feed, tend, repeat.

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(Meditations on today’s Gospel. Typed with one hand, lamb in lap.)

Do you love me?

I say the same things all day long.

Sit down. Use your fork. Don’t hit each other. Say please. Chew with your mouth closed. Don’t interrupt. Be kind. Say thank you. Hurry up. Take turns. Be gentle. Don’t yell. Watch the baby. Help each other. Say I’m sorry. Let’s clean up. I love you.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Feed my lambs.

. . .

Do you love me?

I do the same things all day long.

Feed the children. Wash the children. Make the meal. Clean the house. Comfort the children. Teach the children. Let the dog out. Let the dog in. Drive the car there. Drive the car here. Load the dishes. Unload the dishes. Wash the laundry. Fold the laundry.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Tend my sheep.

. . .

Do you love me?

I think the same things all day long.

I’m tired. I need caffeine. What time is it? We’re late. I should do that. I should clean that. I don’t know what to do. Help me. Deep breath. How much longer till naptime? Slow down. Try again. Love them. When is he coming home? I’m tired. Be patient. I love them. How much longer till bedtime?

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Feed my sheep.

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If he had cooked me breakfast, sat with me on the cold wet beach, stared up at the pale sky while we talked, what would I say if he asked?

What would I say if he kept asking?

God repeats. We repeat. It is the only way we learn. It is the only way we live.

Do you love me more than these? I hope I do.

Tend my lambs. You know I do.

. . .

Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. (Deuteronomy 6:5-7)

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how to speak their language

He loves math. I do not. We have to learn how to love each other.

When I say he loves math, I do not mean it as mere preference or interest or opinion. I mean it as the air he breathes, swallowing numbers in hungry gulps, pushing answers back into the swirling world of equations around him.

I mean it as the water in which he swims, life-giving and all-surrounding and impossible to isolate from the basic fact of his existence.

He watches the numbers at the gas pump like a hawk, tallying up how much more we spent last week. He clutches the grocery receipt like a treasure map, rushing in the back door to his toy cash register to add up the sum again. He does division as a kindergartener that I worked on as a fifth-grader.

This stumps me sometimes.

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A few weeks ago when he came out of surgery, barely able to flutter open his eyes, still groggy from anesthesia, he started multiplying the numbers on the monitor screen next to his bed: if you take the oxygen rate times the heart rate, you get 9800. 

The nurse turned, wide-eyed. He’s a math guy! An engineer, maybe? A scientist?

I do not know. He is mystery.

. . .

I never intended to have children to pass on any particular part of myself or my spouse. Heredity is too strange and humility too important for anything else to have factored in.

Yet I still puzzle over how drastically different these children can be. Yes, this one has his nose, that one has my cheeks. But their minds are wildly and blessedly their own.

I cannot even comprehend how differently they see the world, even though each is his own unique product of the equation of same mother plus same father.

Thankfully we are more than the sum of our parts or the product of our parents. How pale and predictable the world would be if our temperaments or talents could be so easily summed up.

But a child who sees the world in numbers? Words fail me.

I know how to snuggle up with our boy who loves books. He and I can pull a pile of tattered paperbacks onto the couch and lose ourselves in a sunny afternoon. I breathe in the warm scent of his hair, dark like mine, and remember hours of my own book-strewn childhood stretched out on the library floor.

I trace the words on the page with my finger like my father did for me. I watch my son’s brain turn and click as he starts to understand how letters make words and words make sentences and sentences make stories. He loves this. I do, too.

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But I cannot choose to connect only with what is easy and immediate. What looks like me or my experience. I also have to meet my children in strange lands and unfamiliar territories.

I must let each of them lead me.

And right now one wants to teach me how numbers are as fascinating as words, how equations are as beautiful as paintings. I make jokes about how I would be lost without my iPhone calculator, but this is unhelpful in the long work of learning to love deeply and differently because of having these children in my life.

So what if one of my sons surpasses me in knowledge long before I feel ready to let him take the lead? So what if another one’s personality seems so different from mine or his father’s that it baffles us at times?

Stepping back and learning from each of them is my daily challenge. And a grateful gift. They remind me that faithfulness, not comparison, is the heart of this calling.

. . .

Years ago I heard the physicist and author Brian Greene talk about how his father encouraged him as a child. Even though they spoke different languages.

He was a composer, musician, singer, vaudevillian. So music was his language. From a young age, I got very excited not about science, but about mathematics. Because my dad taught me early on the basics operations and I became captivated by the idea that by using these little operations, you could do things that nobody had ever done before. My dad would set me 30 digit numbers by 30 digit numbers and have me multiply them, big sheets of construction paper. No one had ever multiplied those numbers before.

