what’s a mother’s legacy?

I had stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and – truth be told – a break from the boys inside who were driving me crazy. I walked the dog down to the street and pulled the newspaper from its box, tugged off the plastic wrapper still dripping from the morning’s latest summer storm.

A headline at the bottom caught my eye. It made me stop and read the whole obituary in my driveway: In eight decades as a singer and pianist, she made her name by balancing her family with her career. It’s not every day that a mother’s work-life balance makes the front page.

“Her heart was as big as her talent,” said Paul Peterson, her youngest child. “She was everybody’s mom. They all called her ‘Mama Jeanne.’ She was always so welcoming. Everyone from David Sanborn to Steve Miller rehearsed in her basement on Morgan Avenue.”

“She lived an incredible life and left a great legacy,” said her grandson, saxophonist/keyboardist/singer Jason Peterson DeLaire, who tours in Michael Bolton’s band. “From her, we learned about music and life and love.”

As I walked back up the driveway, I wondered about the questions we all eventually ask ourselves in the quiet of facing mortality.

What might they say about me when I’m gone? What kind of legacy would I leave?

. . .

The video made the usual viral rounds this week, and I should have known from everyone’s Facebook warnings to watch with Kleenex in hand that the coffee shop was not the place to click on the link. But caffeinated click I did, and Colbert choked me up, too.

Setting aside his usual snark and cynicism, he spoke eloquently and emotionally about the woman whose love had shaped his very self. As I tried to coolly wipe my nose with a napkin before anyone noticed, the same questions quietly rose up again:

What would my kids say about me after I die? How can I lead the kind of life that leaves people remembering love?

. . .

Last week I held my youngest in my lap for a blessed three solid minutes while we listened to the priest’s homily. Mass was going so much better than the week before: spirits were high, boys were behaving. I’d even managed to skim the readings for the day over breakfast so I had some clue what was going on even when I didn’t hear it.

But the opening line from the Gospel had bugged me all morning, tripping me up like an annoying pebble stuck in my sandal.

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him…

How could he be alone and yet accompanied? How could he pray so peacefully surrounded by people?

Was this some archaic editorial inconsistency (he’s alone/whoops, he’s with everyone)? Or simply proof of the divinity of He Who Could Meditate Amidst The Annoying Masses Of Humanity Even Though I Can’t Manage An Our Father When My Kids Are Driving Me Crazy?

I wondered about this paradox of prayer. As I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, as I drove the boys to church, as I plied them with books and crayons during the Gospel. I wanted to hear some word about how this worked.

But as the visiting priest started preaching about the obvious heart of the gospel – take up your cross and follow me - I figured the line that caught me would get glossed over.

Until he started telling his own story of feeling called to the priesthood.

He spoke about his mother who raised 7 children. How she prayed in the living room every evening before dinner while the rowdy crew of kids ran circles around her. Unflappable, she’d sit there on the couch with the same small prayer book in hand.

Only after she died, well into her nineties, did her son get a chance to see that prayer book. Wondering what captivated her attention every evening, he flipped it open to the well-worn middle and found that every night she had been praying for her children’s callings – specifically that of the two boys she worried about most, one would get married and one would become a priest. (The current priest admitted he was in fact the former, to the laughter of the congregation.)

But as he quickly moved into the next part of his story, I sat there still thinking about his mother as I breathed in the scent of my boy’s messy curls. I realized this priest had enlightened exactly the passage I’d pondered.

That was how you prayed in solitude, even with all the ramble of disciples around you.

That was how you lived a life where work and love could be braided together in messy beauty.

That was how you left a legacy of compassion and caring so deep that the people you loved would never forget it.

You prayed like Christ. You prayed with a mother’s heart for what mattered most.

how to let the fruit ripen

Full confession: our kitchen fruit basket is where produce goes to die.

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Maybe you have this problem, too. Each trip to the grocery store finds the counter fully stocked with too-firm bananas, too-green avocados, the occasional treat of a peach or pear waiting to be savored.

Early in the week I find myself hovering over the bowl, waiting for the fruit to be ready. But before I know it, bananas become spotted and soft, avocados squishy and dark, the precious peach or pear ready to rot.

It seems to take so long for the fruit to ripen, but if I’m not careful I miss my chance to enjoy it.

