7 ways to survive a solo parenting week

Before I begin, please know that I use the language of “solo parenting” intentionally – because I know my experience is not that of a single parent. Plenty of people are parenting in situations much more challenging than my own, including single parents, spouses of deployed military personnel, or partners working shifts around the clock. I’m simply writing out of my own experience of learning how to switch between two different dynamics in our household over the past few years. I hope to learn from diverse perspectives beyond my own, so I hope you’ll share your own ideas and experiences with me, too.

We did it again! Survived another week with only moi in charge and my husband on the other side of the globe. (Slow clap for the win, Rudy.)

The last few times I’ve solo-parented, I’ve thought about my friend Nancy’s wisdom in this post about how to thrive when your husband travels.

I still feel trapped in survival mode much of the time when my husband is gone. But I’m starting to accept that this is our life right now. He has a great job that he loves, and this is part of what his work requires. My goal is to move our family towards thriving, not just surviving, even when I’m the only one here all week, day and night.

So here are seven tips that help me whenever my spouse travels. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

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1. Check in with yourself.

My friend Nell laughed when I told her this, but I check in with myself mentally every 10 minutes while solo parenting.

Self? I say. How are you doing? What do you need?

It sounds crazy, but it works.

Sometimes I sound like a cheerful waitress: Everything okay, honey? Can I get you another cup of coffee? Sometimes I sound like a wise best friend: You need to go lie down. For 5 minutes. And breathe. The kids will be fine. 

But this practice of checking in with myself has helped me back slowly off ledges (especially between 4-6 pm) because I catch my rising impatience/anger/frustration before it boils over. Like the unattended pot bubbling on the stove. Yikes.

2. Go easy on yourself.

No one gives grades or gold stars for parenting. So a slacker week of easy dinners, take-out treats, and skipped baths? It will neither tarnish my record nor scar my children.

At least once during every solo stretch, I must bow my head in gratitude to Trader Joe’s, without whom my family would not be fed. Because I have no shame in buying a freezer-full of frozen meals (the ones my friend Ginny brilliantly describes as the kind you “push around in a skillet for 7 minutes”) to feed hungry kids and give myself a break.

The smartest trick I discovered is creating a meal plan of super simple dinners that require only 2 pots that can be washed in the dishwasher. No need to scrub pans when you’re the chief cook and bottle-washer (actually the entire downstairs staff).

Click here for my super basic meal plan for solo parenting weeks!

3. Take care of yourself.

While it’s true that no one hands out gold stars for parenting (though sometimes I think they should? fill in your epic example here?), it’s also true that you have to reward yourself.

My sister, who has survived way more solo parenting weeks than I have, once gave me the wise advice that these long days are best survived by bookend treats: a cup of tea in the morning and a glass of wine at night.

Whatever your delight, some small glimmers of light on the horizon give hope for the day’s crazy moments. Sometimes I treat myself to a tall chai to-go when we’re out and about, or I sink into a hot bubble bath at the end of the night. Or I binge-watch something stupid on Hulu while folding mountain ranges of laundry.

Anything to restore spirit and soul after long days.

4. Plan ahead.

The weekend before my husband leaves, we try to clean the house so the chaos doesn’t overwhelm. I make sure the meal plan and grocery shopping are done (which includes stocking up on dark chocolate and wine, a mom’s basics).

But I also try to fill up our week with fun: play dates with friends, a special meal out, and plenty of trips to the park/library/indoor playground. The more we get out of the house, the faster the week flies.

We also make sure to plan something fun for the weekend when he returns. This gives a lovely light at the end of the tunnel. After his last few trips, we’ve been able to go up to his parents’ cabin on the lake and simply relax. It’s a perfect way for our whole family to reconnect, since the kids just get as wonky as I do when he’s gone.

5. Get enough sleep.

Easy enough, right? Sleep when tired.

Except my temptation is always to fill the quiet hours after children’s bedtime with a new project. Write! Blog! Bake! Clean the whole house! Start that belated baby book for poor #3!

NO. Do not do it. Get directly to bed. Do not pass Go.

