he is one

When you are the third child, especially the third of three boys, nothing comes new. Clothes, books, toys – all are gently loved or well-worn-out by the time they reach your hands.

When you are still tiny, you accept this, of course. You don’t know the world to be any other way.

Your firsts are not earth-moving milestones. Your every move is not captured on video or preserved in photo albums. From day one your needs and wants cannot command complete attention.

This truth is hard and humbling and healthy. For you and your parents.

You are not simply a special snowflake. You are one among many. 

1stbirthday

One year ago we met for the first time. My memories of birth are fast and foggy, snapshots of scenes. The first flash of him, wet and purple, his radiant heat in my shaking arms. His wavy dark hair and deep eyes squinting to see. My astonishment at his existence, the breathing weight of him on my chest, still startling after I carried him for nine long months below my heart.

Twelve months later, he crawls, claps, chuckles at every silly dance his brothers perform to earn a smile. The tantalizing prospect of walking awakens as he reaches to pull himself up and learns to steady uncertain legs. Words slowly take shape within the babbles of his voice.

He is one for the first time. He has never been here.

. . .

Last week I crossed my legs on church basement carpet and watched his brother celebrate his summer birthday three months early.

He placed the Montessori mat carefully on the small table, set the candle for the sun in the center, and opened his hands to hold the small globe as his teacher told the story of seasons. How we are always moving around the sun, how we would never know time was passing if we didn’t stop to notice the changes around us.

As his classmates counted, he took almost-four trips around the table, circling the sun with the world in his hands. His teacher read the short story of his birth that I had written, a rainbow of markers telling his first day of life. Everyone sang the song he chose and listened to the book he brought as a gift. His face was squinched in a strange smile, equal parts proud and embarrassed to be at the center of attention.

Then he walked quietly around the circle again, tapping each child on their bowed head to send them off for the rush of shoes and jackets and lunch boxes.

A simple celebration, ended as soon as it began. Perfect for preschool. Maybe enough for all of us: to celebrate another whirl around this spinning sun, to remember our place in the world, to let light shine on us for an instant.

One among many. He could not have been happier.

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Christianity teaches these twinned doctrines of identity. Imago Dei: we are created in the image of God, each of us unique and unrepeatable, worthy and beloved in our own right. The Body of Christ: we are part of a larger whole, all of us interdependent and intrinsically connected, bound up in each other for the common good.

These two beliefs – that we are one and we are many – braid together to become two essential practices for my parenting. I want to teach these children that they are loved beyond measure for the individuals that they are, created and called by God to do their own particular good in the world. And I want to teach them that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, that their own joys and struggles are put in humble perspective within a world of seven billion others.

Let your light shine, but remember Who you reflect.

Build your life into worthy service, but remember you cannot do alone.

Trust that you are one and we are many.

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Last night we celebrated the baby’s first birthday. In such ordinary ways that I felt almost disappointed. Shouldn’t I have done more to make a fuss? Spread a feast or lavished him with bright bows? Would he know how wondrous his life has been in ours if we didn’t preserve perfect memories for posterity?

No. I see in the crumbs of this morning that all the love he needed was there.

Homemade carrot cake, the work of his brothers’ helping hands. Lilacs dripping out of the blue glass vase, picked proud by those same siblings. Hand-scribbled cards, a new CD, one book to replace the favorite he tore in half.

He loved the party hats, lunged for the candle as we sang, smashed handfuls of cake in his mouth. I stretched back to that exhausted, euphoric new mother I was one year ago that night, holding him and learning him and wanting nothing more than for him to be safe, loved, here with us.

And now he is: right here. This is exactly what we wanted.

It was what a birthday should be. A celebration of the blessing of a life, still fresh and unfolding before our eyes. And a reminder that all of ours are intertwined, that we are – thankfully – not the sun center of the universe.

I have to practice this truth each new morning, as I ready myself for another day. To remember that I am beloved but also beholden to others. To believe that I am called by the One who calls the many. To hold fast in the knowledge that my life is one small part of a much bigger story.

This truth is hard and humbling and healthy. For all of us, maybe.

He is one. We are, too.

almost one: the mystery of a baby year

He sits beside me on the carpet, staring at a bright blue book about fish, patting its pages and gnawing its cardboard spine. Late afternoon sun slants through the nursery window, catching wispy curls of his hair, strawberry blond or golden brown as the light shifts.

Every time he catches my eyes watching him, his face erupts into silent grin. I am lying on my side and he leans over to bat his pudgy arms against the curve of my stomach, soft and forgiving after three babies.

