reading

A booklist that won’t make you blush

November 17, 2017

Lately I’ve been throwing my Kindle across the room in frustration (ask Dave) when I get about, mmm, 30% of the way into a book – and sometimes it’s a legitimately intriguing book! – only to get blindsided by a graphic sex scene. I’m not talking heaving bosoms and carefully laced corsets, but straight up graphic, line-by-line descriptions that read like porn scripts. Like, if these scenes were adapted to film, they’d be rated R at least, and possibly X.

I don’t check out obscure, bondage fetish literature either. This is mainstream, NYT bestseller’s list, such-and-such blogger’s book club recommendation stuff. And I look around and I think, I can’t be the only one freaked out by this.

Particularly in light of the damning cultural moment which we presently find ourselves in, I would like to move as far away from sexually compromising content as possible. But you know? Sometimes I don’t feel like reading 400 year old British literature. Or even 100 year old stuff. I don’t want to resign myself to reading subpar Christian fiction, either, which, if I may be frank, I find generally lacking in skill and imagination. Nor do I always feel compelled to read some hefty theological treatise on the Sacraments.

So, what’s a girl to do?

I’m a voracious reader, so with the help of my handy Amazon borrowing history, I thought I’d share a list of the titles I’ve read in 2017 which I would enthusiastically recommend to a friend. And if you have anything you’d like to recommend right back? Please, I’m about to have hours and hours of late night time on my hands and I’m all e-ears.

I’ve tried to break these into rough categories for your convenience, but a fancy book blogger I am not, so consider yourself warned:

Fiction lite (suitable for beach, plane ride, or mindless late-night consumption*)

  • Everything written by Rosamunde Pilcher, but especially: “The Shell Seekers,” “Winter Solstice,” and “Coming Home.”

I discovered her during my first trimester of sloth and nausea and I swear she held my hand and walked me through the long, hot summer. After the first two books I was like, “oh my gosh, I’ve discovered modern fiction that is good and not super slutty but isn’t stilted and weird and baptized by having been run through some kind of media filter that sucks all the soul of the story.” And then I discovered she wrote all her books like, 20-40 years ago and I was like, “oh.” I’m an old soul. And she’s 93 and still alive in UK, so I guess she is, too. Just go ahead and read everything she has ever written and love your life.

  • The Secret Keeper, The Lakehouse, The House at Riverton, The Distant Hours, and The Forgotten Garden: Kate Morton

I love anything Kate Morton has ever written. These novels are the perfect blend of captivating character development and sharp writing. I’d put them on par with Downton Abbey in terms of keeping you intrigued in the story line and progression of the characters lives. She occasionally delves into the split timeline/flashback technique to advance the narrative, but in my opinion, doesn’t over use it. Highly recommend.

  • Within the Walled City: Virginia Evans

Study abroad fictional memoir set in Florence, Italy. Honestly, what else do you need to know? If you love travel/food books but don’t necessarily want to read a straight up memoir, this one’s for you.

  • A Portrait of Emily Price

Sweet, quick-reading, and not too racy. Actually, not much dirt at all, if I’m remembering right. Just the kind of thing for airport reading or a late-night nursing session.

  • What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty

An enjoyable offering from this author (and rare for its relative absence of gratuitous sex n violence). The storyline splits between the past and present in a creative and captivating way.

Aspirational self improvement/business memoirs/human interest:

  • Capital Gaines – Chip Gaines

The Fixer Upper backstory, from the male perspective. Either Chip can actually write or his ghostwriter really nailed his voice, but this proved to be an engaging and enjoyable read.

  • The Magnolia Story (is my HGTV freak flag flying high enough?) – Joanna Gaines

And her side of the story, more narrowly focused on the interpersonal details and the spiritual aspects of discernment in their journey. If his is the nuts and bolts side of the story, hers is the heart and soul.

  • The Gratitude Diaries: How a year of looking on the bright side can transform your life – Janet Kaplan

In the style of Gretchen Reuben, but pleasantly less research-y (Though perhaps not quite as insightful for it).

  • Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age – Sherry Turkel

This book is a sobering, somewhat terrifying and absolutely essential read for any human being living in the 21st century.

  • The Highly Sensitive Child – Elaine Aron

She does a good job capturing the nuances of parenting a child who is wound a little “differently,” and makes some interesting observations about human nature. The philosophy/psychology gets a little weird in places, but that’s to be expected without a firm sense of a Christian anthropology.

  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport

This book was a huge impetus behind my decision to scale back on my social media presence and ditch my smartphone (thought that’s not going as well as it was over the summer. Still 100% social media free on the phone though, so I’m counting that as progress.) This book is a powerfully necessary read for the modern age and very engagingly written.

  • When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Gripping, honest, sad, and beautiful. The author chronicles his own journey with terminal lung cancer. A medical doctor with a surprisingly philosophical and poetic soul.

  • Reading People – Anne Bogel

Bogel’s (of Modern Mrs. Darcy fame) first work, this was an engaging study in various personality inventories and delved a bit into the interpretation of personality theory. I particularly liked her section on the Myers Briggs. (Note: I skipped the chapter on the Enneagram because I’m not convinced that it is harmless).

  • Present over Perfect – Shauna Niequist

I wanted to love love this book, because that’s how I felt about her earlier work, “Bread and Wine,” but it wasn’t quite as engaging. I still gleaned some good stuff from her (occasionally relentless) introspection, particularly her observations on work/life balance and a really poignant and painful depiction of burnout as a mom.

World War II novels set somewhere in Europe:

  • In Farleigh Field – Rhys Bowen

Had a distinctive Downton Abbey vibe, which I found appealing. Dave read it first and convinced me I’d like it too, which I did.

