when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.

birth retreat 1

Here are pastels, she said. Draw.

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Here is clay, she said. Create.

birth retreat 2A gathering of mothers. A time and space set apart. A whole afternoon to ourselves, to pause and pray and ponder what it means to approach pregnancy and childbirth as something spiritual.

At Peg’s retreat, I thought about birth and babies and becoming a mother all over again. But weaving between these weighty meditations were simpler sensations: the chalky smear of pastels on my fingers, the ghost-white trace of clay under my nails, the wavy curl of paper as watercolors dried.

When was the last time I let myself make art for an entire afternoon?

Sometimes I sit down with the kids at their small table in front of the sunny window and I doodle while they draw. Or I dip a brush and make soft strokes while they paint. Or I roll playdough into long coils while they squish and smash their creations.

But I never make art. Not on my own.

Why? Because I’m too busy. Because it’s not what grown-ups do. Because I’m not good at it.

. . .

All the way home from the birth retreat, I turned one question over and over in my mind: when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Many adults I know, who colored and drew and painted and pasted their way through childhood, no longer make time for artistic expression. It’s considered child’s play. Delightfully entertaining or developmentally enriching for little ones, but not a serious way to spend time as mature, productive members of society.

But when did this shift start? When did art cease to be an essential way we explored the world? When did it become reserved for the talented, the elite, the lucky few?

I used to love making art – at school, at home, in classes at our local art institute. I especially loved the pottery classes: the whirl of the wheel between my knees, the slippery slide of the glossy clay between my fingers, the surprising emergence of something new and warm between my hands.

But then I stopped. I can’t quite remember why – maybe sports seemed more important, maybe art seemed less cool, maybe the insecurity of adolescence whispered that I should shy away from somewhere I didn’t excel.

So now it seems daunting to start making art again – how? where? when? Why am I afraid of what used to seem so simple? Is it still the worry of looking like a fool? The intimidation of not knowing where to begin?

Or the primal, pulsing fear of failure?

. . .

Only six weeks left till the due date. Of course my thoughts wind birth-ward every day.

Heavy with baby, I watch my boys scrawl with sidewalk chalk, paint pages with watery doodles, color their latest crayoned masterpiece. I see how they trust themselves to create, how un-intimidated they are by the blank page, how much energy they pour into their work and how much delight they take in showing it to others.

At night when I dip into the childbirth books on my nightstand, I find myself turning over and over one question: when did I decide that I was intimidated by birth? When did this biological capacity become something to fear, medicate, suppress, or evade? Why do I have to psych myself up with the mental focus of a marathoner for a natural process that my body was created to do?

It’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated question, I know. The process of labor and delivery can be complex and dangerous, to say nothing of long and painful. Even if I had seen a hundred births in my lifetime, as other women my age would have in other cultures or eras, I might still be as terrified of the known as of the unknown.

But I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make to laboring women if we thought of ourselves as powerful co-creators.

If birth had remained at the center of our culture rather than being shoved to the side.

If we understood more about our bodies and their potential.

If we didn’t listen to the voices who told us we weren’t strong enough.

If we hadn’t decided we weren’t good at it.

. . .

I’m trying to practice, a little every day. (Easier said than done.)

Breathe, don’t balk, through the Braxton-Hicks contractions. Focus, don’t flinch, when the pressure of baby gets too intense.

Paint something, don’t write, when my mind wants to muse. Sit with the kids, don’t scurry, when they’re creating.

Step aside from the well-worn grooves of thinking one way. Sit with the possibility that there might be another path.

. . .

Yesterday afternoon my son came to me in tears because the tail of the monkey he was coloring had torn off.

“I can’t do it another way!” he wailed when I gently suggested that he might try coloring the animal before cutting it out, so that he didn’t have to color on such a skinny tail. “I only can do it this way!”

What if we tried it again? I suggested. What if he took a deep breath to calm down? What if we worked together to try a new way?

