this is church right now

Five minutes late (aren’t we always these days). Smudged nametags, courtesy of Crayola markers. Pile of coats on the end of the pew (will it ever be spring?).

Loud whispers requesting books as soon as the lector starts to read. Why can’t we sing that psalm again – I like that one.

Puzzle pieces scattered on the floor during the Gospel. Homily about poverty and divorce and addiction and all the wants we bring before God. Tears over who gets to put the envelope in the collection basket (next Sunday remember to bring two).

No, we are not going to the potty like that little boy. Because you went before Mass and you can hold it, that’s why.

Eucharistic prayers for a bishop at the center of the latest sex abuse scandal. Whining about how hard it is to keep standing (I know, sweetie, I get tired, too). Eyes that light up at the Our Father – I know this one.

Shaking hands with every person within lunging range. Can you be gentle for the Sign of Peace? Headlocks between brothers broken up while the priest breaks the bread. A smiling whisper from the grandma behind us: of course they’re fighting but you have a beautiful family.

Wandering up behind us for a blessing at communion time. Why can’t I have the bread yet? Why doesn’t Mama drink the wine while she’s growing the baby? Snuggles while we sing. Watching babies in the communion line (7 more weeks and everyone will stop asking when I’m due).

Yes, we can read the book about the saints again. Use a Kleenex, not your fingers.

Announcements about a new unemployment support group. Careful practice of the Sign of the Cross at the final blessing. If there’s drumming on the last song, you can dance. But sometimes in Lent we sing quieter songs because it’s a solemn time. Solemn means quiet.

Requests to visit the tabernacle and light a candle and I want to pray for the baby and rainbows and everyone and God. Put down the kneeler carefully, please. Squabbling and a shove over who gets to pick the candle to light.

Why can’t we have donuts during Lent and are we going to Trader Joe’s on the way home? High-five from the priest on the way out to the parking lot. Please hold hands.

You boys did a great job at church today. Thank you. Attempts to revisit the homily’s high points over mounting requests for a favorite CD for the drive home. Brainstorming babysitters for Holy Week services (7:30 on Thursday night will be a disaster otherwise).

Closing antiphon from the littlest one, car seat in the back, dirty boots swinging against the driver’s seat, can you please stop kicking, sweetie:

I love going to church.

. . .

Has it always been so small and so huge, all these questions and concerns wrapped under one roof of one church? Maybe.

It’s the juxtaposition of the miniscule and the momentous, the ordinary and the overwhelming – praying for mudslide victims and pulling up trousers that were indeed too big for Mass this morning, hearing stories of healing in the Gospel while rummaging around in the diaper bag. The whiplash back and forth that defines this time in our lives. All of this is church right now.

Some day we may find ourselves just two again, a quiet couple that takes up only part of a pew. But for now church is chaos. And that’s ok, too.

. . .

Today at Practicing Families I answered our oldest son’s question from last Sunday, a response to his tantrum at the back door:

Why do you have to go to church?

I thought I wasn’t going to have to answer that snarly question for a few more years. Maybe even a decade before you started stomping around with teenage eye rolls of disgust when I ask you to get dressed on Sunday morning, and not in those ratty jeans with the holes in the knees, either. boots

But here we are today, already five minutes late and you’re standing at the back door whining in protest, coat clenched in your fist and your stubborn stocking feet kicking the mud-caked boots you refuse to put on so we can scramble into the car.

Do you want my answer? Ok. This is why you have to go to church.

Read the rest at Practicing Families

my mom, my mother-in-law, and…st. benedict?

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This door marker greeted me on retreat last weekend. A small but important sign that I was in a place of hospitality, a hallmark of the Benedictines and their spirituality.

Welcome.

I thought about hospitality often while I was on retreat. When I saw the generous plates of snacks set out at every break. When one of the sisters helped me navigate their breviary books for evening prayer. When I noticed the basket of toiletries at the bathroom sink with a note to help yourself if you’d forgotten anything at home.

Small gestures that convey a deeper embrace of the stranger as guest.

. . .

