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1. Take toddler to nursery every Sunday so you can enjoy time alone in mass: listening to the homily, peacefully taking communion, contemplating God and life. Since daughter loves the nursery, and you love to sit peacefully in mass, it’s a win-win!

2. Try taking your child to mass when she’s about 3. Doesn’t go well. She climbs under the pew and becomes defiant. You try to pull her out from under the pew but she has the strength of Hercules. Your choices are to leave her under the pew and run the risk of having her touch the feet of the people in the pew in front of you, or to pull her out screaming and kicking. You leave her under the pew. Assure your single friend sitting next to you that “really she’s not always this squirmy in mass!” Vow to never take her to mass again.

3. When child turns 5, sadly tell the nursery coordinator that daughter has “aged out” of the nursery and will now be attending mass. Then, leap for joy when the nursery coordinator tells you “there’s no age limit!” You secretly wonder if it’s okay to put her in the nursery until she’s 18.

4. Feel guilty for not training your child to sit through mass. Think that the Christmas Eve service, which starts at 5:00 on Christmas Eve and lasts for 2 hours, is the perfect time to start the training. Imagine a peaceful, meaningful Christmas with daughter and husband. Spend 1 hour in mass trying to get your daughter to “sit down!” Then give up and let her sprawl her entire body across the aisle while she plays with her sticker book and congregants have to step over her. Sense that she’s growing bored with sticker book, and hungry, which is the Perfect Storm for a meltdown. Decide to leave early. Have husband grab coats and purse while dragging her out of church screaming bloody murder. Husband picks her up and throws her over his shoulder as she continues to scream and pounds on his back. Vow to never take her to mass again.

5. Recovered from the Christmas Eve, try once more to take her to mass. A special “adoption” mass at 5:00 p.m. You think ahead and pack many treats, books, puzzles, and sunflower seeds to help her keep occupied throughout mass. It doesn’t go too badly. She’s wiggly, but stays in the pew. You think maybe there’s hope. Then she spills all of her puzzle pieces on the floor and you watch as they tumble on the marble hitting the ankles of people all around you.

6. You go to mass alone and notice all of the 5-year-old kids who are sitting perfectly still and saintly. You decide these are probably the same children who’s parents you gave the stink-eye to a few years ago when you were judgmental toward any parent who didn’t put their kid in the nursery. Realize you made a huge mistake by waiting so long to train your daughter to sit still. You should have given up your nursery addiction long ago. Now you’re reaping what you have sown.

7. Adoption is finalized (after 2 1/2 years), and you would like to get daughter baptized. A special baptism service takes place after mass. You dress your daughter in white. She looks very pure and innocent. You invite family and friends, and realize too late that you forgot to bring anything to occupy her during the service/ homily. Daughter defiantly crawls under pew and talks loudly, and insists she has to go potty half-way through the service. You rush to the bathroom hoping you and your daughter don’t miss her own baptism. Get back to the pew just in time for the priest to invite you, your husband, daughter and the godparents up to the baptismal font. As you’re standing in front of the whole crowd, you look in horror as your daughter starts licking your hand and then reaches her foot out to drag the step-stool away from the baptismal font so she can stand on it. Silently beg the priest to hurry it up before daughter has complete defiant melt-down.

8. Priest baptizes daughter. She stays calm enough to have him pour water over her head. You remember him saying something during his homily about how baptism is God saying to us, “You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” Tear up at irony and beauty of it all.

I’m sort-of a Scrooge when it comes to the holidays. This time of year can be stressful and overwhelming. Before we were parents, there were some years David and I didn’t even put up a Christmas tree. This year, we DO have a tree, but it’s a “minimalist” wooden Christmas tree my friend Mike made for me a few years ago. I told Desta it was a “special” tree and no one else has one like it. However, I’m wondering if it borders on child abuse to not have a real Christmas tree. Sigh. Now that we have a kid, there’s more pressure to make the season amazing for a 5-year-old.

Don’t get me wrong. There are things I’m enjoying during this season: Creating new traditions for Desta. Small gatherings with close friends. Visiting family. But I’m trying hard to keep things small, simple, and meaningful for all of us. I’m planning on taking Desta to a “Lessons and Carols” concert next week, and we may go down to the Art Institute and take in the Holiday Thorne Rooms.

And I’m enjoying a few CDs and books — some new and some old. Typically, I find one or two Christmas albums each year that I play over and over again through November and December. And a few books I read in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Here are a few of my favorites this year:

Over the Rhine: Blood Oranges in the Snow

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I get tired of sappy sentimental Christmas songs. I need a bit of reality–not glossing over what is often a difficult time of year for many. That’s why I love this new CD from Over the Rhine. The songs on this album add a dose of reality to Christmas.

