Friday, December 14, 2012


"She was really upset," Caroline's teacher said, looking over my shoulder at the doll in my hands.  Caroline had brought her porcelain doll with her to school today, her "pottery doll" as she called her.  She'd come with her own little box that doubled as a wardrobe and a few old-fashioned and carefully crafted outfits.  Her delicately painted face now had a large crack hastily held together with a band-aid across her forehead.  In Caroline's clutched hands were more band-aids, presumably given to her to doctor her at home and to comfort her.

"She's broken, mommy," Caroline said sadly, her lip trembling.

There's so much broken right now, I wanted to respond.  But I just hugged her tight, and kissed her head and smelled her hair, reassured her that we would fix it, trying to not think about how I'd spent the last two hours crying.

On the way in I'd encountered another preschool mom, and something in the way she'd looked at me had made me ask if she was ok.

"No, not really," she said, and her face crumpled.  She had family in the town, nieces who went to ballet with the kids from the school that no one had heard about, a mom who taught grade school there for years.  She was just trying to hold it together for pickup, she said.

At eleven o'clock I'd prayed the rosary, the Sorrowful Mysteries.  Some other Catholic moms and I did it together virtually and in our own space, united for a small moment across miles through our burdened mother's prayers.  I grabbed the kids' rosary hanging above the desk; the large colorful wooden beads given to Caroline as a baptism gift seemed to fit today.  I don't normally say the words of the prayers out loud, preferring instead the staid properness of just slightly mouthing through them, like all the old ladies in church have done for forever.  But today, my sobs rang the words out loudly and brokenly.  I closed the shades so no one could see me.  When I got to announcing the first mystery, the Agony in the Garden, my heart turned toward the parents in the fire station, the ones who hadn't emerged trembling and thankful with their children.  The ones who stayed.  If there were a time for a person to fall to their knees, to beg God, to sweat blood, this would be it.

And that was when the cross fell off of my rosary.  It just thunked to the ground between my knees, as if the weight of the entire morning was too much for it, as if the Father and the Son and the Spirit and the Mother were also in pieces with us.  I paused, and stared at it, then picked it up and screwed it back on and kept going.

Just last night, I had a talk with Sam about the idea of us living in a broken world, how because of the way the world became corrupted bad things happen, how it's not what God wanted for us.  But how because of that, we can freely choose God.  How He didn't want us to be robots.  What I didn't tell him was that there are days I wish I was a robot, days I wish decisions were made for me for my own good, when I didn't have to keep choosing over and over again to love God in the face of brokenness.

I won't tell him either that after the first decade I suddenly forgot the words to the Hail Mary, a prayer I've said all my life, and had to look them up to keep going.  How I also forgot after that first mystery the extra prayer I always say at the end of a decade: "Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy."

Especially those in most need of thy mercy.  And I knew I'd forgotten it because it allowed me to not think about the perpetrator, to not be forced to pray for him.  I'm not a good enough Catholic to be able to offer up that prayer without it turning my stomach.  But I did it anyway.

After preschool pickup I took Caroline for a cupcake and to get her hair cut, forgetting for a few hours the speculation and rumors that passed for news that were being announced on the radio.  And a few hours later, I was at the school to pick up Sam.  My own kindergartener.

The car line was short.  The gathering of adults who had parked their cars and walked to the door was much larger.  His teacher didn't make an appearance as she usually does.  She's young, in her third teaching year.  I'd wanted to give her a hug, tell her we all loved her.  But I can't blame her for not being up for all that well-wishing.

I hugged Sam tight.  He comes up past my waist now, and his hair has lost that baby-fine texture and is starting to get rough and spiky.  But I buried my face in it anyway.

"Sam, I broke my pottery doll," Caroline said in greeting.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Caroline!" He patted her shoulder.  "Don't worry, we can fix it."

"I can glue the doll," I assured them.  "I'll do my best."

But I don't know how to glue everything else.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lasts and Firsts

Sam and the enormous beyond.

Hoo, boy.  What a roller coaster of a day.

This morning, I dropped Caroline off at her new playgroup that she'll be in once a week this fall, and Sam and I headed out for our last morning together before he starts Kindergarten next week.  All this last year and some of this summer, he and I have had our Thursday morning date.  It usually involved a trip to Fresh Flours in Ballard for a latte for me and a shared pastry served up by our favorite barista, coincidentally also named Sam.  We'd sit in the window and people-dog-bird watch and chat, or read together a chapter book like Ramona or one of the Junie B. stories.  Then around 10:30, we'd amble over to the OAC for some time in the pool.  Sam is a fairly capable swimmer now, so we'd laugh and do laps together and occasionally I'd get creamed by a cannonball.  Then, we'd shower and get dressed and go to pick up Caroline.

This time, Sam wanted to do a bike ride.  We met a friend for coffee and a donut for fuel, then took our bikes on the Mothership to Gasworks Park.  We rode to the north edge of the U and on the way back stopped at an apple tree along the path, where Sam shimmied up the trunk and tossed down a few choice pieces of fruit.  We stuffed them in our pockets and washed them in the water fountain at the park, then climbed up Kite Hill while munching them.  Sam deemed his too sour and tossed it bites and all to the ambling geese, who greedily stabbed at it.  We both laughed hard when I tossed mine and it bounced unpredictably and hit a surprised goose in the butt, in the way things like that are only funny to a six-year-old and his mother.

I was on shaky ground by the time we got home after picking up Caroline and making a quick stop for lunch.  A few small, inconsequential chicken-peck type of annoyances sent me into a bit of an emotional swamp, so I turned on the TV to Curious George and hopped in the shower hoping to somehow gain some perspective while in there.  When it crossed my mind to contact a friend to pray for me, it occurred to me that I can pray for myself...I am actually allowed to do that.  So after getting dressed, TV still on and kids still occupied, I headed downstairs and grabbed my rosary.

Yes, the enormous kid rosary.

And the dam broke and the tears came.  Before the words of the Hail Mary were even out of my mouth, drops were dripping off the end of my nose.  As I traveled the beads, my mind was turned toward what had been playing around the edge all day:  Jesus' first miracle at the wedding at Cana, the nativity of his ministry, his reluctance to begin it ("Woman, it is not yet my time!") and Mary's gentle prompt ("Do whatever he tells you to do.").  If there was anyone who understood how hard it is to let go of a child and allow them to fulfill their destiny, no matter what it would hold or how wrenching it was for you, it was certainly her.

Sam is no Jesus, and I am certainly no Mary (I'm not very good at the "pondering things silently her the heart" part - I'm more of a "tell everyone loudly how she's feeling and maybe make a joke about it" kind of girl).  Kindergarten isn't exactly turning water to wine.  But there is a hard truth to this time.  Sam has started his path away from me and toward his own purpose.  Truly, it started from the moment he was born.  But this, in a little way, is the first of many small Canas.  I am urging him onto a path that goes away from me.  For the first time, he will spend more waking hours during the week away from me than with.  He'll be finding out who he is apart from me, what decisions he makes, what people he likes, what activities thrill him.  I'll be there to support, but he'll mostly be on his own in the hours he's at school.

