spiritual practices with newborns: holding

Be still and know that I am God.

Your hands have held things that terrified you. Your first set of car keys. A boy’s sweaty palm. The college admission letter. Cold cans of beer. A brand-new passport.

All gripped by fingers that trembled, knowing the weight of what might come next, the thrill as well as the terror.

God was there somewhere, in what you held.

Be still and know that I am.

Your hips have carried things that taught you. Armfuls of books down high school hallways, then grad school library stacks. Piles of file folders from one job, then another. A niece, then a nephew, then three more.

All slung on one hip, shifted to the side as you walked, aware that what you now held was changing the way you moved, subtly but for good.

God was there somewhere, in what you cradled.

Be still and know.

Your arms have embraced things that overwhelmed you. Sobbing friends after break-ups. Exhausted relatives after funerals. A brand-new family of in-laws. Your first child. Your second son.

All wrapped round with arms that wondered if they could stretch wider, if they were strong enough not to shake even as they tired.

God was there somewhere, in what you accepted.

Be still.

armfulBut maybe nothing else you’ve held has mattered as much as what you hold now, all day and all night, upstairs and down, inside and out, while you soothe and sing and stave off sleep, while you make breakfast and eat lunch and cook dinner.

One small baby, who squeaks and squawks into your neck, who aches your shoulders and slows your steps to heart’s pace.

This is not to say that bearing children trumps all other experiences. Or that parenting’s importance makes other callings pale in comparison. Or that everything up to now has been mere practice. You know none of this is true.

But the weight of what you carry now is no longer your own life. It is possibility within your hands. It is a brand-new person unfolding. With all the beauty and terror and wonder that offers. You know this is true.

Be.

Everything is changing because of what you are learning to hold.

Watch the world shift as you pick him up. As you cradle him to your heart. As you hum in his small curl of an ear.

Watch your life stretch, then settle to embrace what you’ve been asked to hold.

Watch yourself becoming someone new because of what you carry.

Watch God find you there. Again and always.

Be still and know that I am God.
(Psalm 46:10)

spiritual practices with newborn: beholding

He gazes at me, steel blue eyes searching. He gazes. And gazes. Sometimes so intently, for so long, that I have to work to hold my own gaze steady, to meet his eyes with mine.

beholdThis is part of the (happy) work of having a newborn. Watching them. Watching them change in front of your eyes. Cheeks rounding, lashes lengthening, hair thickening, thighs plumping, fingers uncurling.

Wondering what they will become. Wondering who this person might be, whose life I hold in my hands.

My grandma used to call this stage “the baby’s face unfolding,” waking to the world. My mom tells me this each time she visits to help and hold our newborns.

It is the same story all parents watch, over and over again. A first chapter opening in a brand-new book.

But you have to look to see it. Behold.

. . .

He’s an old soul, my friend declares, handing the baby back to me. You can always tell by their eyes.

Later I think about her words and wonder if we’ve gotten them backwards. Even setting aside reincarnation, as we Christians do, the saying suggests that contemplative, quiet babies are wise beyond their years. That they hold some distant, ancient knowing behind their eyes.

But babies are able to hold our gaze so intently precisely because they are brand-new. They have no filter yet to smudge up their view of the world, no hurt, no grudge, no knowledge of evil. Their innocence is what permits them to disarm us by their unrelenting gaze. They will not avert their eyes out of shame or drop their glance from embarrassment, not yet. They have not learned that lesson.

What we see blinking back at us in their eyes is not the wisdom of the aged – as clear as their vision of the world can be. Instead, babies bring utter openness. Unclouded vision. Eyes not yet dimmed by the cruelty or sorrow they will inevitably see. Not worried or weathered or wearied by years.

He is a young soul, in fact. Behold.

. . .

What does it mean to behold?

In Scripture it’s the greeting of the angels. Behold, for I bring you tidings of great joy.

In church it’s the reminder that recaptures our attention every time we gather round the table. Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.