I’ve been playing this song on repeat:

Let it Fall:

Have you been trying too hard
Have you been holding too tight
Have you been worrying too much late at night
Whatever we’ve lost I think we’re gonna let it go
Let it fall, like snow.
Cause rain and leaves and snow and tears and stars
And that’s not all my friend,
They all fall like confidence and grace
So let it fall, let it fall.

 

Light Upon Light, by Sarah Arthur

This beautiful book is compiled by an author friend of mine. It includes readings from John Donne, Frederick Beuchner, Scott Cairns, and many others. It has readings for every week of Advent. I’ve been reading a bit of it every morning.

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Sufjan Stevens: Songs for Christmas

Stevens started recording an annual Christmas album in 2001, usually in his home with a collection of friends, roommates, etc.  The result is a collection of quirky, unique, and re-imagined Christmas carols along with some original songs. I’ve had this collection for several years and it’s still one of my favorites.

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Watch for the Light

This is another oldie but goody. It includes readings from Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Annie Dillard, and more.

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Advent at Ephesus

This CD was recorded by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a young monastic order of sisters in rural Missouri. Advent at Ephesus includes an amazing variety of traditional Latin and English hymns, polyphony, Gregorian Chant, medieval harmonies. It’s beautiful.

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What are you listening to and reading this holiday season? Any Christmas music recommendations? Book recommendations?

The first five people to leave comments will get a FREE copy of my book Rock-Bottom Blessings. Perfect for your own holiday reading or for giving away as a Christmas gift.

 

 

I had an art teacher who said that early in his career he was interested in painting abstract art, but then he started studying Rembrandt and realized that there was more going on in one square inch of a Rembrandt than in any large-scale abstract work of art.

I am living my life in one square inch these days.

I see photos of younger, childless friends jetting around the world and remember those days of seeing a vast open horizon opened before me. I remember my single days when I could easily plan a trip, and save money for vacations in Mexico. My dreams were big then. Everything was possible.

But then I made choices and commitments. I bought a condo. I got married. I am in the process of adopting a foster child.

Having become a parent 2 1/2 years ago, the vast open horizon has shrunk to the short list of items I can squeeze into an hour before bedtime. My dream on most days is to have the time and energy to watch another episode of “Orange is the New Black”.

I recently read an article about how becoming a parent is a trauma. I can relate to that. And I think there’s an interesting and important discussion happening about women who don’t want kids, which I think is a valid choice for some women.

But after years of ambivalence about parenthood, my husband and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were meant to have a child in our lives. And after a years-long quest to become parents through adoption, we are content and happy with our choice to adopt our foster child. But that doesn’t mean it has been easy.

A friend and spiritual mentor once said, “May you leave many tombs behind you.” Life is a series of loss and resurrection. Parenthood is no different. In the past 2 1/2 years, I have had to grieve many losses. I have left many tombs behind. But along with that loss there has been resurrection, too. Here’s what I’ve lost and gained:

What I’ve lost:

The ability to run. I can no longer run away from my circumstances. I can’t get away by going to a coffee shop. I can no longer just pick up and travel to Mexico with girlfriends. Within 10 years, when I was in my 20s and 30s I moved a totally of 10 times. Once I even moved to Colorado. Then, nine months later, moved back.

I was frantic, confused, restless. I craved change. I kept thinking that a change of scenery would change ME, and fill some void I felt. But then, in my 30s, I moved into a large sunny 2-flat and stayed for 7 years. Then I bought a condo, and got married. We’ve lived in the same place for 10 years. Then we adopted a child. I am tethered now. Tethered to routine, and bedtime, and school drop-offs and pick-ups.

What I’ve gained:

The courage to stay and commit. I miss my freedom, but by being tethered I am also not able to run from myself. I’ve heard that marriage is like a mirror – you find out how selfish you are. And parenthood does the same thing, times 10. Motherhood has shown me my selfishness, but also how deeply I can love and how strong I am. Some days parenthood is like a marathon: We get up, get ready for work, get Desta ready for school, go to work, come home, feed Desta, get her ready for bed (an hour-long ordeal), get ourselves ready for bed, and then fall into bed exhausted. But I am doing it! I’m strong enough to survive this and Desta is thriving. It’s the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done.

What I’ve lost:

Alone time/physical space. My-four-year old daughter clings to me. She’s my shadow and barnacle. She has to be in the same room, preferably on my lap. She wants only me to put her to bed, giving my husband (who doesn’t need as much alone time), the coveted extra hour granted to the parent who doesn’t have to perform bedtime duties. My therapist-husband thinks this has something to do with the attachment process. Whatever it is….IT IS DRIVING THIS INTROVERT CRAZY!

