For Kathleen…Mom…A Gem

When did you first realize your mom was a person?

When did you understand….that she had once been a child…

Kathleen_Baby_1946

who experienced her own, unique childhood…

and became a young woman…

who had dreams, hopes, and fears…

which may or may not have been realized…

by the time she became your mother.

Did you…kind of think…her development ended with your birth?

I ask because, if you’re like me, the realization that your mother is (or, may she rest with the Lord, was) a full-fledged individual with her own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, successes and failures, has been a gradually dawning, but incredibly powerful one.

We celebrate Mother’s Day because we love mothers. According to the demands of the job, which they fulfill with devotion, mothers bring us into the world, welcome us, nurture us, feed us, teach us, encourage us, comfort us, discipline us, sacrifice for us, challenge us, and in short, care for us all their lives and ours. Once a woman recognizes that she wants to “mother” in any kind of capacity and follows-through on that God-given desire, limitless possibilities to love other people emerge. So we celebrate mothers and all they do and have done for us.

Gretchen_HSGrad_1994   Gretchen_Mom_Wedding

But did you catch the gist of that last paragraph? We typically think of moms in terms of what they do for us.

But my mom is a precious jewel. Not because of what she does and has done for me, and my sister, and my kids, and so many others…No. She’s precious just because she is.

Over time, I have been privileged to learn that it is better to listen than to talk. As Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” So when my mom starts telling me about her life, I pay attention. And this sparkling gem of a woman has shown me many things through the stories she tells. Here are just a few:

Enjoy the ride. My mom spent her early childhood in San Francisco. She liked to rollerskate down those enormous hills and stop herself by catching a rope at the bottom. I’m freaked out just thinking about it.

Know your strenKathleen_Sewinggths and use your skills. My mother has a quiet strength and is always willing to work hard. After she finished high school, there wasn’t money for college. So she worked to pay for it. She used her talented hands and the sewing skills she’d learned from her mother and grandmother to make gowns for sorority girls.

Always, always, always be kind. Some 30 years ago, my mother was in a post office when an elderly man cautiously approached and asked her for help with a form. He said his eyesight was poor. She noticed the form was for a change of address. As she filled it out, she kept asking him to repeat the street names; he was difficult to understand. Finally, she guessed on the spelling of each one and read them back to him. He just said, “Yes, yes, that’s fine.” Then she handed him the pen and showed him where to sign. He signed only an ‘X.’ It occurred her that this sweet, polite gentleman probably could not read.

Take a deep breath and stretch – yourself, your resources, your time. For as long as I can remember, my mom has worked or volunteered on a nearly full-time basis. And she pushed herself. I’ll never forget that day when I was in fourth grade in Jacksonville, Florida and a special delivery arrived: the **pink!** Buick my mother had won for her stellar Mary Kay sales. It was a dream come true – for both of us!

Kathleen_Gretchen_France_1993

Later, when I was in college (paid for by loans and my parents’ savings), she was single and money was very tight. But in my junior year, she still managed to come to France with my sister to visit me. I am so very humbled by this thought, because until recently when she explained this to me, I never knew…..how hard it was for her to get away from a rather low-paying job she endured to ensure her daughters’ educations….how far her commute was for that job….and what her monthly take-home actually was. Though she can certainly be thrifty, I was shocked. I asked her, “My gosh, Mom…How did you do it?” “Lots of soup,” she said.

Put your “face” on. My mother is always “put together.” Hair and makeup in place. She jokingly calls this her “face” and we say she won’t walk to the end of the driveway unprepared for the day (kidding, but only kind of!). But I’ve learned the secret behind this daily routine of hers. If you take time and care to present yourself well, you will present yourself well. You’ll feel better, more self-assured.

My mother’s also in good shape, doesn’t overindulge (chocolate doesn’t count!), and sees her doctor regularly. These things aren’t optional, and they don’t have to be avenues of narcissism either. It’s about loving yourself enough to treasure your health and well-being. Where’s the story for this one? Pictures are the proof. She’s in her late 60s, has never colored her hair, has low blood pressure, and low cholesterol. ‘Nuff said.

