Day 28 – Blue Angels and Loops

“Do the Blue Angels have an airport?”

“Do the Blue Angels wear helmets?”

“Do the Blue Angels practice?”

Like top-of-the-hour-news reports, preschoolers can get on loops that change only slightly from day to day.  Mine has been ‘looping’ about the Blue Angels for a week or so now. We live in Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy.  The mega-impressive demo team flies here during Commissioning Week each May and it’s one of the highlights of our town’s year.  We also live near the Navy stadium, so we drive past a retired Blue Angel plane parked outside of it – at a vicious angle, no less – every single day. It’s no small wonder my son would have an interest. Thankfully, we are prepared. We’ve collected several small Blue Angel planes over the years. (See Exhibit A: attached photo).  The dents and missing paint belie hours of death-defying stunts. My husband and I can answer most questions. If not, there’s the internet.

Anyway, while my 4-year old son has been ‘looping’ lately on this fun topic, he’s also been circling back to a heavier one.  I’m astonished, humbled, and proud to say that completely on his own, he has remembered to pray for his friends’ father every single night since I first heard him during bedtime prayers on October 30. (See Day 18) That’s nearly a month ago.

When my son first heard about this man’s need, he and all his classmates only knew that “Ava and Charlotte’s dad was in the hospital.”* Now, he doesn’t know much more except that it was an accident and the twins’ father was hurt by some tree branches.  But we parents have been told details. Things children don’t need to hear. He is still in the hospital. He still needs prayers.

I think about this as I watch my son pray, and how his perseverance in prayer, is what faith is really about. It’s about not getting caught up in the details, but instead choosing to believe in a big, Big, BIG God. Yes, prayers might not get answered the way we’d like them to, but that’s not the point. The point is that in prayer, we acknowledge our need for God.

For a few days now, after bedtime prayer, my son has had a new ‘loop’ question. “How can God hear us?” I tell him again and again, “God knows, and sees and hears everything because he is the Master and Creator of everything. And he wants us to talk to Him, because he loves his children and wants them to tell Him what’s on their minds and hearts. To stay close to Him, we need to talk to Him.”

So we carry on with our questions – about things for which we can find answers, and the things we can’t.  And the peace that I feel when I spend time in prayer is all the confirmation I need that He is near, and hears me.

And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he hears us. 

— 1 John 5: 14-15

 * Not their real names.

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Day 27 – Beagle in My Lap

So, I’m approaching the end of my first 31 days of blogging, and I wasn’t sure what I’d write about today, but I really wanted to post something. I had a few ideas, but every time I started to write, I was sidetracked…by someone.

It was my youngest child, mostly.  He was hungry.  Then he needed a different show on TV.  Then he’d seen too much TV so we cleaned bathrooms together. Then we ate lunch and went to the store.  We came home and unpacked the groceries.  We picked his siblings up from school.  It was crazy warm for November today (71 degrees!) and the kids wanted to play outside.  I sat out there with them and tried to write.  The neighbor dropped by to say hello.

After the sun went down, I sent all the kids into the basement and plopped on the couch to try one more time. Our beagle climbed up next to me and laid her head on my chest. I kissed her and then she looked up at me with those big brown eyes of hers, and she crawled right on top of my iPad, into my lap. I let out a deep, deep sigh.

Yesterday, I wrote about the need to leave white space – margin – in the calendar. The main reason is because days like this happen to me all the time. I am blessed with a family who needs me, and while it is appropriate that I have time to myself to pursue my interests, the reality is that my life is not my own. It is a gift that has been entrusted to me, and I am just the steward, trying to do my best to take good care of the people, responsibilities, and things I’ve been blessed with.  I ask for His wisdom and guidance to prioritize my days, and to see what I need to see. From that point on, it’s better if I’m not trying to steer.

Today, each cry of “Mom!!!” was a divine appointment. And that’s what I needed to remember.

 

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Day 21 – The Cost of Humor

It’s been 6 days since my last post…..more than I wanted, but I will eventually get to my first goal of 31 days!

In my mind, I keep returning to a little scuffle between my two older kids from last week that I think illustrates something that happens all too often, and leaves us with a question.