  • Beneath a Scarlet Sky – Mark T. Sullivan

A little grittier than I’d typically tend towards, but not in an inappropriate or unwarranted way. Set in Italy, which is a nice change of pace for a genre that seems obsessively set in either Britain or France.

  • All the Light We Cannot See: Anthony Doerr

I’m pretty sure I actually read this one 2 years ago, but it is a masterpiece and was utterly worth paying full cover price for the hardback and eminently worthy of the Pulitzer it garnered Doerr. (Also, be sure to check out his earlier work, “Four Seasons in Rome” a travel memoir of his study abroad year in the Eternal City with his wife and twin baby boys.)

  • Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

A little rough around the edges in parts, but a good read. Not remarkable enough to differentiate itself substantially from the other books in this genre, but a worthy addition to the list if you love WWII novels.

  • The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

Oh my gosh, how many books about WWII did I read in 2017?? I guess …a few. This one was probably second best only to “All the Light,” but quite a bit sadder, if I’m remembering correctly.

YA Lit that won’t make you want to scratch your eyes out: 

  • Echo – Pam Munoz Ryan

Mildly engaging. I wouldn’t call it un-put-down-able by any means, but it was a passable read with an interesting twist. It won a 2016 Newberry Honor.

  • Wonder – Rachel J. Palacio

This book lives up to the hype surrounding it, and I’m interested to see the film adaptation. I really appreciated how well the author captured – and maintained – the innocence of early adolescence while still addressing the brutal and nasty pieces without delving into unnecessary sexualization or precociousness of the characters. Not easy to do.

  • When Dimple Met Rishi – Sandhyi Menon

Cute, engaging, not too serious and not too slutty. I dated a lot of engineers in college, for some reason, so this book kind of took me back. Plus, I just love Bollywood.

  • The Selection trilogy and The Heir – Kiera Cass

I’m embarrassed. But whatever. I read them all and if you like/d the Bachelor/ette and the Hunger Games, well, these are the books for you. Don’t judge me.

Religious/Spiritual reads:

  • Waking the Dead – John Eldredge

This guy is Catholic lite, whether or not he realizes it. He has a firmer grasp on spiritual warfare and the reality of the presence of God – and of evil – in the world, than most Catholic or Christian writers I’ve read. Take him with a grain of salt because he’s Protestant, but he has some great content on discernment and cultivating a relationship with God.

Also great:

  • Walking with God – John Eldredge
  • Fathered by God – John Eldredge

 

  • The Family that Overtook Christ – M. Raymond

Hard to find (I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited for a trial month so I could read it) but it’s a fascinating story of the family of St. Bernard of Clairvoux and the reform of the monastic orders of his time period. 2 enthusiastic thumbs up for this and his subsequent title, “Three Religious Rebels.”

  • Lord of the World – Robert Hugh Benson

I can’t emphasize enough how essential this read is to every Catholic – or every human being – who is currently alive. Rumored to be Pope Francis’ favorite novel (and one he has read half a dozen times) I’ll definitely be reading it again in another couple months.

  • The Benedict Option – Rod Dreher

Guys, just read this book. I’m still scratching my head over the infighting over this one. If you are judging the work on its own merits (which is how I believe books should be evaluated) and not dragging everything Dreher has ever written in his entire life into your calculus, it’s actually a fantastic, inspiring, and deeply practical read.

  • Out of the Ashes – Anthony Esolen

Honestly? This one’s better than Dreher’s. Esolen has a devastatingly sharp mind and a profound grasp of reality. Worth the extra brainpower it requires in terms of vocabulary and attention span (spoken as a dead tired mom).

  • Strangers in a Strange Land – Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

Speaking of needing some intellectual chops to digest the content, this is one of those. I’m still making my way through the last 30% of this book, but am confident it’s not going to derail into insanity, so I recommend it with unbridled enthusiasm.

  • God or Nothing – Robert Cardinal Sarah

If you disregard all of my recommendations and take a single book from this list, let it be this one. Trust me.

  • The Christian Meaning of Human Sexuality – Paul M. Quay, S.J. (edited by Joseph Koterski, S.J)

This book is phenomenal. I’m about 2/3 of the way through it and just so deeply engaged by the material. He reminds me of a way, way more accessible JPII in terms of his grasp on married love and human sexuality. There is an updated chapter on NFP that I haven’t gotten to yet, but that alone was what convinced me that I absolutely had to get my hands on this book.

  • The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love – Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen

A beautiful meditation on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and with practical guidance on how to cultivate a relationship with Him. It’s a slim little volume that makes a great prayer time read and can be picked up and read at random. It’s one of my go-to spiritual books now, in the vein of “Imitation of Christ” or “Introduction to the Devout Life.”

Nonfiction:

  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis  J.D. Vance 

A must read for any Steubenville grad (Ohio River Valley represent). This was a sad, fascinating, simultaneously hopeful and hopeless look at generational poverty in rural America/Appalachia.

  • $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America – Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer

Self explanatory and deeply sad. I couldn’t put it down.

Fiction:

  • A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I loved this book. I loved its weirdness, its foreign cadence (the author is Swedish), and its dark and unexpected humor. The movie fell far short of the original, but perhaps the remake will deliver. I read it first and then handed it over to a skeptical Dave with a glowing recommendation. He ended up loving it, too.

  • The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore

Historical fiction (but don’t yawn! Promise.) depicting the battle to electrify America. It’s a novelized telling of the adversarial and occasionally collaborative geniuses of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. This was another one the husband read first and passed along, and I really enjoyed it.