Finally, Remember who you belong to. My mom knows she’s a child of God and that He loves her. And she looks at everyone else in the world this way too. She knows people are on their own paths, so she’s not preachy. When she’s most open and her vulnerability is on full display, there a deep beauty in her humility before her Creator.

She passes on the love she’s been given…to her family…and her friends. If I said to her, “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19), I know she’d say, “Amen.”

Kathleen_Aidan  Kathleen_Kiss_Cate

One final thought…Last year, my mother was presiding over a convention of nearly 1,000 women, finishing her term as President of the Florida State Chapter of P.E.O., a sisterhood devoted to the education of women and an organization to which we both joyfully belong. She had served on the Board of Directors for seven years, moving up through the positions one by one to President, and having gotten to that level of leadership not by self-promotion, but having been nominated and selected by her sisters. There were myriad speakers and presentations over the 3-day event, but I was in deep awe of just one – my mom.

I wish I could find a word stronger than “proud” to describe how I felt. Her personality and skills were on full display, and all of the determination and perseverance that carried her through the ups and downs of her life had prepared her for this moment. It brought to mind that wonderful verse from Esther: “And who knows but that you have come…for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

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Every single life, every single woman’s life, has a purpose. In fact, it has many, many purposes, rippling out from the deep fountain of her soul. 

Thank you for being you, Mom. 

Sonatina

 

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sonatina (n.) – a musical composition, a short version of a sonata, which consists of three or four independent movements varying in key, mood and tempo.

I’m at my daughter’s piano lesson. Her teacher is coaching her through her very first sonatina, and they have been replaying a tiny section for 20 minutes now. The teacher, firmly but lovingly instructs in Russian-accented English.  She softly sings the melody, claps out the changing tempo, encourages, challenges, compliments…

“Your goal is to play correctly……So beautiful….Let’s grow through this phrase….Good job…..Listen…..Okay, start again. Concentrate……Crescendo will come….Just relax….Don’t rush……Good…Ok, not so loud. How will you grow?…..Again, look just ahead…..Very nice!!”

They are building upon the sections my daughter has learned in the past few weeks, and on skills she has acquired in her four years of music study. My daughter is 9, and her teacher and I have discussed this many times: the goal here is not to produce a professional musician. The goal is to foster the love of music my girl was born with, and to inspire within her a lifelong appreciation of this particular art.

Yet, my daughter also seems to have an ability for this instrument, an aptitude, maybe a gift. I don’t want her to squander it by ignoring it in favor of short-term pursuits. But in her immaturity, she goes back and forth between listening to me and ignoring me. And she has a short attention span – not long-range vision. So I remind her to, and on occasion make her, practice. Then practice a little more. See, I think she could play for her family, friends, or a church far into the winter of her life.

And this – this lifelong ideal of musical love and development – is why gentle encouragement is so important. If her teacher and I push her too hard, there’s a very real risk she’ll lose her joy for playing. And if it sounds like I’m overthinking this, it’s because I know I could so easily push my expectations and hopes onto this child, and I also know that in all likelihood, I will (or have already) said the wrong thing to her at some point. The voices she hears in her mind as she plays echo those she hears as she learns.

I’m sure I’ve failed in my pursuit to find the perfect balance between affirmation and pressure. But I keep going, believing I’m a better mother for focusing on my goal, which was affirmed for me once again in my Bible study this morning while reading these verses.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

– Philippians 3:12-14

The fact is – I am a work in progress. My life is about growing up and into the state I’ve been called to live in – holiness. And I don’t say that in a lofty sort of way, because I believe everyone is called to holiness. We are designed, from before our very conception, to seek union with God in Heaven, and in this life, all our other attempts to find complete satisfaction and perfection will fail. So until my time comes, I press forward, keeping my eyes on this prize.

If I were left alone to strive for holiness, I would be making even more cacophonous noise in my life than I already do. Because though I may sometimes say the right things to my daughter, for example, my words alone don’t reveal the full intentions of my heart. As a sinner, my heart and mind continue to mess up, because I stubbornly continue to rely on my strength to be a ‘good’ mother, wife, friend, or Christian.