There’s metaphor hidden here, heaped upon the privileged problem of having so much food that it can go to waste. But when I meditate on this Sunday’s Gospel - the parable of the barren fig tree – the deepest truth it speaks to my life right now is patience.

Patience towards ripening fruit.

I look at these little boys running around my house, knocking into my knees and climbing all over my couches. It can be so hard to stay present to them, not to pull forward to days when we’ll be able to have two-sided conversations or leave the house for a whole afternoon without needing naps. Sometimes I want them to ripen quickly so I can enjoy them fully.

But I know this season of green, of tenderness, of waiting to burst into bloom is a fleeting time. I know that too soon they will be more than ready to wrestle out of my reach and rush into a world ripe for their discovery.

I don’t want to hover over them too closely or hold them too tightly. But I do want to witness their maturing and unfolding, not miss it in the blur of my impatience, always straining to see what’s next around the corner.

I want to cultivate patience towards their slow but certain growth.

. . .

This week I’m posting over at Practicing Families - a wonderful new resource for parents interested in exploring faith with children – with ideas for a family liturgy based on this Sunday’s fig tree gospel.

Simple practices to break open a parable about patience and forgiveness and second chances. Lessons I need to learn and relearn each day of this parenting journey.

Each day that I sigh and wonder why the fruit hasn’t ripened yet.

God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.
Open our eyes to see how we are growing each day.
God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.
Help us to forgive one another when we fail.
God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.
Let us offer each other second chances.
God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.
Wait patiently with us as we work to bear fruit.
God, be patient with us as we grow good fruit.

(a prayer for the Third Week of Lent)

seeing stars in sunlight

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision…He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

~ 1st reading for the 2nd Sunday in Lent

I always thought Abram was staring up into a dark night sky, dazzled with stars-as-descendants, breathing in cold crisp air as he tried to believe the impossible for a childless man of his age.

Turns out I was wrong.

Read the rest closely. The sun sets later, as the story slips into Act Two of the fateful covenant, as Abram and God seal the deal over a nighttime sacrifice and a burning torch of hope in the darkness. So the day was likely still bright and blazing when an aging Abram was first asked to trust in stars he could not see.

I’m deeply grateful to Ignatian Spirituality’s Just Parenting blog for this insight that turned this Sunday’s Scripture inside out for me. Because I never realized how the time of day adds a final layer of implausibility to the story: God drags the old man outside into noontime sun, tells him to count all the stars he can see and then trust that he’ll have offspring so many.

Either the cruelest joke or the crucial test of faith: to trust what you cannot see.

. . .

Infertility is the foundation of my parenting.

When I’m sinking into a dreadful day of tired tempers and toddler tantrums, when I’m floundering and grasping for air as I spiral downward, infertility is always the solid ground I finally touch with my toes, the reassuring firm beneath my feet from which I pause and push off to rise, to gasp up to the surface again. I remember and right my thinking:

 At least I have them. At least we were able to have children. At least they exist.

Any small annoyance is relativized in the face of my babies’ being, the sheer graced gift of their lives. No matter the current crisis, my view is widened to the scope of what matters. My momentary maternal failings become but a blink.

I remember that I have the blessing of a bad day as a mother.

Because it means I mother.

sun

I wonder when these daily, weekly, monthly reminders of the blessedness of bearing children will start to fade. Like the people who live tucked in the foothills of towering mountains or stretched along the edge of the vast sea – I always wonder when they start to take the landscape for granted. Time settles us into the way-it-turned-out as if it were always given. But it is never simply given.

The immensity of what we’re asked to trust, in those rare times when we’re asked to truly trust, only becomes visible later. We see what was obvious only in a different time or season.

But in the blinding sear of midday, when the sweat runs in rivulets down our back, when our necks crick from craning skyward, it is easier to wave it away, shrug off with a sneer.

It is always easier to walk by sight than faith.

. . .

Now the stars are clear as night. Now I start to sense the scope of what I was called to trust when parenthood seemed far from predictable. Now I see the bright sparks against the black sky, the wider span of a greater plan than I could grasp during long months of waiting and wanting and wondering and wallowing.

Did I trust the noontime promise, the prospect of distant lights that would shine brighter when I needed them in deepest dark? Mostly what I remember from our years of infertility is sadness, anger, bargaining with God, weeping with jealousy at others’ good gifts.