What I’ve gained:

Cuddling and connection: Getting out of my comfort zone to lean into this attachment is necessary. The more I run or push her away because I “need space”, the more she will cling to me. I need to reassure her that I will not leave her. She is mine forever. Helping her to feel secure, after all of the losses she’s experienced in her short life, is a privilege. It’s stretching me, and stretching is good. Painful, but good. And on cold fall evenings I love to hear her say, “mommy will you come and cuddle with me?” Yes…I would love to come and cuddle with you, my darling girl. Someday I will have my time and space back again, and I will long for those cuddles.

What I’ve lost:

A few friendships: When our then 2.5-year-old daughter moved into our house with her pink skirts and 127 stuffed animals, she took over like a sorority house president. She turned our lives upside down. The trauma of parenthood so overhauls your life that it takes time to recover and let life settle into a new normal. Some of my friends didn’t understand this. Suddenly, I barely had the energy to answer emails, or call a girlfriend last minute to have coffee. The first year we were parents, we hunkered down and tried to make sense of what was happening to us. We were traumatized. Some friends didn’t understand that, and have moved on. I grieve these friendships, but I get it.

What I’ve gained:

A family. And new friends: We’ve lost friends, but gained others. We are getting to know families at Desta’s school. We’ve grown closer to neighbors who have kids Desta’s age. And I feel closer to my sisters, because I now know what they were dealing with when they had several kids under 5. Friendships have shifted and changed. But we have grown closer as a family and we are content.

What I’ve lost:

Time to write. My biggest worry about becoming a parent was that I would never write anything ever again. In some ways that’s true. I have very little time to write or contemplate these days. I long for those days when I spent most of a Saturday in my favorite Starbucks writing my first book –hours and hours of putting words together and pouring out my soul onto the page.

 What I’ve gained:

More material to write about. The events that led up to Desta’s adoption helped to fuel my first book. And now that we’ve been parents for 2.5 years, I have a whole treasure trove of material that I want to write about. My life seems richer and deeper. Now if I could only find the time to put it all down on paper. Someday I will.

What I’ve lost:

Opportunities: I used to be afraid of committing to anything because committing to something meant I had to give up the possibility of other opportunities. I didn’t want to narrow my options. It’s true. Once you commit, or make a choice to go down one path, other opportunities are lost. But if you never commit to anything, you’re lost in this no-mans land of nothingness. Indecision, non-commitment, is it’s own type of prison. Parenthood is the ultimate commitment, and it’s scary knowing you are responsible for a child for the rest of your life.

What I’ve gained:

A more focused view: With loss of choices, comes a more focused view. I don’t have a vast horizon of opportunities any more. But I can do what’s in front of me. Loving my daughter and my husband. Writing in bits and pieces. Finding joy in small things like watching  my daughter learn how to ride a bike, or seeing my husband become what Desta calls “my big-cheese daddy.” Commitment has narrowed my options but made my life richer. I’m painting a beautiful picture in the one-inch frame.

 

I’d love to hear from other parents about what they’ve lost and gained after becoming parents. What tombs have you left behind? Where have you found resurrection?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bumbling my way home

May 19, 2014 — 2 Comments

My birthday was last Friday, May 16. I adore having a spring birthday, because usually it’s warm and green and colorful, a day full of hope for another year and anticipation of summer. Sandals and windbreakers, rolled up jeans, and pretty flowers in vases.

But after the horrific Polar Vortex we lived through this past winter, it seems like our seasons are all off-kilter. And believe or not, it SNOWED ON MY BIRTHDAY! May 16. It snowed. On. My. Birthday.

I was driving to work watching those damned white frozen raindrops hit the windshield, and the She and Him version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” accidentally came up on my iPhone playlist. Well  that’s fitting. I thought.

After a nice day of friends wishing me a happy birthday, and Desta writing me a sweet card, and a movie and pie with David, I woke up in the middle of the night with knots in my stomach. Is this where I imagined I would be at this point in my life? I panicked. Not just the weather feels off-kilter. My LIFE feels off-kilter.

While those around me seem to have a trajectory that’s clear and strong….moving from Point A to Point B without much effort, I am bumbling along. I meander and get stuck and then unstuck and then stuck again, wondering if I’m going in the right direction and more often than not thinking I’m spinning my wheels or wandering off into the woods. And then I finally reach a destination I have in mind, only to feel that I’m unprepared …..and the destination seems so different than what I imagined.

I’m bumbling. That’s the only word I can think of to describe this journey. On paper it looks like I’m accomplishing many good things. But it has taken a long time to get there, and I just thought it would feel different. Publishing a book did not make me rich and famous. Instead, it turned me into a knot of anxiety and insecurity as I obsessively watched my Amazon sales rank nosedive. Motherhood is not what I imagined….much harder and messier and 100 times more beautiful. Then, there’s marriage. I have a good one, but we all know that it doesn’t solve anyone’s problems.

I wake up in the middle of the night on my birthday and I feel a concrete brick in my stomach and stumble into the kitchen and feel around in the dark to find my Lorazepam to quiet the pesky demons in my head.