But I’m not alone. My Teacher, the one who sings me the tunes I’m trying to play and coaxes me through endless repetitions of sticky, challenging, and seemingly redundant notes in a life that constantly changes tempo, mood, and key, is faithfully patient. Best of all, He is forgiving – endlessly willing to start with me again when I make mistakes and don’t practice what I’m learning. The Holy Spirit nudges me to pass on the treasures of these holy lessons …to a daughter who listens, albeit imperfectly – just like me.

 

High Hopes for Women

My daughter’s blonde hair falls in soft waves around her shoulders and a few inches below them onto her back and arms. I’m studying her dewy, perfect skin as she leans on a pile of pillows in a pink cotton camisole and striped flannel pajama pants. Her red glasses frame curious, spirited blue eyes, and she laughs aloud as she reads words, words, words that delight her and inspire her…..to read on….to learn….to love life even more than she already does.

If you’ve ever been transfixed by your daughter in this same way, you know how it feels. I marvel and wonder…Who is she today? Who will she become? What will she hope for? What will she share with the world?

My reveries for my daughter are born of the trust that she will learn, she will have opportunities, and she will live her life in freedom. Blessed am I, indeed.

Now, imagine the horror of seeing your beloved daughter (or wife, sister, mother, cousin, or friend) attacked by an angry mob – a mob who beats her with sticks and stones, drags her under a car, burns her body, and tosses it over a railing onto the rocky banks of a river. This is what happened to Farkhunda last week, a 27-year woman who was murdered in Afghanistan, falsely accused of burning a Koran. I stared at her blood-covered face in the Washington Post yesterday, and thought, “‘[I]n the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)….Made in the image of God.”

Farkhunda studied at an Islamic school and wore the head-to-toe garments conservative Muslim women reportedly favor. Her father said she believed education for women would help them in domestic life. But it seems she was lynched for expressing ideas. So very dangerous in her part of the world.

Everything within me wants to yell, “It’s not fair!!!! Do something! She deserved better! She should have had space and safety to let her mind and spirit soar. She was a gift! Her sisters are too! Don’t you see!!?!?”

But no, they don’t see. The men who killed her didn’t see. The mind of a mob is a terrible thing. Convinced of it’s ‘right’ judgment, it is capable of the worst kinds of cruelty.

But we do, we say. We see. Farkhunda was born with certain inalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And governments are instituted among men to secure these rights. How I love the ring and resonance of these words.

Yet, do we see? Do we all see? Are we overlooking the most important point?

If we are to seriously take up the cause for women’s rights in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we must first remember by whom those rights are granted to us. We must raise this Truth in every argument. We cannot lapse in our appreciation of, lapse in our desire for, or lapse in our fervor for, the profession of this Truth. Inherent natural inalienable rights were endowed to Farkhunda by her Creator – The Lord of the Universe – and until the hearts of mankind come to know this Truth, the violence and bloodshed will continue.

Last year, I gave my daughter a gift – a framed verse of a Proverb – which now hangs in her room. It’s there to give her a vision….Of a woman grounded in Truth, fully aware that her pricelessness has been inextricably forged into the fiber of her being, and sure of her purpose in this world because she looks with confidence to the One who brought her into it and promises to be with her in the next.

This verse is my prayer and hope for my daughter, for the women who knew Farkhunda and carried her coffin, and for women everywhere. May the girls of the world be seen for who they are, and for Whose image they reflect.

“She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs without fear of the future.”
– Proverbs 31: 25

Three Italian Women

We’re standing in the church sanctuary, a place of holy refuge, and I know she feels safe. She’s facing a very tough day. She’s been carrying heavy burdens for several people, trying to help where and however she can, and I can see the weight of many hard weeks bearing down on her.  She’s got herself together – she’s beautiful and graceful, keeping up with self-care, but none of us can do the impossible. We can’t bring people back from the dead, or stop the march of a loved one’s disease right there in its tracks with one desperate, pleading prayer.  Her eyes fill up and flood over and I don’t have words so I do what friends do then.  I hug her.  And I don’t let go until she lets go first.