What will he find out?  What will I find out?  It's a mystery, just as it probably was to that holy woman almost 2000 years ago.

But we both certainly could appreciate at the time the enormity of the first step on the path, the hesitant movement towards an unknown destiny, for both mother and child.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Mirror

The best way I can describe the guy's face is that his expression was about a 80/20 mix.  80% was full of knowing sympathy, and 20% clearly read as "just smile and back away slowly from the crazy lady's car."

He had been in full earshot, courtesy of the Mothership's open sunroof, of me completely losing it.  I don't even remember what it was about, but something about Sam spilling his milk in my slippers (I'm still not sure why they were in the backseat of the car) and being distracted and then stuck in the middle of the intersection behind a stopped bus was the straw that broke the camel's back.  I snapped.  Somewhere in the middle of the tirade about how angry I was and what would happen if they did that ONE MORE TIME, I glanced over to the corner to see him standing there.  Before I could even react, the light changed and he was left in our dust.

But wait, I wanted to say.  You should have seen me before this happened!  I was so good!  So calm!  So patient!  For so long!  Really, mister, if you'd just been with me for the past three hours or so, you'd totally get it!  You wouldn't go home and tell your family about the insane woman who totally lost her snot on her kids on the corner of 46th and Fremont!

You see, I'd just spent two hours in the local tire center managing two small children during what was supposed to be no more than a one hour wait, and watched helplessly as it slowly stretched into two.  I'd come prepared with books, crayons, a fully charged iPhone.  I spent my time that first hour going from child to child, helping with a coloring suggestion, assisting with the filling of the free popcorn bag, taking small bladders on bathroom breaks, answering questions about the Mars rover, explaining the rules and regulations of Olympic volleyball.

All was well for the promised hour, and then...things started to go wrong.  As I gazed helplessly out the window at the Mothership, stripped of its tires and stranded on the lift, I felt like I was in an episode of the Twilight zone.  In slow motion, things fell apart.  Fights broke out over the toy desk.  Random displays of heavy, metal auto parts started to look more tempting than Angry Birds.  Tires presented for sale began to resemble excellent choices for practicing riding and roping skills.  The floor apparently needed dusting with a small dress worn by a person.  As most parents know, things with kids can go from "a-ok" to "on fire" in about two seconds flat.  We were going down in flames, and I was stuck.

Eventually, perhaps because they finally decided they needed to get us out of there and spare their waiting room, someone came out and popped the tires on in exactly two minutes flat, I paid, and we were gone.

And then, somewhere on the way home, I met my friend on the corner.

Is there anything else besides parenting that holds up such an unflinching mirror?  And not a mirror of how we strive to be, or what we are most of the time, but of what we really are.  Sometimes, it's ugly.  Sometimes it's hard to look.  Every time I hear something coming out of one of my children's mouths that I've said to them in frustration or anger, I feel like a failure.  If I'm honest, I spend more time than I'd like hoping and praying that my children remember and repeat more of the good stuff than the bad stuff, both to themselves and to others.  Because some days, there's a lot of bad stuff.

I was sufficiently humbled by my run-in with the sympathetic/fearful pedestrian that I have found myself incredibly softened to other parents recently, parents that I would have been quick to judge.  Maybe I needed a little slice of humble pie to remind myself that I'm human, too, and that I so often fall short of the ideal.  We all do.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

And then, there was this today.  Caroline, after I apologized for putting her leotard on wrong, looked at me and said, "It's ok, Mommy.  Sometimes people make mistakes."  And Sam, seeing a crying child at the park, ran over and got down on his level.  From across the playground, I saw his mouth move to say, "Are you ok?"

And I have to remind myself, have to acknowledge, that they heard these things from me, too.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Pilgrimage

Here's one of the things I love about being a Leen.  On Sunday late morning, I was a bit tired after a long brick workout and the kids and Mark were feeling a bit cooped up, having spent all morning at home waiting for me.  I have the summer off from my Sunday morning church gig, which meant that we had most of the day to do something fun together.

"How about a pilgrimage?" suggested Mark.

Ever since we saw the movie "The Way" last year, we've been fascinated with the idea of completing a pilgrimage.  However, we both realize that right now for many reasons the biggies of the Camino and Fatima or Lourdes are out of the question.  Not only could we not swing it financially, but packing up two small kids and flying them over to France and then hiking 200+ kilometers would require more than a Xanax prescription and would probably counteract any graces received.  It brings to mind Erasmus' criticism of pilgrims of his time who neglected their duties to complete a long, expensive journey to the Holy Land.  The purpose of a pilgrimage is to draw closer to God, not to go into debt and be driven to drink.

So, we've been thinking of ways we could achieve something like this on a smaller scale.  Presented with a free day, we decided to take a pilgrimage down to Olympia to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at the parish of St. George Byzantine Catholic Church.  Here's their website.

The Byzantine Church, although a separate entity from the Roman Church, is in union with the Pope and the Roman Church.  Although a smaller and less vocal presence in American life than the Roman Catholic Church (I'd imagine in part due to immigration patterns over the last few hundred years), Roman Catholics are allowed to partake of any of the sacraments available in the Byzantine Church, along with several other "brother" churches.  Need a chart?  I did.

Anyway, we hopped in the car with some snacks, said a prayer together for a successful trip, and took off down I-5.  An hour and a half's worth of driving later, we pulled into a gravel parking lot of the church itself.

Little Byzantine House on the Prairie

The modest building seemed out of place in the middle of Lacey farmland, with its gold spires and bright paint.  I wasn't sure what to expect when we walked inside, but I don't think my hopes were high.  Maybe I expected when I walked through the doors I'd be greeted by the typical modest but neat small parish church, a few statues and some drop ceiling tiles with a few charmingly missing pieces.  Here's what we got instead:

It's bigger on the inside.

There is no way this blurry picture does this justice but trust me when I say these people take beauty seriously.

Father Lee, seen in the above picture talking to Mark, is the delightful and accommodating administrator of the parish, and happily walked us through the church and all the icons with some wonderful and detailed explanations.  I'll include a few here, as well as what details I can remember from our chat.  If you want more information, a helpful page about icons can be found here.

Standing in the middle of the church and looking straight up, one is greeted by a ring of icons depicting the four authors of the Gospels and looking down on us, Jesus holding the Gospel.  This is the Icon of Christ.  One of its features is a Christ with larger ears and a smaller mouth, signifying that He hears all but speaks only holy words.  Handy reminder.  More information about this particular icon can be found here.