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I walked a labyrinth a few months ago. It was in the middle of the desert and beautiful and quiet and still. I had never walked a labyrinth. The sign at the entrance of the rock-lined path explained what I was to do: I could run or walk or dance. There was no one way to do it. I could pray, or think, or just listen.

I felt a bit silly. I checked a few times to see if there was anyone around that would see me walking around in a circle being all contemplative. But I only saw Gambel’s Quail running from cactus to cactus and the desert jackrabbits hopping around the labyrinth, their tall ears perked for sounds of danger.

So, I took the first step on the desert sand, feeling the warm sun on my head. I slowly walked the circular path. I put one foot in front of the other, and noticed the smooth stones that marked my progress. You cannot get lost on the labyrinth. It looks like a maze, but it’s really not. It’s one long meandering path and if you stay between the rocks, it eventually leads you to the center.

So, another year passes. I get a hand-written card from Desta that says, “Mommy” and “I love you.” I feel the warmth of David’s arm as we sit together in the cold movie theater. I get texts and messages from dear friends, and a call from my dad. I read an email from someone telling me how much my book meant to them.

These are the stones that line my path, and I know if I just keep bumbling along they will eventually lead me home.

As new parents, David and I are Disney movie virgins. We don’t know all of the different princesses — they’re all a blur. Sure, Cinderella, Snow White, and Pocahontas we could pick out of a lineup. But Ariel? Belle? Merida? Jasmine? I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart if you paid me in tiaras.

I’m not keen on immersing D in pop culture. For a while I was proud of the fact that she couldn’t tell all of the princesses apart, either. But in my desperate attempt to entertain D during this interminable winter where we can’t go outside to play because it’s a million degrees below zero, in moments of weakness I have taken her to see the movie “Frozen” twice. Yes, twice.

Each time, D was engrossed in the movie the whole time and refused to leave the movie theater when it was finished. She started crying and said, “Mommy I don’t want it to be over!” I think she thought that if she just stayed in the movie theater, she would become an official resident of Arendale and be able to live in the castle with Anna and Elsa forever and ever. I finally was able to bribe her out of the theater with the promise of a milkshake.

In another moment of weakness about a week ago, I bought her a CD of the “Frozen” soundtrack. Despite the fact that she didn’t understand the concept of a soundtrack at first (“Mommy, I can’t see the movie!”), this CD is now played several times a day, and D almost knows all of the words to all of the songs.

Unlike D, I have a few “issues” with the movie. While I liked it, I didin’t agree that it was “the best Disney movie since the Lion King!’ as one reviewer claimed. It was okay, but I was left a bit underwhelmed. Keep in mind I’m partly Danish and Swedish (the movie is supposedly set in a mythical Nordic country sometime in the past…like maybe a few hundred years ago?), and for several years I sang in a Nordic Choir. So I know Nordic music, and have some sense of the culture.

Here’s what I had problems with:

Arendale: What kind of Nordic town (or is it a country?) name is that? There’s nothing Nordic-sounding about it. In David’s words: “It sounds like the name of a Philiadelpia suburb.” I feel they could have done more throughout the movie to carry out the “Nordic” feel. The town/country name and the music didn’t fit (see below).

The generic pop songs: I had high hopes for the music at the beginning of the movie. There were a few beautiful choral numbers in the movie that suggested “Nordic” to me, but then these generic, modern pop songs are interjected throughout and they just don’t fit. The don’t fit the era, the place, or the feel of the rest of the movie. If you’re going to have a story set in a Nordic culture in some past era, don’t interrupt the movie with modern pop songs. Another Disney movie, “The Lion King” did a much better job of using African rhythms and sounds in their pop songs that at least made them fit the story.

Princesses with waists the size of a Lifesaver: Okay, these are supposed to be Nordic beauties and I like the fact that Anna is a spunky tom-boy, but did they have to make their waists so small? Their proportions were totally unrealistic and harken back to the unrealistic proportions of Barbie. No wonder our little girls are growing up with eating disorders.

Elsa turns into a sex-pot? I was a bit shocked when Elsa, in her new ice-castle singing “Let it go,” (the song that is now played over and over in our home and that I can’t get out of my head) is suddenly transformed from an appropriately dressed teen princess into a full-busted, scantily-clad Amazon woman. Seriously — her dress has a slit up to her hip! Really, Disney? “Let it go” is supposed to be an empowering, freeing song, and yet the sexpot look doesn’t exactly say, “empowering” to me.

The snowman sidekick. Again — I didn’t feel ilke this character fit the movie. Sure, he’s cute and funny, but he felt a bit extraneous and “kitchy” to me. I think “Sven” the reindeer was enough of a side-kick and we didn’t need a cartoonish goofy snowman.