Later in the day I remember three women I haven’t thought of in many years.  I dig up their picture:

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Three friends. Rome. January, 1993.

Arms linked together, they were a bit of an obstacle walking down the Roman street at dusk on that cold, January day.  I followed them for a little before snapping this photo.  They were in no hurry, and didn’t sway from between these yellow lines.  People went around them.  I was wishing I  spoke Italian so that I could catch snippets of their conversation, though I’m fairly sure the bulk of it was the same as that of women’s talk everywhere – mostly family, the work of homemaking, marriage, schedules, maybe some chit-chat about clothing, books, and other entertainment thrown in for fun.

But I took the picture because I was most captivated by the fact that they were linked.  They were unified. They were together. They were walking through life, sharing the journey, and their joined arms confirmed to one another not just an intellectual support system, but a true physical presence.  My arm in yours says, “You are really not alone.”  Touch comforts when words can’t.

Valentine’s Day is coming up.  Who else needs a hug?  Maybe even a walking hug  – where we join arms and travel some of this life together, sharing what we can, and letting the silent strength of one another’s arms be the reassurance we need when words fail us?

A friend loves at all times, 

And a brother is born for adversity. 

– Proverbs 17:17

 

A Prayer and Song for Claudia’s Family

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Thank you to everyone who prayed for my stepsister, Claudia, earlier this year.  As you know, she went home to the Father, and will be rejoicing in Heaven this Christmas. But her family remains.  And oh, how they ache. If you would, please pray with me again – for them – this season.

And if YOU are mourning someone this Christmas, it would be my privilege to pray for you.  Please don’t hesitate to ask me.

Dear Lord, King of Kings,
You are Immanuel – God With Us.
Thank you for creating this Christmas season by sending your son, Jesus Christ – the Very Word of God, wrapped in human flesh.
In His life, he knew every possible kind of suffering – so that we would know,
We are never alone.
We thank you for His triumphant resurrection over death, and for His eternal grace.
Lord, you have promised to be with us always and everywhere, and your Word is Truth – for there is no impurity within you.
Please come and be with Claudia’s family.
Make your peace known to them.
Enfold them in your loving arms and touch their hearts with the expectation of joy to come.
Assure them of your never-ending faithfulness, and remind them of the ways you have already blessed them, so they can be renewed with hope for your goodness in the time ahead.
Strengthen their spirits and increase their faith.
Please hold them up and bind them together, so that they may find solace, and You, in the eyes of one another.
And Lord, bless Claudia’s children – Cata, Nick, and baby Matias – in a special way.
May their mother’s love be forever imprinted upon their hearts and souls.

In the name of our Saviour, Jesus, we pray,
Amen.

 

Day 17 – Saint Report

The big day is finally here and she stands in front of the teacher’s desk,  my bright pink scarf wrapped around her small frame. Her blond hair is styled in a way somewhat reminiscent of the third century, and topped with a small halo of white silk flowers and pearls. She holds in one hand her report, written in cursive on wide-lined paper, and in the other, a homemade gold harp – constructed from a bent piece of metal, duct tape, string and spray paint we found in the garage.  My ‘Saint Cecilia’, patroness of musicians, is beaming with pride. She will tell her audience, with a big smile,  that men sent to behead her struck her on the neck three times, but she did not die immediately, and many centuries later she was the first saint whose unearthed body was found incorrupt.

The Saint Report is a highlight of the year for every 3rd grade student at my children’s school. Each child chooses a saint to research, write a report about, and then portray in costume – before the class and parental paparazzi, of course.  At the end of their presentation, each child shares why he or she chose this particular saint, and the reasons are always interesting and sometimes priceless. My daughter loves music and plays piano, so Saint Cecilia was a logical choice.  Another child recently moved here from Puerto Rico, and left behind her best friend, Lucy.  ‘Lucy’ means light. Ironically, Saint Lucy’s eyes were gouged out (because of her faith), and for display purposes, this little saint had them right here on a clear plastic plate covered in Saran Wrap!   But I think the saint I enjoyed hearing from the most was ‘Saint Roch.’ I had never heard of him before, and truthfully, I don’t remember much from the report except the reason why he was chosen. We were told, “I thought his birthmark was cool.”  It was a mark on his chest, in the perfect shape of a cross.