His bottom lip still puffed out in a quiver, he hesitated. And then he nodded yes as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers still stained from the morning’s markers.

What if we were all brave enough to try, again?

my mom, my mother-in-law, and…st. benedict?

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This door marker greeted me on retreat last weekend. A small but important sign that I was in a place of hospitality, a hallmark of the Benedictines and their spirituality.

Welcome.

I thought about hospitality often while I was on retreat. When I saw the generous plates of snacks set out at every break. When one of the sisters helped me navigate their breviary books for evening prayer. When I noticed the basket of toiletries at the bathroom sink with a note to help yourself if you’d forgotten anything at home.

Small gestures that convey a deeper embrace of the stranger as guest.

. . .

In his Rule for monastic orders, Saint Benedict writes that all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ. I remember seeing these words engraved in stone near the Abbey Church at Saint John’s when I first started graduate studies at the School of Theology.

During the next three years of studying and then five years of working within a Benedictine community, I’ve learned plenty about hospitality from the brothers and sisters within the monasteries.

But whenever I think of how to welcome guests as Christ, I still think first of two mothers I’ve been blessed to know.

My mom. She turns down the sheets and blankets at night, inviting her guests to slip into bed. She arranges bouquets in bedrooms and tiny bud vases in bathrooms. She chooses favorite books and stuffed animals to line each grandchild’s bed. She sets Martha-Stewart-worthy centerpieces on the kitchen table and pulls out homemade soup and sandwich fixings to greet late-night travelers who drag in from the airport.

And if you arrive so late that you’re sure no one could possibly be waiting up for you (she still is), she’ll leave a candle glowing in the dark kitchen, just enough light to let you see the “WELCOME!!!” sign scrawled and circled on the refrigerator white board, exclamation points barely enough to contain her joy.

My mother-in-law. She fills the table with family, friends, neighbors and strangers. She invites anyone who doesn’t have a place to go for a holiday - seminary students from Nigeria, new neighbors from Egypt, families from Colombia, shirt-tail relatives from Canada - to join any gathering she’s throwing. She rearranges the dining room to make one long table so that everyone has a place. She makes sure every elderly relative goes home with a heaping Chinet plate of leftovers to reheat the next day.

Every time I’ve brought a friend home who’s received their welcome, I hear my own thoughts echoed in their comments as we pull out of the driveway – Your mom is honestly the nicest, most thoughtful person I’ve ever met. Does your mother-in-law seriously make a spread like that for every Sunday supper?

Clearly they each have the gift.

. . .

Sometimes I feel intimidated by their hospitality. Both these women have the charism for welcome: a gift given for the good of the community. If I don’t share the same instinct, should I just give up? My welcome of guests tends more towards worry – is our home too messy? is the guest room a disaster? will they be bored by our current life with littles that sets our family’s days?

But then I remind myself that both these women are expert homemakers. The honor of their life’s work has been deeply tied to the warm center of the home they created as a place of welcome, not just for their families but for any who cross their doorstep. Whether their hospitality first came by instinct or desire, they’ve honed the habits that became a practice that formed a way of life.

I imagine it’s the same for any Benedictine.

So perhaps here’s hope for me yet, and hopefully many more years in which to grow in learning what it means to embody a gracious reception of those who show up at my door. Christ in the face of friend or stranger.

Knowing each of these women well, I’m sure they’d scoff at any compliment of themselves as Christ-welcomers. But I suspect the secret they’ve learned is something like this: when you welcome a guest as Christ, you become like Christ yourself. Generous, compassionate, and loving.

The wider your welcome, the wider your heart.

. . .

Today is a Benedictine feast, the anniversary of Benedict’s death in 543. They’ll celebrate in true welcoming fashion at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s.

If it weren’t for the fact that I’ll be posting this today and my mom will surely blush when she reads it, I’d doubt that she or my husband’s mom would ever know this is a day that celebrates their life’s work as well.

