work

a summer of paradox

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My mother sang while hanging clothes
The notes weren’t perfect, heaven knows
Yeah, but heaven opened anyway
This I knew was true

Carrie Newcomer, “Leaves Don’t Drop (They Just Let Go)

It was a year ago that I spent hours listening to her music in the kitchen. Swirling my hands through streams of soapy water as I washed bowl after bowl, pot after pot.

Putting up the summer harvest was part of my healing after losing the baby. Doing something concrete for my family. Saving something good from the soured summer. Looking ahead to a time when it all might not hurt so much.

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I blanched brimming bowls of beans. I cut corn from piles of cobs. I stirred so many pots of soup and sauce, all of it spooned into bags and stacked into the basement freezer. With love, I suppose, but also longing. For what was and what wasn’t and how I had no control over any of it.

So for weeks I listened to Carrie’s albums on repeat: gentle, soothing, pulling me away from myself. There was so much light and darkness in her songs that they made me weep, let me break open to all that needed to rush flooding out.

And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die and live is life’s refrain

This past week I found myself pulling out the same albums again. Popping the Sesame Street Classics! out of the stereo and setting the soft, sweet music to spin. Her voice filled the kitchen again, and suddenly I was right back to a summer ago.

Only now I was thinking of the baby we lost and the baby we gained. Of the summer that was and the fall that will be. Of all the impossible opposites clinging together around me. 

God speaks in rhyme and paradox
This I know is true

It was a summer of new life and new loss. Our family welcomed a baby and lost an uncle. A quick arrival and a too-quick departure. Their names twin together, Joseph and Jim. One waking to his first summer and one who had his last.

It was a summer of healing and hurting. A birth that was nearly perfect and an emergency surgery that was anything but. A natural process that healed with no complications and a painful procedure that left permanent scars. Three intense hours that brought new life into the world and three dramatic hours that may have saved my own life.

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It was a summer of no work and lots of work. Maternity leave and full-time mothering. Leaving one kind of labor and taking up another. The freedom of pausing some responsibilities and the weight of taking on even more.

It was a summer of chaos and calmness. The busy buzz of two big boys and the quiet moments with the tiniest. How much louder the house vibrates when all three are yelling at the same time and how much sweeter the house settles when all three are sleeping soundly upstairs.

And then at the end of this summer of paradox, more people started reading this blog than ever have before. Thousands more. And shouldn’t I be delighting in this? Isn’t this exactly what a writer wants?

Yet, ironically, the reason my words struck such a clear chord is because so many people are hurting and isolated. I can’t bring myself to rejoice in that.

I can only hope that what I write might help us try to open our eyes wider and see each other, together. In the messy midst of all our paradoxes.

Leaves don’t drop, they just let go
And make a space for a seed to grow

I had that post on infertility and invisibility sitting in my drafts for a long time. I only pulled it out to finish after my heart broke again at the news of a loving couple – you know the kind, the ones who want kids so badly it hurts, the ones who should have a babbling brood jumping all over them like wriggling puppies – whose last round of infertility treatment failed.

I was saddened and frustrated and angry when I heard their news, wanting to shake that furious fist at the universe and demand why.

Instead I sat down one early morning in the dark and finished writing the world this letter.

And for the past week I’ve been sitting back, somewhat stunned, watching so many people read it, watching these crazy numbers climb, watching everything spin out of my small control after how many years of thinking this blogging business depended on me. It doesn’t. It depends on you.

So when I look back on all I will carry with me from this summer, I see how I am leaving with a widened heart and a longer list of prayers to pray. In a season of pain and paradox, these are unequivocally good things.

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A summer ago I was mourning a miscarriage, and now I have a bouncing baby boy on my lap. I can’t help but find God in paradoxes thick around me. That Joseph would not be here if that baby had lived.

Now knowing him in all his perfect particularity, I cannot imagine a world without him. Which does not reconcile any death, but does make more space for mystery in the shades of grey that smudge together to make this life.