In his Rule for monastic orders, Saint Benedict writes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. I remember seeing these words engraved in stone near the Abbey Church at Saint John’s when I first started graduate studies at the School of Theology.

During the next three years of studying and then five years of working within a Benedictine community, I’ve learned plenty about hospitality from the brothers and sisters within the monasteries.

But whenever I think of how to welcome guests as Christ, I still think first of two mothers I’ve been blessed to know.

My mom. She turns down the sheets and blankets at night, inviting her guests to slip into bed. She arranges bouquets in bedrooms and tiny bud vases in bathrooms. She chooses favorite books and stuffed animals to line each grandchild’s bed. She sets Martha-Stewart-worthy centerpieces on the kitchen table and pulls out homemade soup and sandwich fixings to greet late-night travelers who drag in from the airport.

And if you arrive so late that you’re sure no one could possibly be waiting up for you (she still is), she’ll leave a candle glowing in the dark kitchen, just enough light to let you see the “WELCOME!!!” sign scrawled and circled on the refrigerator white board, exclamation points barely enough to contain her joy.

My mother-in-law. She fills the table with family, friends, neighbors and strangers. She invites anyone who doesn’t have a place to go for a holiday - seminary students from Nigeria, new neighbors from Egypt, families from Colombia, shirt-tail relatives from Canada - to join any gathering she’s throwing. She rearranges the dining room to make one long table so that everyone has a place. She makes sure every elderly relative goes home with a heaping Chinet plate of leftovers to reheat the next day.

Every time I’ve brought a friend home who’s received their welcome, I hear my own thoughts echoed in their comments as we pull out of the driveway – Your mom is honestly the nicest, most thoughtful person I’ve ever met. Does your mother-in-law seriously make a spread like that for every Sunday supper?

Clearly they each have the gift.

. . .

Sometimes I feel intimidated by their hospitality. Both these women have the charism for welcome: a gift given for the good of the community. If I don’t share the same instinct, should I just give up? My welcome of guests tends more towards worry – is our home too messy? is the guest room a disaster? will they be bored by our current life with littles that sets our family’s days?

But then I remind myself that both these women are expert homemakers. The honor of their life’s work has been deeply tied to the warm center of the home they created as a place of welcome, not just for their families but for any who cross their doorstep. Whether their hospitality first came by instinct or desire, they’ve honed the habits that became a practice that formed a way of life.

I imagine it’s the same for any Benedictine.

So perhaps here’s hope for me yet, and hopefully many more years in which to grow in learning what it means to embody a gracious reception of those who show up at my door. Christ in the face of friend or stranger.

Knowing each of these women well, I’m sure they’d scoff at any compliment of themselves as Christ-welcomers. But I suspect the secret they’ve learned is something like this: when you welcome a guest as Christ, you become like Christ yourself. Generous, compassionate, and loving.

The wider your welcome, the wider your heart.

. . .

Today is a Benedictine feast, the anniversary of Benedict’s death in 543. They’ll celebrate in true welcoming fashion at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s.

If it weren’t for the fact that I’ll be posting this today and my mom will surely blush when she reads it, I’d doubt that she or my husband’s mom would ever know this is a day that celebrates their life’s work as well.

But isn’t that the gift of those who open wide their door for guest or stranger? Teaching the rest of us how humility goes hand-in-hand with hospitality.

My kids have already picked up on this ancient Benedictine truth. They’re constantly asking when they get to visit their grandparents next. Because even if they can’t yet name it, they know how it feels to be welcomed as Christ.

Like your arrival is the long-awaited gift that everyone’s been looking for.

introducing…the book!

First, thanks to all of you who sent so much love with my big announcement last week! I’m floored by your support and can’t wait to share my “baby” with you very soon.

Second, I’ve been getting lots of questions on the details (apparently cryptic reflections on liturgical feasts aren’t enough to satisfy your curiosity?) so I wanted to answer the questions I’ve been getting via email and social media.

What’s the title? What’s it all about?

The book is called Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting.