Twelve months ago he was still curled inside me, kicking and squirming. Now he has small ham hocks for thighs, plump cheeks he stuffs with fistfuls of peas, whirling arms that reach out with clumsy waves at any smiling face he sees.

He is on the cusp of turning one.

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A baby year is a blur. In the beginning, night is day and day is night. Hours are days and days are hours. Life is flipped inside out like hundreds of tiny socks piled on the bed, laundry reproducing at stunning rates: burp cloths, spit-up soaked onesies, thousands of diapers tumbled to dry. Only the basics consume us: eating, sleeping, the occasional bath. The world spins by outside while we burrow into our cocoon: mother, baby, closest kin who love them. All the rest falls away and it does not matter.

The shifts happen softly and are undone as quickly as they come. The baby starts to sleep longer, then the pattern unravels. The personality emerges, then teething disrupts everything. The new normal is settled, then falls apart. Undaunted, the baby grows.

We parents sense – and rightly so – that the child we hold today is already transforming into a new creature by tomorrow. So we fumble to capture what is fleeting in photo or word, even knowing any secondary creation we attempt will fall short.

Because what we are trying to capture is us, too – in mid-transformation. We somehow sense that we are becoming, again, as this strange small person is becoming, anew. We want to remember exactly how we feel – which is exactly how this baby feels, smells, looks, and sounds, right now, today, in our arms – because it is momentary and momentous, all at once.

This is the essence of the baby year, the longest shortest time. It whizzes by us as each day drags. It lulls us into thinking we have regained rhythm and found our footing, and then it lunges forward into worlds unknown. It shifts like a kaleidoscope. We think we control the turning because we hold it in our hands, but the flash of color comes unbidden from the moving parts inside, the beauty we can never recreate.

I have been a mother for nearly six years. This is such a small sliver of my life. But conceiving and carrying and caring for these children has made me and unmade me and remade me in so many unexpected ways that numbers fail to capture.

On the floor beside me sits my third son, two weeks from turning one. Numbers fail to capture him, too. In the short span of twelve months he has gone from the dark womb to the bright day, from the muffled kicks to the determined crawl, from the first cry to the almost-word. Already I see glimmers of his grown self in his deep eyes, his ready joy, his centered quiet. He will not stop changing, even as he becomes himself.

A baby year transforms. It brings infant and parents around the sun just one time, yet we are transfigured for having seen all sides of this blinding bright, able and aware in ways we could not imagine a year before.

Maybe this is the truth my hopeful/jaded self wants to carry with me, into a world so tired from suffering and violence and evil and our own baffling self-destruction. That one year can change us. That we remain unpredictable. That today is important even as it passes.

My son will not remember a single day from his first year. I will remember it only in shadows and glimpses, a strange dream of deep naps on summer afternoons, tired hours on autumn mornings, moon shadows glowing through winter’s nights, spring green buds clasped in tiny fingers.

Still I pause in the blur, slowing to remember and recenter, steadying myself to witness a moment in the mystery of lives unfolding. One long sun-turned season of becoming again.

His and mine.

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

when you’ve done everything the wrong way

I sat there squirming in my seat, fingers cramping from writing too fast, frantically trying to scribble down everything she said.

Publicity must done be in advance of publication; six months minimum if you want anyone to notice; early early early is all that matters

A solitary Saturday, a workshop with writers, a warm cup of tea in one hand and a copy of a book I’d written in the other. I thought it had the makings of a perfect morning.

Instead my head spun as the expert kept advising about agents and interviews and networking and advance reviews. While the only coherent phrase I could conjure was that stupid cliché: drinking from a fire hose. Gulp.

When the workshop slammed up against the clock and skidded to a halt, I skittered out of the classroom before anyone else had even snapped shut their sleek laptops. I called my husband from the snowy parking lot, stamping my boots free of slush, trying to laugh it off: I guess I should have been here a year ago. Oh well.

But as I drove home, coaxing my scattered thoughts back into settled silence, all I could think was that it felt so familiar. That frantic sense of feeling so lost, so stretched, so overwhelmed, so far behind the game that had only just begun.

It felt like when I first became a mom.  

. . .

Maybe you are blessed with uber-confident friends, but pretty much every parent I know is convinced they’re screwing up somehow.

I used to think it was unavoidable in these blurry early years, when everything is brand-new and we’re all amateurs and our training is on the job.

