vocation

introducing…the book!

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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…

on the presentation: a big announcement

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This is the moment I’ve been trying to imagine.

When she unwraps her baby from where she’s been carrying him close to her heart for the miles and miles it took to get here. When he stretches his arms and legs in that instant, jerky way that newborns do, shocked by the sudden shift of space. When the old man reaches out his gnarled hands, trembling at the thought that this could be the One he has been waiting a lifetime to see.

When the mother hands the child over to the stranger.

When she lets her heart go.

. . .

I used to think the Gospel of the presentation in the temple was all about Simeon and Anna.

Those marvelous wisdom figures, the prophetic pair, the ancient elders, the seers seeking their savior. Simeon whispers such strange words to Mary, how her heart will be pierced. Anna can barely contain all eighty-four years of her joy, rushing out to tell anyone who would listen that the long-awaited anointed one was finally here.

But I wonder now about Mary and Joseph, too.

The tired travelers, exhausted from their long journey to Jerusalem. The poor couple, unable to afford anything more than a pair of birds for their offering. The new parents, still bewildered by the birth of their baby.

How did it feel to let him go for the first time? To place him into unknown hands? To hear such surprising words spoken about what he would become?

The thrill and fear of such a presentation.

. . .

There are everyday presentations, too, of course. Opening up to a dear friend over coffee. Dropping off at day care in the morning. Undressing for the doctor’s exam.

The moments when we hand over what is most previous and beloved. When we hope that others will hold our dreams with as much tenderness as our own heart surrounds them.

And so on Friday afternoon, the Friday before the Feast of the Presentation, I slipped the big stack of plain white copy paper, printed with 1-inch margins and page numbers in the upper right-hand corner, into a big envelope. I drove it to the post office, weighed it, slapped on the postage, and listened to it drop with a thud into the bottom of the mailbox. I stood there staring at the blue steel that separated me from something that was safe in my fingers just seconds before.

The book I spent a year writing. The book that the publisher will put out this fall.

My book.

A baby of sorts. A firstborn of another kind.

A piece of my heart, pushed out into the world, now in the hands of strangers.

. . .

This is the moment I’ve been trying to imagine.

What it would feel like to be done with the solitary stage of writing. What it would mean to open myself up to the world of edits and critiques and readers. What it would sound like to say I wrote a book and have it be past-tense.

The thrill and fear of such a presentation.

I wanted to share this news here in a thousand different ways – in excitement, in hope, in gratitude, in humility, in wonder, in relief, in disbelief.

But maybe this is the only way I ever could have shared the news – of the other creation I’ve been gestating and readying to birth this year.

Through the lens of another story.

Because that is, at its heart, what I hope my calling as a writer means. That I thrust these small stories of mine out into the world, and someone – maybe you – catches a glimmer of their own life in a new light because of these words.

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And if reading is an act of communion, then it must start with a presentation. Of joys and sorrows and laughter and loss and learning all over again what it means for me to be who I am: a mother, a writer, a lover, a child of God.

Which means I have to let go.

And see what comes next.

most-ly: a year in review

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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.

when a calling comes full circle

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Mama, do the Our Father in French tonight.

He whispers his request as he burrows under the comforter, eyes flashing bright in the dim of his bedroom draped in night. Of course, I agree. And in an instant we’re off. I close my eyes and start to sing, and for a moment I drift back.

The cold stone church, frigid even in summer. The rows of plain wooden chairs with ancient woven seats. The prayers of the Mass turned to poetry in another tongue, the words I committed to heart to keep from flipping through my missal every moment like the obvious outsider that I was, even after a year.

I’ve forgotten so many words from that time – the names of strange vegetables at the market, the polite way to ask for directions, the slang on the corner store magazines. But still the language lingers, if not on my lips then deeper.

Even when I thought I’d left it behind.

. . .

Some choices seem definitive. I dropped the journalism minor when I fell hard for the humanities. I left the English major behind when art history flared its passion. But I could never quit the French. Even when it was impractical, indulgent, unemployable, save for the doctorate too many professors tried to push me towards.