Every Byzantine Church has a wall and doors in front of the later and tabernacle, and it is traditional to have a depiction of the Annunciation on the main doors.  In the foreground is a small table with an icon on display.  I didn't get a chance to ask much about what was here, but I'm assuming that the particular icon has something to do with the readings for the particular feast being celebrated.

On the walls on either side of the Annunciation are other icons of saints, including this Madonna and Child:

I love this.  His arm is around her shoulder and his cheek is pressed against hers, as He looks up towards His Father and clings to her robe.  She looks directly at us as she gestures to Him.

Ringing the walls of the church are icons hung at even intervals.  At first, being Roman, I assumed that they were the Stations of the Cross, but when I asked I was told by Father Lee that the Byzantine tradition doesn't include the stations.  Instead, these were all traditional icons from their rich tradition.

Here are a few of my favorites with some explanations provided by Father Lee.

The is the Nativity.  In a departure from Roman tradition, Mary has given birth to Jesus in a cave instead of a manger.  One can see the familiar cast of characters surrounding her, but underneath her are a few additions.  On the lower left is Joseph, with a worried expression as Satan in disguise as an old man tells him that the child is not his.  On the right midwives who attended the birth are bathing the Christ Child.  Midwives in the Nativity FTW!

In Byzantine tradition, one of the Sundays following Easter is devoted to the Myrrh Bearers - the women who brought the myrrh to the tomb on Sunday morning and were greeted by the Angel.  You can see the tears falling from their eyes and the grief in their bowed heads, and the angel gesturing to the empty tomb and shroud.

The Baptism of the Lord.  I especially loved the depictions of John, in his camel hair shirt and with his wild appearance.  In all the versions of him I saw, he seemed to have an unusually long neck.  I wonder if this is a nod to his eventual fate?  And look at the early church fathers in the river riding fish!

...and probably my favorite, The Dormition of the Theotokos (God-bearer).  Although Roman Catholic and Byzantine traditions both believe that Mary exists bodily in heaven, reunited with her soul as we all will be after the last judgement, how she got there is a point of difference.  We believe that at the Assumption she was assumed bodily to heaven.  My understanding is that the Byzantine Church believes that Mary "fell asleep in the Lord" and her soul was taken to heaven, and then after three days she was raised bodily.  This feast day in the Eastern rite is preceded by 14 days of fasting.

In the icon, you can see the apostles present around her.  Tradition states that they had been scattered around the world doing the work of the new Church, and were miraculously transported to her bedside to be present at her death.  Except for Thomas, strangely.  Tradition states that he shows up on a cloud right as Mary is being assumed and she hands him her mantle.  I feel like there's a skit in there somewhere where Thomas arrives late like, "Hey, guys, what'd I miss?" and asks for proof, and all the apostles roll their eyes and say, "See??  That's why we never invite you to anything!"

In the center is Jesus, holding what appears to be a small child.  It is the soul of Mary itself, held in His arms in a paradoxical reversal of the typical Madonna and Child scene.  It is a touching and effective reminder that while Mary may be the Queen of Heaven, she only is so because her own son redeemed her as well as the rest of humanity.  She rests in his hands like a child, just as he once rested in hers.

After a while in the church with the attendant kid antics, we made our way outside to the Shrine.  Caroline led the procession with her Mary.

Caroline and Tiny Mary
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is one of the oldest existing icons in the Eastern tradition.  It took me a minute to figure out that that doesn't mean the object itself - it means the particular arrangement of the figures and items in the icon.  Eastern tradition states that the icon was originally drawn by St. Luke himself while Mary was still alive, and she saw and approved of it.  More information about the history of the icon can be found here.

And here she is:

The Christ Child rests in His mother's arms, looking over His shoulder with a worried expression at the two angels Michael and Gabriel, who hold two symbols of the crucifixion.  He has run to his mother for comfort, and in His haste has lost a sandal.  His hand rests on hers, seeking comfort.  While Christ is preoccupied with this, Mary is looking at us, inviting us to look to her son.

We sat for a while in the shrine while the kids ran around the field and dug for worms.  We said some special prayers for our family, for our Church, and for the world.  We each gave each other some alone time while we took turns with the kids.

I reflected a bit on the icons that I'd seen.  In so many of them, things are happening simultaneously - old church fathers appear with the apostles, midwives wash the Christ Child at the same moment he was born.  They capture moments of eternity, moments when time is no longer linear.  The timeline is broken, and all of heaven and earth exists in a single point of time captured in the images.  In a way, this is what we experience when we attend a liturgy.  Old, ancient words unite with people light-years away, and during the sanctus we hear the echoes of heaven itself in the "Holy, Holy"as a rift opens and we experience a small piece of heaven here on earth in the form of the Eucharist.  It's a form of time-travel, uniquely available to us here on earth during our time on it.

Icons, like the objects of liturgy, are holy because of the power God grants them to become something more, to transport us to a time we don't have the capability of understanding right now.  Now I see through a glass darkly, but then face-to face.  It's the reason the way in which Jesus is transported body, soul, blood and divinity into the Eucharist is a mystery, the reason Jesus was able to redeem his own mother before she was born is strange.  It's out of our time, it's God's time.  But we get a glimpse of it when we view an icon, when we are present at the Mass.

We packed up our things, said goodbye to the little church and drove back to I-5.  Pilgrims of old believed that it was not just the destination that was holy, but the journey itself that would draw us closer to God.  It might not have been a trip across the world, but a pilgrimage in our own backyard proved to be a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

End note:  The Shrine has a yearly organized pilgrimage weekend that is coming up August 10-11.  Individuals and families form around the area and from further afield will gather and camp out for a night in the field around the Shrine, engaging in food, confession, processions, games, and prayer.  If you live in the area, it sounds like an intriguing weekend!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Journey to weaning

Rather, I have stilled my soul, 
     hushed it like a weaned child. 
Like a weaned child on it's mother's lap, 
     so is my soul within me. 
             Psalm 131 vs. 2

About three weeks ago, Caroline greeted me at the top of the stairs. "I'm ready to wean, Mommy!"

I was a little taken aback, and responded with a non-committal "Well, ok." After all, she and I had been chatting about weaning for a few weeks and she hadn't shown a lot of interest in stopping. I admit I didn't really take her seriously.

But she was serious.

The next day, she bumped her head and crawled on my lap, asking to nurse. I asked if she was sure, since she'd told me the day before she'd wanted to wean. "Oh, yeah!" she said, and hopped off my lap to go about her business.

And that was it. She was weaned.

My perspective on weaning with this second child was of course colored by my experience with the first. When I found out I was pregnant with Caroline, I took a wait-and-see approach with Sam. I'd just follow his lead, and if I felt like I could still fulfill what felt like still a real need for him, I would. If that changed, we'd revisit. One thing I've learned with parenting is that nothing is forever, whether you want it to be or earnestly wish it would go away as soon as possible.