I call it a spiritual-memoir-meets-parenting-memoir with a twist. It takes the seven Catholic sacraments as a lens for looking at life with little ones in a whole new light. So it’s a sacramental theology from the ground up – the sticky, Lego-strewn, does-anyone-ever-mop-this-floor? ground zero of parenting.

But the book can perhaps be best summed up by this hysterical – unofficial! – trailer that my brother made me. (Ok, actually it’s nothing like this, but I can’t stop laughing when I watch it.) If anyone can catch every single pop culture reference upon first viewing, I will send you an autographed copy of the book:

Who’s the publisher? When is it coming out?

I’m delighted to be working with Liturgical Press, and the book should be out by early fall 2014. Will keep you posted!

And finally, the #1 question I seem to get regarding the book:

How did you find time to write this???

People always want to know how I do this. (I know I’m far from the only mother-writer who gets these baffled looks.) My guess is that it’s the same way any of us make time for the passions we love: stealing spare moments and carving out corners.

But here are five ways I able to write this book (while raising two young kids, working part-time, and surviving a challenging pregnancy or two in the past year):

1) I slacked off elsewhere. I cancelled my gym membership after our second son arrived, and I’ve felt guilty about the lack of exercise ever since. But something’s gotta give in every season of life, and in this stage with little ones underfoot, working out is what I let go. Physically? Not so healthy. Emotionally and spiritually? I’m much happier if I spend my free time on writing. I know someday I’ll have time for regular exercise again, but for now chasing preschoolers and squeezing in yoga will have to suffice.

Also, housekeeping chez nous took a sharp nosedive in early 2013 when I started seriously working on this project, and it has barely recovered. Don’t look too closely at the bathrooms next time you come over. Trust me.

2) I had lots of help. Being blessed with a supportive spouse who sees my writing as a calling makes this work possible. I took a lot of Saturday mornings to write at coffee shops, and he regularly took on the boys’ bath/bedtime routine solo to give me extra hours to write at night. I couldn’t have done this without him.

But I also asked for help from others when I needed it: I paid for a few extra hours of childcare with our sitter when my schedule allowed it, and I leapt at my parents’ offers to watch the kids whenever we were visiting them. Writing a book is a team effort.

3) I learned when I work best. Once I started paying attention to the natural rhythms of my mind and body, I figured when the best times are for me to do creative work: before dawn, between 10 am and noon, and after 9 pm. Now I don’t try to force myself to write during other times of the day, and I find that flow comes much easier.

Of course, my life doesn’t always align with my creative energy. So I stock up on caffeine and chocolate to work during naptime when I’m home with the kids, or I stick to editing tasks during my “off” hours. But knowing when I find flow helps me stop banging my head against a wall when things aren’t going well: I check the clock and decide when to start again later.

4) I organized against my nature. This might contradict my own advice in #3 (know thyself). But I am not a type-A person. I’d much rather enjoy a lazy day, go with the flow, and act spontaneously. Most of the time that doesn’t jive with running a household or raising kids. So over the past year I’ve forced myself – with gritted teeth - to develop some type-A habits.

I methodically meal-plan every week so I never have to come up with dinner ideas at 5:00. I charted all our household chores and made a weekly/monthly schedule so I don’t have to remember what needs to be done. I still bristle at sticking to these uber-organized systems, but they’ve freed up enough precious moments for writing every day to make it worth it.

5) I stuck to a schedule. This is what happens when a humanities major meets an engineer: one person delights in work plans, the other rolls their eyes. But when I got serious about finishing this book in one year, my husband sat down and helped me make a weekly calendar that would allow me to write and edit every single chapter within the allotted months. (I guess this combines #2 – team effort – and #4 - unnatural organization.)

Bless his heart, he hoped I’d track every hour I spent on the project so that I could know exactly how much time it took to write the book. But I will say that knowing exactly what I needed to work on every week, rather than following inspiration’s whim as is my fancy, made it possible to pull off pregnancy + book in a way that surprised even me.