Every time I choose sleep over the seductive allure of me-time-till-midnight? I am eternally grateful that I crawled into bed at 9 pm. Everyone wins when mom is well-rested.

6. Set expectations low.

Someone will get sick. Someone will wake in the night. A major appliance will break. Crisis happens like clockwork in life with kids. Now I simply plan for it.

So when the washing machine stops or the air conditioner dies or the dishwasher floods to the basement? Or the baby breaks out in a mysterious rash or the kids get the stomach flu or all three take turns like whack-a-moles popping up in the middle of the night?

I still freak out, but I expect it. And I can cope with it much better when I can laugh.

(And text my girlfriends 72 times a day to vent about it.)

7. Pray. Just to make it today. 

(You knew I was going to slip this one in here, didn’t you? It always circles back to God ’round here. #sorrynotsorry)

Like everything else chez nous, my spiritual life reverts to survival mode during these zaniest of weeks when I run the roost.

I wish I could tell you otherwise, that I pray fervently for my husband while he’s gone, that I make sure to get up extra early to fortify myself with prayer, that I offer up all my sacrifices with saintly serenity.

I don’t. I coast. I complain.

But I do make sure to call upon divine patience/love/forgiveness/compassion whenever I start to feel things spiraling away from me. I mutter the Jesus Prayer under my breath until I start to simmer down – Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner – and it always brings me back around to the right way. Even if it takes 27 repetitions.

And I do make sure to practice abundant gratitude throughout the day – for my kids (even when they’re going berserk), for my husband (even when he’s gone), for his good job (even when it takes him away from us for a while), for all the friends and family that check in on us when I’m flying solo.

Calling God into the craziest moments of my week is an invitation for me to dig deep and trust that love and patience and enough-ness will help us survive.

And trust that soon we will thrive, too.

What are your tips for surviving or thriving when parenting gets tough in your own current situation?

there is another way

All these things are in the way, I sigh. Shuffle and shove to make space again.

I am tired of working like this, I mutter.

I want to sweep everything aside – the papers and the clutter and the laundry and the bills and the books and the toys and the shoes – and stare at a vacant desk. A spotless office. A shining house of sparkling minimalism.

It will never be.

Call it the sacrifice of the mess. Call it the holy beautiful of right now. Call it life with kids. Call it our tired thirties.

Whatever you call it, call yourself to look upon it again.

I look again.

All the things cluttering my view? They accompany a full life. Piles of doctors’ bills. Art keepsakes from two more years of school. Photos of loved ones to frame. Books to read. Seedlings to plant. Work to finish. Newspapers to recycle. Bank statements to file.

It will never be done. It will never be clean. And this is okay.

This is another way.

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Somewhere between the trend to accumulate (more and more, bigger and better) and the trend to purge (less and less, sparser and lighter), there emerges a third way: finding peace in the chaos.

The way that says we do not need more; we need to care for what we have.

The way that accepts how a life lived with people will always be full – of clutter and conflict, yes, but also comfort and companionship.

The way that knows if cleanliness stands next to godliness, then messiness shrugs and smiles to take its place on the other side. God in the middle. All the rest, all around.

Because God is not found only in peace, quiet, polished, decluttered, 10 easy steps to simplify. God is also found in mess, chaos, muddle, question, oh help me everything is a disaster.

God is not confined to clean, sparse monastic cells. If God is present everywhere and always, then God is also present in a life lived in places, with things, among people.

This is another Way.

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Three months from now looks wide open on my calendar. It is an illusion.

The chore chart, the labeled bins, the meal plan, the synchronized schedules – they promise perfection. It is a lie.

Life will fill up then just as it fills up today. Love and work expand within whatever space we offer them.

And despite our best efforts, we continue to be mere mortals. We walk through grassy dirt, we cry hot tears, we breathe dusty air. Crumbs fall from our lips while we chew. The dog never stops shedding, no matter the season.

So we need this third way, the stumbling path that trips over sneakers on the floor and mountains of unfolded laundry. The way that invites us to see the miracle, not the drudgery, of sharing our lives with real, messy people.