But isn’t that the gift of those who open wide their door for guest or stranger? Teaching the rest of us how humility goes hand-in-hand with hospitality.

My kids have already picked up on this ancient Benedictine truth. They’re constantly asking when they get to visit their grandparents next. Because even if they can’t yet name it, they know how it feels to be welcomed as Christ.

Like your arrival is the long-awaited gift that everyone’s been looking for.

how to prepare for a birth day

There’s the hospital bag, of course. Pre-registration paperwork. The Kegels you’re supposed to be practicing ten times a day. Delivery room playlist on the iPod. Deep breathing exercises. Child care arrangements for your other kids. Out-of-office email reply waiting and set to maternity leave.

But does any of that really prepare you for labor and birth?

Maybe I’m lazier this time around. (Ok, assuredly I’m lazier this time around.) But I can’t bring myself to motivate for so many pre-baby preparations that have typically consumed my thoughts by this point in previous pregnancies: cleaning and nesting, stockpiling frozen meals, setting up the baby gear, washing tiny onesies and newborn diapers.

Now whenever I get a free minute? I mostly want to sleep.

And instead of pouring over childbirth preparation books or crafting the perfect birth plan to hand to the nurses upon arrival at the hospital, I find myself shrugging whenever I think about Delivery-Day. It will come, it will be unexpected, it will be hard. And then it will be over and our baby will be here.

But just as I might have missed the opportunity for deeper reflection upon birth’s meaning the first time around when I was nothing but scared, I don’t want to miss the chance to explore the spiritual side of this huge transition simply because it’s my third time through.

Whether unknown or known, childbirth is a defining moment of a mother’s life. And I believe it is one of the “thin places” between heaven and earth.

So I’m wondering how to ready myself this time. How prayer can be part of the pain. How meditation can be part of my mindfulness. How each contraction can remind me that Christ is within me and beside me and before me.

I’ve already gathered a trinity of prayers for labor and birth. But as Lent surrounds me in the last months before baby arrives, I also find myself thinking about simplicity and surrender. How to let go of any lingering expectations and free myself to enter into whatever God has prepared.

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In my latest piece for Catholic Mom, I wrote about the journey from feeling terrified at the prospect of birth to finding peace in what will be a painful but powerful day of discovery:

I’m starting to see the spiritual side of birth in ways that I never would have dreamed when I headed to Labor & Delivery for the first time. Birth as beginning, birth as sacrifice, birth as rite of passage – God is intimately wrapped up in all these ways we understand this work that women do to bring life into the world.

Being intentional about this process – a sort of sacramental preparation – has helped me to bring hope, not fear, to the prospect of bringing another baby into the world.

Lots of ink gets spilled in parenting manuals and glossy magazines about birth plans, birth preparations, even identifying your health care provider’s “birth philosophy.” But approaching a spirituality of birth invites those of us who carry new life within us – as well as those who love and care for us – to view this work as prayer and to place our trust in God who accompanies us from the first contraction to the final push.

Read the rest at CatholicMom.com

And next week I’ll have the chance to enter intentionally into this deeper reflection, thanks to Peg Conway’s retreat on the spirituality of birth. Nell of Whole Parenting Family and I conspired to bring Peg to the Twin Cities (since both of us are now expecting #3!), and I can’t wait for this afternoon of exploring the prayerful parts of this sacred journey.

If you’re local and want to join us, please find more information on Facebook or at Enlightened Mama in St. Paul, MN, where the retreat will be held. And if you’re too far away to spend Saturday, March 22nd, with us, check out Peg’s wonderful book – Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth.

here is the prayer

We’re back in the tundra today, snow heaped so high by the mailbox you can barely see to inch the car onto the icy street. Wind whips through the front door when I crack it to let the dog limp inside, paws frozen by the sub-zero ground. The forecast for the foreseeable future goes like this: freezing, bitter, worse, terrible, painful, record-breaking, complete surrender.