So there you have it: what it is and how I did it. And what a gift this opportunity has been – I am so humbled and excited by how everything has worked out. I can’t wait to see what this year will bring…

what i’ve been reading lately

Yesterday I made a shocking discovery.

(For a book-lover, that is.)

I was rummaging through my bookshelves, trying to find something for work. When I suddenly realized that I had completely failed myself.

I hadn’t organized a single book I’d read since I became a mom.

Allow me to back up for a minute. Of course I’ve shelved all the books I own. (It took us months longer to get settled into this new house when we moved with two teeny kids, but I did manage to get that essential unpacking done in short order.)

And of course, the book geek in me did find time to arrange by genre: all the theological tomes together on one towering bookshelf in my office, fiction on another, poetry and art history on a third, and old French paperbacks (and even a few of my husband’s books I let him sneak in) on the fourth. Perfect, right?

Wrong.

Because here’s the full geeky truth: the only way I really want my books arranged is autobiographical.

(When John Cusack whispered that same line about his record collection in High Fidelity, I swooned.)

I’ve done this ever since I was a little girl. I kept books together on the shelf that I read at the same time (because of course, true book lovers are always reading more than one book at a time). And as I finished each book, I filled up the row.

I loved looking back and remembering the serendipitous connections I’d made between books – the novels I read during that winter, the poetry I dove into after that breakup. My life made sense through books, and my shelves told the story.

Fast-forward a few years? I’m lucky if I find a home for the stacks of books that (still, to my husband’s dismay) steadily enter our house year after year. Now when I finish something, it sits on my nightstand for six months, then on the floor of my office for a few more weeks, and finally – in the last-minute flurry before visitors are coming over – I shove it thoughtlessly onto the shelf where most people would assume it belongs: novels with novels, non-fiction with non-fiction, and so forth.

So since I became a mom, I have no record of what I’ve read. Fail.

It’s not looking good for my housekeeping skills to improve any time soon, especially not with #3 on the way. But I realized that I could still chronicle my reading adventures if I only wrote them down somewhere. This combined with the fact that I’ve gotten some of my favorite recent reads from other bloggers’ suggestions means that I’m inspired to pull together the list of what I’ve been reading lately (or rather, what I’ve read since the beginning of this pregnancy, because – let’s face it – pregnant women are obsessed with documenting the passage of those long weeks till the due date.)

And because I’m always eager to get new suggestions, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading lately, too! Make no mistake: we’ve got many months of winter to go in Minnesota, and I need all the good reads I can get while the wind howls through the blizzard outside.

So without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading. The beginnings of a virtual, chronological bookshelf of reading through maternity (five years after this journey started):

What I read to make myself feel better at the beginning:

Let’s start serious. Pregnancy after loss is hard and dark. I needed help and hope to boost my spirits during that tentative first trimester. Roxane recommended After Miscarriage: A Catholic Woman’s Companion to Healing & Hope, and I was so glad I took her advice. This small book is a comforting collection of stories and suggestions, gentle and healing, about grieving and opening yourself up to the possibility of another child. I’d highly recommend to any mom who’s suffered a miscarriage.

Moving on. (My sense of humor is too twisted to stay in the melancholy forever.) When I was sick beyond anything you’d want to imagine in those first few weeks, I could barely make it out of bed some days (and every evening). Curled up with my trusty Kindle, I tried to find any offerings from our library’s e-collection that would take my mind off the gut-wrenching reality that is me in the 1st trimester. And I came across this – riveting? harrowing? choose your clichéd but true adjective here – story of a catastrophic climb up Mt. Everest in 1996. I flew through Into Thin Air, grateful for every awful description of altitude sickness and toes lost to frostbite, because it reminded pitiful, pathetic moi that things could be much, much worse. Always a good lesson.

Anyone who knows me in real life knows I never care if I’m late to the party. Even if I’m years late. I Don’t Know How She Does It was so hyped when it came out a decade ago that I was too annoyed to read it then. But – returning to pathetic, pukey me confined to my comforter – I came across this one from the aforementioned e-library offerings and decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

I hated this book. The narrator’s frenzied descriptions of her life as a working mom stressed me out just reading them. And yet I made myself finish it, just to see how things turned out. (Which proves to you how desperate I was for distraction.) But it’s still worth remembering on my chronological shelf since it does define one image of motherhood our culture is wrestling with today: the woman who tries to have it all.