In literature it’s an air of importance. Lo and behold… There’s a weight to beholding, beyond watching or seeing. You are witnessing an impressive sight.

Even the parsing of the word – to be and to hold – signals a notable duality: you must take a certain stance and accept what it offers.

And when you contemplate in the way that beholding invites, something will happen. You will appreciate or perceive or understand or discern differently than you did before.

You will be changed.

. . .

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.”
Revelation 21:5

This summer I’m beholding my own life, too.

For the first time in a long time, I’m looking around at everything I have and finding it so good. Yes, there is the exhaustion of the newborn days. And yet I have felt profoundly happy ever since this baby arrived. For a while I joked about it to friends as “really good hormones.” But now I start to see how much deeper this joy and gratitude runs.

I found new motherhood hard, really hard. I remember in the early days reading about the shift that happens when your first child turns five. All of a sudden you glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel – that your life will not always revolve around dirty diapers and 2 am wakings. That your child is growing up, and quickly. Becoming a person before your eyes, a walking, talking, someday-even-rational human being with all the fullness and wonder of what it means to be human.

And I feel that now, with Sam heading off to kindergarten in the fall. Perhaps for the first time, I feel myself settling into motherhood with deep-seated joy, less tinged with the anxiety that accompanied his birth.

I look around me at our growing family, this beautiful bunch of boys, a husband I adore, work that I love, writing that sets my heart on fire. And I feel so blessed, so deeply wrapped in the presence of God. It has been a hard summer already, physically and emotionally, and yet I have not lost sight of the deeper joy here, the stream of goodness running through it all, clear and fast and strong. I can behold my life in bright sunlight, eyes open and willing to hold the gaze.

And I am able to be what I hold.

. . .

The babe is at that lovely stage where smiles start, now only small bursts of wide-cheeked delight, fleeting rewards for the monkey faces I ape at him, over and over, hoping to catch a grin. I have to watch him for a long time to see them. He is teaching me the practice of beholding: the discipline of deciding to stop and see what is right before my eyes.

Perhaps that’s the lesson in beholding: that you have to be here and hold on if you want to witness the joy, to catch the goodness that rushes behind, beyond, underneath the surface.

These things are trustworthy and true, these moments of joy we know to be of God.

Watch the beauty unfolding before you. Watch your own life blossoming. Watch it bring you joy.

Write these words down. Behold.

. . .

For a new twist: today look your child or loved one in the eyes. Behold them. How does it feel to hold their gaze without words? Where do you see the good – the God – within the life you love?

dear dr. seuss: you’re wrong

Lots of people love Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

I am not one of them.

I know it’s mostly good-hearted cheer, encouragement for the journey, and wise words from a man who’d seen enough of life to know that the secret lies in looking ahead.

But these two pages drive me crazy: “…a most useless place. The Waiting Place…”

dr seuss

“NO! That’s not for you! Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying.

You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.”

What’s wrong with waiting?

Most of us spend much of our lives waiting. Waiting for a situation to change. Waiting for a relationship to heal. Waiting for health to improve. Waiting for a holiday or a homecoming. Waiting for test results, an acceptance letter, a job offer, a new opportunity, a shift in scenery or season or mood.

Aren’t we all waiting somewhere in these winding lines? For crying out loud, Christians are supposed to be waiting all the time.

Lest I be accused of being too harsh on Dear Seuss, I get what he’s saying. Don’t be passive. Don’t get stuck. Don’t expect life to magically improve if you’re not willing to work hard.

But to be true to life’s reality, the book could just as aptly be named Oh, the Places You’ll Wait!

Because we spend just as much time idling at the stop light, itching to accelerate, as we do with the wind whipping through our hair as we race ahead.

Waiting isn’t an evil to be shunned, a burden to be avoided, a drain to keep us from enjoying life. Waiting is life.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:13-14

. . .

Around here, we’re waiting all the time now.

The clock ticks painfully slowly. Each morning over breakfast, the kids ask when the baby will be here, and I shake my head at the sink, attempting to smile cheerfully while I scrub dishes.