The animation “too” realistic? I didn’t notice this until David pointed it out, but there’s such a thing as animation being too realistic. At times, the characters almost felt creepy because their features were too realistic and it moved from feeling like a cartoon to a movie with computer generated actors….or something.

What I did like:

The animation: While some of the animation seemed “too” realistic, I did think parts of the animation was beautiful. The ice images, especially when Elsa is “building” her castle were gorgeous.

The “Nordic” songs: My favorite songs on the Frozen soundtrack are the choral numbers, Eatnemen Vuelie by Frode Fjelheim (and the Vuelie Reprise) sung by Cantus, a female choir based in Trondheim, Norway. Beautiful. I just wish the songwriters had incorporated more of this type of music throughout the rest of the movie, or at least used elements of it in the other songs.

The message: I was just “meh” when it came to the storyline, but I did like the message of how the two sisters loved and cared for one another, and I liked how Anna in the end falls for Christoph….who is far from perfect and a “fixer-upper.” I also like how Elsa has “power” — which she is afraid of at first, but then learns to use for good.

 

So, there you have it. D and I both rated the movie. Our “princess scores” are below. Hopefully we will bring you more reviews in the future!

()n a scale from 1 – 5 princesses)

Mommy’s score: 2 princesses!

D’s score: 5+ princesses! 

 

Give me a quiet place

March 3, 2014 — 2 Comments

A few weeks ago D and I ventured out to the suburbs to watch a friend in junior high stage version of Aladdin. Walking back to the car in the dark, after the play, D said, “Mommy, it’s so quiet!”

She was right. It was quiet and we could see the stars in the dark night sky. We walked slowly to the car, taking it all in.

It made me realize how much we take the quiet for granted. There’s so much noise pollution around us. We live in the middle of a large city. We are never free from the din of it — the cars rumbling down our street, sirens rushing toward the nearby hospital, the noise of our upstairs neighbor as she gets ready for work in the morning, the other neighbor’s dog barking. And then there’s the buzzing of cell phones, the noise from the TV….how often do we ever experience perfect silence?

I long for it.

I’m an introvert. I need space and quiet and time to think, read, write, regroup and recharge, and these days I’m not getting much of it. I think I’m going crazy.

Recently, I told David I needed a reprieve. Time alone. He agreed and I found cheap tickets to visit a friend in Arizona. There, not only I could spend quality one-on-one time with my friend, but also have some time at a nearby Franciscan retreat center where I could read, write, and think.

The moment I stepped foot into the retreat center, my soul heaved a sign of relief. Finally. Peace! Quiet! Calm!

I walked the stone-lined labyrinth, sat outside and felt the sun on my face, wandered through the retreat grounds where I found many  icons, as well dessert rabbits, birds, and dessert hens.

All of the thoughts that had been jumbled in my head came to the surface, and started sorting through them….getting ideas for new books, contemplating my career, better understanding my role in my marriage and friendships.

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As I walked I stumbled upon a small meditation chapel. As I entered, I saw this sign above the door: “Give me a quiet place.”

Ah, yes! A quiet place. I walked into the cool, dim stucco structure and as I entered, it was so quiet. So calm and peaceful. THIS is what I had been longing for. QUIET. Perfect silence. No car noises, no sirens, not even the sound of wind in the trees. Just perfect silence.

I felt peaceful, calm…like my soul, mind and body could finally rest. I almost laid down on the benches and took a nap.

I don’t think we realize how much noise is in the background of our lives. Maybe sometimes we like having it there, to help us avoid thinking or feeling. But in the meantime we’re not really living.

I recently read an article that was a response to Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.” The author of the article argued that we don’t need to “lean in,” we need to “recline.” We need time and space and quiet. She writes, “In 1929, Virginia Woolf issued a cri de coeur: How can women become poets and writers, she asked in her now-classic essay, A Room of One’s Own, when they have no money, no independence, no privacy and no space?” A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” declared Woolf.

The author went on to say, “If we want to do more than just go through the motions, both love and work require a protected space in which creativity can flourish. Today, most women can make money on their own and acquire rooms of their own — but they still get too little psychic space and too little time for the kind of unstructured, creative thinking so critical to any kind of success.”

Give me a quiet place.

I’m committed to finding those quiet places in this city. Not sure where they are….but my sanity and soul depend on it.

Redeeming Christmas

December 30, 2013 — Leave a comment

I had very little energy for Christmas this year. I didn’t even make it down to our storage room to get out our Christmas decorations. Every time I thought about making the trek down two flights of stairs to a cold, damp storage room to dig through boxes to find the fake Christmas wreath and plastic Jewel bags filled with little white lights, I felt a knot of dread right below my ribcage.