What I read when I started feeling 2% better:

For me, the second trimester doesn’t bring so much relief as sheer annoyance at how long I’ve been feeling sick. So once I made myself get out of bed for good, I stopped reading solely on the Kindle and started dipping into real paper books again. These three were perfect to read in short snippets (even while pretending to hide in the bathroom – let’s be honest about how mothers of young kids sneak in their reading time).

I adored this book. Katrina Kenison’s writing is beautiful, and I’d long admired it from afar. These short pieces in Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry felt like deep breaths in my frenzied days, like sitting down with a dear friend over a warm cup of tea. Katrina is wise and real and thoughtful and inviting, and when I reluctantly finished the last essay, I started scheming which book of hers to read next. I wish I could buy this for every mom I know.

I doubt I would have ever read this book if a dear friend hadn’t literally dropped it in my lap. I’d heard of Nadiz Bolz-Weber in the blogosphere and appreciated some of her radical Jesus-thoughts as an edgy Lutheran pastor. But I’d never spent any real time with her writing until Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. And I thoroughly enjoyed it: thought-provoking, challenging, laugh-out-loud hysterical at points.

This memoir-ish collection of essays made me think hard about bad habits it can be easy to fall into as a person of faith – I especially loved her notion that whenever we draw a line between ourselves and another group to declare ourselves in the moral right, Jesus usually winds up looking back at us from the other side – and I’m so glad I took a chance on a book I probably never would have picked up otherwise.

Another book I wish I could give to every parent I know, new or experienced. On a rare bookstore jaunt at summer’s end, I found this volume tucked in the back of the poetry section. I tend to be wary of poetry collections (too often full of the schmaltzy and sentimental), but I was drawn to flip through this one and immediately I ran up to the counter to buy it.

Morning Song: Poems for New Parents is a wonderful collection of poems celebrating everything from conception and birth to sleepless nights and first steps. But the poems chosen so thoughtfully by its editors resonate far beyond the first year and the first year. These are classic and contemporary poets reflecting on the deepest truths of what it means to bring new life into the world. I’m still savoring this one.

What I’m reading now:

Eowyn Ivey’s incredible novel The Snow Child almost convinced me that the frozen north is a beautiful place to live. I’ve rarely read such vivid, poetic descriptions of the land as a character (1920′s Alaska, in this case), and her creative spin on the traditional fairy tale versions of a heart-breaking story about a childless couple and the fantastical child that changes their life was simply a gem to read. One of those where you let out the long sigh when you finish the last page, wishing it weren’t over. This book was brutal and surprising and nothing what I expected when I started reading, but I won’t soon forget it.

A few years ago, I started noticing a pattern in my favorite essays from Notre Dame Magazine. They were all by Brian Doyle. Then his words started showing up in reflections in Give Us This Day, and I read his words again in the National Catholic Reporter, and I started wondering why I’d never sat down with a good stack of this man’s brilliance?

Oh my.

This book is incredible. I’m savoring it in small bites, like one of those delicious restaurant desserts you want to make last, and I’m elbowing my husband in bed every other night to make him read one of the zinger reflections in Grace NotesThis will assuredly not be the last book I read by Brian Doyle. (Here are a few teasers to convince you.)

Sarah Jobe’s theological reflection on the joys and pains of pregnancy is the other book vying for my attention on my nightstand these days. In a bittersweet way, her book’s title – Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy – rings even truer for me today than when I first bought it for myself, back in late July when I was delighting in the prospect of baby #3. When we lost that baby, the confusing become much more real. For months I couldn’t pick this book up, remembering how excited I had been to buy it, my treat to myself to get through that first trimester of blech and burden. But just a few days ago I came across it again (at the bottom of a stack in my unorganized office – see, dear reader, it all comes full circle!). And I’m so glad I decided to jump in.