We don’t know! We just have to wait!

I’m an eager and impatient person by nature. Waiting can be excruciatingly hard for me to bear. At 39 weeks pregnant, weary and waddling, I’m consumed by waiting. How I’d love to breeze past these pages of boredom and in-betweenness, of long lines and longing faces.

But life never works like that. Waiting is where we grow. Where God works on us in the long and quiet dark.

Waiting is work, but it’s holy work. God is here, too.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.

Psalm 62:5

. . .

Turns out I write about waiting quite a lot.

Ironically I wrote this almost exactly one year ago. I didn’t know how much of the next 12 months would be filled with waiting: waiting for a baby, waiting to heal from losing that baby, waiting for another baby, waiting to work through my fears.

When impatience starts to get the better of me, when I find myself straining forward to see what’s next, when I tire of trying to live in the present, I wrestle with waiting.

But wrestling never wins; it is only when I stop to catch my breath that I realize there is only This. In preparation for That, perhaps. But waiting is about the present, not the future.

It’s the only way I can live right now.

To parent is to wait: to watch, to witness, to wonder what comes next, to want more for your child than what they have today. But to wait is also to be forced to slow down, to relinquish the illusion of control, to put your desires on hold while life makes other plans.

What could be harder than waiting?

This life is a relentless pull, asking us to stop when we want to go, making us release when we want to grab tight. We have to wait in the midst of all this back and forth. We never know what’s coming; we waste our time worrying about what never happens.

But when we wait – that is an act of faith.

Waiting is holy time, not wasted time. Psalms sing it; Jesus spoke it; centuries of Christians believed it.

So maybe the wild Technicolor imagination of the esteemed Dr. was right all along. Everyone is just waiting.

But I believe that’s not half bad.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;

my soul waits for the Lord

more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.

Psalm 130: 5-6

midwives of our dreams

In college I had two French professors whose advice I sought out during senior year.

That angsty season of trying to figure out what on earth one could do with a liberal arts degree, thanks to four delightful years of studying the humanities. And what on earth one should do with a heart that was getting ruined for Christ, thanks to four discomforting years of learning about service and theology and ministry.

The first professor had been a favorite since freshman year, first semester. I landed by luck in her Freshman Seminar and took every course she offered after that. She was brilliant, engaging, encouraging, funny and charming. (It didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous and lived all over the world and had a beautiful home where she hosted dinners at the end of every semester.) She mentored me through choosing a major, finding a study abroad program, and starting graduate level work in the department.

The second professor was a medieval scholar with whom I had several classes during junior and senior year. She was calm and quiet, patient and thoughtful, dedicated and hard-working. (Plus she had the most amazing curly hair that she could pin up in gorgeous buns a la the Renaissance damsels she studied.) She understood my passion for languages and let me explore creative approaches to her assignments.

So faced with the college senior’s perennial dilemma of what to do next, I thought of both of them. And in the span of one short month, tulips miraculously springing along every footpath on campus, I stopped by both of their office hours to pick their brains about how I might spend the next year of my life.

The first listened to me babble (in French! those were the days) about how I wanted to do something with my French degree but wasn’t sure anymore if the academic track was right for me. I’d found a few programs that would let me volunteer abroad in Francophone countries, and I wondered if I should try that while I figured out whether I wanted to be a professor.

She listened, nodded, asked good questions. I don’t remember anything concrete she said during the span of that conversation, but I left feeling affirmed – like this mentor of mine understood why I might not want to follow in her footsteps, yet encouraged me anyway.

The second listened to me just as attentively. But my concerns and questions didn’t seem to resonate in the same way. Sensing that she might not be seeing the crux of the question at the heart of my wrestling, I stopped and posed her a question. How did she integrate her faith and her work? This was really the weighty load I was carrying around for senior year – what did this nagging sense of God’s call for my life mean for the clear path I thought I’d set out on?

She looked me straight in the eye and said, You just have to learn to compartmentalize your life. I’m a Christian, and I do that.