Things had gotten silly on the car ride home from school Thursday.  For one part of the ride, we were talking about pug dogs bred with beagles – “puggles.” And then later, after we stopped for my daughter’s half-hour piano lesson, the conversation was still animated but had taken an edgier turn.  I had placated everyone with snacks but all three kids were ready to be home, and there was nothing to do but to wait out the 8 long minutes until we got there.

The atmosphere was different, and it’s hard to tell how or why exactly.  These things just happen when kids are itching to release pent-up energy, and there was a lot of noise in the car. One kid was singing and the other two were taunting each another with verbal barbs.  Things sounded fun but I sensed it might be going too far and wasn’t sure so…I called out, “Quiet Game!”.

No one was to say a word or make a sound until we got home (real coughs and sneezes are allowed).  I looked in the rearview mirror when we pulled into the driveway and saw my daughter’s face turned toward the window, tears rolling down her cheeks. We all got out except her. When the other two kids went inside she told me, “He hurt my feelings.”  I knew he hadn’t meant to, but words have power. We have to remember that.

My oldest son, as usual, had gone up to his room to study.  I came in to talk.

“But, I was kidding!  She takes everything so personally!”

“Yes, and when you know that, you need to be sensitive.  You love your sister, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well.  Is it more important to be right here, or to have a good relationship with her?”

“Have a good relationship.”

Then, of course, because he’s 11 he went on to cite all the ways he wants me to stand up for him more when she bothers him, but that’s for another day….

What this situation made me remember is this question:

Is it more important to be right, or to be rightly related?

 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

– Matthew 5:9

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Day 20 – Thunderbird Pizza

Day 20 – Thunderbird Pizza
Photo credit: Thomas Schweighofer, www.unsplash.com
Photo credit: Thomas Schweighofer, www.unsplash.com

If you’re from Philadelphia you have your favorite place to go for a cheesesteak (which you probably just call a ‘steak’), and you know whether that’s a ‘whiz’ place or not; you also have a favorite place for hoagies; and you have a favorite place for pizza. These places may or may not be one and the same. Philadelphians are VERY particular about these foods, and VERY loyal to their neighborhoods. There is no “best place to get a cheesesteak” in the city. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t lived there.

I went to high school in the western Philly suburbs, in a town called Broomall to be precise, and my family’s one-and-only for all three of these staple weekend foods was Thunderbird. If we weren’t squeezing into one of the tiny booths in this very basic building, we were having Thunderbird delivered – and I knew all the delivery guys.  Each one was either a friend, or a friend of a friend. To a kid who grew up moving around a lot, and then having moved to Broomall in 10th grade, it was exciting to open my front door and know the person carrying my dinner. I think that’s what made me smile so much when I saw the Facebook post. That and the memories of celebrations that involved Thunderbird food – lighthearted moments – like eating the 6-foot long hoagie with my cheerleading squad over my dining room table after we won the regional championships.

High school is a difficult time for many people and for lots of different reasons. I was no exception. My parents had divorced and remarried, and although I think I held it together on the surface, I was churning inside – learning to navigate relationships and deal with pain that would take years of searching and prayer to heal from and understand. But it wasn’t all bad – not nearly so.  I was blessed with very good friends, and was accepted in the community enough to feel some sense of ownership in it.  I was very proud of the service my dad gave to our country as a military officer, but it meant that until that point I had never lived in one place longer than a couple years, so I had never been “from” anywhere.  Feeling linked to the town through the high school and friends who worked at Thunderbird made it feel more like a permanent home.

I’ve heard it said that, more and more, people feel worse about themselves after they look at Facebook. So, reflecting on my own happy reaction to this post about my favorite pizza joint, I offer this: I can use Facebook as a spiritual barometer. It can tell me how the weather is in my soul. If I look at a post and feel uneasy, jealous, resentful, angry, haughty, proud, or greedy, I know that there’s trouble brewing with me.  If, on the other hand, I read posts and feel genuinely joyful for others’ success and loving toward them, and my demeanor remains happy, peaceful, tolerant, kind, gentle, good, and rooted in faith and self-control, I’m on the right track and will not leave Facebook feeling worse than when I got on it. And given how far I’ve come in the nearly 25 years since high school, that’s certainly where I want to be today.