His dad didn’t love math, but he loved music. And he loved his son. So he realized that he had to learn to translate and nurture a gift he didn’t himself possess. Or even understand.

This is why I have to learn how to love math (at least a little).

Because each child will need something different from me. Each child will invite me to grow in new ways. Each child will grow into someone beyond my imagining.

And as their parent, I want to meet each of them where they are.

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what to do for Lent?

Dear friends:

Tomorrow the director of the Collegeville Institute Seminars and I are putting the final touches on a book on discipleship. (I can’t wait to tell you more very soon!)

The day after tomorrow, I’m packing up our family of five for a much-needed vacation. Needless to say, life is buzzing round these parts.

So since Lent is less than 2 weeks away, I thought I’d share a few quick ideas for ways you can celebrate the season. (Yes, you could also call this post “Shameless Plugs: The Pre-Lent Edition.” Apologies.)

For your church or small group:

If you’re new to Mothering Spirit, you might not know that I’ve written two programs for small groups in parishes and congregations to gather for conversations around questions of calling.

Called to Life is a general introduction to God’s call in our lives, and Called to Work explores how our professional work can be a calling. Both programs run for 6 weeks (making them the perfect length for Lent). Best of all, participant and facilitator materials are all available for FREE from our website at the Collegeville Institute Seminars.

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If you’re already in a small faith-sharing group, here’s a perfect way for your group to celebrate Lent together. Otherwise, pass the materials on to your parish staff and get a group organized. (To learn more, check out the Top 10 Reasons to Use Called to Life or Called to Work this Lent.)

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For yourself:

Have I mentioned how much I love being part of the new Blessed Is She project? We’re a group of bloggers who write daily devotionals for Catholic women. You can sign up to get the day’s readings and a short reflection every morning in your inbox. And since our Advent journal was a huge hit, we’ve created beautiful offerings for Lent as well.

I made the (happy) mistake of opening my big mouth in our group’s virtual discussion of what to offer for Lent, commenting that many of us Catholics want to do All The Things for Lent, and then wind up feeling like we’ve failed when we can’t keep up with all our disciplines. What if instead we listened to the wisdom of Mary and Martha’s story and tried to do Only One Thing for Lent – sit at the feet of Christ and listen to God’s Word?

And thus was born:

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I was honored to help write the journal’s reflections, and I can’t wait to use it for my own journey through Lent, too. Order yours today at Blessed Is She!

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when the nights were full of promise

My husband and I went to college together. But we didn’t go to college together, you see. In retrospect we figured out that we met during freshman orientation. A failed, forced scavenger hunt mixer between our respective dorms, in which all I remember is lounging on the lawn with one of my budding best friends, laughing snarkily about how those guys over there were so weird but at least they didn’t care about the stupid scavenger hunt either.

But we didn’t start dating until senior year. And only halfway through that.

So whenever we wax nostalgic about college days, we each have our own memories, our own stories, our own epic escapades with our own groups of friends.

Last week we stood outside in the settling dark of a warm summer night. We’d let the dog out before turning to head to bed, all three boys already lost in slumber upstairs.

And as we stood there, barefoot on the edge of another lawn, August grass already curling into early autumn’s brown, I turned to him and asked –

Do you remember when every night was full of possibility? 

When every weekend beckoned with the prospect of an unforgettable night out and unbelievable stories to share with our roommates the next morning. When promise hummed in the late-night air as our group headed for the bar or the party or the dance. When there was always the prospect that tonight might be a night we never forgot – that we’d meet someone, that we’d run into fun just around the next corner, that we’d end up with one of those classic college stories only hilarious to those who were there, who never forgot the mayhem or the nickname that ensued from the night’s events.

When the air was electric with anything possible.

When I think about what changes once college recedes in the rear-view mirror, it is this sense of wide-open prospect that seems farthest gone.

Not only that any evening could turn epic, that even a late-night run to the grocery store could prove entertaining, but that the next class or professor could be the one that changed an interest into a major. That the semester abroad could lead to a career. That the retreat or the alternative spring break or the service project could open up a whole new calling.

Our eyes were open wider than they had ever been before. 

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And we almost knew it while it was happening. We had a hunch that the alumni who reappeared faithfully for fall football weekends weren’t simply missing friends or classes or campus clubs. They were missing a way of life. The promise of possibility that opens briefly for those of us lucky enough to call a college education our own. The widening of four years in which the world becomes our proverbial oyster and we get giddy off the aphrodisiac.

But of course it cannot last forever.

The choices we all began to make – graduate school and cross-country moves and first jobs and engagements and marriages and babies and houses – they were good and necessary choices. The rest of our life was waiting to happen, beckoning to begin when we stood outside the convocation center, clutching our graduation caps while wild May wind whipped through our hair.