She went on to talk about working during the week, dedicating herself to her students and scholarship, and then going to church on Sunday. And as she spoke, I realized with perfect clarity that she had helped me make up my mind. This kind of segregation was not the life I wanted.

At the end of our conversation, I thanked her for her time and stepped back into the corridor, closing her office door behind me.

To this day, I’m sure she has no idea that our conversation changed the course of my life.

. . .

Who are the midwives of our dreams? The ones who believe in our power, encourage our laboring, promise us that the end result will be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears?

For my first two babies, I saw a nurse-practitioner in my regular OB clinic. She was smart and sharp, witty and understanding, clear and confident. I liked her style.

But towards the end of my second pregnancy, I started noticing that perhaps she wasn’t as supportive of my questions as I’d hoped.

I asked whether it would be ok for our doula to be with us during the whole labor again, and she shrugged. Sure, I suppose. As long as she’s not in the way. 

I asked whether I could deliver without drugs, free from pressure from the nursing staff, and she smirked a little. If you’re a glutton for pain, I guess. But you’ll probably end up wanting an epidural again.

I asked if baby could room in with us if everything went smoothly with the birth, unlike last time when our son had to stay in the level 2 nursery for the week. If you really want that. But you should give yourself a break and get some rest, too.

I started to leave my appointments with more confusion than clarity. And after a birth that went beyond my wildest expectations – so fast the doula couldn’t get there, so strong that my own power could match it, so smooth that we got to leave the hospital early with our healthy baby – I realized that I wanted something different from a future health care provider.

I wanted someone who understood.

. . .

DSC_0103_2Only a few months into this pregnancy, I realized why I love my current practice of midwives so much. It’s not because they encourage natural birth or talk about the emotional side of pregnancy or keep prenatal care as non-invasive as possible, although they do all these things beautifully.

It’s because they remind me of the other midwives in my life.

Friends who walked with me through the biggest decisions of college and grad school. Family members who coached me through challenges big and small. Teachers and mentors who guided by example and instruction. Even the 85 year-old Benedictine sister who has graced me with her wisdom as my spiritual director.

I see glimmers of all of them in these midwives. A spirit of gentle encouragement. A strength of loving support. A source of powerful wisdom.

And I wonder if I can be this for my own children one day, too. A midwife for their dreams.

The Psalms speak of God as midwife, guiding us from the first moments of our journey, caring for us from our mother’s womb.

Maybe we are all called to be midwives for each other, no matter our age, stage or situation. Maybe we are called to mirror God who companions us in our most vulnerable, painful moments and assures us that we are strong beyond our fears.

And maybe sometimes we are called to let others serve as midwives for us, too.

To accept their care and support. To surrender to their wisdom, even when we are so wrapped up in our worries that we cannot see clearly what lies ahead. To place our trust in their skilled hands and know that we will emerge safely on the other side.

“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me
you have been my God.”
(Ps 22:9-10)

Who has helped midwife your dreams?

what is gained and what is lost

They are buddies, our two boys.

Far from best friends from birth, but now constant companions. Since full-time school doesn’t separate them yet, they still spend most of their waking hours together. And even though they’re lunging at each other’s throats as much as they’re hugging sweetly – after all, they’re siblings, not saints – they are still an inseparable duo.

A duo that’s about to gain a third.

IMG_0179

I listen to them play together before nap. They read books to each other, jump around the room to their favorite music, laugh at jokes that only they understand. Secret words, secret games – they have a world all their own, and it is good that I am not part of it. But I still savor the listening.

Watching them hold hands when they walk through a parking lot, glancing in the rearview mirror to see them singing in matching car seats, I catch myself wondering how their dynamic will change when another is added to their mix.

Three is an odd number. Pair up and someone’s always left out. Instead of the straight line between two points, they will become a triangle of personalities, with all the pointy edges that can come with it. More energy in a trinity, to be sure, but also more complexity.

It will take time to sort out and settle. Reconfigure and renegotiate. As all life changes do, for all involved.