(Even small people who leave push carts – a lawn mower? – on top of the sofa. I promise you this photo was utterly unstaged.)

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The same themes surface whenever I write these days. Letting go. Looking up. Learning to embrace the ordinary and the imperfect.

For a long time now I have felt a turning, and I can finally name it as the settling into mid-life.

My tired husband and I laugh about this a lot. We collapse into bed, and one of us mumbles back in college, we wouldn’t even be going out for another 3 hours. But we are happy here. A deep and satisfying joy, albeit exhausted and cluttered. I wish I could tell my younger, anxious, ambitious self that life could be this good while being so far from smooth.

This settling joy is what I wanted all along, and I only found it in the middle of the mess.

Bump, blemish, brokenness – we know ourselves by the edges of what we brush up against. We learn the limits of our being.

And a full life – bursting with people to love and things to do – it is a marvel even as it overflows. A to-do list that never shrinks. Work that keeps going. Children who arrive and grow and explore. A world that keeps needing our attention and compassion.

It will never be done. It will never be clean or easy. And this is another Way.

The way of peace and patience. The way of realism and release. The way of laughter and letting go.

(The way of remembering that we cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.)

And the way of gratitude to God right in the messy middle: of each day, of this life, of what we are becoming on the way.

. . .

If you want a deeper theological reflection on life with kids, check out Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. I can never bring myself to put Bonnie’s book back on the shelf, so I keep it bed-side during these wonderful, wiped-out years of so many small children. With three boys of her own, she makes this way through chaos seem possible and wonderful to me.

what we hold tight & what we let go

I finally tossed the stack of papers into the recycling bin, the post-op instructions we brought home after surgery. That laundry list of every possible complication and horrific side effect, the worries you watch for like a hawk when you first come home from the hospital, clutching the doctor’s instructions as if they were a lifesaver.

I felt a little sheepish when I realized the papers had been sitting on the bathroom counter for so long, spying at me each time I helped a child brush his teeth or wash his hands. Why did I think I needed to keep them around for weeks, even after surgery went fine and healing went as hoped and that healthy boy now runs around laughing and shrieking, never skipping a beat?

But this is what you do when you’re struggling to keep your head above water.

You hold on.

 . . .

After each birth it took me weeks to throw away the official discharge papers from the hospital. What if something awful happened to me or the baby? What if we didn’t know what to do?

When nursing got hard after each newborn, I desperately clung to the lactation consultant’s suggestion sheet until it fell apart in my hands. What if what she said held the answer? What if I could just find the secret trick to make everything magically ok?

When we came home from well-check visits during each baby’s first year, I dutifully kept every list of developmental milestones, as if I could simply check off what I wanted like a shopping list. What if they didn’t grow on track? What if I didn’t catch the warning signs in time? What if I failed the ones entrusted to me?

Secretly I convinced myself as a new mom that the secret to surviving – healing, adjusting, learning how to live anew after each transition – lay hidden within some expert’s black and white words on the page.

But it didn’t. The secret lay within my growing ability to trust.

And to learn what to let go.

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I remember the day I gave away my stack of parenting manuals, the ones I poured through as a first-time parent. Sleep, feeding, development, illness, milestones – I read every chapter religiously. Those books became Bible to me in the wee dark hours with a screaming newborn or a sleepless baby or a feverish toddler.

But then one day, when baby #2 was nearing two, I realized I never read them anymore.

Sure, I sought Dr. Google’s advice on the regular like any modern parent. And I had long ago memorized our pediatrician’s phone number. But I had started to trust my intuition more, too.

And I learned the hard way, as every parent learns, that children never match the ideal descriptions in any book. We are all more mysterious and unpredictable (see also: human!) than any expert could predict with perfect precision.

This, I am discovering, is a huge relief.

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Guideposts are helpful along the way. We would be lost and frantic without them when we start down an unfamiliar path.

But then we have to set down the map, leave behind the guidebook, get our own bearings, and make our way into the wilder and wondrous world of getting to know reality as it looks us in the face.