“Isn’t March supposed to be spring soon?” he sighs when he looks up from his coloring book.

24 hours ago we were beach-side, bare feet in the sugary white sand, skin browning in delicious sun. Hours in the pool every morning watching our frozen children melt into slippery fish. Blue skies and palm trees and a taste of life where winter doesn’t hurt.

A day into our southern sojourn, my latest piece ran at Practicing Families. One of the many to-dos that never got done before we snapped the suitcases shut was to write something here that would tease you to read it, because I was surprised by how much I ended up loving that piece, loved how it sparked out of nowhere on the day of deadline, loved how it hummed with the right refrain, loved how it captured something of the sacred in This Time in Our Lives.

But each lovely, lazy day as I padded up and down the same long sidewalk to the beach with our youngest boy, the toddler who insists on stopping and bending low and smelling every single blessed bloom of every flower he spots, regardless of its appearance or ability to produce fragrance, I thought about that post. And prayer. And what it means to practice as a family.

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I realized I had forgotten something. Prayer is beholding; prayer is presence; prayer is promise, yes. But prayer is also pace.

Slowing down, way down, to the steady pulse of life underneath. Pausing long enough to let the soul catch up. Resting into the remembrance that all we mere mortals were asked to do was to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.

So I walked slowly and humbly in the heat, soaking up the long-forgotten sun, remembering the feel of concrete on bare feet, imprinting the memory of a small chubby hand pressed in my palm, stopping to witness a small boy’s wonder at the tiny beauty of hidden flowers, letting the walk back home take twice as long as it should because who’s watching the clock anyway?

And there was the prayer. Once again, without fail. The most and least surprising of all truths: God right before our eyes.

From Practicing Families

We laugh in low voices as he gets dressed for work. The kids are still sleeping, and as I splash my face with warm water, I contemplate the sweet prospect of a quiet kitchen and a hot cup of tea. Maybe I could pull out the journal and pray for a bit before they wake. I slip on warm socks for the cold winter floors downstairs and turn the knob on our bedroom door.

Then I find our oldest boy waiting right outside, gazing up at me with wide eyes.

I sink to my knees and without a word he folds himself into my lap, clutching his beloved stuffed animal to his chest. We snuggle in the silence for a few minutes, and then he whispers, “Mama, sing ‘Morning Has Broken.’”

I forget about the journal downstairs. Here is the prayer.

the sweet aggravation of teaching kids to pray

Have you ever noticed that young children’s timing is absolutely perfect – for them and only them?

Case in point: they only want to put on their own shoes/coat/mittens when we’re already running 10 minutes late.

See also: they realize they are, in fact, capable of recognizing their own need for the potty when we’re in the middle of driving/dinner/Target/bedtime/church.

Otherwise known as: their internal clocks continue to rouse them right on time, regardless of what daylight savings says.

This phenomenon takes on particular irony for those of us with theological training when it comes to prayer. img_3001

Case in point: my toddler now makes a pitiful plea for his bedtime prayer routine to PLEASE be repeated at naptime (when I used to get away with only a quick story-and-song before skipping out the door for blessed quiet to myself).

See also: the mornings we’re rushing to get out the door to school are the ONLY days that my boys ever insist on saying grace, rather than having me instigate the burdening of their every mealtime with my unbearable requests for them to give God thanks.

Otherwise known as: my preschooler inevitably makes his charming request for “meditation AND a Psalm AND OurFatherandHailMary” on the nights when their shrieking bathtime splash-fest soaks up every last precious ounce of energy and all I want to do is rush through bedtime to collapse on the couch.

Every time, the tired/selfish/cop-out words almost trip tempting off my tongue: no, we don’t do prayer at naptime! no, we don’t have time for grace this morning! no, I am too tired to do meditation!