A portrait of paradox.

. . .

In a fitting end to my maternity leave, my thoughtful co-workers put together this post on our Collegeville Institute blog about my summer series on spiritual practices with newborns. I’m touched by their words and hope you will enjoy it, too!

these are the waning days

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Dear God, I cannot love thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.

- from the prayer journal of Flannery O’Connor

Right now the days are waning.

There is a thickness in the morning air, the cling of August humidity, beaded in droplets on the windows. The reluctant slide of late summer into early fall, the slow turn of seasons. The steady tick of each almost-school day on the calendar, edges furled by an almost-kindergartner equal parts itching to start and dragging his feet to stay in summer’s ease.

Each day we lose a little light. Browned grass crunches beneath our bare feet, and the tips of leaves start to curl under, steeling themselves against fall’s first chill.

These days are waning.

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Thomas’ third birthday is tomorrow. When we carried staggering armfuls of moving boxes into this house, he was a barely crawling baby. Now when he chases his brother around the kitchen, he’s prone to smack his forehead against the same counter-top that caught Sam’s height when we were first adjusting to our new space.

Another pile of 2T clothes are stuffed back into plastic bins, awaiting a third toddler-to-come. And the pale yellow room that was Thomas’ nursery has been vacated for another, the baby who starts to stir in his crib when we creep into our bedroom at night. Soon Joseph’s wide, unblinking blue eyes will gaze round at strange new surroundings that will one day become as familiar as the back of his own hand. The cycle starts again.

We are always changing. Life with growing children – carne che crese, my Italian father-in-law reminds me – simply sets this truth in high relief.

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But to wane is to leave behind. Thomas’ years of at-home all-day are drawing to their end. One more week and his size-7 velcro shoes will slip off at the preschool doorstep. He might cry a little, and I know I will, and in that way is it any different from the day I birthed him into being? I will always be surprised by my twinned joy and sorrow at the long string of goodbyes that my children’s childhoods ask me to practice en route to adulthood.

These days are waning.

. . .

My maternity leave is waning, too.

These three long months in which I learned to love a new soul, with all the bodily love that babies bring. In which I was wrapped into the enfolding embrace (sometimes smother) of life at home with littles, full-time.

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It has been sweet and hard and almost everything I hoped it would be. I looked around – even in the chaos and the crazy and the children climbing on couches despite twelve stern warnings of doom and impending emergency room visits if they did not stop – and I saw that it was good.

Which makes me reluctant to close this chapter and start a new one, even eager as I am for all that lies ahead, too. This is the promise of the moon. Even as things wane, there is the promise of waxing days to come. Light increasing, brightness building day by day.

This summer has taught me that we are always changing. I need the constant change of children and the unchangingness of God – and Sunday Mass and ancient ritual and dependable moon – to help me see this truth pressing up against my face each day.

It is the quiet, steady presence of the divine Light that peers into the darkness of our nights with a small sliver of silver hope. Even when the moon seems gone, we know it is never gone.

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Tonight the moon is a pale sliver. Like the tiny curve of a baby fingernail, snipped quick before he can scratch his smooth face when startled from deepest sleep. It casts a thin shadow of its glowing fullness, once luminous and round, an expectant silhouette.

Tonight I am watching my children slumber. Two twin bed frames stretching out in the grainy darkness of a newly shared room. Embroidered “Samuel” and “Thomas” pillowcases draped at the foot of each bed, staking their claim like homesteaders’ flags. School will separate these playmates in two short weeks. Their worlds will widen, then settle back in together each afternoon. They are on the cusp of change, as always.

Tonight I am glancing at a faded summer to-do list. Penned with vigor when the baby was still bouncing within. House projects, writing projects, endless organizational aspirations. Most of them undone. Which is good and fine. Which is peace.

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Tonight I am wondering what I leave behind in this summer and what I take with me.

On the phone with a friend this afternoon, I heard myself saying words I haven’t spoken in so long. Words like spaciousness and silence and stillness and so much less stressed. And I know this is not simply because professional work has been on pause (because if you know me, you know I always stretch to fill all the hours and moments anyway).