Which, for parenting, means learning to read and respond to another human being’s needs, wants, fears, faults, temperament and challenges. Another human being who is as messy and stubborn and delightful and frustrating as we are, too.

Today the only books and guides I keep on the subject of parenting (see the photo above) are wise ones that offer more questions than answers. These are the companions I want on this journey.

Because what I am learning now is this. At each stage of life, a key question will arise: what do I hold tight and what do I let go? 

The measure of my peace will depend on my answer.

Right now I know there are plenty of things I cling to that I should let go. (A few small examples: my need to exert control over young children’s temper tantrums, my delirious desire to sleep 8 straight hours, my frustration with a home that will never stay clean for more than 4.5 minutes.)

I want answers to these questions, solutions for these puzzles, experts for my uncertainty. I am still holding tight to what would serve me better to let go.

In time I will grow some more and let these slip through an open hand.

I hope.

 . . .

There are deeper lessons here. About what faith means. What trust invites. What we let ourselves learn as we grow in courage to leave the experts behind.

This is another kind of knowing, a way in the darkness, a calling within the stillness of soul where God dwells.

Because nestled deep in the heart center, when all is stripped away and we are left alone with our God, there is nothing to let go but fear. Nothing to cling to but love.

And love, it appears, has been the answer all along.

until it stays open

God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

You have two choices when you feel it happening.

You can let your heart stretch to the point of ripping open to the beauty and agony of living in this mortal world.

Or you can pull the protective shield back over the vulnerable center.

You can break or you can burrow. I have done both.

Only one gives life.

. . .

This morning I will drive to the hospital early, before the roads crowd with commuters, before pale sun softens dark sky into grey. I will carry my son into the surgery center. I will let strangers wheel my baby away and put him under. I will watch the clock and chew my nails and pretend to read while the surgeon operates on him.

A quick and simple procedure, the nurses promise. He will be fine, logic and lots of wiser people assure me.

But what if? I still wonder.

Always this is the winding worry that wraps around my thoughts. We each know the exception, the unexpected, the fluke, the tragedy. We press the threat away, shove the rare possibility to the farthest corner of our mind.

That cannot happen to us. It will not happen to us.

But still my heart beats and fears to break.

. . .

I think back on The Big Times I had my heart broken. My brother’s death. That awful break-up. Infertility and miscarriage. Friendships forever changed.

I dealt with them well and I dealt with them terribly. We are all works in process.

But whenever I let the heartache change me, when I let my bruised soul stay stretched out so much longer than I thought possible, when I made the grueling choice again and again to let this loss soften my sharp edges into empathy – that was when I discovered God.

As if I were tripping over an obvious root on the path – oh! there you were all along! – and remembering that this was exactly how growth happens: you love, you lose, you live on changed.

Does God break our hearts on purpose? Make us suffer to learn a lesson? Theologically I bristle at these thoughts. This is not the nature of love.

But I do know that something strange and surprising happens when I sit with loss. When I refuse to push away pain. I find God in the midst of it. 

I learn how God’s heart breaks over and over again with ours. I begin to understand again how the mystery of dying and rising is the shape of loving wisdom.

Even when I want to protect myself from pain, small scared creature that I am.

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Today I will open my heart up again in a tiny way to the terror of loss.

Today I will choose to lift up in prayer those who lie alone in hospital beds with no one to worry over them.

Today I will try to remember parents who are losing their hearts and minds right now as their beloved child suffers in their arms.

Today I will make myself sit with the uncomfortable truth that all my children will know pain, loss, suffering and heartache deeper than I dare to imagine for them. None of us are spared this truth.

But today I choose to wedge this heart open with love, too.

I choose to see my oldest son’s sparkling blue eyes and wonder at the gift of his life in mine.

I choose to let him go again into the wide world that can hurt but also heal him.

I choose to give him time, presence, comfort, attention – all the simplest things that children crave – by giving up all of my own.

Letting go and letting our children change us. These are two of the hardest and holiest practices of parenting. It is an unrelenting school of humility, this daily learning to love the creatures we help to create.

