’ rooms to convince them it’s time for bed even though their parents plan to sneak back outside barefoot once the covers have been tucked under their chins.

But every year in Advent, a season of lighting candles and marking time, we lose sunlight hour by hour. It gnaws at me: how I have to release into the dark to let these days pass.

. . .

When I was pregnant for the first time, my wise friend Anita wrote to me on a baby shower card that the best truth she’d heard about raising babies (and she’d had three, so she knew well) was that the years are short but the days are long.

I’ve heard this comforting adage a thousand times since, so I know it rings true for parents who have passed through the throes of life with little ones. In the endless cycle of dragging days filled with newborns and diapers and toddlers and tantrums and preschoolers and discipline, the years somehow slip by. Quickly and quietly.

I hear parents of grown children tell me to relish these days, because they long for them now. And of course I won’t, any more than they savored potty training or dinners full of whining or 3:00 am sobbing wakeup calls.

Still I respect their wisdom; I know that I will one day look back fondly at the same. How wondrous and fleeting were these years full of tiny ones.

But the same truth echoes across the cold dark snow of this winter solstice, too. A month full of shortest days means longest nights. So much temptation for brooding in the darkness. Advent is a necessary hope: we must light the candles and sing the songs and prepare as the weeks pass.

Otherwise we would despair.

. . .

Some parents call a child after miscarriage their “rainbow baby.” A promise of hope after loss. A shimmer of colored light after bleak rain. A sign of calming peace after the storm.

But for me, this baby has been a full moon. Round and bright in the dark sky. Pulling my eyes back to its light whenever they stray. Casting its glowing shine onto a cold world waiting below.

The full moon has brought me comfort through each passing month. Whenever I would rise at night – from nausea, from anxiety, from restless sleep – I found my companion in that glowing orb.

A single light strong enough to fill the sky and flood the land below.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons by Lachlan Donald from Melbourne, Australia (Flickr)

My longest nights have been full of this presence of God’s promise: that light always returns. Even when the days are short from December’s cold, or the nights are long from children’s demands, there is always brightness somewhere, if I keep searching.

If I keep looking up. Even in the deepest dark.

Christ, be our light. 

advent in the frenzy: as it always was

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I don’t know who I have to blame for the peaceful, pastel images of Advent I have hard-wired in my brain – stained glass windows? holy cards? illustrated children’s Bibles? – but every year I find myself torn between the following:

Advent-in-my-head (serene Mary, peaceful Joseph, calmly carrying on to Bethlehem to prepare for the birth of Jesus)

Advent-in-my-life (frantic to-do lists, Christmas preparations, a December spilling over with family parties and festive gatherings)

The nagging guilt that this liturgical season should be all quiet prayer and slow anticipation. Meditative chant instead of blaring holiday jingles on the radio. A small candle flickering in the dark night instead of our neighbor’s Christmas display flashing hypnotically across the street.

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But this year, I am coming to peace with Advent-in-the-frenzy. Because I realized it was ever thus.

Maybe this insight came as I was overwhelmed by nausea for the 4th time one morning (be patient, dear reader, I promise to stop complaining about morning sickness…AS SOON AS IT ENDS).

Maybe it came as I was trying to cram kids’ dentist appointments and mom’s midwife check-ups into short weeks already stuffed with school Christmas concerts and office holiday parties.

Maybe it came as I flipped through family photos looking for card ideas and I remembered just what it looks like to be at the end of a pregnancy. Swollen, uncomfortable, counting down the hours till baby arrives.

Whatever the epiphany moment, I realized that the first Advent must have been no different from our own today.

Picture Mary at the end of her pregnancy. Picture Joseph trying to get ready for the unexpected baby.

Now imagine, as Luke’s Gospel invites us to do, that they have to make this last-minute, third-trimester trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. An arduous trip over long distances to a strange city for some government bureaucracy, just when their lives were already consumed with readying for the child.

And on a donkey. (I always cringe. This one sealed Mary’s sainthood for sure.)

The first Advent? The first preparing for Christ to come? The earliest anticipation of Incarnation?

It was likely one heck of a hurried, hormonal, harrowing time. No pregnant woman, no expectant father, no sane couple would sign up for that.