  • The End of the Affair – Graham Greene

Can’t believe this was on my “to read” list for so many years, but glad I finally took the plunge. Dark and gritty at times but not without purpose, if that makes sense? Not a book that could be written in 2017, due to a lack of both imagination and delicacy.

Borderline recs (proceed with caution depending upon sensitivity):

  • Small Great Things – Jodi Piccoult

This was a hard read. A fair amount of graphic violence – but not unnecessary, which makes a big difference, in my book (ba dum ching). I thought certain stereotypes/literary techniques were a bit overwrought, but the author was intentionally belaboring the point to get our attention. And it worked.

  •  The Bookshop on the Corner – Jenny Colgan

I was super enjoying this book and then, I kid you not, it got reaaaaaaaal raunchy for about 3 minutes at the end. Like, so abruptly that I thought my Kindle had freaked out and opened another book by mistake. If you can skim past the questionable stuff that barrels out of left field in the very end, it was a charming little novel that I’d have liked to include in my”Fiction Lite” category.

  • Truly, Madly, Guilty – Liane Moriarty

I want to love her stuff, because she’s a talented writer, but she really likes to sprinkle in the raunchy sex scenes. This book almost avoids that entirely, and ends up being what I’d categorize as an engaging lite mystery thriller. Also I’m 90% sure she was raised Catholic, so she just can’t help herself with the self-effacing references to Catholic guilt.

  • The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

I loooooved this book. I’m a sucker for self-chronicled cultural immersion documentaries, and she did a fantastic job narrating her year in Denmark. (However, there is an entire chapter you can skip right over. And you’ll know which one it is when you get there.)

  • Before We Visit the Goddess – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I can’t remember why I’m putting this one in the “recommends with reservation” category except, oh, actually, now I do remember, it’s the gay neighbor whose relationship is delved into with a bit of unnecessary detail, plus some domestic violence. But if you love India like I do, you’ll enjoy this one.

  • Sleeping Giants –  Sylvain Neuvel

This was deliciously weird sci-fi with the most intriguing plot twist. There is a smattering of dull, unnecessary raunch (extra-marital sex) but the book is too good to miss.

And there you have it: the titles that made the cut to the “yeah, you should read this” list in my literary wanderings over the past year. I’m going to leave this as a living document of sorts and plan to update it with new reads as I review them, so hopefully it becomes a helpful resource and perhaps even a good Christmas gift guide.

*not responsible for lost sleep resulting from addictive page turning nature.

 

decluttering, design + style, Family Life, large family, mental health, motherhood, Parenting

Homemaking hacks that keep me sane(ish)

November 14, 2017

I was going to write one of those perennially popular and always vaguely intriguing “day in the life” posts but there it sits, languishing in my drafts folder, because do you have any idea how much time it takes to assemble one of those bad boys? Especially if there are any pictures, which are kind of crucial to making said piece enjoyable for the reader.

En ee way, I decided that since I’m obviously too busy living my glamorous life as a severely pregnant (don’t worry, I always talk like this for the last 7 weeks or so) woman with 4 kids under the age of reason and a mildly-demanding side hustle involving the written word, it might be helpful to pass along some of my best practices gleaned from 7+ years of parenting and mostly (MOSTLY) pestering older and wiser moms for their wisdom.

I mean, why maintain a robust Facebook following if not to poll the audience with the truly pressing questions about potty training and mini van recommendations?

Why indeed.

Anyway, here are some things that are saving my life lately. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you, or maybe you’ll laugh that these are things I ACTUALLY SPEND TIME THINKING ABOUT.

The dining room table (built by an amazing and talented local friend – post coming soon) must be cleared off between meals because voila, it’s also my home office.

1. The laundry. Oh sweet mercy, the laundry. Just kidding, because I love laundry (really, I do, but don’t click away!) I think because it affords me a real, concrete sense of accomplishment when it’s caught up.

But wait, you might be thinking, it’s never caught up.

Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong. Cackle. I have discovered the secret to happiness, and it’s doing laundry every single day. One or two loads (or maybe more, season and family size-necessitating) per day and then (this is clutch) folding it/delivering it as soon as it’s done.

Seems outrageous, but it means I have a couple of dirty things each night in hampers, but overall, the entire laundry situation is perpetually in process, being worn, washed, and delivered back to the respective closets in a beautiful circle of life.

It seems counterintuitive that perpetually processing laundry makes for greater mental freedom, but there you have it. I now see laundry like I see dental hygiene or running the dishwasher. I’d no more let 3 days worth of dirty dishes pile up in the sink than I’d let as many days’ outfits pile up in the hamper. Here’s a big, fat caveat though: if you have unlimited supplies of anything (aside from the strict necessities like socks and undies) you will use them. And their very presence will enable the overwhelm of your laundry system, just like, I imagine, owning 40 sets of forks and knives could prevent you from dishwashing out of necessity. So my kids operate from fairly capsuled-wardrobes, with limitless socks and undies (specific character for each child of same gender to ease sorting + all white socks for boys and colorful socks for girl) and a strictly limited selection of other options.

Each big boy has 5-7 uniform polos, 4 pairs of uniform/Mass pants, 3 pairs of jeans, and about 4 complete sets of jammies. We also have a drawer full of athletic shorts/pants for leisure wear, and they each have 3-4 long sleeve and short sleeve t-shirts in their current rotation. I will pull down new shirts of the current size from time to time and rest other shirts in order to give them some semblance of variety and not miss the window of the item of clothing actually fitting them, but at no point do they have access to their entire Star Wars t-shirt collection, nor are their summer clothes accessible during the colder months. It would (and has, in the past) make for a miserable, endless pile of work for the chief laundry officer of the house.