But how good it is, too, when our hearts widen beyond what we thought possible. When we see what starts to happen when we stay open.

. . .

He will do just fine with this, his doctor assured me earlier this week.

He’ll do better with it than you will, she added, looking at me over her glasses with a doctor’s wisdom and a mother’s empathy.

She is right, of course. I believe this in my bones.

But if I let my worrying heart break open and stay open – here and now, again and later, a thousand more times through their childhoods and beyond – then maybe I can do better, too.

Maybe I can pull from broken fear and leap into wider love.

i sing it for you

I roared at them tonight.

And when I say roared, I mean bellowed from the very core of my being – the tired, angry, frustrated, exasperated, unheard and unnoticed depths of my body and soul, from which I was completely and utterly and maddeningly sick of having asked, cajoled, coaxed, pleaded, begged, demanded, and commanded them to listen to me tonight. To obey me.

And when they did not, I roared.

I had already taken away dessert when fit upon fit was flung over dinner. I had banished bath once they started fighting with each other and throwing trucks over the banister. I had threatened even to storm out of the bedroom without a single book read, a single song sung, a single prayer whispered.

None of it mattered. None of it made one whit of difference.

So standing there simmering, alone and exhausted at the end of a lonely and exhausting week, I roared at them. I don’t even know what I roared, something stupid about how I was going to yell even louder than they had EVER HEARD ME YELL IN THEIR LIVES if they didn’t just LAY DOWN AND GO TO SLEEP RIGHT NOW DEAR GOD HELP ME I AM LOSING MY MIND.

And as all terrible tyrants eventually learn, tirades tear down even the stubbornest among us.

I stood there in the dim dark (lit only by nightlight, oh it was pathetic) and listened to my angry racing heart throb in my ears and caught the solemn wide-eyed stares of a hundred stuffed animals watching me with pity.

Then one small boy started to whimper into his pillow.

The other reached out to me with thin striped pajama arms, desperate for a hug.

I caved. Of course I caved, a thousand times I caved, oh Christ of my heart, my stupid, stubborn, selfish heart, I caved.

I crawled into bed with one and kissed the warm fuzz of his forehead and whispered for forgiveness and promised to do better tomorrow. I sang him a soft penance of a lullaby. One extra verse, just to be certain.

Then I turned and tip-toed into bed with the other, wrapped my arms around his scrawny neck and pressed my lips to his tiny ear. I told him I loved him for always, even when I was mad I loved him always, even when I was tired and frustrated I loved him always. Did he know that? Yes, he loud-whispered back, yes he knew that.

Then I asked him what I could sing, what sweet song he could hear that could possibly right a night of wrongs, what ancient hymn I could borrow that would help heal the broken words between us.

Lullaby, he replied. I want Lullaby.

So I sang. Lullaby, and good night.

The final verse ended, trailing off with guardian angel promises into the settling dark around us, I turned to kiss his forehead one last time to go.

But as I bent towards his small round face, moonlit from between the curtains, he stopped me.

Mama, do you know what’s funny? Whenever I hear you sing that song to the baby when you’re putting him down for nap? I think you’re singing it to me, too!

Hot tears pricked the corners of my eyes; I caught my breath and held it fast. How can they be real, these children of mine, maddening and mystifying all at once? How can he understand exactly this, without understanding what it means at all?

Oh sweet one, I finally told him, once I let that last held breath slip heavy into the silent space between us. I am singing it for you, too. 

I am always singing it for you. For all of you.

He smiled softly. This I saw clearly, even in the grainy dark of their room.

From the other bed I heard one more rustle of sheets and the flip-flop-turn of a not-yet-asleep brother: Mama, I think that, too. I think you are singing that song to me, too.

We are all echoes of each other, of someone else’s love.

If there is any song I hope to sing, with this small beating gift of a life I still wake each new morning astonished to find offered to me once again, it is exactly this:

I sing it for them. They sing it for me. I sing it for you.

the holy beautiful of right now

The sink is piled with crusty bowls from breakfast and crumbed plates from dinner. Four loads of laundry sit in the silent dark of our upstairs bedroom, waiting to be folded. Piles of Legos cover the coffee table. Two decks of cards are scattered across the living room floor. Half-broken crayons line the kitchen baseboard. Three pairs of boots are flung by the back door in a snowy heap.