 

Me in my "Thunderbird" (i.e. high school) years.
Me in my “Thunderbird” (i.e. high school) years.

Day 19 – Turn-down Service

Last night I was talking with my grandparents (now both 92) about a trip we all took together 30 years ago, when I was 11 and my sister was 8. We stayed in a hotel where I experienced for the very first time a little luxury I haven’t seen recently – turn-down service. Here’s how I remember it:

It was late in the evening and my eyes were heavy. My grandparents, my sister and I were all dressed up, having just attended a banquet dinner – the final event of a boating race weekend that my grandfather had been participating in. We had gotten ready in the room before dinner and left in a hurry. (Now that I have children, I know how the adults present must have felt at the time.  Trying to rush along two young girls who are busy styling their hair and admiring themselves in the mirror is no small feat….but I digress.). The dinner had been lovely – multiple courses, an ice sculpture of a prop in the middle of the ballroom, dancing afterwards. My sister and I felt like celebrities as the only kids there, and though we all had a great time, we were ready to get back and into bed.

To my young eyes, the room was like a dream. Lights dimmed just so. Toiletries neatly organized by the sink. Clothes hung or laid carefully across the suitcases. Bedspreads folded and set aside. Blankets tucked in perfectly at the ends of the beds. Crisp white sheets folded down from the center of each bed into neat triangles. And perched atop each perfectly fluffed and sleep-ready pillow was a foil-wrapped chocolate mint. Trying not to muss anything, I sat on the edge of the bed and let that decadent little piece of chocolate melt on my tongue. It was glorious!

The best part of the ‘turn-down’ experience for me was the chocolate mint. I recognized in that one little thing, a singular moment of unexpected joy.  For someone else, the experience might have been different, or lacked sparkle altogether. But for me, it was a gift – a sweet lightness.

Is it possible, as an adult, to find the same kind of joy?  I think so, but I also think it requires a kind of practice….Practice at keeping my clouded eyes open to see where the gifts are, so I can recognize them as such and then savor them like I savored that mint.

Sunlight was streaming into our room today as my alarm went off.  For weeks it’s been dark, but with daylight savings time, morning feels like morning again. I hit the snooze and lay silently studying the yellow rays peeking around the sides of the curtains, wanting to burst into our room. In the quiet, I could savor the miracle of that sweet light and feel joy rising again, as I gave thanks for the gift that it is.

Day 18 – Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Last night, my preschooler startled me during bedtime prayer. There we were, heads bowed, him saying the traditional ‘Now I lay me down to sleep,’ which we modify at the end by asking God to bless each member of our little family (including the dogs), when suddenly he added someone else. “And Lord, please make Ava and Charlotte’s* daddy, who is in the hospital, better.”  My eyes shot open. Then, after a big sigh, and squinting his eyes even harder closed, he added the most tender, heartfelt “Amen” I’ve heard in awhile.

‘Amen’ means ‘it is certain.’  I think of this every time I say it. It girds me up, gives me strength and hope, and I picture the worldwide community of believers who trust in the evidence of things unseen. But watching my child say it?  Wow. He was so sincere – totally devoid of any doubt, fear, or distrust.  He reminded me:

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,

and do not hinder them,

for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 

— Matthew 19:14

The parallel verses – Mark 10:14 and Luke 18:16 – are nearly identical. It must have been quite a moment there with Christ, since children then were not considered as significant as adults, and the gospels vary in accounts of other events, but not this one.

It’s easy for me to think cynically here and say, ‘Oh, but young children…my son – he doesn’t have abstract thought yet. He’s not mature enough. He doesn’t have adult concerns. He can’t see the big picture.’  All true, and yet….

I think of my son’s small hands, folded together.  He remembered to pray for his friends’ dad – someone I don’t even know – because at preschool he heard about this man’s need.

Lord, what are your other plans for how this little one might serve you, and what are you trying to teach me, as you see me watching him?