Even the smallest ones.

. . .

One of my professors in grad school used to interpret the Good Friday story from John’s Gospel like this: Jesus rearranges the family unit at the foot of the cross.

To Mary: Woman, here is your son. To John: Here is your mother.

A new family configuration. A small gain in the face of huge loss.

We talked about this Scripture in the context of ministry to families dealing with divorce and remarriage. But I think her wisdom applies to plenty of changes that families face, both good and bad.

Even in the happiest moments of a family’s life – like an engagement or a birth – there is loss. What was the original unit will be no more. Everything is rearranged. Relationships changed, dynamics shifted. We will never be the same.

Because human nature pulls us toward the positive, we tend to gush about what is gained. The best gift you can give your child is a sibling. Isn’t it great when a family grows? But the flip side of every good gain is real loss. And acknowledging this truth does not lessen the joy. It merely sets the change in honest context.

What has been was good (and hard and real). What will be can become the same.

So the image of Jesus rearranging the family at the foot of the cross is a comforting one for me. In times of birth as well as loss, marriage as well as divorce, joy as well as sorrow, we can find blessing in what is broken open.

. . .

What is lost?

The ease of the present time: everyone sleeping (mostly) through the night, no one wearing diapers, each child speaking his needs.

The convenience of being the perfect family size by society’s standards: 2 parents + 2 kids that fit easily into a sedan or a museum pass.

The dynamics we’ve long established, the habits we’ve come to enjoy, the schedule we’ve taken for granted.

What is gained?

The wonder of welcoming a new relationship into our lives.

The love that increases when we stretch out of our comfort zone.

The mystery of a new personality that will bring us joy and growth.

We decided long ago it was worth it, the costs and sacrifices and inconveniences of having another baby. This is the dream we have for our family. But even when we conclude that the gains outweigh the losses, change still brings challenges.

Is there still Christ among us, rearranging our family unit? I think so. In all kinds of situations. Reminding us that God intended family to be a growing, expanding, embracing love.

So whenever our newest member arrives and the sibling squabbles start afresh, I hope I can remember this truth. That the beauty of what we have right now as a family was born of blood, sweat, and tears at its beginning, too.

And so can be again.

how to prepare for a birth day

There’s the hospital bag, of course. Pre-registration paperwork. The Kegels you’re supposed to be practicing ten times a day. Delivery room playlist on the iPod. Deep breathing exercises. Child care arrangements for your other kids. Out-of-office email reply waiting and set to maternity leave.

But does any of that really prepare you for labor and birth?

Maybe I’m lazier this time around. (Ok, assuredly I’m lazier this time around.) But I can’t bring myself to motivate for so many pre-baby preparations that have typically consumed my thoughts by this point in previous pregnancies: cleaning and nesting, stockpiling frozen meals, setting up the baby gear, washing tiny onesies and newborn diapers.

Now whenever I get a free minute? I mostly want to sleep.

And instead of pouring over childbirth preparation books or crafting the perfect birth plan to hand to the nurses upon arrival at the hospital, I find myself shrugging whenever I think about Delivery-Day. It will come, it will be unexpected, it will be hard. And then it will be over and our baby will be here.

But just as I might have missed the opportunity for deeper reflection upon birth’s meaning the first time around when I was nothing but scared, I don’t want to miss the chance to explore the spiritual side of this huge transition simply because it’s my third time through.

Whether unknown or known, childbirth is a defining moment of a mother’s life. And I believe it is one of the “thin places” between heaven and earth.

So I’m wondering how to ready myself this time. How prayer can be part of the pain. How meditation can be part of my mindfulness. How each contraction can remind me that Christ is within me and beside me and before me.