But from where I watch tonight, staring out at a winter’s wash of white stars shining through cold darkness, I see clearly. How the wrestling with God, the willingness to trust the divine with my deepest desires, was trust enough for that time. Because it saw me through the heat of day to the calming cool of night.

I wonder what I am called to trust today. What noontime stars am I unable to see, squinting into the sun? What promise of a wider view, a multitude beyond imagining? What prospect so much bigger than my one small life, but of which I am still a part?

I stand at the window watching stars and I marvel at Abram’s trust.

All that he believed he could see at midday.

callings and temptations

Today FaithND is running a reflection I wrote on this Sunday’s Gospel, about Jesus’ forty days in the desert and the words of Scripture that he falls back on in his hour of temptation. As I worked on this piece, I was captured by the idea that the devil preys on Jesus’ deepest callings and twists them just enough to pervert the true meaning of the Scripture he cites:

Jesus came to be bread for the world—why not zap stones into manna? Why not feed all the starving in one fell swoop, multiply the miracle by a million, transform every pebble of the earth into food for the hungry?

Jesus came to rule over the world with justice and compassion—why not become king in an instant? Why not seize the glory of all the nations, watch all the citizens of the world bow in honor to him in a single second?

Jesus came to model complete trust in God—why not hurl himself down into the arms of the angels? Why not prove exactly how it looks to fling oneself into the unfailing care of the divine?

I wonder how my own callings are confronted by temptations that look good on the surface, but deep down are distortions of the truth.

Take the calling to be a parent, for example. I find myself inundated by images and ideas and advice and assumptions about what it means to be a good mother. I’m still so new at this gig, just a few short years into a lifelong vocation, that I often find myself wrapped in doubts, worrying whether I’m doing this right, wondering if there’s another (or better or easier or righter) way.

I’ve never thought to consider these temptations as evil – I tend to reserve the term for large-scale horror, violence and destruction – but I wonder whether the weaseling of worry, the twisting of fears around my deepest loves, the perversions that prey on my keenest sense of calling, are nothing less than the power of darkness at work in my own mind.

We can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons, but can this be calling? My belief in a God of goodness, who calls us in love for love, who longs to bring about fullness of life for the world, whispers no.

Perhaps, like Jesus, I need the words of others to remind me, to strike at the heart of truth:

There is no real occasion for tumult, strain, conflict, anxiety, once we have reached the living conviction that God is All.

All takes place within God. God alone matters; God alone is.

Our spiritual life is God’s affair because whatever we may think to the contrary, it is really produced by God’s steady attraction and our humble and self-forgetful response to it.

It consists in being drawn, at God’s pace and in God’s way, to the place where God wants us to be.

- Evelyn Underhill, The Soul’s Delight

 

the real wise women

The joke regularly circles round the Internet and church bulletins this time of year:

What if the three Wise Men had been women? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts!

But beyond the silly stereotyping, the harmless joke always rubbed me the wrong way, though I could never put my finger on exactly why.

Until I was musing about what to give for a dear friend expecting a baby, and I realized I didn’t feel like buying her anything practical. I wanted to give her something beautiful, something lasting, something lavish.

Thoughtful folks always offer diapers and wipes when a wee one arrives. Bibs and burp clothes, toys and teething rings flow as freely as advice at baby showers. But the wisest women in my life were the ones who brought me impractical gifts. Handmade blankets. Tiny knitted sweaters. Wee white booties. A shiny silver cup.

Nothing for the day-to-day messes of babyhood. Everything for the wonder of welcoming a new one into the world.

When I look around our home’s endless kid-clutter of ever-changing clothes and once-loved toys, I realize these gifts – the impractical ones, the indulgent ones, the ones never found on a registry – are the lasting treasures.

In my youngest’s room, the rocking chair is draped with a quilt handmade by a dear friend. IMG_6494Propped on the floor by his favorite books is a pillow from my sister, stitched with his name and birth date.

In my oldest’s room, a warm white blanket from my husband’s aunt rests on his trunk. Keeping watch from atop the dresser stands a small statue of a mother cuddling her baby, a present from my sister-in-law. Gifts from mothers wise enough to know that babies deserve to be welcomed with beauty.

And lavish impracticality.

So every time I hear Epiphany’s Gospel of the Magi, and someone snickers about the impracticality of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I think no, the wise men got it just right.