Once or twice a week I do sheets and bath towels, as necessary. And all our bath towels are white and bleach-able. There are 3 or 4 of higher quietly cotton pile that I secret away in the master bath for parental use, otherwise it’s fair game. I probably buy new towels ever 6-12 months and rotate the old ones out for rags or pet use.

I realized I was more or less making use of this system on my own, but added the additional linens to their own schedule as needed per the recommendation of Lindsay from “My Child, I Love You,” whose mothering skills I tip my proverbial hat to while bowing deeply at the waist. I figure if she can keep empty laundry baskets with 9? 10? kids, I have zero excuses.

I also make the kids deliver their own goods after I wash and fold it all. Because I like doing those parts, and because I don’t feel confident in their nascent sorting abilities. Soon enough though, kids. Soon enough.

2. I pack lunches as soon as we get home from school. Sometimes the kids help, sometimes I do it myself, sometimes it’s a group effort. I call for lunch boxes to exit backpacks upon arrival in the house and be delivered to the counter, where I promptly dump and clean as necessary and then re-pack and return directly to the fridge. I give them a good wash on Fridays before retiring them for their weekend rest. I try to see it like paperwork, and so I only want to touch them once. If it’s on the counter and has to be put somewhere anyway, I may as well fill it with food and put it right back into the fridge. Plus, I hate mornings.

3. Dishes. Now dishes I hate. Dishes will be the domestic duty that gets me to heaven. But. I do have some thoughts. First, I streamlined our kitchen setup down to bare necessities and all one color. Maybe that strikes you as utilitarian, and you’d be absolutely correct in saying so. It’s beautifully, wonderfully, uniformly utilitarian, and my cupboards look like an IKEA display. White and glass and nothing else. Because you know what is colorful enough? Life with 4 kids. Anyway, we have about 12 white Corelle dinner plates, bowls, and small plates, and 2 dozen mason jars for drink ware. I have a little more fun in the barware department, but still only 4 of each type of glass (red wine, white wine, champagne, and whiskey) and they all match. Some are from the Dollar Tree so trust me when I reassure you that this is not an expensive venture. We also have a single drawer with about 8 IKEA poisonous plastic kid’s plates and tumblers, and 3 sippy cups with lids. And that’s it. Oh, wait, tupperware. Again with the IKEA, about 4 matching containers with lids in 4 graduated sizes, plus half a dozen glass 1-cup rubbermaid containers for daddy lunches.

It is so pleasant (well, as pleasant as dishwashing can be) to do dishes when everything matches and is clean and free of scratches or chips. That’s where the utterly boring and utterly serviceable clean white Corelle comes in. When my kids are older and out of the house I can relax my aesthetic of prison minimalist chic, but until then, we’re gonna wash those same 12 white plates every day and we’re gonna like it.

(And when we have parties, we use paper. We’re not partying much these days, so I have zero qualms of the environmental impact of a single sleeve of high quality paper plates purchased on a bi-annual basis. If you are partying more than we are, might i suggest the even greener option of buying a second dozen of the white Corelle beauties and keeping them in the garage?)

The kids load and unload the dishwasher, and they’ve also begun clearing and wiping down the table after meals. Which leads me to my next brilliant revelation:

4. “Yes, as soon as ____”

I’ve been working this system hard all school year, and so far, so good. Here’s a live demo:

“Mom, can we watch Wild Kratts?”

“Yes, as soon as you hang up your backpacks/finish your reading/bring me your lunch box”

“Mom, can we go play baseball till dinnertime?

“Yes, as soon as you pick up the Legos and put them away.”

“Mom, can I go outside and play with Andrew?”

“Yes, as soon as you put on your jacket and make sure there are no shoes on the floor of the front hall closet”

“Mom, can we have hot cocoa?”

“Yes, as soon as you finish your salad/carrots/whatever vegetable I’m pretending we’re eating tonight.”

You get the idea. I found that I was constantly saying no and feeling like I was bargaining with my kids to preempt them to good behavior/good habits, and I’ve realized that by leading with “yes,” we’re all so much happier and feel like we’re winning. Now, I don’t honor every request and I promise, I don’t preface every movement of their lives with a necessary domestic task, but all in all I’d say we’re learning a better balance of helpfulness and permission granted, of give and take. Plus, it makes me feel like a much nicer mom to say yes so many times a day. Power of affirmations, babies.

5. Empty the car.

Don’t know why it took me 7 years to master this one, but we’ve disciplined ourselves into the habit of almost completely emptying the car upon arriving home for the day. No backpacks, shoes, toys, food, or mom-debris left behind. The exceptions are my makeup bag (a girl has to have some time to mascara), 2 emergency pairs of socks in the glove compartment (thanks, mom!) diapers and wipes, of course, and a stash of current library books for in flight entertainment. Additionally, there can usually be found a spare fleece or light jacket in the back in case someone has an accident or it starts snowing out of a 70 degree day, not unheard of for Denver.

As a result, the car looks clean, the kids are actually encouraged to keep it clean, and we are all encouraged forced to put stuff back where it belongs upon arriving home each day. It’s like the mobile version of Marie Kondo, and yes, a healthy stack of spare diapers under the passenger seat spark joy.

This room is a naturally toy-free zone. When I find them there, into a bucket or basket they go until put-back time. (I mean, unless they’re actively being played with. I’m not a monster).

6. Kamikaze clean at night. I’m a little militant about this one (cough, cough, sorry Dave) but I do not go to bed with a dirty house. The kids tidy up the dinner table and their craft area in the kitchen, plus any toys that have remained out from the day’s play. And I finish processing and delivering the laundry and make sure the kitchen is scrubbed down and ready for business the following morning. Mornings are tough enough without waking to a disaster (and more often you will wake to some other disaster, any way) so I like to have a clean slate to start fresh from. Otherwise, I tend to feel like I’m behind the eight ball all day long.