And while I want to believe that the Holy Family’s lives were still full of saintly prayer and quiet communion with their Maker, I have to believe they were just as human as the rest of us, too. Stressed-out, anxious, uncertain about the unknown.

So this December I embrace the chaos. I invite the frenzy.

I find comfort in how Jesus’ parents kept their wits about them when everything seemed too much. I find peace in knowing there has never been a calm Advent.

And I marvel again at a God whose in-breaking is always messy – as painful as labor; as challenging as a last-minute journey; as unexpected as birthing a baby in a dirty stable. There is so much hope for us here – that nothing is too frantic or frenzied or frustrating or fractured for God.

Advent in the wild. As it always has been.

o come, be born in us

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Yesterday the O-antiphons of Advent began.

But mine started early, driving home last Friday on a snowy freeway, catching the afternoon news after a day of meetings.

Oh God, no. Oh God, not again. Oh God, not children.

So many words have been spilled since Friday, and yet I keep struggling to voice how deeply this news wounds. As a mother, of course. But deeper, as a person of faith who tries to make sense of God’s ways, who wonders how we can respond in turn.

It was the familiarity of Sandy Hook that shook me up. The day before the shooting, a school was bombed in Syria, killing sixteen, half of whom were women and children. But that tragedy was a mere blip on the evening news, the daily digest of the continued slaughter of the innocents. My husband mentioned it over dinner and I shook my head. “I can’t handle Syria anymore. Too much. I can’t handle it.”

But now, school heaped upon school, bodies heaped upon bodies, babies heaped upon babies, I keep thinking of Sandy Hook and I keep thinking of Syria. As I finish my Christmas shopping, as I wrap presents, as I write cards. Everything seems surreal in the sight of parents sobbing over tiny coffins. Every year I wrestle with the consumerism of the holiday, feeling lonelier and lonelier as I whisper this is not what Christmas means. But this year, the contrast feels starker than ever.

. . .

Today was the first day I dropped my boy off at school since last Friday. As I rounded the car to open his door and unbuckle his car seat, I suddenly felt my heart leap into my throat. How was I going to leave him here? His safe little preschool, in the small town clap-board church, loomed large in a darker world where everything seems dangerous now.

I halted, hand on the handle, wanting to dash back around to the driver’s side, slam the door shut and squeal out of the snowy parking lot. Flee back home where everything felt safe.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

So I breathed in cold, crisp December air. I opened the door, bent down and smiled. “Let’s go, my love! Time for school!” False cheer in my voice, fake grin on my face.

I pulled his hood up over his small head, tucked his mittens into his coat sleeves, trying not to cry as I thought about parents doing the same routine on last Friday’s morning drop-off.

“Do you know how much I love you?” I asked as he smiled up at me. “I do,” his quiet response.

“And do you remember who’s always with you, in your heart, so you don’t have to be sad or afraid?” “Jesus,” he whispered.

“That’s right. God is always with you.” I hugged him extra tight.

Why did I need to remind him today? Did I need some small sense of protection, some meager assurance that if a murderer burst through the doors of his preschool, he might remember love in the midst of fear? So sick, the ways our minds spin right now, scared and wounded in the face of unimaginable suffering.

But still I walked him across the icy parking lot, swung wide the door and swept him inside. His lovely teacher greeted him with a warm smile as she welcomed him downstairs. And against every fiber in my being, I turned and pushed the door open wide to leave.

I started to tear up as I left the parking lot, memories rushing back of the first day I left him there, the first time I left him with a sitter to go to work, the first time I realized he was no longer snuggled up safe inside me.

How can I do it, over and over again, I wondered as I drove away. How do I keep pushing my babies out into the world?

And the answer came clear and quiet: I have to do it the same way I first birthed them.

Through my own inner strength. Surrounded by the support of others. Leaning into the grace of God.

This is the only way I know how to parent. Maybe it’s the only way I know how to live in this world. It’s surely the only way I know how to celebrate Emmanuel this year.

Remembering that Christmas is not something I do, but something that was done by God, for all of us. IMG_4973

Remembering that in so many corners of the world Advent is always held in this tension: a small light flicking amid death and violence and fear.

Remembering that the Nativity story starts with one scared mother, birthing her baby into a painful world, bearing light into utter darkness.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

the impossibility of advent

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Ready for the least surprising summary of spiritual good intentions?