It’s obvious to me that each child feels a special connection to the saint they portray. Each one is excited to ‘be’ this faithful person for a day.   And me….I’m happy to see my daughter make a connection between her own passions and those of a brave woman who has gone before her, home to the Father.

I was raised in the Protestant tradition and had never given much thought to saints until the Lord called me to the Catholic Church nearly 8 years ago.  In the 9 months of preparation and discernment required, I had a lot of questions, all of which the clergy and lay people who helped with my classes answered fully and unflinchingly.  So, saints?  Once I understood that Catholics are not to pray to saints, but to ask for their prayers just as I would ask a friend here in the flesh, I gained a whole new appreciation for these amazing people.  And a whole new appreciation for what I could learn by hearing their stories.

What occurred to me most as I considered the saints is that they themselves have no special power.  They are no different from me except that we believe they led exceptional lives – staying very, very close to God.  And how did they do it?  Not by force of will; in fact, it’s just the opposite. They did it by humbling themselves to God and His will in every way possible, in every single aspect of this earthly life. In everything they did, these people pointed others toward Christ and kept their gaze on Him. What examples to follow! These are the kinds of superheroes I’m thrilled my kids are thinking about, especially as we approach Halloween.

The class presentations end and later she asks me, “How many saints are there?” The answer – only God knows. We are all called to be saints.  God has left a hole in each of our hearts that only He can fill and we aren’t at peace until we figure that out.  “Is there a Saint with my name?” “You mean that people have heard of? I don’t think so. I haven’t found one recorded, but most saints aren’t recorded anyway.” “Maybe I’ll be the first one.”  That’s my girl.

31 Days of Seeing Beyond

31 Days of Seeing Beyond

cropped-g_easternshore2014.jpgThree deaths over the last month have left me tired…..and sad. My beloved great aunt……a dear friend’s niece who took her own life… and my stepsister –  who passed after nearly 4 weeks in the ICU fighting to recover from extremely rare childbirth complications.  It’s my stepsister’s passing that brings me most often to my knees. I cry out to the Lord on behalf of her third child, a now 1-month old baby boy who will never know his mother.

They say there is a cycle of grief.  It has various stages. And I’m watching devastated people go through it now.  But in the midst of all this anguish, I  have been blessed to remain thankful and aware of God’s infinite goodness. I have also been given new opportunities to serve Him, and follow Him more closely – sometimes in ways that push me beyond old boundaries. I posted a prayer for my stepsister on Facebook. And soon, the family requested more.  It seemed the Lord wanted to use me.  It made me both nervous and strangely excited – not because people appreciated my writing, but because I had stumbled upon a way to really serve. And I learned – when there are people hurting, perhaps then more than ever, the Lord wants me step out of my safety zone and walk in new terrain, keeping my eyes on Him.

About 10 days ago, I saw the invitation from Myquillin Smith to take the 31-Day Challenge and write in October. I could hear the whisper that always leads me to good places — “Try this” — and felt that tinge – of joy.  And as I sat down to write tonight, I remembered a verse I taped to the front page of one of my journals four years ago when I first intended to write in earnest – but never really did.

A bruised reed he will not break,

a smoldering wick he will not quench….

             —  Matthew 12:20

The Word is full, so full, of promises. And for myself and so many people I love, I am holding on to this one right now.  Whether we are writing or just trying to get on with living day by day, the terrain in my world seems new and tough.  We are bruised and bent over, trampled and beaten down, hardly like flames alight. But when I fix my gaze on Him, when I ready myself through surrendering prayer, I am given all the strength I need.

Lord, help us. Thank you for the confidence you’ve given me – the knowledge that you alone are fully trustworthy, and that you are my only true help – my Savior.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.