The author writes in such a thoughtful, unsentimental way about the power of pregnancy as an experience of co-creation with God, of bearing the marks of Christ, and of embodying the practices that draw us closer to the Spirit. Much more to say about this in weeks to come; she’s really got me thinking about pregnancy in a whole new light. (Every other page is underlined or dotted with exclamation points, so you know it’s good stuff.)

So there you have it: nearly 22 weeks of reading. What will the next 18 bring? Only the library and my Kindle can tell… But I want your suggestions!

What are you reading these days?

most-ly: a year in review

2013 was a fun blogging year for little moi.

I got the chance to work with so many great writers and inspiring moms who helped bring these two series to life: How I Nurture My Mothering Spirit and How We Spend Our Time.

I started writing more beyond this space, for Catholic Mom and Practicing Families and the blog for the Collegeville Institute.

And – perhaps most importantly – I was delighted to turn a few blogging connections into “real-life” (as in, welcome to my messy house! and my wild kids!) friendships off-line.

(To think I still owe all this to a crazy idea I had years ago when I decided to start a blog and tell no one.)

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Inspired by the “Most” Posts at Amongst Lovely Things, I decided to dig back through the past 12 months of blogging to unearth a few memorable moments in these five categories:

Post with the most clicks: This is Heavy. But We are Also Strong. I loved that Blooma (a great resource for Twin Cities moms!) picked this post to rerun on their blog this week, because it was one of my surprise favorites this year. I wrote it in my head one night while cutting cantaloupe with my youngest, and I never dreamed it would strike such a chord.

Interestingly, it’s still my page on Prayers for Pregnancy that gets the most views (5,000+ this year, yikes). Believe me, I’m cooking up something new for 2014 on praying through pregnancy…so stay tuned!

Post with the most comments: On Carrying and Missing. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, having miscarriage become such a stark part of our 2013. But it was, and so many of you sent your words of love, and I will never forget any of it.

Post with the best picture: When The Marriage Dust Settles. The jumble of photo booth shots from a family wedding sums up the lovable chaos of our lives right now: all four of us clamoring all over each other, laughing and cuddling and making goofy faces for the camera. And at least one boy grinning upside down in every shot.

Post that was hardest to write: The Gossamer Veil. This was one that made me weep while I was typing, but it might be the truest thing I wrote all year. Ever since I was a child, I have carried with me a sharp, deep awareness of the thin thread between life and death, and losing our baby brought all of this too-much-reality right back to the surface of grief. But I’m so grateful I wrote it.

Post that was your personal favorite: When A Calling Comes Full Circle. I loved that the Christian Century blog network picked up this post, because it strikes at the heart of the work I’ve been blessed to do on vocation with the Collegeville Institute: What does it mean to listen for God’s call? What happens when life interrupts our plans? And how can the paths-not-taken come back around when we least expect them?

. . .

Looking ahead…What will 2014 hold? A new baby in May, thank God. And another big surprise I’m getting ready to birth, too…so stay tuned. (You might just have to follow Mothering Spirit on Facebook or Twitter to hear the news first!)

One thing is for sure: none of this would exist without you, the ones who read what I write. Still such a humbling head-shaker for me. You are the ones I count among the many blessings of 2013, of one more year spent spinning around the sun.

May this last day of December be filled with light and laughter and love, wherever you spend it.

the shortest days. the longest nights.

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. 

a fluttering on the feast

Listen! Put it into your heart, that the thing that disturbs you, the thing that afflicts you, is really nothing.

For weeks I’ve felt flutters. The butterfly kicks, the gentle brush of something turning. The quickening I’ve come to expect by this point in pregnancy.

But tonight the movements suddenly felt so strong that I dared to try it. Laid my hand on the low curve of my rounding belly – and there it was.

A kick I could feel from the outside.

Should I have called him to tell him right away, that I could feel our baby now, that maybe he could soon, too?

Should I have dug out the new baby book waiting on the top closet shelf, to record the date, to try and do better by marking milestones for #3?