And maybe it was the women they loved – the ones they left behind to journey so long and far, led by a star’s strange stirring – who were the ones that whispered in their ears bring something beautiful, something rich, something lasting. Maybe the women beside the wise men were the ones who knew just what a birth deserved, especially a sacred birth like this one.

Not the practical help that a young couple with a newborn needed. But the lavish gift of honoring a new and noble life in the glint of gold, the scent of frankincense, the perfume of myrrh. All the extravagance they could offer for such a child as this.

The wise men got it right. And wise women would have done the same.

mary of the third trimester

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I wonder how she felt in the final weeks.

Whether she was tired of carrying, exhausted from the extra weight and the swollen ankles and the restless nights and the ceaseless kicks. Or whether she loved wondering about the mystery of this babe, watching the strange, sudden stretch of skin across her stomach, limbs pushing out into every corner of their shrinking room, hint of the him they would become.

I wonder if she knew the time was coming. Even if hers wasn’t the customary calendar to count by, could she feel the readying, both the baby’s body and her own preparing for the passage ahead? Or perhaps she was surprised to find the end drawing near, one more shock piled on the growing heap of expectations set aside for another’s plan.

I wonder how she spent the last few days. Whether she sought the wisdom of women who knew, her cherished circle of a trusted few who hadn’t fled when the rumors flew. Whether she drew strength from their stories of passage, their steadying counsel and sage advice. Or whether their tales terrified, her body still so young itself, barely strong enough to survive what was demanded of her. I wonder whether she wanted to be alone or whether she confided in companions. Whether she prayed to her God in the darkest moments, or whether she spoke softly to the stranger-turned-spouse now strong and silent beside her.

I wonder if she loved being pregnant. One of the lucky few who glow as they grow, who glide easy through the months, who marvel at the wonder. Or whether she struggled with the weight and constraint of what was asked of her, to sacrifice so much so young – her plans, her love, her reputation. Maybe she was restless for the end, waiting for what’s next, wanting to be free of the burden of bearing. Maybe she was ready to push.

Or maybe she sensed, deep down, deeper even than dropping baby ready to birth, what was being asked of her. That she would have to give him up, her child, her baby, her precious only baby, give him up to more than the world outside the womb or the darkness outside her door. That she would have to birth him into the beginning of the end, a pain that cut deeper than pangs of birth, a wound that would only grow until the most terrifying transition, the final contraction of her heart and body wrenched in two as she watched what the world would do to him, wailing and weeping for God, screaming as mother-son both suffered – all according to a plan she herself set in motion with a whispered yes.

That redemption itself would rip him from her arms.

And bearing all this along with the baby weight, knowing just enough to hold all these truths, treasure them in her widening heart, now and ever-after beating for two, maybe she wanted to cradle him close, keep him safer than he could ever be again.

For a few weeks more.

God of the hosting

On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.

Isaiah 25:6

Let’s see. Days’ handful still
to go and so
much left here to be done.
The gathering of food and drink,
the trimming up of yard and home,
final invites, last sweep and mop of floor.
Making ready for a feast always demands
all that I have to give
and more, late nights spent
making lists, too many turns around dark kitchen
puttering and putting house to rest
only to rise again with to-do on my mind.

Endless preparation — do they ever guess
the time it takes,
those I welcome at the door,
embrace with kiss and laugh
and can-I-take-your-coat?
Behind the scenes is where the spread
takes life: the quiet rolling of the silverware
in napkins and the careful press of linen
wrinkles smoothed by iron’s steam.

Sometimes I wish that I could be the guest:
the ones arriving eager, ignorant
of sweat and hours poured into the party,
those who taste and savor,
do not spy undusted shelves
or frown at pie that browned too long.
I envy innocence
of answering and not inviting.

But over years hosting became a life,
the way to keep heart widened
like door creaked open in the winter cold,
wet snow stamped in
on boots piled high to dry
while party swells and spills
into the basement, front porch,
following wherever wine and laughter flow.

I love a crowd, the jostle
welcoming unlikely crew –
friends and in-laws, uninvited 
stragglers perched on couches
balancing full plates on napkinned knees,
squeals of children weaving between legs
of grown-ups clustered in the kitchen,
heart where warmth and good smells always grow.

Right here’s the rub that hosting brings
each year when holidays ring round again:
the joy of drawing close, of living for a night
the way we ought to love all year –
with beauty, generosity,
all energy on evening, no worry of tomorrow.
Just the small sweet joy
of many underneath one roof,
tired satisfaction sharing
all the good my life can give.