I’ve already gathered a trinity of prayers for labor and birth. But as Lent surrounds me in the last months before baby arrives, I also find myself thinking about simplicity and surrender. How to let go of any lingering expectations and free myself to enter into whatever God has prepared.

prego

In my latest piece for Catholic Mom, I wrote about the journey from feeling terrified at the prospect of birth to finding peace in what will be a painful but powerful day of discovery:

I’m starting to see the spiritual side of birth in ways that I never would have dreamed when I headed to Labor & Delivery for the first time. Birth as beginning, birth as sacrifice, birth as rite of passage – God is intimately wrapped up in all these ways we understand this work that women do to bring life into the world.

Being intentional about this process – a sort of sacramental preparation – has helped me to bring hope, not fear, to the prospect of bringing another baby into the world.

Lots of ink gets spilled in parenting manuals and glossy magazines about birth plans, birth preparations, even identifying your health care provider’s “birth philosophy.” But approaching a spirituality of birth invites those of us who carry new life within us – as well as those who love and care for us – to view this work as prayer and to place our trust in God who accompanies us from the first contraction to the final push.

Read the rest at CatholicMom.com

And next week I’ll have the chance to enter intentionally into this deeper reflection, thanks to Peg Conway’s retreat on the spirituality of birth. Nell of Whole Parenting Family and I conspired to bring Peg to the Twin Cities (since both of us are now expecting #3!), and I can’t wait for this afternoon of exploring the prayerful parts of this sacred journey.

If you’re local and want to join us, please find more information on Facebook or at Enlightened Mama in St. Paul, MN, where the retreat will be held. And if you’re too far away to spend Saturday, March 22nd, with us, check out Peg’s wonderful book – Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth.

a new year: what to treasure, what to trash

We’ve been playing endless rounds of Sorry!

Two, three, four games a day aren’t enough for my boy’s insatiable appetite. Maybe it’s the combination of cards with numbers (which he’s always loved) and games for a group (which he’s learning to love). Or maybe it’s because beloved cousins introduced him to the board game at the cabin over New Year’s, thus cementing in his 4 year-old mind the concrete connection of coolness that links friends and getaway and holiday.

Whatever the reason, we’re stuck playing Sorry! from morning till night.

There are worse childhood games to get roped into, as any adult who’s ever tried to cheat to end Candyland can attest. And I actually enjoy playing Sorry! (at least the first time or two) because it takes me back to sprawling on the living room floor as a kid, flipping over the dog-eared deck to crow at the cards that would send my younger brothers back home. Even more than Memory, this game offers enough surprise and strategy to hold a grown-up’s wandering interest.

And it makes me wonder if there’s something to be said for saying Sorry! all day long.

sorry

. . .

Forgiveness is the thorniest bramble of the Christian life. Sometimes I dare to dream I could do a decent job at this Christ-following business if it weren’t for this aggravating truth: that love means forgiveness and forgiveness means love.

Instead, I’m much more inclined – as any cerebral introvert will understand – to brood over the times I’ve been wronged. To nurse secret, sullen grudges over the times I’ve been hurt.

I turn them over and over in my mind, these small slights or serious wounds, until my brooding polishes their jagged edges into smooth stones, comforting to hold in the warmth of my palm. Whenever an old hurt arises – when I’m back in the company of someone who hurt me, or when a memory re-surfaces painful words from long ago – I dig around in dusty pockets for these trusty rocks, to trace their familiar outlines once again, to assure myself that I was right in feeling wronged.

But to what end? What good does this brooding and turning and returning bring me? Perhaps it soothes the soft, small child inside who wants the world to go her way. Or perhaps it builds up a false façade of maturity, of look-what-I’ve-endured.

Either way it rings hollow.

There is no love in resentment.

. . .

I love the dawning of a new year: its hope of renewal, its promise of change.

Lately I’ve found the practice of resolutions to be an encouraging inspiration. As in New Year’s past, I’ve made a few that I hope will bring blessing, no matter how much or how little I end up pursuing them. (And since sharing resolutions here has helped me keep them in the past, I’ll try again.)

First, after a year in which I threw myself into a writing project that stole nearly every moment of my scant free time, I want to return to nurturing friendships that too often got pushed to back burners in 2013.