But inevitably, something stops me - whether that stubborn MDiv, or the years I’ve spent trying to develop my own prayer life, or plain old-fashioned nagging Catholic guilt. Whatever it is, I catch the words and cough them back down my throat and try to ignore the clock/exhaustion/aggravation. Deep breath, refocus, slow down.

Of course we can pray. Even now.

I won’t saintly sugarcoat it to say I’m always glad we do. Sometimes I would still rather have gotten out the door 2 minutes earlier or collapsed on the couch 10 minutes sooner. But beyond any momentary annoyance, I’m always reminded where I want the long arc of our family life to bend: towards prayer, towards peaceful rhythms, towards the God who pulls us back together.

Tonight I’m posting about our bedtime psalm-praying at Practicing Families. My oldest and I started praying this way a long time ago, and I have come to love how meaningful this simple, slowing, centering line of Scripture becomes for both of us.

(Even on the evenings I’m fairly itching to close the bedroom door behind me and be done for the day.)

Every night as we go, no matter how antsy I am for bedtime to be done and my few precious hours sans-kids to begin, I always find that one phrase will inevitably catch me and do just what the psalmist says: slow me down and remind me that God is God.

Be still.

Make no mistake about it: he wiggles and giggles the whole way through. Months and months of reciting the ancient centering prayer has not magically transformer my preschooler into a patient monk.

But he knows the words by heart, forward and back, inside and out. The Sunday we sang the same psalm at church and his eyes shot up, astonished that everyone else knew his prayer, too? That was one of the rare moments I tucked away to remember for always.

These words have become so close to him, already in his mouth and in his heart. Now all he has to do is learn how to live them.

All I can tell him is that it takes a lifetime.

Read the rest at Practicing Families

When and how do you love to pray with the kids in your life? (Even if it sometimes drives you crazy, too?)

how we spend our time: working (and praying)

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

the spiritual practice of summering

Slipping off shoes before bare grass.

Watching a nightly sunset, not in passing but present to the pastel palette of the sky.

Listening to early morning birds, awake even before the babes in the next room.

Spotting fireflies’ silent blinks at the wooded edge, gentle as grace.

Plucking first beans from the lush leaves of a growing garden.

Slurping melted ice cream from dripping cones.

Praying. Witnessing. Listening. Beholding. Harvesting. Savoring.

Some say summer is a lazy season, a lull between the wakening of spring and the work of fall. But I find summer ripe for the spirit. There is so much of God to be glimpsed in this greenest of seasons, in this brightest of sunshine.

The One who walked in the garden in the cool of the evening.

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The practice of parenting shapes my days and weeks but sometimes I forget how it shapes my seasons. I am woken up early with the extra hours of light, but do I wake to what matters most?

If the pressure of a Pinterest-worthy bucket list and the nagging reminder of winter’s biting zeros right around the corner overwhelm me with ambition to conquer these months by someone else’s standards, then I run ragged like a red-cheeked toddler sweating from slide to swing to slide to swing.

Even summer’s playground can become a place of exhaustion.

So I delight deliberately in a summer of spaciousness. Of longer days to wait and watch and listen. Of lingering light to sense the presence of the God who waits for us to slow down. Of Sabbath time to revel in the sultry days that beckon for rest.

We have no calendar crammed with activities. Sometimes we picnic or play in the park; sometimes we do nothing and loll around the house happy as clams. My children will only be so young for so long, and I feel no need to fill their days with the crush of extracurriculars. Will it hold them back? I don’t much care. We’re raising boys with mosquito bites behind their knees and sidewalk chalk smeared across their shorts and last week’s ice cream cones stained across their collars.

We are summering and it couldn’t be sweeter.

. . .

What do you love most about summer? How do you “practice” this season well?

mama or “wa-wa”? the choice is yours

He bounced with excitement as he asked me if he could go write our nametags. I had my hands full with his already-cranky brother, wondering why on earth I bothered bringing them to church alone, without any help. So of course, I said, of course.

And he took off running.