Obviously there are nights where the dishes don’t get done and someone is sick or super needy or one of us is traveling and things fall apart, but on the whole, we go to bed with a clean house 95% of the time. And it makes a big difference.

All your toys are belong to us

7. I promise I’m going to stop. But this one is critical. Limited toys. We have 4 kids – soon to be 5 – and they’re all really little, and we could literally be drowning in toys. But we’re not, because I refuse to live that way. Our kids are not deprived: they each have a bike or plasma car, an armory of Nerf guns and lightsabers, a handful of special stuffed animals, and a few personal trinkets. Other than that we have a small box of Legos, a toy kitchen with cooking instruments, some doll-sized baby care gear for Evie’s growing cat family (don’t ask), and some matchbox cars and a ramp. There is a soccer goal in the backyard, and a stash of baseballs and bats in the garage.

And that’s it.

That’s all the toys we own, pretty much, and we are constantly paring back after birthdays and holidays, swapping out old or broken toys for newer favorites. Our parents are really great about buying thoughtful or small or even non-toy gifts, and I suspect this is one area where larger families can have an advantage, because spending big $$$ on a dozen grandchildren could really add up.

Our kids don’t seem deprived, but if they do complain about not having as much stuff as so-and-so (which to be frank, is very rare) I just point out different families do things differently, and aren’t they lucky to have more siblings? A pet? A bigger yard? etc. than that friend. Accentuate the positive.

Besides, they’re accustomed to our continuous purging of possessions, and they’ve confided to me before that they were grateful “for not having very much to clean up,” because when I give the order to go put the toy corner back together (two IKEA Kallax 4-cube shelves with bins) it can be done easily by even the 3 year old in under 5 minutes.

It forces me to be accountable to my own accumulation of “stuff,” too. I don’t really need a new piece of seasonal decor for my mantle or another candle (okay, maybe another candle…) or a cute mug because the stuff I have, I like, and it’s working well. It’s a good practice of minimalism for the sake of contentment, rather than minimalism for making some kind of philosophical point. We are minimalists by nature because our lives are kind of stuffed to the bursting with relationships, so there’s not a lot of room for much else.

Whew, that was a novella. Hopefully useful? Interesting? Or at least you’re sleeping peacefully now.

May your laundry be manageable, and your dishes unbreakable.

Catholic Spirituality, Catholics Do What?, Culture of Death, current events, politics, Pornography

It’s the culture, stupid

November 10, 2017

2017 has been kind of a train wreck, hasn’t it?

Lately it seems like each week has brought news of another mass shooting, another massive sex scandal, another round of accusations and tarnished reputations and fresh outrage and calls for … something.

But I can’t help noticing that we seem to want to have our cake and eat it too, collectively speaking.

Frankly, this is the culture we’ve built for ourselves, constructed on promises of sex without commitment or consequence, violence as entertainment, and the pursuit of personal appetites at any cost.

We lament the violence done to women and the apparent backsliding of decades of feminist progress in our nightly newscasts, but the commercials between segments are filled with soft core porn using women’s bodies to hawk products.

We flinch at each new accusation of predatory sexual violence that hits our newsfeeds, many coming to light decades after the fact, while we meanwhile hound our elected officials for greater access to abortion and contraception, those necessary components fueling the sexual revolution.

We reject God and His laws, written into our very bodies, and then we rail against the cruelty and evil that springs up in the absence of a moral compass.

In short: this culture is one of our own making.

And it cannot be cured in Washington.

America – the entire world – can only return to greatness by falling to her knees.

Until and unless we get serious about pursuing personal conversion and cultivating holiness, this is what the world will look like.

This is what the world was like, before Christ, and this is the natural state to which it will return as we reject Christ. You might call it the human equilibrium, determined by the introduction of Original Sin and remedied by one thing alone:

Jesus.

The world can be saved, one soul at a time, by Christians willing to live out their faith without counting the cost, leading people to Him. But as long as Christians play at the game of going along to get along with the world, whether that means an outright rejection of the faith or a lazy complacency where we drift through life in a haze of busyness and Netflix, then this is the new reality.

Life with Christ is, as St. John Paul II was fond of joyfully reminding us, “a wonderful adventure.”

But life without Him is a nightmare.

Guys, we’re living the nightmare right now.

I have some ideas.

First, we have to get serious about our own personal prayer lives (looks meaningfully into mirror). I am the first to admit that falling into bed with my Kindle at 10 pm is immeasurably preferable to spending time with my Bible or rosary. That’s because my spiritual muscles are flabby and undisciplined, worn down by years of parenting small people and self-medicating with mindless entertainment and distraction in the evenings. I have to commit to at least a solid 15 minutes of serious mental prayer at some point in the day, offering back to God a fraction of the time He has given me. I know this, but actually doing it is another matter entirely.

Second, there are areas in my life where I have not fully given Christ Lordship. I’m thinking of a few novels I’ve read lately, grimacing and skimming over the explicit sex scenes and degraded morality but justifying continuing to read because “most of the book is fine.”

But it’s not fine. It’s not fine for me to read a book that is 10% pornographic content, justifying that the other 90% is Tolstoy (which it sure as hell ain’t). I’m no prude, and there is a place for realism and grit in literature, but what I’ve been encountering with increasing frequency in modern fiction is straight up smut: graphic, gratuitous, and worst of all, conscience-numbing. How silly to be striving to form my conscience and conform my mind to Christ’s while continuing to fill it with garbage. Maybe your garbage takes another form, but you probably know exactly what it is.