God of the gathering

How often have I desired to gather your children together

as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…

Matthew 13:37

Of course I love the days when they come back.
When dark drive floods with headlights,
tired travelers droop to baggage claim
and I leap up to greet them
bright-eyed, arms as wide as grin.
Soft tears springing right behind: You’re home!
I reach to pull them near and laugh
a muffled welcome into collars,
fall into the hug I’ve held in dreams,
remembering panged when phone would ring
from far away, quick update between worlds
and then goodbye, talk soon, take care –
empty that gnaws and grows
each time they leave.

When they were young, my wings
arched wide enough to hold them,
stretch around their needs, protect, provide,
make home.
But then they grew. I wanted
them to scurry off and run into the world
just as I hoped. And yet 
I never thought they’d drift so far.

Years went by when they did not return,
work or duty called, and travel hassles
at the holidays. I know
it’s life, I understand.
Still, one big brood under my roof is best:
Clucking, ruffling feathers (family after all)
the way I always dream.
Warmth of close reminding
love resides in flesh and bone.

Gathering is work. You’d never guess
the squeezing of the schedule
to make time and space for cooking, cleaning, 
organizing and awaiting, readying return.
And stretching of the heart, too 
wide enough to let back in.

Last night as I tucked blankets
into corners, smoothed the sheets for
now-guests in their childhood beds,
I thought of birds who pluck their feathers
to line soft their babies’ nest.
Always it is myself I give
to draw them home,
my loves that wander wide
then circle back to tell me
wisdom of the world
I’ve always known.

God of the baking

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Luke 13:20-21

Here’s why I love to bake:
You start with nothing –
an idea, ingredients
of possibility, a plan and hope.
You slowly start to mix
measure and pour,
the transformation stirring with your spoon.
And suddenly it starts to look
and smell and taste alive –
creation sticky in my hands,
smeared between my fingers,
streaked across my hair.

The baker’s art takes patience,
planning, careful watch of
oven’s heat, directions’ time.
Forgiveness, too –
for cake that falls, deflated;
recipes that failed to rise.

Baking’s best as company affair:
Sometimes I cook with children –
grabbing cups and spoons to spill,
enthusiasm trumped only by sugar.
I sit and watch the wise work, too –
laughing, telling stories while they bake
with wrinkled hands,
forearms strong from years of kneading dough.

I ought to say that sharing is the best part –
breaking loaf and offering steaming slice in love.
But secretly I like to chew in silence:
taste alone the crunch of crust,
sink of teeth in softer middle’s heart.
Because creation’s sweetest in still morning
before the rest wake round me
greeting day with yawn and groan.
I love to feed their bellies,
but I need to rise alone.

God of the dishes

Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me.

Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;

wash me, make me whiter than snow.

A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.

Psalm 51: 4, 9, 12

Dirty dishes stacked so high,
porcelain towers on my right and left.
I take the sponge in hand,
wring out the water, squeeze on soap,
and crank the faucet hot.
Steam rises as the stream heats, steady
I plunge plates and cups
into the bubbles swirled below.
Swish, wash, rinse, repeat;
the stack grows smaller as I go,
plates now neat and nestled
drying silent in the rack.
My hands turn pink and bright in sink's hot bath;
my fingers pruned and white by end of night.

Long ago I ate alone:
the solitary rinse of single
spoon and knife and fork.
These days I’m elbow deep in pans,
scrubbing steel pots ringed
thick with soup, browned casseroles
of dinners passed with family, friends
all those who gather for my meals.

Cynics see the stubborn cycle
of the grimy, gooey junk
caked hard on dishes left to sit too long
(pardon my love of lingering one last glass)
as dirty proof of life’s depressing rut:
the endless drag of meals and mouths to feed,
a plate’s only escape the break
that sends it swiftly to the bin.

But I delight in dishes,
love the dirty and the clean:
how they slide in slippery hands
before I scrub in circles swift,
how they flash with water’s drip
each time I lift them up to rise,
inspecting both sides slick and sheen,
then dry them satisfied.

For dishes prove that someone shared the meal,
that there was food to pass,
safe time to spare.
Companions, plenty and a pause
are no small good
in world of loneliness, 
want, rush and fear.
And if I'd none to wash,
that would mean no one took the cup.
What a tidy, terrible mistake
that empty would have been.