So, Sam nursed throughout my pregnancy. He nursed after Caroline was born. When it became apparent that I'd be tandem nursing, I told myself that I could commit to this for a year, and after that if he needed some nudging I'd provide it.

A year passed. He needed nudging.

That nudging was provided in the form of a weaning party, and a "big boy present" - a new bike. We talked a lot about how when you outgrow things, you also grow into things - new responsibilities and privileges. This took root with him, and we celebrated his "Big Boy Day" about a month later. We invited some friends who were in on the reason for the party, and had a grand time a Chuck E. Cheese.

Which brings me to the girl at the top of the stairs. Maybe you understand now why I was so taken aback. No back-and-forth, no carrot-dangling, just a discussion about weaning and a decision, completely on her own and in her own time, to stop.

And three weeks later, she is totally at peace with her decision. She sits on my lap, no stray hand wandering to its former place of comfort, no whining or pulling at my shirt. She is just completely content.

Two very different kids, two very different paths to weaning. And they both reflect each kid so perfectly. Restless, high-need Sam who always needs me so much more than I think I'm willing or able to give. Sweetly stubborn Caroline who, although thoughtful and careful, makes her mind up about something and sticks with it.

I can't say I have no regrets about how things played out with each kid. With Sam, I think upon reflection that I could have let him lead a bit more. With Caroline, I wish I had more solid memories of the last time I nursed her, since I didn't have any warning.

But that's just the way it is. We don't always get an engraved invitation to "lasts." We don't always see the complete path before us when we begin. That's only for God to know. I won't get warnings about these things in the future either, which I will be wise to remember.

And here I am, for the first time in seven years completely unattached bodily to a child. The hormones have certainly been a real kick - laughing one minute, weepy the next. This is a big change for me, too. But old needs are replaced by new ones. They might not need to nurse anymore, but they still have needs that are fulfilled solely by me. They'll continue to have those as long as we are both still on this earth. And it will be my job as long as I'm around to continually balance those needs with everyone else's and my own.

In a way, nursing and weaning provided the training ground for this life-long balancing act, and I'm grateful for it. Ideally, they will always be able to count on me as a lap to sit on, both literally and figuratively, where they can be content, stilled and hushed.

Weaning is just the beginning.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


A few mornings ago, Sam and I were hanging out in one of our favorite coffee shops when we ran into a family friend, the grandmother of several of Sam and Caroline's classmates. She's a sweet lady who lives in the senior housing across the street from us and she helps take care of her grandkids while their mom, a good friend of mine, is at work. We waved to her as she entered and we chatted a bit, more than we usually get to at preschool pickup and drop-off.

During the conversation, she offhandedly asked if my parents were in the area. I told her without really thinking about it that my dad lives in Portland, and that my mom died about two and a half years ago. She gasped and put her hand to her chest and expressed her condolences, and apologized for bringing it up. I found myself comforting her as I thanked her for her sympathies, and assured her that it was ok for me to talk about it, that we talk about Grammy a lot in our house.

Before this encounter, I found myself this last week reading a few of my older posts about my grief right after my mom died, and in the year afterward. The rawness of my emotions is so apparent. My grief was worn on my sleeve and woven like a thread through everything I did, saw, and thought. Each stitch drew blood.

That's changed. The fabric has mostly been sewn, and I live with it now. It's not that I don't miss her or don't think about her. In fact, just a few weeks ago I observed grandparents at story time playing with their obviously beloved granddaughter, and I suddenly had to turn away as unexpected tears stung my eyes. But mostly it's not so immediate and ever-present anymore. It's just a part of my life. In fact, I was rather surprised listening to myself talk to my friend at the coffee shop by my dispassionate accounting of the facts, especially in contrast to her shocked and visceral reaction.

And with that observation came an uncomfortable realization, one that I've had many times over the last two years. My mom didn't really seem present to me, and she hadn't for a long time. One always hears stories about how dead loved ones are somehow "with" the people they left behind. They visit in dreams, or they intervene in some obvious way. And I felt a little angry and cheated that I hadn't had that. She just seemed....not there.

The conversation with my friend continued, and it turned out that she herself had lost her own mother when she was 28, and that day was the anniversary of her death. Even all these years later, the loss obviously still stung. Then, she gave me her phone number and told me she was just across the street, and if I ever needed emergency help with the kids to call her.

And suddenly, I realized how often this sort of thing had been happening.

Earlier this week, I got to talking with the lady who does story time at the same place I observed the grandparents and their granddaughter. She's also older, and she's taken a special interest in Sam over the years we've known her, and especially in the last few months. In talking with her this week we realized that she went to my college many years ago, and we had a much deeper conversation than usual, reliving old memories of the place we both loved. And then, she told me that I ought to bring Sam by her house this summer so she can work on reading with him.

And for the last few months, there has been an older couple who without fail have brought with them to Mass a matchbox car every week from their extensive collection left over from their own kids and given it to Sam with a hug and a chat. When I thank them, they just smile and grasp my hand.

The more I think about it, the more the list of people who have just fallen into my path and want to be involved with my kids and my family grows.

And suddenly I knew. I saw.

Asserting herself wasn't really Mom's style. She almost never talked about herself, instead preferring to listen to other people. If my mom were intervening, it would have been so unlike her to just show up in a dream and announce "Here I am! I'm taking care of you!" What would have been her? To quietly work behind the scenes to make sure that the people she loved were taken care of, and she would never have wanted to take any credit for it.

I was looking completely in the wrong direction. There she was, in the helping hands of neighbors, in the conversations of friends, in the interest of others. And she'd been there for a long time before I'd noticed.

Now I obviously can't prove that. And I'm not really in the business of proof here. I can say for now that this just feels like her.

Someday, though, I'll be able to ask her when I see her face to face. I can almost picture her smiling and coyly answering just as she did in life, "I have my ways."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Doing without

No, God. I didn't give up the microwave for Lent. Did you hear me? I gave up Facebook and sweets. NOT. MICROWAVE.

That's what was going through my head about five weeks ago when, after punching in the time and pressing start, the contraption above the stove began to make a sound like unto an electrocuted cat and to spit sparks out of the top vent. Being the level-headed person I am, I screamed and started dancing and looked around for something to throw at it. Failing that, I said a short prayer against frying myself and hit the off button, then jumped to the other side of the kitchen.

Mark poked around and declared it dead. The circuitry up top was completely toast. We've been waiting for a few appliances around the house to finally bite the dust. Our house was remodeled by the previous owners almost 10 years ago, and our time is almost up on a few of these. There's a dishwasher that requires an exorcism before running and when it does it makes a sound like it's washing gravel, the dryer that doesn't stop running when you open the door so if you forget to turn it off it shoots clothes out at you like a t-shirt gun...but the microwave was not on that list. It wasn't even hinting that it wanted to be. Maybe it was feeling neglected, in the shadow of all those appliances with more personality. But whatever the reason, it was pretty inconvenient since a new one cost at least $199 plus tax and every red cent this month is accounted for and assigned elsewhere.