But because I feel like I am finally learning how to live my life.

Isn’t that a strange thing to say, 33 years into such an endeavor? But baby number three is teaching me something deep and unexpected. How to let go of all false sense of control and fall into the goodness already around me.

Even with the hard edges that this summer brought – and there were some awful, dark times – I feel such a sense of joy wrapped around me. Gratitude so thick I can weave my fingers through it.

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This is what is waxing in my life. What will keep rising and glowing and rounding into fullness even after we leave these long August nights behind.

The embrace of who and what I am called to be.

How it will cycle through seasons and changes, but promise to remain.

How it was Here all along.

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

take two: working (and praying)

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The second half of the series on How We Spend Our Time. Following each author’s insights, I’ll offer another perspective on the same theme. Cathy writes about work as prayer. Here’s my take:

The easier way, of course, is not to let my work be prayer.

It’s far simpler to zone out while doing the laundry or the dishes than to move through the motions mindfully.

It’s more satisfying to grumble about paying bills or cutting kids’ hair than to approach it as a loving act of service.

It’s even easier to jump into the email inbox and the day’s to-do list than to honor the professional work I do as sacred.

But the stubborn truth is that it’s all holy, this everyday mix of action and reflection, creation and repetition. God already blesses work as good; it’s up to us to see the same.

Maybe we miss it when we call it “work,” when we file it under obligation or drudgery. Maybe if we called it all “prayer” – making breakfast or giving baths or compiling spreadsheets or sitting through meetings or running errands or mowing the lawn – maybe then we would begin to understand how God’s eyes see us.

Maybe.

. . .

I noticed a few weeks ago – while stuffing the day’s umpteenth load of laundry in the washer, then scrubbing all the pots from last night’s dinner, then hustling upstairs to help the potty-trainer in the bathroom – that I had marked each of these spaces with a gentle reminder. A small shimmer of beauty next to each place of dirty work.

Maybe I needed to remember that each one was holy.

In the laundry room, two postcards from the L’Arche community where I worked in France.

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I remember cutting carrots with Daniel, washing dishes with Monique, bathing Claude and dressing Bernard. And I’m overwhelmed at the memory of how holy that hard work was, how I knew God was there, too. I re-member myself back into the way of small things with great love.

In the kitchen, a print of Saint Therese lifting high the plates of the monastery as an offering to God, letting the steam rise like incense.

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Washing dishes is a dreaded household chore for me, so I need a nudge to see the prayer in this necessary work. I remember all the plates that have been washed so that I could eat – in restaurants or cafeterias or homes that welcomed me as a guest. And I load the dishwasher with a lighter heart, grateful for a kitchen full of food to eat and hungry children around my table. I re-member myself back into the faith that breaks bread and shares with the hungry.

In the bathroom, a picture of Saint Joseph cradling his newborn son, a father immersed in his late night work.

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Whenever I’m pulled from warm bed and soft sleep by a boy with soaked sheets or a hacking cough, our trip to the bathroom is bathed in more than the nightlight’s glow if I glance at the kindred spirit on the counter. I remember all the nights that my parents sat up with me when I was sick and surely rocked me back to sleep a thousand times before my memory sealed it to heart. And I wipe my boy’s nose or bottom or feverish forehead with more compassion and less impatience at my own rest lost.

I re-member myself back into the love that washes feet and touches the sick.

Because maybe all this work is prayer, too.

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!

to gather a child on your lap

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What I hold on my lap defines me.

Part of the day it is a child, whichever one of my boys needs a snuggle or a story or a shoe pulled on his foot.

And part of the day it is a computer, the aptly named laptop which nestles on my knees as I work or write or (let’s be honest) waste time.

Today I’m posting at Catholic Mom about what it means to gather a child on your lap, to make space for someone smaller than you who needs your love and attention:

September 2012 009Holding a child on your lap means bearing the burden, the interruption and even the annoyance of all they will ask of you.