Only after I’d wrangled the crankster and settled us down with a stack of books did I realize how long he was taking. Ten minutes passed, one lector up, another lector down, and still we sat waiting. Finally he tore back across the gathering space with three nametags clutched in his marker-smeared hands.

This is for you, he slapped one on his brother’s back. And this is for me, he spread another across his own chest.

And Mama, this is yours.

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I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Priceless. His first public rendering of my name, and it proclaimed “WAWA” for all to see. I peeled back the sticker and placed it proudly on my shirt.

“Thank you,” I told him. “I love it.” He beamed.

Little did I know the preschool penmanship would prove prophetic.

The boys’ (ok, truth be told, one boy’s) behavior went from bad to worse as the hour went on. Kicking, screaming, throwing and tantruming. None of my tried-and-true tricks made one whit of difference. By the time we got to the “Our Father,” I slouched in the pew, maturely refusing to hold anyone’s hands including my children’s, instead mentally planning our escape. I dragged them up to communion and then dragged them right out the door into the parking lot, hot tears stinging my eyes as I hissed to myself that I was Never Ever Ever coming to church with them solo again.

But when I pulled the nametag off my shirt as I put the car in gear to drive away, I caught myself for a moment. Instead of crumpling it up and tossing it aside as I’d already done with the morning, I slowly stuck the sticker onto the cup holder of the car’s console. I had no idea why I did it. It started back up at me with stark Crayola boldness. WAWA. Or was it MAMA? It appeared the choice was mine to interpret.

So it was a rotten Sunday, smack dab in the middle of three long weeks of solo parenting. But the one good thing that bad day brought me was the realization that I had a choice in how I lived out the rest of my month. I could waa-waa my way through my double-duty, second-shift, all-mom-all-the-time parenting. Or I could mama the way I wanted to. The way my kids wanted me to.

The choice was mine.

Part of me wanted to snark the rest of the days away in a sea of complaining and chocolate and Chardonnay. (I really do love snark.) But part of me knew that just like an optical illusion, I had the ability to shift my perspective depending on what I tried to see.

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So I kept that nametag stuck on the console all week, as we cruised around to playgrounds and playdates, to the grocery store and the gas station, through stormy summer downpours and perfect June sunshine.

And all week, whenever I felt tempted to waaaaaaa my way through a long day with little ones, I remembered that I had a boy’s best attempts at capital letters to live up to. So I mama-ed up and try to make it happen. Tried to make the best of what I’d been given.

Which, I remembered, was a whole lot.

. . .

The more trips I take around the sun, the more I become convinced that the spiritual life is mostly about two things: paying attention and shifting perspective.

It’s about seeing the abundance of grace in small moments.

It’s about reframing my vision to remember God.

Whenever I do these two things – see differently and re-member myself back to the God who loves – it’s no exaggeration to say everything changes. Or at least all the important things change. These two practices remind me of how to be in right relationship with all that is around me: my God, my self, the people who challenge me, the tasks ahead of me.

Every day I am faced with opportunities to do one or the other. To take notice of the deeper truth before me, or to barrel ahead ignoring what really matters. To change my patterns of thinking, or to stick with narrowed tunnel vision.

This is not to say the choice is always clear or that I always make the right one. But the times I do, I am surprised to rediscover how way opens before me.

It is a way of opened eyes and humbled heart. It is a way of willingness to see the invitation to love.

It is the way to live up to that which I have been called.

And named.

how we spend our time: resting

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday I’m delighted to welcome Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana to the How We Spend Our Time series!

MaryAnn is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA, and the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time.

If you’ve ever wondered how to reclaim space for rest and relaxation into the chaos of your calendar, MaryAnn’s book is the perfect place to start. She tells the story of how her family of five decided to spend a year practicing Sabbath every week, and her writing is so honest and hopeful (and even hilarious) that it made me think this radical experiment might actually be possible.