The choice was pretty much made for us. We'd have to do without, at least for a while.

But what on earth was I going to do without a microwave? That thing gets a lot of mileage in our house. I mean, I have two small children. Children who demand chicken nuggets and Trader Joe's mac and cheese. And if they don't get it...well, things could get ugly for everyone.

This wasn't what I planned to give up, I thought. I mean, I'm giving up FACEBOOK and SWEETS. Seriously, God? Do you know how much I love those two things? Do you just want me to move to Amish Country? The whole thing was making me want to start playing Farmville while shoving pie in my face just to be contrary.

I spent at least a day or two stewing about it. I know, I realize it's not the heaviest cross to bear, but still. I was really peeved at being required to go without something that made my life so much easier. But in going about my days, I noticed a few things.

First, pretty much anything you normally microwave CAN BE COOKED IN THE OVEN. I know. I was shocked, too. It does require a little more planning ahead and adds 15 minutes to meal prep, but in the end it's not that big of a deal.

Secondly, things that are cooked in the oven TASTE BETTER. Another shocker. Even the same stuff tasted better. The nuggets were delightfully crispy on the outside and evenly cooked on the inside. The TJ's mac and cheese? Wonderfully buttery and gooey and just a little crispy in parts. I may never microwave it again, even when I can.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, needing to think about what to feed my family instead of just shoving the same old same old in the microwave helped me make some better decisions. After all, if it takes the same amount of time to bake a corn dog from the freezer that it does to bake a seasoned chicken breast, the scales aren't tipped quite so much in the corn dog's favor. I found myself willing to actually make something from scratch more often, even just for lunch.

The conclusion? As I type, we've been microwave-free for about five weeks and at this point I don't even really notice. I definitely don't feel the driving need to replace it as soon as possible. Maybe we'll just repurpose it as a child art display and leave it there, hanging impotently above the stove.

I find it interesting, the timing of all of this. We've definitely been financially crunched lately - lots of little unexpected expenses, lots of coupon clipping and squeezing every penny. It's figured prominently in my prayer life, but when it did make an appearance, it was always basically asking God to provide more money.

He didn't do that. We're still making due with the same amount as always. What He did give me, though, was a heart more disposed to doing without. I saw in this that not only was doing without grudgingly possible, not only was it even just tolerable, but that sometimes it's surprisingly better. There are several other expenses in our life that I've been reluctant to go without, and gradually I'm finding that I am more open to letting them go. Things that once seemed to be necessities have started to be viewed as luxuries. Taking that final step of cutting them out is looking easier and easier.

So I'm thankful for our busted, sparky microwave. I'm thankful that somehow I don't miss it. I'm thankful that I was shown in this little way that when I go without, somehow, there are blessings I never expected that reside in that small sacrifice.

And I find myself asking, what else can I let go of to find those blessings?

Friday, March 16, 2012

A workable solution

So, I've been working recently on ways to improve my prayer life throughout the day that is both manageable and effective. To this end, I found a few great, short prayers that I printed out and planned to hang around the house in places I'd regularly see them and be reminded to say them.

Now, where to put them?

On the bathroom mirror? No, I don't really spend time getting ready long enough to make that workable.

On the fridge? No, usually I'm trying to feed ravenous, crabby children when I head that way so that wouldn't really be practical.

Maybe the microwave? Well, no, since it's broken and I don't really use it (more on that later).

The front door? No, same as above, it's not exactly a place in the house I'm liable to stop and linger.

After going around and around about this, I finally landed on the one spot in the house I'm likely to be alone (sometimes), holding still for a period of time, and willing to read something.

I hung it on the shelf facing the toilet.

Somehow, I think God will understand.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why Sam's teachers looked at me funny at pickup today...

I would like to introduce you to my son's latest creative masterpiece. At his school, the kids often illustrate books and the teacher writes in the narrative as dictated to them. Sam's brought home a few of these, most having to do with fire trucks and fires.

Until today.

Without further ado, I give you:

That's right, folks, the next great children's picture book. "Zombie Hill."

Aw, look at that nice guy in his nice house. Too bad we all know what happens to people in stories like this with names like "The Guy."

Isn't that always the way it goes? You want to climb Zombie Hill, but you do not know. YOU DO NOT KNOW. Look how happy he looks. Smiling and everything.

Yup, that's right. There are zombies on Zombie Hill. How could he possibly have known?

It doesn't seem to bother him too much. After all, he's still smiling.

Man, I hate it when that happens. Thats what you get for buying a house right next to Zombie Hill. New realtor, dude.

What's that?? A happy end for our hero? Well, well, well. Looks like The Guy has defied horror cliches and lived to fight it out again at his poorly researched long-term investment, The House at Zombie Hill.

Hope you had the hero shoot him in the head, honey. Otherwise I smell a sequel. But don't worry, Sam's Teachers, we'll cover that at the next The Walking Dead family viewing party.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Writing "Space"

Thanks to Jennifer Fulwiler over at Conversion Diary for providing the inspiration for the post - a picture of my writing space.

First, although you may be astounded by the beauty and organization before you, please rest assured that this is in no way staged. This is actually what my space looked like right after I posted the piece of wisdom and insight immediately following this. Yes, that is really a half-eaten pickle and wad of wrappers in the upper left hand corner, all handed to me by my considerate children while I immersed myself in the art of writing. I am also supposed to be creating a shopping list this morning instead of blogging, as evidenced by the circular on the left and half-finished scribbles about food on the right that I abandoned when I decided writing would be more fun. And also the fact that one of my children had a pickle for a snack this morning. You can also see that I physically shoved my coffee cup away from me to avoid drinking any more and tempted myself with a glass of water. And don't forget the dirty breakfast dishes I still haven't tended to.

I count it as the progress that can only come from motherhood that I'm at all able to write in this state (although the quality of the writing could be debated). In college, before I could put pen to paper everything had to be meticulously clean and organized or, I told myself, I couldn't concentrate. Now, I could clean for an eternity and never find time to write, so I've learned to let this particular requirement go. Obviously.

Yoga Class

"And your body to the iiiiiinfinite....."

My yoga instructor has a bad case of Yoga Teacher Voice. She seems like a very nice lady, but every time she drones her instructions in her flat, drawn-out, modulated-down voice, I wonder if she speaks this way in other areas of her life.

Job interviews? Dates?

"Sooooo, teeeeel meeee.....what do you doooooo?"

In spite of this, I'm enjoying the class. I used to practice yoga more often when I was pregnant both times and a bit afterward, but slowly running began to take more of my time. It's been interesting to return to it now with all the miles under my belt after so long a break. In some ways I'm stronger, in some ways my body yields more easily, and in other ways I'm more tense and inflexible.