No. Instead I let tears spring small, then come quick. Because every turn this time around is tinged with sorrow as well as joy. Hope as well as fear.

Please let this last. Please let this be.

Do not let your heart be disturbed. Am I not here, I who am your Mother?

I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to forget.

What I want is to trust. And to rest easy into this promise, to sink back into a womb where love and warmth surround, where all that is needed is given.

At each turn, I try. When the first trimester mark passed. When I started showing. When I could feel movement.

But still the doubt casts long shadows some days. I must accept that I am changed, that expectation will always mean something different now.

I have to relearn this over and over. It will not be the same.

Are you not under my shadow and my protection? Am I not the Source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms?

Yet why should it be the same? This life is unique and fresh all its own. It knows nothing of what came before; it is only here and now. It is full and complete all its own. My trust is what is incomplete.

Maybe this is why we need feasts of signs and wonders. Of roses blooming out of season. Of incredible images imprinted on ordinary cloth. Of proof that a peasant could bring to a bishop.

Because we are human. Faltering. Forgetting.

Maybe today’s Guadalupe celebrates the same truth as a kick I can feel from the outside.

Tangible. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

We want to conjure up certainty at a moment’s notice, demand some reassurance whenever faith wobbles. But miracles and apparitions are unbidden. They are simply offered.

A gentle kick. A nudge. I am here. Do you not perceive it?

Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry or disturb you.

 

(Mary’s words to St. Juan Diego, on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe)

advent in the frenzy: as it always was

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.

this is heavy. but we are also strong.

Last night before dinner I stole a few minutes while the quiche was cooking to cut up melon for tomorrow’s breakfast. The evening news hummed along on the radio, and the boys played peacefully on the porch. I savored the clean slice of chef’s knife into cantaloupe.

For one of those rare moments, everything around me rested calm and content.

But little ones can hear the sound of silence; it’s the most seductive siren they know. Sure enough I turned back to my cutting board to find the smallest helper had shoved over a chair from the table and was ready to help.

“What you doing, Mama?” he asked, bouncing where he stood.

“Cutting melon. Do you want to eat some?”

“No. I want to hold it,” he insisted, pointing at the half melon waiting on the counter.

“Really? You can try to hold it if you want, but it’s big – be careful.”

(Always with our warnings. As if we could rescue them from falls and spills and snares by words alone.)

He lunged for the melon’s slick surface, its round face bigger than his own head. His chubby hands grasped the sides firmly, and I watched his arm muscles start to quiver slightly as he raised it an inch off the counter.

“Ooo,” he marveled. “It’s heavy!”

“But I am strong.”

. . .

A professor from grad school used to remind us that the measure of maturity was the extent to which one could live with ambiguity. Why do I still find myself stuck marveling in adulthood how often I have to hold paradox in trembling tension? It grates at me not to resolve the unresolvable.

Maturity means growing into the space where the world does not make sense and yet we agree to live there. Because it can still be good. Because there is no other option. Because we are always asked to carry more than we think we can.

A friend who taught kindergarten once told me a story about how he helped his young students understand that they could feel multiple emotions at the same time. They might complain to him that they were tired, but he would remind them that they were also strong.

I loved this idea. I tucked it away in the back of my mind – remember this when you have kids - and along the way of raising our young boys, these dichotomies became part of our family parlance.

You might be tired, but you’re also strong.

You might be sad, but you’re also brave.

You might be mad, but you can also be calm.

And that night at the kitchen counter, marveling at his own small strength, my toddler made the connection for himself. He held the tension in his hands and realized it was nothing to resolve.

It was simply something to hold.

. . .

So many people I know are carrying something heavy these days. Kids who are sick or parents who are dying. Unemployment or overwork. Relationship anxieties or financial stress.

Maybe it’s just the nature of living in this broken world as fragile humans. But sometimes what we’re asked to carry feels overwhelming.