Which brings me to…tv. And movies. There’s a lot to choose from and a veritably limitless array of options, but it’s becoming increasingly necessary to just turn the thing off. I spend a good amount of time and energy devising ways to protect my kids from sexual deviance and premature exposure, and we put a lot of effort into forming this area of their personalities to be receptive to goodness and beauty. How can we spend a hour or two in the evenings fast forwarding through garbage, letting our own consciences become dulled by repeated exposure to pornographic content, homosexuality, adultery, sexual violence, witchcraft, and abortion and expect that there will be no long-term effects?

What goes into us very much affects what comes out of us.

Our consciences can become deadened and dulled by repeated exposure to garbage. What is shocking the first or seventh time it is encountered might not even raise the blood pressure the 40th or 100th time. Try popping in a DVD of a popular sitcom or drama from the 90s and then contrast it with, mmm, pretty much anything that’s popular in primetime in 2017.

You may be astonished at how much has changed in a relatively short time. By how “tame” the innuendo and violence, and how seemingly chaste the onscreen depictions of intimacy.

We’ve come a long way in a short time, thanks in large part to the internet, and very few of us have taken the time to step back and ask “is this okay?” rather than getting pulled along with the tide. It’s a small, necessary sacrifice I can – and must – make, as a parent, as an adult.

Finally, we need to be heeding Our Lady’s call to the children of Fatima and making regular sacrifices in reparation for our own sins and for the sins of others.

We each have a role to play in the sorry state of affairs of the modern world. We have been asked to pray, to make sacrifices, and to offer up suffering for the good of our neighbors. Those neighbors are our own family members, the people across the street, and the monster who shot up a church last weekend.

We live in a kind of modern fantasy of autonomy and individual freedom, when in reality, we are all intimately connected to one another by virtue of our brotherhood in the family of God.

Look, I am the absolute worst at fasting and making sacrifices. Happily, God has given me a tidy pile of stuff to offer up in the course of living out my actual life, if only I would consent to suffer willingly and intentionally rather than always proceeding directly to “thrashing about like a wounded animal railing at the injustice of it all,” which seems to be my default setting when confronted with pain.

But I needn’t waste it. I can offer up those midnight wakings, the stomach flu, the broken down cars and zeroed out bank accounts, the wrecked out bodies and the agonizing, lonely hours of solo parenting during business trips or endless Tuesdays. I can offer my little loaves and fishes to God to do whatever He pleases with, and perhaps it pleases Him to do something insanely miraculous with the crumbs.

But first I have to offer them.

Finally, we must be unashamed in our witness of faith in the public square.

Christians in the early Church were set apart form the depraved pagan culture from which they sprang because of the way they loved one another. Because of their marriages, their charity, their civic engagement and their unwavering witness to the truth.

And yes, some of them were killed for it. And they went joyfully to their martyrdoms not for love of pain, but for love of Jesus. We will probably not be martyred in a literal sense of shedding blood. But our careers? Our reputations? Our friendships and social status and financial stability?

Yeah, those are all up for grabs. We ought to be prepared to offer them willingly, if He asks. We should absolutely fight for just laws and morally sound legislation, but we should also be prepared to be increasingly marginalized as the cultural free fall – which shows little sign of halting – continues. We know how this game ends, but it might be a hell of a fourth quarter, so to speak.

I keep coming back to JPII’s most oft-repeated phrase when I read the news lately: Be not afraid.

That’s the hope we can offer to a world that is bleeding out in self-anihilation, seeming to crumble before our very eyes.

Be not afraid.

Be not afraid.

Be not afraid.

But also, be not an idiot. Be not caught doing nothing, when the Master returns. Be not a complicit accomplice in the carnage that is laying waste to a civilization.

I can’t save the world with my one little life, but I can offer it to God to do with it what He sees fit. And when He asks for something, I can give it to Him without hesitation, knowing that the steely core of the Christian identity must be a readiness and willingness to suffer as He did.

Evangelization, Family Life, large family, Marriage, motherhood, Parenting

Thriving, surviving, and tithing (+ a little miracle)

November 7, 2017

Since mid-October we’ve been battling a mild onslaught of illnesses of the childhood variety, along with your typical run-of-the-mill life with lots ‘o kids shenanigans. Evie kicked off sick season with a heart-stopping middle of the night croup episode that had us racing to the ER for oral steroids, nebulized epinephrine, and multiple albuterol treatments. We escaped a transfer to the PICU at Children’s by the skin of our teeth (and daddy’s fervent 4 am rosary, I’ve no doubt) and were discharged home by 6 the next morning. Cue huge sigh of relief at 1. a healthy kid and 2. not having to sleep for multiple nights curled up on a hospital chair at 7.5 months pregnant.

Unfortunately, she had a repeat episode about 11 days later (I blame the cold snap that accompanied trick or treating) and back to the ER we trotted. Evie is a tricky one with croup because unlike her brothers (whose airways are perhaps a tad sturdier?) she doesn’t respond to the usual steam/humidifier/shocking cold outdoor air tricks. She needed drugs and she needed them asap, both times. Praise God again that she demonstrated after only a single round of meds a sufficient degree of recovery to get her sent home. The attending doc was only willing to give her 1 strike rather than the usual 3 before ordering the transfer, since she was presenting with the same symptoms so soon after her first episode. Again, the prayers. Again, the miraculous pre-dawn discharge home.

Oh, p.s., according to the ER pediatrician, she also had pink eye. Eye drops all around, put it on my tab. I’m shameless in begging multiple rounds of meds for pink eye whenever one kid is diagnosed because duh. They’re all going to get it. Hell, I’m probably going to get it too. We’re all more or less symptom-free now, a week later, and pretty much recovered in the sleep department. Luke has been the last man standing in terms of the offending virus that started this whole mess, and so last night at 4 pm when he dropped his drooping head on my shoulder and passed out cold, I knew that it was at long last his turn to be up all night.