* Not their real names. 

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.

Day 16 – Getaway?

Today we are leaving on a 4-day family getaway to Colonial Williamsburg.  We’re all super excited, and every single one of us has had a checklist of items that needed to be done prior to departure. My older two kids both had big assignments due today that should have, and could have, been completed at a more leisurely pace before last night. But they weren’t.  And one child had completed an assignment, shown it to me, and since it wasn’t what the teacher was asking for, put me in the position of saying, “You need to redo it.”  The other had a gazillion math problems I didn’t have time (or memory) to solve while cooking dinner. If you are (or were) the parent of school-aged kids, you know where this scenario is headed.

I’ll spare you the drama, but let’s just say that by 6:30 last night, my dear husband, who was still at work trying to clear his desk for vacation, had just received a full-on “vent” phone call from me. (It was soooo not fair to him.) After we hung up, the other 4 of us sat down to dinner.  All three kids were crying.  The older two because of their schoolwork. The younger one because of the older two; he couldn’t stand their tears and wailing.  How I sympathized.

It was time to pray.  And pray I did.  Not your normal dinnertime prayer, NOOO. I risked the food getting cold.  I asked Him to step in.  I called on Him by name for each of us, by name.  The red eyes and red noses started to clear as we ate in silence.  And miraculously, everything got done and everyone was in bed on time.

This morning, the day dawned and I was given a second chance to do better. The plan was to drive 1 hour round-trip to take my husband to the Metro so he could leave his car at home (instead of in a lot somewhere) for the next few days. Then, load up the dogs and drive 75 mins. round-trip in the opposite direction to the kennel, before dropping my little guy off at preschool for lunch and — get this — PICTURE DAY.  He was dressed and ready to go at breakfast.  All his other nice-looking clothes are packed for the trip…..Life was going well….And BOOM!  He spilled a full cup of orange juice down the front of him.

I could have lost it. I was definitely frustrated, even slightly angry. But I looked at what I had been given at that moment.  Time.  I stripped him down, put him in sweats, and had just enough time to wash and dry the outfit between runs to the Metro and kennel.

“His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion.”

–1 Peter 3:1

Everything.  His divine power has given us everything we need at any given moment to move out of that space where anger and frustration is going to spill out and harm those we love. The only thing required is the only thing ever required – turning to Him and letting His grace in.

Day 15 – Keep Him Close

“I love you, Mommy,” he says as he greets me in the morning, still sleepy-eyed and warm from his bed. He wraps his arms around my legs and squeezes. I have to unwrap him to kneel and hug back. Hours later, after he’s the last to be picked up from school and we return home, amidst the noise of his older siblings clamoring through the front door ahead of him, dumping their backpacks on the floor and tossing their shoes to the side, he does it again.  He stops me where I am, and wraps himself around my legs. “Mommy, I love you. I love you SO much.”  And when I bend down to hug him, he’s puckered up for a big kiss – then gives two of them.

My youngest does this all the time. He is extremely affectionate with me, and always has been.  At the advice of the nurses who said he was not breathing well, he spent the very first full day of his life outside the womb pressed to my chest, his skin against mine, listening to my heart. I often wonder if these precious hours set a precedent for our relationship, because our physical closeness is just…different somehow.  As with all my children, I loved him from the beginning, and I will love him forever.

It is amazing to think that for a period of time, not more than five years ago, he was as physically close to me as two souls can get, but I was not aware of his existence.  He had been conceived, but not yet discovered.  His life was known only to his Creator – the genesis of the spark that created my son. My son simply wasn’t. And then he was.  All the later steps of the biological process are just the dynamic unfolding of how a unique soul became encased in a body suited to this world. Scientists are starting to unravel the nuts and bolts of this code. But the true mystery of the entire world comes down to that one divine spark. A person isn’t. Then he is. And the only One there with him, is God.