So when I finally had to admit to myself that there was a turning, that the longing was no longer for language, that the tug was towards theology – the deepest of the humanities, the heart of the cultures I loved, the Word before all other words – I had to grieve the loss.

There were dreams – of a Parisian address, of doctoral programs abroad, of years spent pouring through poetry – that I had to let slip away.

Maybe somewhere deep down I wondered if it might bubble up again, if I could come back to the conjugations and the circumflexes and pick back up where I’d left off.

But I never really thought it would happen.

. . .

People would ask sometimes: you’re teaching the boys French, right? 

And I’d look up at them with dark circles under my eyes from bedtime battles and mid-night nursing and early morning rising to tug soaked sheets off the crib again, and I’d think to myself: you’re kidding, right?

But then little by little, it started to creep back in.

A nursery rhyme here, a church hymn there. A few cooking words in the kitchen while we’d bake. A simple grace before meals. Then one rainy afternoon I taught the oldest Notre Père and we were off.

Suddenly he was digging out the children’s dictionaries and asking me to tell him words-in-French from his favorite books and correcting his little brother’s toddler version of Frère Jacques.

How did we get here? I’d wonder.

. . .

I’d only grabbed the church bulletin out of habit, something to read for the thirty seconds between strapping the last kid in a car seat and starting the car to drive home. But that Sunday a small notice in the corner caught my eye: French translators needed. 

Turns out our sister parish in Haiti was sending a team to visit us this fall. Since they didn’t speak English and our folks didn’t know Creole, everyone’s non-native tongue was the only way to email back and forth.

You’re kidding. I thought to myself. I could actually help them with this from home?

So here I am now, the giant black French dictionary back on the desk, the dusty Micro Robert off the shelf to check verb tenses, even the Google Translate cheat to look up words that didn’t exist a decade ago in my college texts. I’m back in the world of delighting at what translates well and laughing at what’s impossible to culturally correspond, back in the world where we reach across differences through the power of language, back in the world where words matter deeply.

And with each email request that pops in my inbox, I remember how much I love this world.

Would I have had the courage, the confidence, even the chutzpah to blow off the dust and start the rusty wheels squeaking again, if it hadn’t been for these little boys who dragged me back first? It’s a terribly humbling thing, to spend years of your life perfecting a language and then fumble for the most basic turns of phrase years later.

But my son’s Montessori teacher talks over and over about synapses, about stretching out the tiny tendrils of a preschooler’s mind so that years from now, when he comes across rhombus or ovoid or quadratic equation, the synapses will already be reaching out across the divide to let the spark jump that much quicker.

Maybe callings run across these same impulses and energies. When we spend years chasing one dream, plowing into the work and sacrifice it takes to strive for a worthy goal, then even when we turn and take up another direction, the pathways do not close completely behind us. There’s still electricity waiting to leap across the now-dark abyss.

In all my work on vocation, these are my favorite stories. Not I knew I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was 5 years old. Not I stumbled into this work, though looking back I can see God’s hand.

But I had this dream once, and I thought I let it go, I thought my life turned in a very different direction, but then it turned out that years later, I did get to follow that dream after all.

So when he cuddles under the quilt and asks me to sing Je vous salue Marie again, I always say Yes.

You never know where Yes will lead.

why you have to tell your truth

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What a strange place to realize why you write (because yes, by now you must own that you are a writer) – deep in the thick of Wisconsin woods, tucked back by the leafy shores of a wide sparkling lake, waiting in the white clapboard building of an old YMCA campground-turned-college, surrounded by a hundred pastors twenty years your senior (and you the only Catholic for miles, and a lay woman at that), wandering in your own thoughts as the retreat session begins with a call to prayer.