Given that context, my current woes seem eye-roll-worthy by comparison. Morning sickness that drags for months, exhaustion that feels never-ending. I know it means a healthy baby, and I never take that truth for granted. But my younger brothers can attest that I am a notorious wimp when it comes to pain: I whine about the slightest discomfort and will never be described in an obituary as saintly in long suffering.

So nausea and vomiting that feels like a three month stomach-flu-meets-hangover? Not my easiest burden to bear.

Even when I try to keep the complaining to a minimum, the litany is always circling through my head. Please God, make it stop; please let me feel better today; please let me be near the end. 

In my mind, the body becomes the burden.

But this body has borne my babies, birthed my babies, nursed my babies, too. This body has brought forth life, even as I’ve had to lay it down in a thousand small deaths. This body has allowed me to do some of the best work I’ve been blessed to do. 

So while this body may feel heavy now – while it may be a burden when I’m lurching for the toilet or dragging myself out of bed (or shuddering to remember how much bigger I’ll get by pregnancy’s end) – this body is also strong.

Pregnancy’s paradoxes remind me of what a two-year-old already remembers.

That we are each asked to shoulder the weight. But we are also strengthened for the carrying.

. . .

What weighs heavy in your life these days? Where are you also strong?

my one and only gratitude post

A November full of thanksgiving. My Facebook feed is full of gratitude posts every morning and Twitter’s a-twitter, too. Before the craze of Christmas consumerism kicks in, I’ll take this cultural cultivation of “eucharist” any day.

When we pause and whisper thanks.

There are so many ways to say it, aren’t there? Blessing, gift, grace, abundance. When I look back over the long arc of my life, I’ve known nothing but. Yet so many days were filled with complaining, griping, longing, lunging after more.

Even now it starts to feel like this as my thoughts spin southward: if only I felt a little better, if only I weren’t quite so sick, if only he were home more to help, if only I weren’t so behind in work and writing, if only we could hire someone to clean the house, if only it were December already, if only I could trust that everything would turn out ok.

Instead of the sheer gratitude of spilling out words that say yes.

That say life.

That say again.

Because the gratitude of this one small, overwhelming, mysterious, undeniable fact – that we get to try this again, to hope for another – is tied to every other deep gratitude in my bones.

Gratitude to God from whom all life flows, tiny as a trickle as it starts.

Gratitude to the spouse whose partnership in all things makes our life together – and theirs – possible.

Gratitude to the family and friends who love us through dark and light.

Gratitude to siblings who can’t wait to welcome our baby with love.

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When we first started dreaming of #3, back before we learned about a new kind of loss and grief, I imagined all the fun ways we could share the news. Matching Big Brother shirts on Facebook, photos of boys curled up with “Our New Baby” book, adorable announcements about adding two more feet to our house.

But the truth is, once you’ve been on the infertile receiving end of Facebook photo bombs and unexpected emails, you tread much more lightly on the tender ground of others’ hearts. There is too much pain on the path to parenthood for too many.

And once your heart breaks open to this truth, you clutch it fiercely.

Infertility always shapes our parenting. Now miscarriage is part of our family, too. Announcing and expecting shift into new shades in the light of what we have loved and learned and lost.

And yet here is a child, a child who knows no loss or pain, a child whose life is entirely his or her own, a child whose arrival brings us great joy and greater hope. I have to celebrate this truth loud and clear, too.

So here it is, friends and strangers who grace me with the gift of your presence here and the stories you have shared in this place, too. Here is my gratitude and my prayer. Here is my terror and my fear. Here is my hope and my joy.

It is all wrapped into one new life, and it is twelve weeks young.

I know of no other way to speak this truth into the world than to whisper thanks. Gratitude. Eucharist. Which is, and will always be, a broken heart from which deepest love flows.

It is month of giving thanks. With all my heart, and another now beating strong and steady within me, I can do no less.

. . .

I need ten full moons exactly
For keeping the animal promise.
I offer myself up: unsaintly, but
Transmuted anyway
By the most ordinary miracle.
I am nothing in this world beyond the things one woman does.
But here are eyes that once were pearls
And here is a second chance where there was none.

from “Ordinary Miracle” ~ Barbara Kingsolver