So instead, we bought a 3-foot tree at Home Depot for Desta’s room. I happened to have some pink lights stashed in a cupboard. I pulled those out and wrapped them around the tree, and then let Desta decorate it with whatever she could hang on it – an old necklace, a pink sock, and a few old ornaments in drawers that never made it down to the storage room. She was thrilled. It was a small, but charming tree. We plugged in the lights at night while we read her books, and it gave her room a purplish pink glow.

I don’t know why I can’t muster up any energy or excitement for the holidays. It has been a problem for years, ever since my mom died, I suppose. She was a perfectionist, and she went to great lengths to make Christmas a big deal. She loved buying gifts, wrapping them just right, and decorating a huge tree.

When my mom died unexpectedly on December 23, 2000, and we had her funeral the day after Christmas, any illusions of a perfect Christmas went out the window. The year after my mom died, my family went to Ohio to my sister’s house. We couldn’t bear being in my parent’s house for the holidays. For a few years, after I got married, David and I didn’t even visit family. We spent it quietly by ourselves and went to midnight Mass and went skating on Christmas Day. We didn’t make it a big deal. We were minimalists, often not buying a tree.

But this year, we wanted Desta to be around family for Christmas, so we drove to Iowa to see my dad and siblings. We stayed with my sister and her family, who were wonderful hosts. But I had a migraine and couldn’t shake my apathy. I forced myself to get out to the mall to buy gifts, where I witnessed a harried shopper screaming at another stressed shopper, apparently because one of them had bumped into the other. I ate crappy food-court food, my head pounding and my soul dragging.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I ran on my sister’s treadmill and kept praying “Redeem this, Redeem this. Redeem this.” I was expecting God to show up, and I kept praying later that day as I made vegetables for our Christmas Eve dinner and stuffed the peels down the garbage disposal.

That evening we had a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner with extended family members. But as I was wrapping gifts that night I heard a gurgling sound in the kitchen sink. I looked over, and saw a waterfall flowing over the sink and onto the counter and the floor. All of those vegetable peels had clogged the pipes, causing a backup from the running dishwasher.

My sister and her family were at midnight Mass. I shrieked for David, and he came running down to the kitchen. We stopped the dishwasher, and then ran to get towels and buckets to mop up the water. Desta, just out of her bath, joined us in the kitchen and danced naked in the dirty dishwasher water on the floor.

We yelled at each other and we yelled at Desta to stop dancing. She started crying.

Well this is fitting for this lackluster holiday, I thought.

My sister came home from mass and was understandably upset. I just wanted to get into the car and drive home and call it a loss. But we had a 4-year old who would wake up on Christmas morning and expect gifts. So I finished wrapping the presents, and kept praying.

The sun peeked out on Christmas morning. My headache was gone, and Desta squealed when she opened her gifts. We drank strong coffee and ate cinnamon rolls. I could feel the fog of my depression lifting a bit. We savored our time with my sister and her family, and then later we went to my brother’s house. I sat on the couch with my dad, and Desta crawled in between us. We sat together for a long time. We said our goodbyes, and hugged each other tightly. Then we headed back to Chicago. I woke up the next day and went to work.

I think a lot these days of how to hold the good and the bad together. Like my mom, I want a perfect Christmas. A perfect life. She thought perfection could be achieved. I know that it can’t be, so I don’t even try.

Even when there are beautifully decorated Christmas trees and presents wrapped just so and meals that look like they are from the pages of Martha Stewart magazine, it doesn’t protect us from overflowing sinks, or strangers yelling at each other in the mall, or even people dying. But I am learning to balance it all, and look for the pink lights that will glow brightly enough to keep the darkness at bay.

It’s into both the bad and beautiful that Jesus comes. I think of Desta dancing naked in the dirty dishwater, dancing despite the mess or maybe even because of it. This is where God is found.

 

 

 

 

I knew about Vinita Hampton Wright years before I actually met her. I read her work and admired her from afar at writer’s conferences. I could tell she was a woman of great depth and wisdom. Then, the stars aligned, and I sent her some of my writing samples, and she liked them. I told her about a book idea I had, and she asked me to send her chapters. I did.  Every month for about a year, I sent her chapters until I had enough for a book. And each month she would email me back and say, “keep writing, don’t stop.”

I didn’t stop. Her direction and encouragement were just what I needed to finish the book and get it published (she was the editor), and I will be forever grateful.

Now, her wisdom and advice for writers is collected in a book, The Art of Spiritual Writing. Vinita is a gift to writers who are serious about writing from a spiritual perspective. I’m honored to feature her on the blog today, as part of the Blog Tour for her book.

You won’t want to miss The Art of Spiritual Writing. Here’s a Q&A that will give you a sneak-peak of what’s in it:

 

What is the biggest mistake writers make when they attempt to write spiritual books?

They don’t make the leap—and sometimes it’s a big one—between the material they write for their own processing and spiritual growth and the revision process that will make the material accessible and interesting to others.

In The Art of Spiritual Writing, you talk about personal writing vs. public writing. Can you explain the difference in a nutshell?