Not long ago (relatively speaking), St. Paul stood up in a meeting in Athens and spoke to the people concerning the idols he saw in their city.  One bore the inscription “To An Unknown God.”  He explained to the crowd why their worship was incorrect – and far too limited.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  — Acts 17: 24-28 (NIV)

God gave us life so we would seek Him and reach out for Him. We are the Lord’s offspring. Once we were closer than breath to only Him. And if I desire closeness to my dear sweet son, who was once closer than breath to me, I can only imagine how God must feel about those to whom he gave the gift of life.

My son’s love means so much to me because he gives it freely. It is his choice. Our love for God is important to Him because we choose to give it – freely. 

We are at Mass and the priest is preparing to consecrate the Host. I am kneeling, hands folded in prayer, when I feel little arms encircle my neck. In my peripheral vision I see my son’s lips coming and ‘SMACK’ – he plants a loud kiss on my left cheek. Oh – we’re supposed to be quiet here, right? Hmm. Awkward as it is at first, I actually feel more reverent, more joyful, more present to the Almighty now, because of this child’s selfless gift of love. In this uniquely holy moment, I smile, unfold my hands, wrap them around my son’s head, smell his hair, and quietly kiss him back.

Day 14 – Spider-Man

imageI pretend not to notice as he creeps around the side of the kitchen island and aims his little hand at me…his thumb, forefinger, and pinkey sticking out, the other two fingers curved back into his palm. “Gotcha!” he half-whispers, smiling his sly, playful, dimpled smile. “UAAAHH!” I shriek, “Not your web!  You got me again!”  And he giggles with delight, then runs away.  Practice makes perfect, and my little Spider-man’s got two weeks to work on his webs before Halloween.

I like Halloween – when it doesn’t upset my kids or me. And yes, the bar is low for that. I admit it – I hate the dark side of the holiday. If we could get rid of anything associated with blood, gore, violence, scariness, and fascination with anything related to that macabre stuff, it would be wonderful.  But since I know that won’t happen, I just focus on the lighthearted, wholesome aspects which lead to joyful memories of the fall season – trick or treating, pumpkin carving, and of course, innocent kids’ costumes.

Costume selection is always interesting because each year I’m curious to see what appeals to the kids and why. My oldest son (now 11), has, for 6 of the last 7 years been some kind of warrior.  If a costume expresses an inner desire, then perhaps he wants to be tougher than he feels he is.  My 8-year old daughter’s tastes vary. In recent years, she’s been a princess, a cat, a glamorous witch, a female warrior cartoon character, and a pirate. This year, she had trouble deciding between a vampire and an angel. I sensed she just liked the idea of being a vampire, without really understanding its full import. So I showed her costumes and vampire makeup.  The fake blood disgusted her, and she settled on ‘angel,’ and a full-length gown. In the end, it was really about the gold and white dress. But, I was quite happy with her choice.

Whether a person wants to try on a whole new identity, or express some hidden side of themselves, no one ever puts on a Halloween costume and then hangs out at home all alone. The fun is in circulating amongst other people incognito, or somewhat so. Everyone wants to be noticed in their chosen garb, and to have a good time wearing it for a little while. And sometimes a person feels even more brazen in their costume – willing to step out boldly in ways they wouldn’t otherwise – just because the garb gives them added confidence as they “become” the character they portray. I saw this firsthand with my oldest back when he was two and chose to be Buzz Lightyear. His costume had inflatable wings that attached to his back, and I have photos of him walking up to complete strangers with a huge smile, bag out and ready for handfuls of candy.

Why do we do this? Why do we try to be noticed? I actually think we are looking for something divine. We want to experience someone seeing us not only for who we are day-to-day, but also as who we wish we could be, or think we might be – a better or alternate version of ourselves.  No matter how much time we spend with our family, friends, or acquaintances, we sense the truth deep in our souls that none of these people can actually fill our deepest need – to be fully and wholly known.

So, a costume is not merely a covering up – it is also a reaching out. It’s a way of saying, “Will you still love me – like this?”  Too often, the costumed are not yet aware of why they want to be noticed.  The psalmist says it perfectly:

O God, you are my God–

for you I long!

For you my body yearns;

for you my soul thirsts,

Like a land parched, lifeless,

and without water.

–Psalm 63:1-2