From over your shoulder someone flutters a piece of paper onto your lap as strangers’ throats clear and chairs shuffle to start the opening prayer, and you look down to read these words:

“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope -

not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower;

nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;

nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges

(our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through);

nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is Gonna Be All Right,’

but a very different, sometimes very lonely place,

the place of truth-telling,

about your own soul first of all and its condition,

the place of resistance and defiance,

the piece of ground from which you see the world

both as it is and as it could be,

as it might be, as it will be;

the place from which you glimpse not only struggle,

but joy in the struggle -

and we stand there, beckoning and calling,

telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”

- Victoria Safford

And you know the prayer must have continued around you, with all those pastors’ kids and smooth-talking preachers warbling on perfect pitch in the summer breeze, sweet enough to break your heart. But you, you have to sit back down into that awkward plastic folding chair and you have to stay with these words, breathe them in, feel them hum against your heart as you clutch the paper in your hands.

Because these words speak why.

Why you started this journey, why you keep tapping these words, why you keep wondering and writing any chance you get – because the only truth you can tell in this maddening world is the story of your own small life.

And because perhaps in telling it, in flinging it out into the void while you retreat, vulnerable and doubting again, you might just hear some faint echo ring to your ears, some tiny rattle of the lone pebble dropped down the dark well.

This well that starts on your own soil, in the middle of your messy backyard, ringed round by little boys who giggle while they spray each other soaking with the cold clear stream of the garden hose.

This well that starts on the surface of the everyday but sinks steadily downward to the deep, to the secrets buried below, to the source of the water that flows beneath us all. The aquifer of human experience, one wise teacher once taught you.

So every day when you sit down to write (because it is every day, it must be, it drags you out of bed every dark morning before the babies stir, every nap time when you sink into the couch to seize the quiet, every exhausted evening once the same boys are tucked bedside again), you write with this aim in mind: to plant yourself at the gates of hope.

To refuse stubbornly to let go, even when the world spins cynical around you and whispers nagging doubts in your ears – no one cares about these questions any more, about God and faith and truth; it’s a waste of time, you know.

To sit tight in the lonely place of truth-telling.

To keep trying to hone the craft, to find the just-right words, to seize the struggles and the searching and the soul and the sacred in this everyday.

To say yes, there is still joy. Always, in the struggle, in the call, in the resistance, in the seeing. There will be joy.

And because all of these things – digging in your heels to hope, never letting go of what you love, teaching truth-telling, honoring the holy, naming the joy – all of this is how your heart is being reshaped into a mother’s heart, too.

For you this writing and this mothering linked arms from the first days and swore a fierce blood promise never to part. And you know they will not.

So even when you are hundreds of miles from the ones you raise, they are still – and will always be – your prayer and the words you seek. For they will always be your joy in the struggle.

They will always be the truth in your words.

a round-up of labor day thoughts

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How will you celebrate your work today?

Here are a few ways to honor the labor you do, whether out in the world or behind closed doors:

Look at laundry in new light to see how every day is a labor day.

Remember the ordinary, extraordinary labor that brought each of us into this world.

Consider how God works, too: bakingsweeping, washinggathering, or hosting.

Take a page from my pastor on making room for kids in the midst of our work:

It’s adorable, of course, to watch a tall man in flowing robes lean over to talk to a tiny toddler. But sometimes I wonder if we let these interactions change us, if we who are parents let ourselves learn from our pastor.

I admit that I don’t always make such gracious space in my work for my children.

They pull over chairs to the counter in the middle of my dinner prep, and I sigh because little hands will now make a mess in the flour and steal veggies off the cutting board.

They show up at my elbow while I’m writing and ask to sit on my lap, and I grumble because I’m in the middle of finishing an important project with a pressing deadline.

They appear in the middle of folding laundry or sweeping floors or washing dishes, and I mistake the real work for the chore at my hands, not the moment unfolding in front of my eyes…

Read the rest at CatholicMom.com

Check out our suggestions of hymns and blessings for Labor Day from the Collegeville Institute Seminars.

And these awesome Labor Day prayers written by my friend Genevieve at the USCCB.