Second, in an effort to be more mindful of the way I spend time with my kids, I want to be more intentional about their faith formation at home. (An effort which you think might flow effortlessly from a theologically-trained mother, but too often tends to stumble over too much head knowledge and too much fear of screwing up.)

As in every year, both of these resolutions spring from an ever-growing desire for a slower, simpler life and the yearning to nurture meaningful relationships with those around me.

But in resolving to deepen love in these concrete ways, I wonder if I’ve pondered how much forgiveness this will take along the way. How often these happy-new-year prospects will ask me to pardon myself and others.

How often I will have to practice saying sorry!

. . .

On January 1st, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Maybe there’s something fitting for our own resolutions in starting the new year by remembering a woman who said yes to great change. Who made a decision that transformed her life. Who let herself be open to the ways God would call her to become something new.

For this feast of Mary, Notre Dame’s FaithND invited me to reflect on the day’s Gospel. As I studied the story from Luke, I found myself returning again and again to this line:

But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

For a woman who must have known deep hurt, who surely heard the cruel words that others tossed behind her back, who had plenty of reasons to become bitter by brooding, Mary chose instead to collect the small gems of beauty and hope. She cast aside the trash of other people’s opinions. She smoothed into tiny treasures the words that she could cling to in darkest hours.

Here, finally, were words of wonder and hope—from the mouths of people just like her. Here were shepherds who stopped their daily work to bring her stories of angels singing glory. Here were strangers who asked to see her baby and marveled at what his birth might mean.

Of course she treasured their words, turning them over and over in her heart, wondering what they might mean. While she learned to care for her child, as squalling and sleepless and hungry as any newborn, she gathered strength from their promise.

Perhaps this prayer practice was what sustained her as a mother: to treasure and to ponder

I’m in awe of such wisdom and confidence, such trust and courage. What might it mean for my own habits and choices, my own decisions and resolutions?

. . .

A few months ago, I came across these words: “Other people’s opinion of you is none of your business.”

Such an intriguing twist on our insecurities.

I’ve carried these words with me, trying to muddle out their meaning for my own bad habit of brooding. And I’ve come to this conclusion.

The judgments, comments, even whispers of others only matter to the extent that I respond with love (which is to say, 9 times out of 10, with a heart full of forgiveness.) The opinions of those I cherish, like my children and my friends, should certainly be my business – but only to the extent that I keep trying to respond to them in love, to allow myself to be changed in ways that draw me closer to Christ.

Who is forgiveness, love, and peace.

So I launch into the new year with these questions in mind: What do I treasure? What do I trash?

What serves God and what serves only me? With my resolutions – and Mary’s courage – close to my heart, what changes could this fresh start hold?

from mama to mommy

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.

mary & elizabeth: back booth, corner bar

We met up at a sports bar, around the corner from the dive where we used to dance until dawn, down the street from the stadium where we spent all those Saturdays every fall. The place was packed with football fans flocking inside from the swirling snow, beer flowing before noon, TV announcers barking out touchdowns and tackles on the sound system blasting overhead.

But in the back corner booth it still felt like our small world again – the world that was cozy enough for one college quint and wide enough for all of us to dream our ways into something bigger. The gift of friends who pick up exactly where we left off.

We laughed and caught up and cracked old jokes like we always did. Except this time when we hugged, we each bumped bellies. Four babies on their way to join us. How far we’ve come down this road together.

One friend is set to deliver in just a few weeks, and as my husband and I drove home we reminisced about the wonder of that moment, the tipping point when you sense your world is about to change completely but you can’t quite grasp the enormity of how.

Parents who’ve walked that path love to pile on the advice - sleep while you can! squeeze in one more date night! enjoy this time while you’ve got it! - but when you’re expecting your first, you shake off all the suggestions because they don’t make sense yet. You’re still in the awe of before, as you should be. And what you need most in the waiting space is solidarity and sympathy. 

The consoling companionship of others in the same boat.