I was going to have an amazing Advent. It’s my favorite season of the church calendar, and I was going to live it. I had plans, I had prayers, I had promises. I would reflect deeply and write profusely and enter mindfully into the mystery of Christmas.

And then. (Always and-then.)

Life interrupted. Everyone got sick.

Work interrupted. I got busy.

Evil interrupted. Joy got sucked straight out of the season.

By the end of this weekend, when we were supposed to be lighting the pink candle and singing of joy, I felt drained and discouraged. Grumpy and Grinch-like, I stomped downstairs with a bucket and a rag to scrub the basement floor in preparation for our Christmas guests.

Kneeling down and washing dirty to clean felt like the only halfway holy thing I could do.

And as I scrubbed, I tried to pray. I tried to pray for peace. For patience. For forgiveness. I tried to pray for mindfulness. For generosity. For simplicity.

But every prayer felt impossible. I was too selfish or stubborn, or the world was too broken and evil. Nothing could budge, no matter how hard I scrubbed, how much soapy water I slopped on the dingy tile.

Until I realized: it’s supposed to feel impossible. Advent is nothing but.

Prepare for the inbreaking of the divine? Good luck with that one. Wrap your head around the mystery of incarnation and virgin birth and angelic messengers? Inconceivable. Wrestle your sinful soul into a place of readiness to meet your Creator? Laughable prospect.

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Advent is supposed to feel impossible. It’s the humility of our humanness when brought to our knees before the gift of grace. It’s the overwhelming weight of our darkness when faced with the brilliance of true light. It’s the lifting up of lowly and the bending down of divine and the upending of all our expectations. It’s the constant, humming, throbbing beat of love’s heart pulsing out life into the cold universe.

All of which feels impossible. And when faced with impossibility, all I can do is lift up my arms to the God of Advent, a tired shrug as much as a prayerful plea, and say Come, please, come. 

Come, Child of Peace. Come, Emmanuel. Come, God-With-Us.

Keep coming. We’ll keep trying.

Impossible as it all seems.

advent interruptions

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We’re zipping along to church, freeway flying by, wet windows blurred, last night’s snow swirling round tires and trucks as our wipers flash. We’re late to Mass (again). We’ve overdue for grocery shopping (again). We’re behind on errands and housework (again.) And I’m making to-do lists and plans and deadlines while I drive (again).

“Mama?” the small voice pipes up from the back seat. I’m thinking about Christmas cards.

“Mama.”

I’m planning today’s Target run.

“Mama.”

I’m mapping out house cleaning.

“Mama?”

I’m picking my outfit for tonight’s party.

“Mama!”

Exasperated, I turn my head, half-listening as I change lanes.

“What? What is it, sweetie?”

“Mama. I need to hear ‘People Look East‘ again.”

I sigh, half roll my eyes. Need. He needs to hear the same song he’s requested six times since we started our drive.

I absent-mindedly punch the arrow on the CD player. Back to track one again. I go back to my mental lists. He hums while he looks out the window.

The irony doesn’t hit me for a few more miles down the road.

. . .

Isn’t that always how Advent goes?

We’re making perfectly good headway on planning for Christmas, and then we’re interrupted by this strange idea: stillness, slowness, silence. I want to wrestle all I can wring out of December, desperate for Hallmark moments and picture frame memories. But Advent holds up a gentle hand and says, simply, Stop.

Stop rushing. Stop trying. Stop pushing.

Advent reminds that the real work of preparation is not cleaning or cooking or crafting or creating. It is clearing space for God. It is allowing love to interrupt.

I need to listen again. Need.

Again.

. . .

mary of the third trimester

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I wonder how she felt in the final weeks.

Whether she was tired of carrying, exhausted from the extra weight and the swollen ankles and the restless nights and the ceaseless kicks. Or whether she loved wondering about the mystery of this babe, watching the strange, sudden stretch of skin across her stomach, limbs pushing out into every corner of their shrinking room, hint of the him they would become.

I wonder if she knew the time was coming. Even if hers wasn’t the customary calendar to count by, could she feel the readying, both the baby’s body and her own preparing for the passage ahead? Or perhaps she was surprised to find the end drawing near, one more shock piled on the growing heap of expectations set aside for another’s plan.