Is every night full of promise and possibility now? At first my instinct says no. These are our tired thirties, after all.

Now nights are full of dirty dishes and diaper changes and wrangling wiggling children into bath and bed, then turning to the disheveled house and the day’s to-dos left unfinished at work, and then how is it 11:30 again? We’re going to be wiped out when the baby wakes us at 5. Let’s get to bed – wait, did you take the dog out and is the dishwasher running and did anyone switch the laundry into the dryer and where did that stack of bills go?

The air around us starts to feel old and tired. The furthest thing from electric.

But sometimes when I try to look with wider eyes, eyes that used to spark at any possibility, eyes that still sense the shadows of what’s most important, even on a dark night under a cloudy sky, I see that maybe the promise of our nights is still there.

Muted tones, softened edges. But still so present.

Every night I get to slip into bed next to that boy I fell in love with when we were 21. Every night one of our children wakes needing something from us – milk or water or simply a snuggle back to sleep. Every night our house stands strong and safe around us. Every night we rest to ready ourselves for another day’s good work.

There’s so much promise brimming there.

Sure, the prospect of possibility looks different at 33 than it did at 22. I’m sure it will shift to change again at 44 and 55 and on and on. Our lives become limited by the choices we make, but these aren’t all harsh constraints. Simply sharper definitions. We become ourselves. Partly the selves we have chosen, partly the selves we have shaped in response to what life has given us.

So perhaps the better question is not where does promise lie but how sharply can our eyes see it?

Back then, footloose and fancy free, we never could have imagined what lay before us. Life’s never this way. Even those easy, eager conversations of oh, I definitely want kids, too that we must have had while first dating – we never dreamed that those breezy hopes would stumble over infertility or miscarriage.

But neither could we have grasped the depths of how all that was tough and hardened would bind us together, closer than we could have glimpsed when we were laughing on that loud dance floor, the night it all began.

. . .

Lately I’ve been mulling over that line from the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus sitting on the shore in the gray light of dawn, staring at the water and telling Peter that when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.

But – and there is always a but, isn’t there? and you feel Peter cringe because he knows it, too – when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.

And even though our end will never be as dramatic as Peter’s tale will twist, we still sense this truth about adulthood. The truth you cannot grasp when you are on its giddy brink.

You will be taken where you do not wish to go. Your heart will want things it cannot have, and your soul will struggle with truths it does not want. You will be pulled towards people and places you never imagined.

But there can still be promise there, enough possibility to keep you looking skyward even on the dragging days and the darker nights.

As long as your eyes can keep blinking open. Wide enough to see it.

on the presentation: a big announcement

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.

when a calling comes full circle

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.

father’s day from far away

He’s 10,000 miles away tonight. When I finally get him on the phone, I’m a blubbering mess. After a week apart and two more to go, I didn’t yet want to wave the white flag of defeat, but it was such a tough day – too little sleep, too many messes, two little boys with cranky tempers and only one of me, all day long.

Eloquence fails when nerves run this raw: I suck at flying solo.

But the truth was, we’d had so many good days this week: such delight at summer adventuring with my boys, discovering new parks and playgrounds, meeting up with lots of friends to fill our time as a trio. Which is why the spiral downward – from a difficult morning to a disastrous afternoon to a don’t-ever-need-to-revisit-this evening – sank even deeper after enjoying such heights.

C’est la vie, of course, these rolling ups and downs, how life with littles whiplashes from one extreme to the next in a matter of minutes. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

And yet what did surprise me was how quickly his voice calmed my anxiety. How the sound of his sympathy made my whole body relax.

In two minutes he’d talked me off the ledge and back onto the solid ground where a bad day does not make a bad mother. In another two minutes he had me laughing so hard I almost dropped the phone and we started swapping stupid stories about our days, as if he were driving home from work and not working four oceans away.

A sub-par Father’s Day? Probably in most people’s estimations. We never managed to get him a gift or a card or even post a proud photo on Facebook to boast that he (along with everyone else’s dad, according to my scrolling feed) is The Best Ever.

But the simple truth is that the man lives the calling. He is father to my boys beyond my younger days’ wildest hopes of what a partner could be. Whenever I see the way other people notice it, too, that’s when I sit back and soak up the sheer grace of what choosing to love him has brought to my life and to the lives of our children.

He’ll often quote me the line from Fr. Hesburgh that the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. And tonight in the smallest way, with a simple (ok, admittedly international, assuredly expensive) phone call, he did precisely that all over again.

Love spreads. His gives me more for them, for a better tomorrow.

Always.

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If you’ve stuck around through the sap, you can treat yourself to theological musings on the subject: I’m blogging here in honor of the holiday – asking whether fatherhood is a relation, an obligation, or a vocation?

(Bet you can’t guess what I think.)