It is bending low, stopping and stooping, being weighted down by what matters most. It is opening yourself up to the love that will be demanded from you.

Parents, grandparents, godparents, teachers, caregivers, relatives and friends—we share the sacred weight of holding these least among us. When we let a child sit with us, we clear space for what matters most. We honor the gift of their presence.

We accept and embrace that they belong to us.

Click here to read the rest…

Some days I’m torn between what I hold on my lap, whether it’s two boys fighting for my attention or the back-and-forth of work-and-kids that parents know all too well.

But some days I’m simply grateful that my life is so full, that God has plopped the proverbial good measure – pressed down, shaken together, running over – into my lap.

What fills your lap these days? What do you learn from what you hold?

how i nurture my mothering spirit – roxane

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The Healing Powers of the Pot Roast

In the early part of November 2012, I experienced a profound moment of healing by spoon.

It functioned like salve on my weary mother’s soul – a bowl of pot roast made by my sweet mother-in-law.

She’d prepared the roast and its accompanying vegetables in her Crockpot the night before, the overnight simmering of soup and juices from the meat producing a scrumptious gravy that would have had world-class chefs swooning.

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While the rest of my family was occupied in other spaces – the youngest of them splashing in a nearby hotel pool – I’d found a moment to steal away into the quiet of our dining room to eat what was left of the roast, most of which had been nearly completely devoured earlier by hungry men.

Sitting in the dimly-lit room, breathing deeply, slowly now, I prepared to consume the first homemade meal I’d had in months.

Comfort food, they call it, and this moment made it true for me. With each delectable bite, restoration was beginning.

For nearly a year I’d been trying to do the impossible, working outside the home with five kids still needing so much more of me than I could offer with my attention elsewhere.

But now, after weeks of discernment, I’d made the difficult decision to resign from what had seemed, by all accounts, my dream job. It would mean giving up a paycheck that had lightened our financial load but brought extra responsibilities that weighed down my heart, causing my middle child to utter one day, “You’re not a being a mom anymore.”

I’d done what I could to rearrange the pieces of my life to accommodate all, but came up short. The emotional, spiritual and even physical effects were manifesting themselves, and I had to ask myself whether the job was worth risking an illness that could remove me from life altogether.

Ironically, the kitchen, which I consider the heart of the home, was a room I avoided like the plague during that year. I knew that if I entered, I wouldn’t make it out without depleting the extra energy I needed to push through my busy days.

Fast food had become normal; my oven, a neglected appliance. The dining room was a place to linger only as long as was necessary to gulp down a slice of pizza or a burger.

But sitting before that bowl of real food made with loving hands, placed gently in a warmer and transported 120 miles to our home earlier that day, had reintroduced me to the place where my heart longed most to be.

A few days after leaving the job, I prepared my own slow-cooked meal, and as I scooped out portions to each family member, a surge of love and joy took hold. I was ready now to feed my family, both in food and through my presence in ways that had not been possible for far too long.

And in the midst of it, I became aware that if not for that wonderfully nourishing meal several weeks earlier, the moment would have passed unappreciated. In that gift of warm sustenance, I’d been given a poignant reminder that we cannot offer others something we haven’t first taken in ourselves.

In doing whatever is necessary to create space in our days to ensure we’re nourished, we’ll have something to offer back those we love. And they, in turn, will give to others when it’s time.

A potato, a carrot, a tender chunk of meat – the healing powers of the pot roast.

A bowl full of love that wooed me back to life.

. . .

roxane headshotRoxane Salonen lives in Fargo, N.D., with her husband and five children, ages seven to 17. A church cantor, book reader and coffee drinker, she also works as a faith columnist and features writer for her city’s daily newspaper.

Roxane is the author of two children’s picture books – First Salmon and P is for Peace Garden: A North Dakota Alphabet. Find her pondering on “faith, family and following the muse” at Peace Garden Mama: roxanesalonen.blogspot.com/