MaryAnn’s book got me thinking about the place of Sabbath in our lives – not just whether we choose to go to church on Sunday, but how we set the rhythm of our family life to focus on what’s most important. I keep feeling this nudge towards a simpler, slower way of life, so I love the idea that the choices we make to spend our time well include time for resting.

Enjoy MaryAnn’s insights on parenting and practicing time for rest!

. . .

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

That there is not enough time.

I’ve often heard (and preached) a theology of abundance, of radical “enough-ness”: the idea that God provides sufficient resources for what we truly need. I know that works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me, especially when it comes to time. It sets an impossible bar for me to reach. If there is enough time, and I didn’t get important things done (a daily occurrence), then I must have done it “wrong.” I find it much more faithful to say that there is not enough time, but there is enough grace. I call this “holy scarcity.”

But! you may argue back. God does provide! And maybe that thing you left undone, didn’t need doing. Perhaps…but often not. What parent hasn’t had the experience of letting someone down, of dropping a huge ball? It happens. But grace abounds.

I am drawn to the image of parkour, the combined sport/art form that involves running and tumbling through an urban area. (Google it if you’re not familiar!) Practitioners of parkour will encounter obstacles (a wall, a stairwell), and the trick is to move creatively and fluidly through these obstacles. There is great beauty in that process. I strive to be a practitioner of spiritual parkour.

clp-danacov-final2) What is one practice of using time well that you have developed as a mother-writer?
 

Well, my book is about Sabbath so I suppose I should say that! There’s something very freeing about knowing that each week, you will have a time to rest, play, relax and recharge. It gives the busyness of our days a much more grounded perspective.

But here’s something else that’s really tactical: I am a huge believer in the Pomodoro Technique. The idea is very simple: spend a short, fixed amount of time on whatever task needs doing, take a short break of a specific length, and repeat as long as necessary. I like to work for 12 minutes and take a 3-minute break, then restart the process. I wrote the whole book this way! It gave me a way to tend to the distractions and monkey mind (Facebook, ahem) but not let them take over my life.

This is a good technique for anyone, but I find it especially helpful when I only have a short amount of time and a lot of stuff to get through. I get paralyzed by the choice of what to focus on—Pomodoro helps me get started somewhere, anywhere.

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

That children can be wonderful teachers for us.

As adults, we help them learn the language of faith, but they are not empty containers for us to fill. They already come to us with a sense of the spirit, of eternity, of the Holy. In our case, our children understood both the need for Sabbath and the joy of it.

Children are great Sabbath-keepers. Now that the year-long Sabbath experiment is over, we are still committed to the practice, although we’re not as regular as we were. But our kids will let us know if it’s been too long since we’ve had a Sabbath. They call it a lot of different names in addition to Sabbath: a pajama day, a stay-at-home day, etc. Sabbath is a day to remember that we are not God, that the world goes on without us. That’s a vulnerable but ultimately freeing realization. Children inherently get this since that’s their default state of being!

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

We have a state park about 20 minutes from our home called Mason Neck. In fact, if you watch the PBS segment about the book, you can catch a glimpse of it! We love going there every few months to walk around the woods and visit the small beach. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles there–a playground, an occasional program about eagles or other wildlife–but mostly we walk the trail along Belmont Bay, listen for bullfrogs, and draw designs in the sand using shells and old pieces of driftwood.

Having a regular place where we go often means it’s become a great “growth chart” for our kids’ development. Children who used to get tiiiiiiiiired halfway through the trail can make it all the way easily. We can go farther on our bikes as they get older. They are starting to prefer to the woods to the playground. But no matter how old they get, they all still love to play in the sand.

. . .

Your chance to read! MaryAnn and Chalice Press have generously offered a copy of Sabbath in the Suburbs to one lucky reader of Mothering Spirit. Leave a comment below before midnight CST on Saturday, June 8th, to enter the giveaway.