So many small stumbles. The night I lost my temper at a sleepless baby only to learn he was cutting shining pearls of new teeth. Or the week I was convinced the toddler was misbehaving and it turned out he had a double ear infection. The days I hollered at one child and the culprit turned out to be the other one.

Mini mistakes in the long run. But in those sinking moments, it still felt like I’d failed the ones who had been entrusted to me. Like I’d done exactly the opposite of what they needed.

But as years passed, I started listening to all those older and wiser and calmer parents, the ones I hope I might become someday. Turns out they feel they’ve done plenty wrong, too. Too little or too late, too much or too long. What can you do but forgive yourself?

Rare is the sweet spot sensation, the celebratory whoop of having nailed it. More familiar is the fumbling, the floundering, the fudging of our own uncertainty under a thin but hopeful veneer. We’re trying. Tomorrow we’re going to try again. Most of the time, that’s enough.

Good things happen – to us, to our kids – either because of what we’ve done or in spite of it. Ditto for the bad things.

So this book stuff? It’s the same deal. Did I follow all the experts’ advice, did I do all the shoulds and musts and needs and have-tos, did I have any clue what I was doing when I first set out?

No. And that will be fine. It will be enough.

. . .

“You only know what you know,” the teacher tried to reassure me when I finally braved to raise my hand and ask what if it’s too late? “If the book came out in November, you can still do something. Probably.” What to do but shrug and smile?

I’ve heard the same consolation before. Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t know in the past. For what you didn’t do. For choices you made not knowing any better.

Even when it feels like we’ve done everything the wrong way, that moment of realization can still be a gift: the clarity that we’re actually doing something right. Because we’re still going. We’re still doing, guessing, hoping, moving forward, waking up again tomorrow and starting again.

The way winds long – whether it’s parenting or faith or simply trying to live as human in the world. And we’re still on it. We’re still going. We’re still doing plenty right.

. . .

The baby woke at 4 am. I stumbled into slippers and padded down the hall to his room. When I opened his door, he quieted at the sound of my voice. I scooped him up from his crib and felt my way to the rocker. I nursed him as I dozed, then he stirred and I roused to change his diaper. Moves I’ve done thousands of times before.

Only once I’d settled him back to sleep and I turned back to the door to feel for the knob – only then did I realize I’d done everything in the dark.

It’s been that way for two babies now, this knowing how to night-parent by instinct. Moving through the darkness, not even a nightlight to guide my steps, yet doing exactly what I need to do: nurse, change, soothe, love.

If I’d told myself when I was a brand-new mom that I wouldn’t need bedroom lights blazing to figure out how to latch the baby on correctly or how to change a diaper without making a mess, I would have laughed out loud. Impossible.

Now I’m learning to find my way in the dark. No expert taught me that. But it feels just right.

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the gift of ordinary time

I have a sneaking suspicion this is what matters most.

Not the anticipation of Advent, the celebration of Christmas, the long journey of Lent, or the exuberance of Easter.

But the everyday of Ordinary Time.

Lately our kids have been grumbling about the Christmas decorations being packed away. The house looks so plain, I hate it.

And they’re right. There is something melancholy about tucking away the trappings of such a happy season.

At first glance we see only absence. The gaping space where the tree stood. The empty mantel where the creche was displayed. The bare door frame where grinning faces of friends and family beamed down at us from Christmas cards.

But there is welcome relief in slipping back into the ordinary, too.

Rediscovering the beauty of what was already around us, hidden behind the holiday lights and ornaments. The walls and windows of our own world. The places and peace that we had already worked to cultivate.

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I have noticed over the past few years a stirring within myself. Pulling away from the excitement of The Big Events and drawing towards the quiet everyday.

Part of this awakening came with motherhood, which taught that I am an introvert. A solitude-seeking soul who craves calm. Someone who needs to cultivate space for silence, even in the midst of this good work of raising a busy family.

But part of this shift came from stepping back from the whirl of our culture, its constant reaching for The Next Big Thing, its frantic need to fill the stores with the next holiday’s decorations the second that the latest over-hyped celebration ends.

I’m tired of being bombarded with Valentine’s pinks and reds as soon as New Year’s hats are whisked off the shelves.

I want to savor the spaces in between.

So at home, I’m growing grateful for bare windowsills and sparse shelves. For the glow from a single lit candle. For the quiet dark of winter nights.

And at church, I am remembering how much I love Ordinary Time, too.

I am whispering thanks for the wisdom of a tradition that knows our human need for time and space in-between.