I was pleasantly surprised though, because after some cuddles, that ill-timed nap, and a little bit of children’s Motrin, he slept mostly through the night and so did the rest of us.

That extremely lengthy lead up is headed somewhere, I promise. I’m just setting the stage. Oh, did I mention that in the midst of this our van broke down?

Yeah, it was the morning after that second ER vi$it, so I was doing school drop off as a favor to daddy while he and Evie caught up on missed sleep. As Luke and I pulled away from the school parking lot, I heard an ominous thud. The rpm needle started jumping wildly up and down, and there was a distinct loss of power that had me pointing the car east to the mechanic’s shop (from whence we’d retrieved it yesterday – “nothing we can see wrong with it, ma’am”) for a second opinion. I drove approximately 20 miles per hour (because that was apparently my new max speed) through Denver rush hour traffic with my hazards blinking praying that we’d make it the 4 miles to the shop because I was makeup-less, pregnant, and toting a barefoot 2-year-old with a snotty nose in the backseat.

After a mildly harrowing journey, we pulled into the auto shop’s lot where the van promptly died. It was poetic. (But of course, it took another 3 hours for the guys working there to get it to demonstrate its bad behavior for them. But demonstrate at last, it did.)

Official diagnosis: transmission. Official estimate: $3,400-5,000, depending upon what degree of “newness” we were after in a transmission.

Did I mention we put $1,200 into this car in August and had deferred an additional $1,500 worth of work? Ain’t that the way it goes, though?

Dave Ramsey’s ominous proverb about Murphy “moving into your spare bedroom when you buy a house before you’re ready” was echoing in my tired brain while I tried not to cry (unsuccessfully) and called my sister. Luckily, we’d forgotten to pick up Dave’s car the night before after raging too hard at an All Saints’ party, and so there was a way for me to get home. That alone felt like a little miracle, and so I allowed myself to be cheered by it while I drove Luke and I to Starbucks to drown our sorrows (senselessly and ironically, considering the price) before returning home to a surprised and still-sleepy daddy to relay the news.

As we sipped our bankruptcy lattes in contemplative silence, it occurred to me that apart from the tears shed on the phone with my sister – which weren’t really all that unexpected considering pregnancy hormones – I wasn’t freaking out.

We’d just spent lot$ of time in the ER, our primary family vehicle was dead, we had a big, fat, new mortgage in our names and a fifth baby coming in 8 weeks or so and I wasn’t – am still not – freaking out.

This, my friends, must be what they call shellshock maturity? Or something like it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t tempted to panic about our finances, or the fact that all my kids had all the infections for all the weeks and surely the poor, defenseless newborn we’d be bringing home shortly will also fall prey when he or she arrives… I mean, those thoughts definitely went through my head, but then something weird happened: I let them pass right on out.

I guess it’s probably a good combination of effective meds, a gentler pregnancy experience, and just some plain old fashioned healing, but I am not drowning in anxiety. It really is well with my soul.

Last week we heard a homily about tithing that pricked my conscience because I’d just been mentally debating dropping our monthly giving below the 10% mark because finances have been so tight. I broached the subject with Dave after Mass and we decided, instead, to do something that’s objectively pretty stupid: to increase our monthly giving by $50 bucks.

Not a huge amount of money, but not nothing, either. And it looked really dumb on paper. Like, “maybe you should pay the water bill first” dumb. I think I even said out loud to Dave “I am consciously doing this to call down God’s blessing on us financially” (And yes, I know it doesn’t work that way. But I wanted to put the Almighty God on notice that I was expecting big things, and was doing so with ridiculous and possibly insane expectations.)

And guess what?

The day our car died, the day after our second ER trip in less than 2 weeks, about 4 days after that fateful “tithe more” decision, I got a message from a friend.

“Jenny, I’ve got to tell you something, and you can’t say no.”

I mentally steeled myself for whatever it might be.

“I have (a certain amount) of money set aside for personal use, and I want to give it to your family for a new mini van fund.”

It was many, many more dollars than $50.

I was speechless and immediately burst into tears, staring at the blinking message on my screen. Evie must have asked me 20 times during my half hour of intermittent sobbing “is everything okay, Mommy?”

Yes, baby girl. Everything is okay.

And it was. And it is. And we used the money for a down payment on a new-to-us van with “low” (80k, lol) mileage and – wait for it – 8 full size seats, meaning come December, all 5 existing carseats will fit perfectly inside it, like a winning round of highway safety Tetris.

I’m not sharing this story in a magical-thinking “this is what happens when you tithe, shazam!/prosperity gospel” kind of way, but to underscore the even bigger miracle (yes, bigger than the $$$ for the car): and the miracle was this, that I believed God was going to provide. Not that He did provide, but that I believed He would.

I’ve never been there.

I’ve never trusted Him – not when it came down to it – that I could completely hand off the reins and hope for the best.

I’ve always, always taken the “work like everything depends on you” piece of the old axiom kind of on it’s own. Sure, I might slip in the “pray like everything depends on God” with a kind of mental eye roll, but let’s all be real, grown ups help themselves. 

How wrong I’ve been. And what an exhausting, impossible way to live.

For me, this has been the greatest gift of mothering a larger family: that I can no longer even pretend to be in control.

And when I at last travelled beyond (see: permitted myself to be dragged like dead weight) the point of no return, the I-can’t-handle-another-moment-of-this-nervous-breakdown (helloooo, last summer + the real estate market) I found that on the other side of all that fear, all that insomnia, all of that mind-paralyzing worry about things that are actually outside my control to begin with…He was there.