And be sure to connect with MaryAnn at her blog, The Blue Room!

how we spend our time: waiting

Today I’m excited to welcome Peg Conway back to Mothering Spirit! Peg is the author of Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth, a thoughtful guide for women who want to explore the spiritual journey of pregnancy.BookCoverImage - Peg

Drawing from her wisdom as a mother, doula and childbirth educator, Peg’s book is full of prayers, reflections and creative activities for each trimester. She walks with mothers-to-be through pregnancy’s spiritual questions and concerns: Am I strong enough to handle labor? How will my life change once my baby is born? Who is God to me through this experience of becoming a mother?

Pregnancy is a heightened time of waiting, full of impatient expectation. But parents are always waiting for something. Waiting for babies to start sleeping in the night. Waiting for kids to start school. Waiting for teenagers to come home at curfew. Waiting for grown children to return for a visit.

Peg embraces the waiting of pregnancy as a spiritual practice. In a spring season bursting with new babies and pregnancy announcements, I’m reminded of how many people around me are preparing for parenthood through the practice of waiting. I hope you’ll enjoy Peg’s wisdom on how we spend our time as parents as much as I’ve enjoyed her writing on waiting and growing through life’s transitions.

. . .

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

As a mother of nearly grown children (two in college and one in high school), I’m especially aware that time is a gift. I’m thankful that I was home during their growing up years, though I perceive now that the motivation was as much from my needs as theirs. My own mother had died of breast cancer when I was 7 years old, and I began motherhood with a lot of unresolved grief that said, “Better be with them today — the chance might be snatched tomorrow.” By God’s grace, mothering brought deep healing and led me to a more balanced, less compulsive attachment, coupled with a healthy awareness that life is short, so important things shouldn’t be postponed.

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The letting-go transitions of my present stage of parenting are teaching me further that time is a gift to be received rather than grasped. For a long while, moms with toddlers at the grocery store or a new mom nursing a baby at church made me teary with nostalgia. A lot of prayer and journaling shifted my view, to regard those earlier days as gifts I was blessed to receive; though in the past, they are still part of me. Likewise, today I savor the gift of friendship with my young adult children.

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

Quite honestly, I’m not sure I have achieved this!  It took a long, long time for me to complete my book. I struggled mightily to balance priorities because I have a lot of interests and tend to underestimate how much time a particular commitment will require. My kids led busy lives too, so I was chauffeuring a lot. One practice that did help was to break down the book into smaller writing segments. This approach allowed me to be productive even during short blocks of time.

Now I really try to spend time writing at the beginning of each day, shortly after my husband and son leave for school and before checking email or Facebook or starting other tasks. My mind is most clear then, and no matter what happens the rest of the day, at least I’ve given priority to my writing. I focus on spending the time – the process – not a set number of words or pages.

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

Embodying the Sacred originated with a question about faith prompted by visiting a hospice for the first time:  Why is there so much theological reflection on death and dying but not normal childbirth?  The desire to articulate the holiness of birth’s physicality just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. All I really wanted to do was write a magazine article and be done, but over time it became clear that a book was called for and that I would just have to keep at it.  Reflecting now on the whole meandering process, from first wondering to finished book, I see how the faith journey is really for the long haul.

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

The five of us have varied personalities and interests, so even when our kids were young, some of our best times all together were simply around the dinner table.  I think this evolved from very early days, when our older two were in high chairs and we began requiring that they remain at the table at least a little while past when they finished, while my husband and I continued to eat. Over the years, talking around the table became enjoyable for all. Now that we are all together much less often, dinner at home or a favorite restaurant becomes a ritual of reconnection.

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. . .

Your chance to read! Peg has generously offered to give a copy of Embodying the Sacred to one lucky reader of Mothering Spirit!

Leave a comment below before midnight CST on Saturday, May 25th, to be eligible to win.

Be sure to visit Peg’s website for more of her writing or to pick up your own copy of her book – a perfect gift for any expectant mama in your life.