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?

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…

and our hearts forever…

Forgive me, friends. Today I can think of nothing but Notre Dame.

We’re playing for a National Championship for the first time in decades. And I say “we” because Notre Dame is a place and a people that have always been plural: ours, us, we.

irishOur team hasn’t gotten this good or this far since I was a child, but I couldn’t sleep last night as if it were Christmas Eve, thrilled with what the prospect of this day might hold. Regardless of the game’s outcome, it’s a day that Domers will never forget.

Last night as I lay awake in the dark, I thought about how Notre Dame has changed my life. All the “soggy sentimentalism” of an alum, of course.

Because it was where I made my closest friends.

Where I fell in love with the suavest engineer this side of South Quad.

Where I learned how to be part of something bigger than myself.

Where I even learned to follow football – the sport I swore I’d never understand, let alone love – as it taught me rituals all its own.

But as my thoughts trailed off into the wee hours ticking towards game day, I thought about how Notre Dame changed my writing, too. All those years working for the student newspaper. The semesters I spent as an English major. And the awakening to faith that keeps calling me deeper into a vocation of words.

This blog is shot through with my alma mater, from one mothering spirit to another. What I know about home and family and prayer is all touched by its people and place and presence, even as my college years fade farther in the rearview mirror than that last shot of the Golden Dome leaving campus.

So today and always, Tom Dooley’s words still ring true, the small metal plaque by the brave young doctor’s statue covered today by a January dusting of snow, flickering in the light of all those candles, the heated hopes of every Irish fan:

But just now…and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto, Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid, and all the priests are bundled in their too-large, too-long black coats and the students wear snow boots…if I could go to the Grotto now, then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion.

Thanks to Notre Dame, my life – and, I hope, my writing – knows more faith and poetry and compassion than I would have ever imagined as a nervous 18 year-old, pulling up to Walsh Hall for the first time.

So in gratitude, today and always, I say GO IRISH.

the gift of other-mothers

The package was ripped apart the instant I told S it was for him.

“What’s dat?” he asked, cocking his head to one side as he clenched in his chubby fist the silver cross he’d found inside.

“That’s a cross for you and your brother from Aunt G!” I smiled, delighted at the surprise. A treasure from her trip to Rome, the cross draws the Trinity together in a lovely and unusual pose.

But before I could wax eloquent on the nature of the Triune God, he raced across the kitchen dragging the cross along the cabinets, leaving a jagged silver line I then spent twenty minutes scrubbing off.

Later that night, S proudly slammed the cross against the wall at his height when I asked him where he’d like to hang it. “Right ‘dere,” he proclaimed.

A week later he and I were sharing an afternoon snack when F brought the mail inside. “Look who sent you a letter!” he exclaimed. When I saw the return address was the convent, I tore it open with a toddler’s enthusiasm.

“S, it’s a letter from your godmother! A real, live letter!” (From the postulant who only gets to send one letter a month, this was no small surprise.) I soaked in her words with February sunlight streaming over my shoulder. Such a gift, especially her words of love for her godson and his baby brother.

My boys are blessed with family near and far who adore them. But every so often, I’m reminded of how blessed they are to be loved by friends who aren’t even related. By their other-mothers.

Many of us had one growing up. Maybe a parent’s college roommate or a family friend without kids of her own. Women who embraced a role of nurturing that went beyond biology or blood ties. We called them “aunt,” and over the years they became a part of the family. They took us seriously, and we basked in their affection. We couldn’t imagine growing up without them.

This article - which in a God-incidence arrived on our doorstep the very same week as mail from the other-mothers – calls them PANKs: professional aunt, no kids. No matter the moniker, their role in children’s lives is real and important. They widen the family circle, stretch the boundaries of love, and broaden the tent of the village that raises the child.

Thanks to my babies’ many other-mothers – best friends from college, dear friends from grad school – they will know a world that is bigger than our family’s ways. And for their growing in faith, this is of utmost importance.

The two dear friends who blessed us with surprises in the mail this week could not be more different, or more dear to my heart. One reminds my boys to pray the rosary; the other reminds them to seek Christ in the margins. One other-mother Marches for Life; one marches on the School of the Americas. Through these two women who wrestle with their callings in vastly different ways, my boys will be loved into a faith that is more active and contemplative, more liberal and conservative, more vibrant and colorful than anything their two parents could show them alone.

As more women choose paths other than motherhood, perhaps the ranks of PANKS will swell. While I know many in their number mourn the loss of their own parenting experience, I also honor what their presence can mean for children who crave role models. The power of positive adult influences in a young person’s life cannot be underestimated.

Tonight I see a cross on the wall and a letter on the table. I think of a quilt in the nursery and a picture of Jesus on the shelf. Gifts to my children from their aunts-by-love, signs of the real presence of other-mothers in our home.

Their devotion to our boys is their true gift. They who do not deal with tantrums or teething or toilet training can cherish the heart of a child with a pure love, unfettered by the daily drain of parenting, much like the adoration of grandparents or the fierce loyalty of uncles.

It’s a good reminder that we’re all called to care for children who are not – by blood or bond – “our own.” Because they are still our own.

As any cherished aunt will tell you.

Women without children are also the best of mothers, often, with the patience, interest, and saving grace that the constant relationship with children cannot often sustain. I come to crave our talk and our daughters gain precious aunts.

Women who are not mothering their own children have the clarity and focus to see deeply into the character of children webbed by family. A child is fortunate who feels witnessed as a person, outside relationships with parents, by another adult.

- Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year

kindred (mothering) spirits

One of the beautiful and surprising things I’ve discovered since I began to write this blog is the many kindred spirits to be found in the blogosphere.

Whether it’s comments from faithful readers or links from fellow bloggers, I have come to treasure the connections that this space has let me make. And today I get to celebrate one of those connection in a lovely way.

When I first happened upon Ginny’s blog at Random Acts of Momness, I felt I had found a diamond in the rough. Here was a true mothering spirit, someone else who loved to write and muse about the connections between faith and family life. Then when I realized hers was also a byline regularly carried by our diocesan paper, I was even more impressed that this kindred spirit was an Actual Published Author. (Yes, I am still totally geeked out by this kind of stuff.)

So when Ginny asked me to write a guest post for her series on “The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me,” I was delighted to contribute. Not only because it’s a wonderful question and a chance to celebrate the most influential mothering spirit in my life. But also because it will hopefully lead all of you to check out her blog and her writing as well.

No matter what our work in the world, we need kindred spirits to carry us along the way. Anne of Green Gables was absolutely right.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”