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Jesus did most of his living and working in ordinary time. Thirty years before his ministry became public. We don’t know the ordinary stories from those decades, but they must have been filled with the regular routines that fill our own lives: work, family, learning, growth, rest, repeat.

All of Jesus’s ordinary time added up, slowly over seasons and years, to make him who he was. A son, a friend, a neighbor, a prophet, a healer, a teacher, a leader.

I wonder who we are each becoming in our ordinary time, too. As we wash the dishes, dry the laundry, do our work, love our families. How are we shaped by the routines and regular living of each day?

They are something to celebrate, these unassuming weeks of Ordinary Time. They shape us, slowly over seasons and years, into the people that God dreams we will become.

I suspect this ordinary time matters most. Do you?

. . .

A normal day! Holding it in my hands this one last time,
I have come to see it as more than an ordinary rock. It is a gem, a jewel.
In time of war, in peril of death, people have dug their hands and faces into the earth and remembered this. In time of sickness and pain, people have buried their faces in pillows and wept for this. In times of loneliness and separation, people have stretched themselves taut and waited for this. In time of hunger, homelessness, and want, people have raised bony hands to the skies and stayed alive for this. . .

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you, before you depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so.
One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow,
or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky,
and want more than all the world your return.
And then I will know what now I am guessing:
that you are, indeed, a common rock and not a jewel,
but that a common rock made of the very mass substance of the earth
in all its strength and plenty puts a gem to shame.

– Mary Jean Irion, from the essay “Let Me Hold You While I May”
in the book “Yes, World: A Mosaic of Meditation” (1970)

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there will be so many years

There will be so many years, she tells me, of nights so quiet you don’t know what to do with yourself.

I’m perched on my knees, rolling my green yoga mat into a tight spiral, facing the brick wall of the studio so she can’t see my smile when she wishes the class “a peaceful evening.”

You can’t believe it now, I know, she laughs.

Mine are 23 and 25. And the house is quiet. So quiet. 

I tell her I believe her.

. . .

There will be so many years, she tells me, of whole days where you can do whatever you want.

I’m washing dishes in the sink, staring out the water-splattered kitchen window while she finishes her cup of coffee before the boys drag her into another board game because “Grandma, you promised!”

Can you imagine it now, she smiles. Whole days to do whatever you want?

I can’t imagine. I tell her I believe her.

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There will be so many years.

Of calm Sundays at church. Lazy Saturday mornings spent reading the whole newspaper. Spur-of-the-moment Friday nights when we decide to see that show or try that restaurant or watch that movie.

When we do nothing more to prepare but pull on coats and flick off lights as we leave. No planning, no pumping, no prepping the babysitter on everyone’s bedtime routine. We will forget all these details.

We will watch films first-run, take weekend getaways, catch art exhibitions before they close, go to that jazz club whenever the mood strikes us.

We will do laundry once a week instead of twice a day. We will grocery shop with one basket instead of two carts. We will listen to whatever we want in the car. Or we will simply drive and listen to nothing at all.

There will be so many years.

When little boy laughter does not bubble up from downstairs. When bright baby smiles do not greet us from the crib to wake the morning. When they don’t sing silly songs or dance in the kitchen or build basement rocket ships or cuddle onto the couch to read stacks of books.

For most of the years I will know my children, we will all be adults (God willing).

We will still laugh and joke and enjoy each other’s company. But we will also be serious. We will talk about politics and money. We will disagree. They will have their own addresses. We will make plans to meet for lunch. They will insist on picking up the check.

And all I have to do?

Let these years be these years. Let those years be those years.

Refuse to escape the privilege of another present moment with them by reaching ahead for what is not yet. Or longing behind for what was.

All I have to do is be present. To the gift of right now.

. . .

There will be so many years, I will tell her, when you don’t get to carry a baby all day. Believe me, I don’t mind.

She will stand near my elbow, holding another blanket and burp cloth ready, trying not to hover but still hovering because that’s all you can do when your baby is still shockingly brand new.

Can you believe it now, I will ask her as I breathe in that fuzzy warmth again, that there will be days when you don’t hold anyone?

Her eyes will be glassy from one of those painful nights of naps. All she will see are the heaps of laundry shoved in corners before I came over, the mess of bottles waiting to be sanitized once I leave, the dishes in the sink she should have scrubbed, the hair she didn’t wash, the clothes she didn’t change.

She won’t be able to imagine. But she might try to believe.

There will be so many years.

a summer of paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God speaks in rhyme and paradox
This I know is true

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A portrait of paradox.

. . .

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