I wonder how she spent the last few days. Whether she sought the wisdom of women who knew, her cherished circle of a trusted few who hadn’t fled when the rumors flew. Whether she drew strength from their stories of passage, their steadying counsel and sage advice. Or whether their tales terrified, her body still so young itself, barely strong enough to survive what was demanded of her. I wonder whether she wanted to be alone or whether she confided in companions. Whether she prayed to her God in the darkest moments, or whether she spoke softly to the stranger-turned-spouse now strong and silent beside her.

I wonder if she loved being pregnant. One of the lucky few who glow as they grow, who glide easy through the months, who marvel at the wonder. Or whether she struggled with the weight and constraint of what was asked of her, to sacrifice so much so young – her plans, her love, her reputation. Maybe she was restless for the end, waiting for what’s next, wanting to be free of the burden of bearing. Maybe she was ready to push.

Or maybe she sensed, deep down, deeper even than dropping baby ready to birth, what was being asked of her. That she would have to give him up, her child, her baby, her precious only baby, give him up to more than the world outside the womb or the darkness outside her door. That she would have to birth him into the beginning of the end, a pain that cut deeper than pangs of birth, a wound that would only grow until the most terrifying transition, the final contraction of her heart and body wrenched in two as she watched what the world would do to him, wailing and weeping for God, screaming as mother-son both suffered – all according to a plan she herself set in motion with a whispered yes.

That redemption itself would rip him from her arms.

And bearing all this along with the baby weight, knowing just enough to hold all these truths, treasure them in her widening heart, now and ever-after beating for two, maybe she wanted to cradle him close, keep him safer than he could ever be again.

For a few weeks more.

advent: an at-home retreat

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One Sunday in early November, I started making plans for Advent. (I’ve learned I have to prepare to prepare or else I lose Advent under a pile of wrapping paper and Christmas cards.) I thought about what I’d like to do to enter into the season this time around. More prayer? More writing? Less rushing? Less buying?

Yes, sure, always, definitely. But how?

The thought that sprung to mind and clung there desperately, yelling to be noticed was this: I want an Advent retreat.

Silence and stillness, rest and reading, prayer and poetry – all the things I love most about Advent are what I love about retreats, too. Time and space apart to encounter the grace of God around me, to recenter and recharge.

But I didn’t even need to glance at my calendar to realize it was a laughable prospect. Every weekend in December was booked months ago with company parties, family celebrations, our own traditions. Sure, it probably signaled a spiritual problem that I couldn’t free up a day away. But the reality of my life right now is that I don’t have time to hole up in a peaceful retreat center and soak up hours of reflection all by myself. I wish, I want. But I don’t have.

In true fashion I moped about this realization for a while. I banged a few pots in the kitchen, got cross with the boys, started stealing joy out of the corners of our day. And then it hit me: why not have an Advent retreat at home? If I simply stretched out a retreat over the whole season, I had all the time and space I needed. As long as I did only one small thing each day.

So I sat down and made a list of all the practices and activities I love about retreats. Some were self-care: take a walk, take a nap, journal. Some were spiritual: do centering prayer, go to Mass, reflect on Scripture. Some were simple: light a candle, listen to music, breathe deeply. And some were just laughable: go to sleep, do no housework, enjoy a meal that someone else cooked.

I wrote each activity on a piece of paper and placed them into a bowl. I decided I’d pull one out on each night of Advent, since a few require a bit of preparation to make possible. However the Spirit guided my retreat practice, I’d go with the flow. Even if it meant dragging my kids to daily Mass or working a walk into a bitter cold December day. Advent’s about openness, about preparing mindfully but remaining open to God’s surprises. And I could jump in, one day at a time.

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Late last night I pulled out the first purple slip of paper. And laughed out loud. Because my retreat will be starting with tonight’s dinner being prepared by my husband. (Who only half-grudingly declared that he was going to start his own Advent retreat of having his feet rubbed every night, so long as we were shoving our spiritual practices onto other people.)

So here we go. Advent’s here, and I’m retreating. In the mess of my home, in the corners of my calendar.

Care to join me? (Even if your significant other doesn’t cook?)