And somehow it is beautiful.

I do not see it always. I do not see it often. But there is wild breathing beauty all around me. I cannot escape it in any cluttered corner. I fell in love with a boy in college; we got married on a bright blue day in July; now three more people exist in the world because of us. This strange stunning truth brings me to my knees.

Children plaster our walls with art, hide surprises in our shoes, throw their dirty socks over the balcony even though we’ve told them a thousand times not to. They tumble out of their chairs at dinner because they laugh so hard, and they run around screaming with glee whenever we chase them before bath-time. They tackle each other with hugs and loud-whisper naughty words in each other’s ears, and when all three stop to grin at each other, I feel like my humble heart could actually explode out of my chest.

Right now might be the most beautiful time in my life. And if I don’t notice now, I won’t remember later.

Sometimes I think all my problems are blessings. Too much good work, too many people to love and care for, too much living packed in too few hours. One day there will be quiet and peace and calm control once again, but there will never be the messy, joyful, puzzling delight that is right now.

There is holy beauty in this: a heart and mind filled to overflowing.

So I try to let myself stop. To see, smell, touch, feel, breathe it. All I can do – maybe all that any of us can do – is witness. Notice and delight in whatever goodness, whatever God-ness is thick around us, even in the midst of the heartbreak that is living in this mortal world.

I know tonight my children will wake me from sweet sleep and tomorrow they will drive me batty with whining and every day this week I will likely lose my temper. But I will never once take this grace-filled life for granted.

It is the humblest, holiest gift I have been given.

. . .

“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that He is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible. It’s simply impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it. What is it that makes the world opaque? It is care.”

– Thomas Merton

start seeing sacraments: marriage & holy orders

Every week I’ll share a few favorite images around one of the seven Catholic sacraments, to celebrate my new book: Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting.
Follow me on Instagram at @thismessygrace or tag your photos with #everydaysacrament.
Let’s start seeing sacraments together…

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Marriage + holy orders.

Aren’t they an odd couple? After all, in the Catholic tradition of the celibate priesthood, you can’t usually have both sacraments in your life (unless you’re a married deacon). Old-school illustrations of sacraments in Catholic catechisms separated these two as opposites: you either chose holy matrimony or religious life. One or the other.

But after this experiment of seeing everyday sacraments, I see these two more similarly.

Both are responses to God’s particular call in our lives. Both are commitments of love that we profess with public vows. Both are opportunities to share our gifts with the world.

So whenever I try to capture glimpses of these sacraments in images, I see them as invitations.

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To remember the vows I have made and to affirm the vows that others have taken.

To imagine where my children will be called and to support those who have already answered their calls.

To see our shared work as holy, whether we are spouses sharing the responsibilities of home or church leaders supporting the vocations of the community.

. . .

I see sacraments of marriage and holy orders in everyday reminders.

Some glimpses of these sacraments are moments to remember. We’re trying to do good work in our callings, tending to the people and the places around us.

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Some are openings to imagine. What will these children of ours become and how can we walk with them?

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And some are just fresh breaths of joy. Running headlong into this world of possibility.

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What a gift it is to be called to share our lives in loving service to others, whatever the path God beckons us to follow.

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Where have you glimpsed reminders of marriage and holy orders? What do these sacraments mean to you?

start seeing sacraments – now on instagram!

Catholics believe there are seven sacraments. These are the capital-S sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders.

But there are plenty of small-s sacraments shot through our everyday, too. Moments of grace where we encounter God. And the stuff of daily life – water and oil, bread and wine, forgiveness and healing, relationships and work – glistens with the fingerprints of the divine.

This is what my book is all about. Grace in the mess. Extraordinary in the ordinary. God in the Everyday Sacrament.

Since my siblings convinced me to try Instagram this summer, I have been captivated by finding small, sacred moments to capture. I love that this outlet of social media, more than any other I’ve tried, seems to be about sharing glimpses of joy and beauty.