This particular practice is more flow-based, so we are moving through poses as the instructor gives us direction. Downward Dog into some sort of twist, into a standing pose, into Tree Pose. I'm finding it much more enjoyable and less static than holding Warrior for interminable minutes, and the breathing comes easier.

As the instructor tells us to "let our bodies be our teacher," I find my mind wandering over to Pope Benedict's criticism of yoga, that it can devolve into a "cult of the body." At the time I heard it, I thought it was kind of an eye-roller. After all, I was exercising, not worshipping. It's easy to look at the old dude observing all the young whipper-snappers doing this devil-worshipping yoga and think it's rather silly. But his words were underlying a larger truth, one that my mind groped towards as my body moved from pose to pose.

Anything can become an idol, a religion, if we allow it to stop there and not travel through it to God. Bodies, after all, are valuable teachers. But they ultimately are designed to point to the Teacher Himself. It also highlights that almost anything that is good and beneficial, if not ordained toward God, can become detrimental. G.K. Chesterton wrote that "the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad." We love, but without a full understanding that love is sacrifice as well. We hope, but without looking closely at what we are building our hope upon.

Taking care of ourselves is good. We are told that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit. But they are icons, not idols. Icons provide a roadmap for God, a tangible way to experience Him in a way our limited human-ness can understand. Idols cause us to exploit our limited human-ness and make things into gods. In our innate desire to search out God, we make gods instead of search for one.

So, I get what Benny XVI was saying. He looks at the world and sees people stopping at the body instead of going through it, and calls us on it. It has gotten me thinking, especially during Lent, about all the things I am tempted to see as an end rather than a means. When I am busy and parenting and stressed it's easy to get caught up in the utilitarian nature of the things I am doing, just getting from point A to point B without making a mess.

But everything, every day, can be examined and found to point to God in some small way, even the messes. And part of what I am called to do is find those ways.

And avoid developing Yoga Instructor Voice. Definitely that, too.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Yellow belt

I am a proud mama this weekend. Yesterday was Sam's advancement test in karate from white to yellow belt. He's been salivating over this moment for months, although we had our ups and downs getting here.

Sam begged us to take karate. We finally relented in September and said we'd give it a try, and he was so excited. His dojo is structured so that each child gets an individual or small-group lesson once a week, and can come to as many classes as they'd like in addition. Every Thursday after school Sam would change into his gi and off we would go to his lesson, and every Saturday Mark would take him to his big group lesson.

We ran into trouble about 4 weeks in, when the newness started to wear off and his white belt, which would eventually hold 3 black stripes signifying advancement, remained bare.

"I don't want to go to karate today! I want to quit!" came the whine from underneath a pile of pillows on the couch. "Karate is boring!"

"I understand you don't want to go and you want to quit," I said. "But we made a promise to Sensei that we would be there this afternoon, so we have to go today. We can talk about this more when we get home if you'd like."

His attitude would always have improved after class, but we still had a rough few weeks. One time, I actually had to carry him in to the dojo while he clung to my neck. We were both obviously pretty frustrated with each other. His Sensei saw and came over, with an expression that said he knew exactly what was going on.

"Let me talk to Sam," he said.

I left the waiting room and wandered outside with Caroline, knowing I wouldn't be helping if I was standing there. I watched through the glass as Sensei got down on Sam's level and talked to him and I saw Sam nod a few times, then smile and follow him into the open gym area for class. Afterward, Sensai came and talked to me, told me that it was normal for kids to go through phases like that, and that it was important to just keep coming back.

Things got better from there, but we still had some ups and downs. Sam was sent to sit in a corner a few times during class when he was disruptive or not listening, but Sensai always took the time to talk to Sam afterward about how studying karate takes focus and he knew he could do it. He told me privately that Sam's penchant for falling down on purpose or blowing random raspberries was something he remembered doing as a kid when he felt like his energy was all cooped up, and he knew what he was going through. I observed many times when Sensei would give Sam positive reinforcement in front of the group, such as praising him for his tenacity or focus during a particular exercise, or noting how hard he was working at something. I saw Sam's attitude towards karate change as he gained the stripes on his belt, and eventually the invitation to the yellow belt test.

We weren't allowed to attend the test itself, but Mark was able to come at the very end and observe the way the kids were given their belts. As the parents entered, all the kids sat quietly meditating, kneeling on the ground with their eyes closed while their parents snapped pictures. The three senseis at the dojo walked around and quietly placed each child's new belt and certificate in front of them, telling them that when they opened their eyes they would find out if they passed.

When Sam finally opened his eyes, Mark said that his face told it all - shock, joy, surprise, pride all mixed together. You can see it written all over him in the picture Mark took of him holding his certificate and belt with the senseis. Afterward, Sam told Mark that part of the test was that they were each asked what they learned from their studies so far. Sam's answer was that earning a yellow belt takes a lot of focus.

So yeah, I'm pretty proud. And, as I told Sam, not just of the accomplishment but of the fact that he worked so hard, stuck with it when it wasn't as fun, and kept coming back. I'm also really heartened to see the relationship between Sam and his sensei, especially as we get ready to send him off to kindergarten and years of adult authority figures who are not us.

But most importantly, I see that Sam is proud of himself. He was able to articulate at the test what his particular challenge was, and voice that he overcame it. I see that he is proud not just of the belt, but in all of the work that went into earning it.

And I also reflect on what Mark and I do to show and reinforce those values. That we value working hard over trophies. That when everything seems overwhelming, sometimes just showing up when you promised to is enough for now and the rest will come later.

I know we'll have lots of ups and downs in our future, over karate and over other things. He'll want to quit, he'll get frustrated and sad when he doesn't make progress, doesn't win, or feels like all the work is in vain. But I hope we can help him understand all these things, put them in perspective and remind him that working hard for something takes time, and is ultimately its own reward.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Natural Consequences

I may possibly be willing to whisper under my breath that Caroline is finally potty trained. I whisper because if I dare to speak out loud, the Gods of Bodily Evacuation will surely smite me with a #2 in the middle of Target. So, we'll speak softly about this.

Caroline was so very different from Sam on this count. With Sam, he basically woke up one day and decided he was done with diapers. Ok, maybe it wasn't quite that smooth, but there was no doubt that he drove the bus on that one. Did I mention he was a few months past his second birthday? I will definitely say that there are good points about having a stubborn kid.

Caroline, however, approached the entire venture with suspicion and fear. I knew that she knew when she had to go, and she would even tell me when she was about to go but would insist on going in her diaper (thanks for telling me, kid?), turning her nose up entirely at the idea of sitting on the potty.

I kept expecting that she'd let me know when she was ready, like Sam did. But the thing about Caroline is that sometimes she needs a little push out of the nest, and I have to know when to give it.