Finally, treat yourself to this beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer on the holiness of everyday work. I’ve loved her music for a long time, but the beauty of her voice and words have become healing for me this past month:

Holy is the dish and drain

The soap and sink, and the cup and plate

And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile

Shower heads and good dry towels

And frying eggs sound like psalms

With bits of salt measured in my palm

It’s all a part of a sacrament

As holy as a day is spent

how we spend our time: working (and praying)

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You Are Already PrayingToday I’m delighted to welcome the Rev. Cathy George for the latest in the How We Spend Our Time series!

Cathy is an Episcopal priest and the author of You Are Already Praying: Stories of God at Work - a collection of stories about people from all walks of life who have come to see their work as prayer.

I’m lucky enough to know Cathy in person, since she is a member of our Collegeville Institute Seminar on vocation and profession, so I have gotten to admire up close her passion for helping people see their work as prayer.

(Full disclosure: I’m also a fan because she graciously invited me to share my story of my work as a mother as prayer – which you can read in her book!)

I hope Cathy’s book and her wise thoughts below will help you to see the way we spend most of our time – at work – as prayer, too.

. . .

1) What is one truth about time you have learned since becoming a parent?

Time passes quickly. It doesn’t feel like it when we sit in the dentist’ s chair, or our days are dedicated to the care of a child’s needs, but it is fleeting. A child is no sooner born, than done nursing, and out of diapers and walking into kindergarten.

Being in the present moment, as fully as possible, is the one truth that I find worth practicing, day in and day out. Its fruits are abundant.

2) What is one practice of using time well that you have developed as a mother-writer?

Not waiting for the perfect time. Rather, stopping to ask myself if I really need to do this (email, phone call, laundry, cooking, etc.) or could it wait so that I could seize the time to write or read?

Setting expectations for myself that are reasonable and that don’t discourage me but take into account all that is on my plate that no one else might notice or acknowledge. Remembering that it is good for my children to see me at work on my work. It does not diminish my devotion to them, but shows them my whole life.

Letting go of writing goals when I was immersed in nursing, napping, feeding a child when the exhaustion was too depleting to expect myself to also be creative and instead to use writing as a joyful getaway, as a time to write, or vent in a journal for the joy of it and not expect myself to produce during a chapter of my life when I was already being productive.

3) What new insight about faith did you gain from writing this book?

I wrote the book because I wanted to encourage people of faith to see their whole lives as an opportunity for prayer. I learned, from those who shared their stories, and from those who are reading the book, that it is a message people need to hear.

Reading themselves into the stories of a mother at prayer, or a realtor, or painter, their lives open up before them as ceaseless moments to be in the presence of God in the tasks, work, play and challenges that make up any given day.

I learned that the sense of taking prayer into one’s actions, and workplace and family is not far off, not something to work hard at understanding, more like an “oh, yeah, I am already praying, now I know what to call it, now I can pray in and out of my whole day and not think of it as less than real prayer, but another form of prayer.”

I learned that we all want to be whole, to have a center to ourselves and our days that everything else revolves around, like the spokes of a wheel that move from the center hub. God is the hub of our life, and there is not a place in our day that God wants to be locked out of.

How we pray in church informs the prayer that goes on unceasingly in us as we leave church. It does not lessen the vitality and importance of our prayer life in quiet, or in Scripture, our living prayer becomes an expression for our faith.

4) What is your favorite way to spend time with your family?

Laughing and relaxing. I love to be with my family when we are laughing at each other, ourselves, or something funny. I love when we are watching a Sunday afternoon game on television, making a meal, folding laundry, and we are in comfortable clothes and enjoying the company of each other.

. . .

revCHGYour turn to win! Cathy has generously offered one copy of You Are Already Praying: Stories of God at Work for a reader of Mothering Spirit.

To enter the giveaway, leave a comment below before midnight (CST) on Saturday, July 27th.

And to learn more about Cathy’s book and work, check out this in-depth interview she did with our staff at the Collegeville Institute!