And if you’ve been following me (@thismessygrace) and you’ve wondered why on earth I keep hash-tagging photos with #baptism, #marriage, #reconciliation or #anointing?

It’s because this Instagram lens on my ordinary world provides a perfect way to start seeing sacraments.

Where do you see sacraments in your everyday? A quick kiss from your spouse before work. A cold drink of water on a warm day. A to-do list packed with good work for those you love. A cupboard full of food.

Sacraments are all around us, if we have eyes to see.

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(Yeah, I went there. You can only stare at so many bumper stickers about motorcycles without getting inspired.)

If we start to limit where we see God, our vision of the whole world narrows. But if we open our eyes wider, then we might marvel at what we find.

Baptism at bath time. Eucharist round the dinner table. Reconciliation after sibling squabbles.

What we celebrate in church is reflected at home. What we live at home is honored in church. And God is present, everywhere and always.

Thanks to this beautiful post at A Deeper Story (from a fellow lover of Saint John’s Abbey and the Collegeville Institute) I recently rediscovered this line of truth from Marilynne Robinson:

“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.
You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.
Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

Let’s have the courage to see it. Let’s start seeing sacraments together.

Follow me on Instagram at @thismessygrace or tag your photos with #everydaysacrament.

UPDATE! Here’s the complete series on seeing sacraments:

. . .

 

Every week until my book is published, I’ll share a few favorite Instagram images here around one sacrament. Starting today with baptism, of course. Where our Christian story begins:

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3 things Joseph taught me about God

Our sweetest, smallest, newest. (Dare I say gentlest, too?) A mere four months this side of birth, and already it seems his quiet wisdom has been with us always. 

This Joseph gift, this “rainbow baby” promise after loss – he is pure light. Already teaching me all sorts of truths I thought I knew.

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1) Joseph taught me that God is Hope.

By his very existence, this child astounds. Only six weeks after we lost our baby last summer, we found out he was on his way. Did we dare to dream he could be, so soon? And yet he was.

The hope of new life that he brought by his first spark – it did not deny the pain of what preceded, or dismiss the death of another, but it was still profoundly healing.

As he grew and pushed softly against the limits of my skin, he pushed my faith into new places, too. Places that had to stretch to make space for what it meant to lose a baby and gain a baby, all in a short span of time. Layering upon learning how life and death are always twinned.

People use the phrase “rainbow baby” to signal a child conceived after miscarriage or stillbirth. Now I see the shimmer in that truth, the bright sign that stretches over the months of hoping, drawing out of darkness into light.

Joseph will always be for me this resurrection sign of God-as-Hope, of joy flooding our lives.

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2) Joseph taught me that God is Mercy.

As I fling this sentence into the interwebs, I rest fully aware that it may all change in an instant. But this baby? He is the precious easy kind of child a parent secretly wishes for.

He sleeps, he eats, he smiles, he grows. Rare are the crying jags, abundant are the gummy grins. He has slid into our lives with such simple grace that I find it hard to believe there was a time when he was not.

The transition to three has proved so much easier than we expected, even in a summer with too much unexpected challenge around us. Joseph has been the calm center of the storm, quiet and steady and growing on his own.

I joke and call him “the gentle giant” because he is our biggest baby, bursting out of tiny clothes and filling our arms with unexpected weight. But perhaps we needed this bigger presence of peace in our lives right now.

Perhaps God’s Mercy gifted this sweet soul for such a time as this.

His big brothers smother him with love each new morning. They never tire of squealing at his very presence, covering him with kisses. It still astounds me – their pure delight, their unconditional joy. When Thomas was new? Sam had no time for the intruder. But both boys love their baby in the truest sense of the word.

I see now what lavish Mercy looks like, how God loves. And it is so Good.

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3) Joseph taught me that God is Dreamer.

By his name, this child echoes truth to me.

We chose Joseph for all those dreamers in Scripture – the one whose visions shaped his destiny and the one whose angel voices softened his heart. Both these men had to trust their God and their own inner compass to lead. Even when called into the mess of uncertainty around them, they fixed their gaze on God and headed straight in.