Personal writing is any writing you do to process what’s going on in your life—including events you’re experiencing, lessons you’re learning, concepts that are becoming clear to you, or encounters with the Divine that are transforming you.  If you’re a writer, then, for you, writing is a primary means of processing.  And if you want to write or need to write, then write. But if you want to write for others’ benefit, then you must make a transition in the way you look at the material. It’s not about you anymore, even if it’s your story. You have to figure out how best to translate your experience or wisdom to the experience, wisdom, and vocabulary of the people you envision reading it. Sometimes there’s not a big difference between the material that’s personal but becomes public, but often there are drastic differences—in tone, organization, what’s left out, and what’s kept.

You also write about the importance of being authentic, and how some spiritual writers only have a following because they project a certain image. Can you name a few true “authentic” spiritual writers? Who do you think are the best, and most authentic, spiritual writers today?

Authentic writers tell the truth, but it’s truth they have worked with and integrated for themselves. It’s truth that goes beyond venting or writing in emotional extremes. Authentic writing includes the emotions as well as thoughts, the intuition as well as the rational. Karen’s book, Rock-Bottom Blessings, is a good example of writing that has worked through the emotions and come up with honest assessment and spirituality that has actually changed the author’s way of living. A seasoned writer I have always appreciated is Emilie Griffin.  Another is Richard Rohr. There’s Henri Nouwen, Eugene Petersen, Margaret Silf—they’re the first to come to mind. Writers such as Rob Bell and Anne Lamott have become popular precisely because they are so honest and thus refreshing. So it’s possible to be popular and authentic! But at times popularity has more to do with an author saying what people want to hear, which certainly does not guarantee authenticity.

You say in your book that there’s little difference between writing and praying. Can you explain?

I believe that writing and prayer come from the same place—that center, the soul, where you work through your life, where you doubt and believe, where you create and discover truth. All writing does not happen there, but the most powerful and true and creative writing does.

What is the most important thing you’d like aspiring writers to take away from your book?

Do not hesitate to write whatever you want to write. Write for yourself, not for outside validation. Then, when the time is right, assess the material for other possibilities.

Anything else you want to say? 

I’m very grateful to you and the other hosts on this blog tour. I’ve never done this before, but you’ve made it easy—thanks!

 

 

Breaking the ice

December 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

My maternal grandmother, Edna Johansen Wistrom, was the child of Danish immigrants. She didn’t learn to speak English until she went to kindergarten.

She grew up on a farm in northern Iowa, on the cold flat prairie. She had farm chores, and she told me once that she would rush to get her chores done so that she could go back inside to finish whatever book she was reading. A woman after my own heart.

After high school she attended nursing school, met my grandfather in her mid-20s, and got married.

Grandma Edna held strong opinions, could be stubborn, but was very compassionate to those around her who were needy. She and my grandfather hosted a family of refugees from Vietnam in the 70s. By hosted, I mean the family lived with them until they could get on their feet. I now realize what a huge commitment that was. She read voraciously, had a knack for decorating her house with an elegant and sophisticated flair, and traveled to the Holy Lands when she retired.

She was a good grandma. She taught me how to embroider dishtowels. She took me shopping for my birthday. We spent many holidays at her house, which always smelled of coffee.

But there are so many things I don’t know about her.

She was a typical stoic Midwesterner of northern European descent who didn’t talk much about herself. It probably didn’t help that my grandfather was often verbally abusive and demeaning. That had to have affected her over the years….made her feel that she didn’t have a voice.

Shortly before she died, I took a tape recorder to her small apartment to document her life stories. Time was running out, I realized, and I wanted to know more about her before those stories would be lost forever.

By this time, my grandfather had died, and she lived in a retirement village. She remained independent, but the shroud of death was hanging in the air. Friends she knew from around the village, blue-haired women she played cards with or went to church with, would die and she would never speak of them again. She and the other survivors would pragmatically move on. They wouldn’t even attend the funerals. After a while, so many of her cohorts had died that she seemed so alone.

The day I took my tape recorder to her house, I had high hopes. I was finally going to learn all about my grandmother. I imagined an afternoon spent talking about her childhood, learning stories that would fill all of the gaps of my understanding this important woman in my life. It would be an afternoon of connecting with my grandmother, learning more about her and maybe understanding more about myself.

I am a trained journalist – so I know how to ask questions to coax answers out of the most difficult interviewee. But my journalistic skills were no match for my grandmother. She shyly answered my questions, but barely. I would ask questions, and she gave me short, one-sentence answers.

I wanted stories, history, deep understanding. But she was as closed off and hard as the cold flat prairie where she was raised.

When I asked her “What was the most important day of your life?” She answered, “Oh, when my children were born, I suppose.”

But that was it.