I always think about this when I read the story of Mary and Elizabeth meeting – their bellies bumping, those babies inside leaping with joy. The Visitation is a tale of kindred spirits: cousins in two generations, a path and a plan unfolding that none of them could predict in the waiting time before. Surely there was wonder and joy, also fear and anxiety, but they were in it together.

That was all they needed for the present moment.

The hours we spent together this weekend were far from an easy Magnificat to pregnancy’s glows; there was much more griping about restless sleep and back pain and endless trips to the bathroom.

But for me it was still a soul moment, a sacred meeting of friends who have already journeyed through many changes together and are now on the brink of everything turning again. That time filled me with something that still sings – even after the football game was the bitter coldest in recent memory, even after the drive home was long and dark, even after the same-old pregnancy woes kept me from sleep again last night. There’s always Mary-and-Elizabeth in the meeting of true friends.

My spirit rejoices.

statue visitation

This week I’m wondering about Mary and morning sickness over at CatholicMom.com. Praying the Magnificat during this pregnancy has changed what I thought about Mary’s prayer, and I wonder if – once again – I have much more solidarity and sympathy with her than I realized:

For the Magnificat is a hymn of expectations turned upside down. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 

These are theological truths about the nature of a just God, but they are spoken from the lips of a young woman who never expected to be pregnant before marriage, who never imagined her child’s arrival would be announced by an angel.

Mary understood the upheaval of pregnancy on its deepest level, and so she could proclaim these prophetic words about God who defied the world’s expectations.

Click here to read more at CatholicMom.com – a new (even nauseous?) twist on familiar words…

oh, october

Some months of the year are almost too bittersweet to bear.

April is one. It teases, coy and cunning, with windows-down 45-degree days, full of more soft breezes than we remembered possible. Then the next day the blizzard dump another 6-to-9 and the interstate is piled with skeletons of cars spun out in six-foot drifts.

October is a heartbreaker, too. It starts so bright and beckoning, full of rich yellow light and red leaves splashing the treetops. But by month’s end we’ll be bracing ourselves against biting winds as we drag costumed kids through dark streets.

Too much change in one short month.

swing

Today as we colored with chalk on the sidewalk outside (or rather, as I took orders from the tiny artistic director barking over my shoulder: do a square, mama! now do a triangle!), I glimpsed again how the natural world mirrors our own seasons, each one slightly different from last year’s version.

This is our only fall with a four- and two-year old. No matter what the coming autumns bring us, it will never have quite this same configuration.

And each of my children – my blond-haired, blue-eyed eldest and my brown-haired, dark-eyed youngest – are crammed with so many changes of their own within these ever-evolving seasons. Favorite foods, toy obsessions, beloved stuffed animals, bedtime routines – they all shift so slightly as the weeks turn.

The first day of a month rarely resembles its last.

Sometimes I fool myself into thinking I love change, that I’m type-B enough to breeze through without anxiety over the unknown. But these months of too-much-change always remind me this is false.

I cling to summer, squinting through September’s last golden days to make them masquerade as August. And as soon as the leaves start to swirl to the ground, I find myself frowning at the fact that fall is here and winter’s chill is right around the corner.

Maybe it’s the same with my kids, too.

I tell myself I want them to grow up, to grow out of diapers and into shoes they can tie themselves, to grow out of potty jokes and into academic interests to deepen our dinner table conversations.

But secretly I cling to their small selves, too – the way my toddler’s legs wrap around my waist like a koala when I scoop him up, the soft rub of my preschooler’s skin when we snuggle our noses together to say goodnight.

It’s the vertigo back and forth between the two – the babes they are today and the big boys they will become – that exhausts me sometimes. I watch it ripple over their faces in an instant as the light hits just so, and I see the glint of the men they will become and the memory of the newborns they once were.

So much to hold all at once.

But October reminds me that it can exist all together, this tension between summer innocence and weathered winter. That in the short plan of a month everything can shift around us, even while the same calendar page stays tacked to the wall.

Reminding me as we run barefoot through green grass to pick pumpkins that the only constant is change.