And both of them changed the story of their families and their people for generations to come, by trusting in strange dreams.

Joseph reminds me that God is a Dreamer, too. Dreaming of justice and mercy and peace. Dreaming of healing and reconciliation. Dreaming of a love that will reshape the very fabric of our lives if we dare to let it in.

I look into his gentle, dreaming eyes and I hear whispers to keep dreaming, too. To remember how new life springs in strange ways from death. To be unafraid of what others think as I head straight into the messes where I am called. To imagine what might come if I dare to follow wildest dreams.

To trust my life to the One who created and claimed it for goodness.

. . .

What have you learned about God from those closest to you – 

your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?

a different assumption for today

August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption. The Catholic Church teaches that at the end of Mary’s life, she was assumed into heaven, body and soul.

You might assume, if you knew I was an Associate Missionary of the Assumption, that I had something to say about today’s feast.

But here’s the truth about how I started my AMA year in France.

I came to Compiegne, jet-lagged and jumpy to start this post-graduate service stint, with just a wee bit of cradle Catholic baggage stuffed inside my giant backpack.

Fresh from college graduation, ink barely dry on the diploma, I felt shaky-sure about faith but full of questions about church. What was the role of women? What was Catholicism’s hang-up with sexuality? Where was my place in the whirling middle of it all?

When I showed up in the pebbled courtyard of 3 Square Eglise Saint-Germain, I wasn’t even sure what I was seeking. Clarity? Conviction? Christ-in-others? Maybe all of the above.

But what I found the moment that big front door swung open was one single certain truth: these Sisters of the Assumption knew how to welcome. They were all wide smiles and warm embraces and let-us-take-your-bags and can-we-make-you-a-cup-of-tea and we-are-so-delighted-you-are-here!

Until that moment I had known few French people and even fewer religious sisters. But suddenly these five women buzzing around me in long burgundy skirts and pale violet veils were bursting apart all of my stereotypes.

They were loving and laughter and compassion and generosity. They were a Mary-and-Elizabeth welcome every time I stepped over their old stone doorstep, before Mass or after work or any time they invited us volunteers over for dinner, which was so often I still hear Sr. Anne’s wise words echo every time I set an extra plate at my table for an unexpected guest: if there’s food enough for five, there’s food enough for six. And if there’s food enough for six, there’s food enough for seven. You see?

Every year I think of the sisters on this feast day. The women I knew who gave their lives to the Assumption. They taught me a different way of being in relationship with others: the women praying and working beside them in their community, the children running around the pews in the parish, the adults with disabilities whom they served in L’Arche homes. They taught me how truth and love are embodied – in laughter, in dancing, in dessert, in daily prayer.

And they helped me change my mind about Assumption. They helped me come to see that embodied love is what today is about.

I think back to a time when I tripped on Marian feasts like today, when I stumbled on my own assumptions of what dogma and doctrine meant. Then a year spent in community with women whose love for Christ and the church hummed in their every breath, who gave the length of their years and the strength of their bodies in quiet service to all who needed welcome – that year changed everything.

Did I know then that the sisters’ faces – wizened and youthful and pale and dark – might be the closest I could glimpse to Mary’s own? Over time my assumptions shifted, slowly like the soft rub on stone over a well-worn step. I weigh what I believe now – about women and sexuality and Christ and the church – with what I thought I understood then. And I realize that I see a feast like today in different light: shades of mystery and possibility.

And above all love and relationship, which is the essence of who God is and what we are called to be.

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Assumptions. Do we grip tight to them? Or are we willing to let ourselves be lifted above them?

Beyond the way we think things should be, beyond what we think bodies are capable of, beyond what our beliefs think possible?

What do we assume today? About the world, relationships, religion, church, God, each other? How might God’s embrace of us – our whole lives, body and soul – begin to soften our hard edges?

Today’s feast is about welcoming the unexpected and celebrating the goodness of love, in flesh and faith. What Mary did all her life.

May it be for us today as well.