I made up my mind about three weeks ago on a Wednesday morning. We'd run out of diapers and I was frankly too lazy to go out to the store and get some with both kids, and I couldn't find any of our diaper covers for the cloth ones that would fit her. So I took a deep breath, set up the potty and some strategically placed towels, and decided she'd bare-bottom it for the morning.

Maybe I need to interject here that there are two things I struggle with in parenting (and life) more than most, it seems - messes and natural consequences. And it hardly seems fair how often those two things seem to go together. Allow your kids to play with play-doh and they don't clean it up, and the play-doh is dried out and no more play-doh. At least, that's the way it should go. What usually happens is that my sanity is slowly chipped away at by the sticky floor, the unavailability of my kitchen table and the general clutter, so I either make the kids clean it up or do it myself.

I hang my head in shame. I always said I'd be a stickler for letting my kids experience natural consequences, but it is so, so much harder in practice than it is in theory. And in looking back, it's hardly surprising. I've never been good myself about connecting my actions to their consequences. It's so much easier to eat that fourth cookie and then feign surprise when the number on the scale doesn't move, or kick yourself for delaying and staying up late writing that term paper, even when it's exactly what you did last time and the time before, or run on that injury, instead of exercising a little patience and temperance, and make it worse. I am terrible at that stuff. And I'm probably not the only one. It often seems that our entire world is not really all that concerned with natural consequences, either. No matter what you did to lead to the jam you're in, there's a quick fix for it, often at a price. Entire industries are built upon our inability to pay attention to and learn from natural consequences.

So, with the entire world and all my self-worth riding on it (I kid!) I resolved to at least give this a whole-hearted try for a few days in relation to Caroline's potty training. And it was messy, and time-consuming, and required me to constantly be on alert in a way that slowly fried my brain over the course of the day. There were all the pee-soaked clothes and, inevitably, the urine-filled boots and shoes. Each short errand or run to the store felt like some sort of human waste Russian Roulette.

But you know what? She learned. When she had an accident, I said, "Oops! That's ok. Let's clean it up together." And we did. When she was bare bottomed on the second day and asked me for a diaper so she could poop, I shrugged and said, "Sorry! No diapers available!" and let her make a decision about what she was going to do with that information (she eventually went on her little potty). When we were out and about and she balked at the large, scary public toilet, I said, "Well, this is the only potty available right now, so you let me know what you want to do." At first she chose to hold it until we got home, but will now use almost any potty anywhere.

I'm very proud of both of us for sticking with it, even when it wasn't comfortable. Frankly, it was a daily (heck, hourly!) struggle to bite back "you don't want to have an accident, do you?" or just take her bodily and PUT her on the darn potty when I knew she had to go. And this was just one small part of parenting, one small cornered-off area of the vast expanse of decisions and consequences my kids make every day that I help them with. I had to remind myself that Caroline wasn't the only one making a behavior change, here.

But the whole experience got me thinking about how this relates to my faith life. I believe that part of we humans' relationship with God is very much based on this idea of natural consequences. We have pretty much as much rope as we want. Free will and all that stuff. God very much wants us to choose the path that leads to Him, but He gives us that choice. He doesn't make us, although I suppose if that's what He wanted He could have made us to do so. But he would have had robots instead of loving, amazing, smart, impulsive, demanding, questioning human beings. I have to think that there is some pleasure for God in who we are, since He made us in his image.

And I believe that we parents who believe in this God are called to reflect our relationship with Him in our relationship with our own children. Doing so allows them to know Him through us, and to grow in their own faith as they get older. So, with this in mind, perhaps the best thing I can do as a parent is just to say,

I'm here, and I love you. If you make a mess, I'm always here to help you clean it up. If you leave your play-doh out and it dries out and you are sad, I'll listen to you. If you don't do your homework and have to stay up late or get a bad grade, I'll bring you a snack. And I hope you learn from all of that. But if you don't, I'll be here the next time, and the time after that, as long as I'm alive. Because I know you. I know you so well. And I know you can learn, I always hope that you will.

Make no mistake, I'm sure I have some spleen-filled cleaning binges and frantic calls to teachers in my future along with "I told you so" escaping from my lips more often than not, but I hope and pray very hard that I can let go of the controls and let my kids experience the natural consequences of their actions. In the end, they will be far better and more lasting teachers than I.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

I'm hungry.

And not just because it's Ash Wednesday and I've been fasting. No. I feel like I woke up from hibernation ravenous, except my stomach is my soul. There's no other way to explain it. You know how when you've been sick with a long illness and you just sort of get used to it, and then suddenly you're well and you realized just how badly it sucked to be sick? Sort of like that.

I don't really think I was sick, necessarily. I think I got complacent. It can happen to any of us about anything, and without really thinking. We fall off the diet wagon, stop our good habits. Often, it's something sudden and jolting that makes us stop and look at our feet and realize we weren't really paying attention to the path. For me, I had sat on my spiritual laurels for too long. I had assumed that at one point in my life I had worked everything out in my head and my heart, so I was good. I didn't really need to keep practicing at it, keep searching. I was done. I could go on and just live life now.

Except faith isn't like that. Faith is endless.

I was reminded with some reading earlier this week that God, like all the things he is compared to - Love, Beauty, Truth - is completely unending. Totally infinite. And I realized that I had limited myself. I had told myself that what I had done was good enough, that where I was was fine. And it is fine. But there's much more. I was barely scratching the surface of faith, and I thought it was a meal.

I spent a lot of time over the last month feeling disheartened and a little beat up over many things - the state of the world, my microscopic chance to make any lasting sort of change in it. I fell into what can best be described as a spiritual depression. Then, in the desperation of a convert, I reached out and felt a hand, and heard a voice.

It said, "Come with me. I want to show you something."

And I followed.

So now, I have book lists, and prayer lists, and things to write and look up, philosophers and theologians and saints. I'm sitting at a banquet, one that was always available to me. And the more I read and the more I pray, the more I see the beauty, and the truth, and the love that's there. Infinity.

I realize that to some this may sound extreme. After all, most of you know me already as a pretty devout Catholic. Not necessarily a good one, and I don't expect that will change much. But that's the wonderful thing about it that I found in these last few weeks. Conversion is a continual turning toward God, because there is always more turning to do. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Last Battle, there is always the call of Aslan the Lion, "Further up and further in!"

I plan to write a bit more about my faith journey here, especially as it intersects with the other areas of my life that I write about more often. In looking back at this blog, it becomes apparent that while I may have thought a lot about faith as a general principle, I didn't do a great job of exploring its daily application. I'm hoping that during this Lent I can work on changing that, both by walking the path more intentionally and by reflecting on it in my writing.

Here's to conversion. Further up and further in!