At first I was frustrated, exasperated, and a little embarrassed. I realized my afternoon of listening to my grandmother’s stories would actually only take about 15 minutes due to her one-word or one-sentence answers.

I tried asking the questions in different ways, coming at it from different angles. Nothing.

Slowly, it dawned on me that she felt that her story didn’t matter. That she didn’t have anything worth telling. That she didn’t matter.

After awhile, I gave up, turned off the tape recorder, and we ate coffee cake and talked about my cousins and her flower planters on her patio…skating along the icy hard surface of shallow conversation. Grandma was more comfortable there.

My grandmother died a few years later, at age 89.

The tape of our conversation that day is in my desk drawer. I haven’t listened to it since that day.  But sometimes I want to listen to it just to hear her voice again.

Lately, I’ve felt myself frozen too….just skating on the surface. I wrote a book and it was published, and now I wonder if I’ve run out of stories to tell. I sit down to write and can barely eek out one sentence. I feel that my stories don’t matter. That everyone else has more to say. That I’m not good enough. I don’t deserve to have my voice heard.

But then I think of my grandmother. I remember that day, sitting on the floor at her feet, as she sat in a gold, velour chair. I sat by her feet like Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, craving wisdom and grace and love.

That is why I will sit down every morning and write – even if it’s that one sentence that I can barely eek out  –  to find the stories of my family that my grandmother, and my mother, and probably scores of my ancestors believed weren’t worth telling. I will hack at the frozen surface and chop through the ice until I can dip my fingers into the rich, flowing water below.

 

Do not be afraid.

October 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

“A pattern of falling apart precedes every transition to a new level of faith. If one is not prepared to live in that temporary chaos, to hold the necessary anxiety that chaos entails, one never moves to deeper levels of faith or prayer or relationship with God. Notice that almost every theophany (revelation of God) in the Bible begins with the warning not to be afraid. The fear is totally predictable; but if we give in to our fear, we will never be able to move to the next level.” — Richard Rohr

I know I’ve said this before, but the past year has been one of the hardest years of my life. Our foster daughter was almost three when she came to us. Her first foster family gave her a wonderful, solid start in life. But still, there was trauma, and grief, and chaos. D has adjusted well — but this was a huge life change for all of us.

We entered into it willingly, and happily. But still. There’s no way to prepare for being a parent, dealing with the foster system, figuring out daycare, building a relationship with D’s biological family, being sick all winter from all of the viruses D picked up in daycare. Nothing could have prepared us.

Recently, when I described the past year to my spiritual director, he told me matter-of-factly, “Oh yes, you’ve been in liminal time.”

My spiritual director explained. Liminal is from the Latin word limen which means “threshold.” It is the disorientation that occurs during a transition. It’s the “beginning of a state or action, outset, opening.”

This surprised me. You see, I though liminal time was what I experienced before D came into our lives. All of that waiting — that “in between” time when we wondered if we would ever become parents, when we were in limbo.

I thought once D entered into our lives, the waiting was over. We had arrived. We finally could feel like a family and get on with our lives. But no….now I realize that the upheaval had just started.

I was relieved when my spiritual director explained this to me.

The first year of our new lives with our foster daughter has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life. But it has also been the most transformative.

I think of all of this when I read the story about Davion Navar Henry Only.

Davion is an older foster child who has been hoping for a permanent family for a long time. Last week there was an article in the Tampa Bay Times that told his story — and how he stood up in front of a local Baptist church and asked someone, anyone, to adopt him.

How many other children, like Davion, are waiting to find a permanent home and family? To be loved unconditionally? I think I read somewhere that there are 101,000 children in foster care who are waiting. Just waiting. And hoping.

The thing is, that people are scared. They are scared of stepping through the Threshold and dealing with the chaos an adopted child might bring into their lives. Especially an older child from foster care who might bring his or her baggage through the Threshold with them. They are scared to adopt a child who may be experiencing emotional trauma. They are afraid they won’t be able to handle it. They are afraid of adopting a child who may have behavioral issues, or has a difficult time attaching, or a child who will disrupt their lives. And they are afraid of “the system” which many consider to be broken.

FOR YEARS, THESE WERE MY FEELINGS, TOO.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was afraid of the foster care system. Afraid of baggage. Afraid of dealing with biological parents. But we got over our fear, we stepped through the Threshold into liminal time of upheaval, chaos, but also transformation, deep joy, and happiness.

We are now on the path to adopt our 3-year-old foster daughter, whom has lived with us for over a year. I feel the chaos settling a bit. We have found our groove, we have mourned our losses, D has adjusted well.

My response to parents who may be considering adopting from foster care: DO NOT BE AFRAID. Walk through the Threshold and see what’s in store. If you don’t take that step, you may never find out how strong and courageous you are, and how fulfilling it can be to see a child transformed by love.

For all of the Davion’s of the world — Do not be afraid.