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Last month, Sam had the unique opportunity to do something not many five year olds do: he conducted a choir. As part of our fundraising auction for Choral Arts, we auction off the opportunity to conduct Choral Arts at our Christmas concert while we sing Silent Night. Mark bid on and won it, and we decided to see if Sam would be interested in doing it. He was beyond excited, and talked about it on and off for the last few months. We brought him to rehearsal the Wednesday before the concert so he could meet our conductor, Robert Bode, and have a go during practice. Seeing Robert, one of my mentors from college, carefully demonstrate a three-beat pattern while Sam observed and moved his arms the same way was a highlight of my year. Sam was deadly serious about the whole thing and took his duties to heart.

Afterward, Sam and I were standing next to Robert when Sam told me that he was starting to feel like he had a little stage fright. Robert smiled at him and said, "Oh, Sam, that's how you know it's going to be GOOD!"

Since then, Sam and I have had several conversations about nerves - why we get nervous before things, how our body responds, and what it means. One of the great joys about having a child, especially one around Sam's age, is answering questions like this and allowing myself to think about something a new way, or think about it for the first time. It got me thinking about why, after all these years, I still get nervous before performing.

I have such vivid memories of being a nervous performer as a child. My piano teacher always set the program for our piano recitals in order of ability - the most beginner students first, and the advanced ones at the end. For years, I'd request to be put at the very beginning. Getting it over with meant I could sit and enjoy listening to my friends instead of frantically reviewing my fingering on my thighs as I counted down the names left in the program before it was my turn. Of course, it got to the point where my teacher had to put me toward the end in order to be fair to everyone, and the powerful adrenaline cocktail I got myself worked into was almost unbearable. Why on earth was I so nervous, especially when I knew that as soon as I sat down at the familiar keys, everything would disappear and I would be just fine?

As I've mentioned before, I've always been pretty goal-oriented person, and that was the case as a child, too. I wanted so badly to do well, even though I wasn't really sure what that meant. At the time, it meant not making any mistakes, not forgetting my music, playing every note as written. If I could do that, then it was a successful performance and I could go home with my head held high.

I discovered singing when I was in high school. Suddenly, I had this strange, unwieldy instrument that didn't do what I told it when I just pressed a key. It shook when I was nervous, it was subject to any and every change in condition, it was frustratingly different and uncontrollable. It was so....human. And yet, it suddenly freed me. Somehow, facing an audience and exposing this to them was less nervewreaking than hiding behind the piano.

But of course, I still got nervous. I wrang my hands at recitals, waiting my turn, I hyperventilated before auditions for college and eventually grad school. I was still terrified of doing something wrong, of what people would think of me if I did. I have a vivid memory of singing on a group recital at Rice, just one aria. During the time I was singing, I had this strange, out-of-body experience, like I was observing myself sing from over my own shoulder. This recital was the debut of all of the new grad students to the entire music department and patrons, and I had worked myself up into such a lather over what it all meant that I managed to drive my own consciousness out of my body. What if I didn't really deserve to be here? What if I made a mistake? What if I forgot the aria? It was quite an experience, and one that would be repeated with varying levels of intensity throughout my grad school experience.

You know what all of this self talk had in common, though? ME. Me, me, me. It was all about me. How was I going to do? Would I make a mistake? Would I make a fool of myself? What would they all think of me?

Not surprisingly, I took a break from singing for a while. I was so burned out from all the pressure I was putting on myself. I needed to use other parts of my brain and being for a while. I did other things, I had a career for several years that had nothing to do with music, I sang here and there for fun but nothing really serious. I got married. Then, I slowly started to dip my toes into the water again. A piece at church here, an oratorio gig there. A few years ago, I did two things that really turned everything around for me: I started singing with Choral Arts, and I got a gig as a section leader at a church I love.

In Choral Arts and at my church job, I truly discovered the beauty of communal singing, and of singing meaningfully. It wasn't just about me anymore, it was about us. And even more importantly, once the pressure was off I really started to think about and feel another presence: THEM.

Suddenly, they were everywhere....the audience. Why had I never thought about them before? Well, I guess I had, but more in the "let's talk about you; what do YOU think of me?" sort of way. I was so scared of doing something wrong, I had forgotten to really think about who was listening and why. As I opened myself up more and more to the communal experience that is live music, I was more and more drawn into the beauty and partnership that exists there. A woman, listening to a Choral Arts Christmas concert, eyes closed and transported somewhere else by what we were doing. Singing "Come Unto Him" at Fatima's annual Messiah performance, and seeing a man with tears in his eyes nodding with recognition of the truth of the text. I myself am tearing up now picturing all of these people so clearly, and thinking about what that music gave them in that moment. The more I look, the more I see. People sharing, people united, people healed by music.

I still get nervous. But it's not for the old reasons. I'm recognizing now that it's because I have come to care deeply about what the audience will get out of the performance, making sure that I get out of the way so the music can use me and my colleagues as a conduit to something timeless and healing. There are so many people out in the world starving for beauty right now, and we musicians are an honored group to get to provide it in some small way.

So yeah, I still get nervous.

But, that's how I know it's going to be GOOD.

Monday, January 16, 2012

New Year

Sitting here in mid-January at the computer, I'm looking out at the snow and my un-updated blog and thinking about how I meant to write something here about the new year much sooner than I am. Ah, well. So it goes.

The new year is a great time to take stock, create goals, do some emotional and physical housekeeping, and see where we stand and where we'd like to be. We humans seem to have a need to press the restart button when we can, and this time of year is as good as any.

I've come to the realization in the last few years that I'm a pretty goal-oriented person. This obviously comes as a shock to many of you. Please try to not fall over. However, until recently, I don't think I realized how motivated I am by having a goal. It was just the way I lived my life, charging toward doing, achieving, accomplishing. And I'm proud of myself for doing a lot of the stuff I've done. It got me to and through college with a double major in four years, and through grad school. It got me active and running. However, for much of my life I focused on achieving without really asking myself exactly what I was going for or why it was important to accomplish it. I just did it because it was expected, or enjoyable at the time, or simply put in front of me. Check, check, check.

Living that way can become addicting, and eventually heartbreaking. One of the things I found as I got older is that at some point the accolades and prizes stop. Either you're competing against a self-selected few who are better than you, or you are engaged in something for which there really are no outward prizes. So, when the rewards stop, you must ask yourself....why continue?

The only answer must be that it satisfies in a way nothing else could. The prize is in the process, not the end result. I've found a few of those endeavors in my own life, and seen that the ones that don't meet that standard have gradually fallen away. I've learned and am still learning to just let them go, and to let go of guilt over them. That doesn't mean that these things I am still attempting are easy. In fact, some of them are quite difficult. But tackling something difficult and finding meaning in the process of achieving it? Blessed, worthy, some might say even necessary to our well-being.

So, with that in mind, my focus this coming year is to just be more present. Whatever I am doing or feeling or achieving, whomever I am with or not with, to focus on just being in the moment in the process, to enjoy it just for the sake of what or who it is, not what or who it was, or could be, or is going to be.

Difficult, but worth it.