This must be the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Not that things are actually okay (though they pretty much are okay, if I’m being honest. Credit card debt and running noses notwithstanding), but that He will be my peace in the midst of of the storm.

The storm might still rage. The other car might break down next week. The kids could get really, really sick in a way that pushes us beyond midnight ER runs. And, ultimately, at the end of all our striving and planning and worrying…death.

But the peace is there. I think my little tithing “experiment” was as much a tithe of money as it was a tithe of trust, an act of blind confidence (containing no small amount of “fake it till you make it”) that God actually would make it okay. That He could be trusted to take the reins. Even as my brain screamed “illogical,” my heart surrendered “it’s possible.”

And it was. And it is.

And I don’t think I would have gotten here by any other path by this one. My confirmation saint is Rose of Lima, chosen (superficially) for her pretty name from a book of saints I idly flipped through while zoning out during confirmation class in high school. One of my favorite expressions from her is this:

“Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.”

 

And so we climb. And the cross turns out not to be quite the horror I initially and intellectually shied away from in my younger years, but, at least for this remedial and oh-so-reluctant pupil, more of a gentle and slow death to self.

Death to preferences. Death to convenience. Death to comfort. Death to nap times lining up during the day and death to a perfect body and a good night’s sleep and uninterrupted plans. Death to a fully-matched 401k (which is a great thing to aim for!) and death to a preference for my own will.

But from all that death, a new life is being drawn forth into the light. And not just the little one growing beneath my heart and currently battering my ribs, but a new life for me too.

The miracle wasn’t only that He provided, though, miraculously, provide He did. The miracle is that He transformed my heart, and I believed He would.

“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Meet Catherine the Sienna.

benedict option, Catholic Spirituality, Catholics Do What?, Evangelization, feast days

Saints alive: In the world, but not of the world

November 1, 2017

It’s the Feast of All Saints, which means everyone has a raging sugar hangover and we’re on our second round of costumes in 24 hours – which, I admit, sounds miserable but which I manage by encouraging, nay, insisting, that would-be Halloween costume contenders transition almost effortlessly into saint costumes. So, for example, this year we have Darth Vader/St. Ignatius of Loyola, Luke Skywalker/St. Francis of Assisi, a crazy cat lady/St. Therese of Lisieux on her First Communion day (okay, that one did not transition well AT ALL), and the Chic-fil-A cow/the holy cow of Bethlehem (what? I’m tired).

Jedi look an awful lot like Franciscans, don’t you think?

The point is, if I’m going to be a fun mom and let them trick or treat the night before, it sort of behoves me to bust my butt making sure All Saints Day isn’t a big ‘ol womp womp compared with the glories of trick or treating. Which, happily, in the Catholic mega-community we’ve worked at creating here in Denver, with some help from our friends and a huge helping of grace, is not difficult to do.

I have to admit to not loving the rush of hustling bodies into costumes for the second day in a row and skidding out the door for 8 am Mass at school (costumes optional. But not really, unless you want to be the weirdo without a halo), but I do it because it’s important – it’s essential to us – that our kids know the entire point of Halloween is to point us to this great feast of all the members of the Church Triumphant. In a supremely teachable moment last night, the stuff Twitter wars are made of, truly, 5 year old John Paul asked “mom, why do we celebrate something evil right before we celebrate something holy?” and I all but shouted to STOP THE TRAIN BECAUSE HONEY, we are not celebrating evil, we’re looking it in the eye and saying, “nuh uh, we know who defeated death. And the victory is His.)

But it was a good reminder of how hard we need to work to present an attractive, compelling, and profoundly true narrative to counter the culture’s obsession with death, gore, and all things temporal.

And probably I’m not going to get the neighbors to dismantle their sadistic graveyard for the entire month of October, but I can surely make certain that our family parties hard come November 1st, drilling it home to our kids that Halloween is the low-key dress rehearsal for the big dance. So we trick or treat and have fun with the neighbors, but the real party is the next day, starting with Mass, a huge feast with all our little saint icons and peg dolls gathered around the huge dining room table, and culminating with a massive party with 100 of our closest friends at the home of our favorite religious order, the Servants of Christ Jesus.

Could we skip trick or treating all together and pretend Halloween doesn’t exist? Sure, we could. And that would be fine. But it wouldn’t be super realistic. Our kids see the entire city decked out in ghoulish decor come late September, and they know something is going on, and so we ride the wave of momentum driving their excitement right on into November 1st, kind of the way we take the premature hype and hustle of retail Christmas during Advent and use it to point out to them how insanely excited the whole world is about Jesus’ birthday, “they can’t even wait till Christmas to start celebrating!” And then we have to follow up by keeping Christmas alive for 12 days, which is 11 days longer than even K-Love is willing to go.

But being Christian means being countercultural. And for our crew, we’ve determined that our counter-culturalism will take the form of willingly embracing what is good in the wider culture, and using it as a springboard into what is even greater: the truth of the Gospel.

We see these widely-celebrated secular holiday seasons as a kind of protoevangelium of what is good and true and beautiful, but which falls just short of the entire reason for joy: Jesus Christ.

So yes, Halloween, but only because it’s the eve of the festival of all the great saints of heaven, triumphant in eternity because of Christ’s trampling over death. And yes, Christmas cookies in early December, but only because we’re sharing in our neighbor’s joy that something so wonderful happened to the human race 2,000 years ago that we haven’t stopped celebrating since, even if many have largely forgotten the cause for celebration.

In entering into what is good and lovely in the culture and using it to reinforce the truths we’re installing in our children’s hearts, our prayer is that we’re forming not only good disciples for Christ, but good missionary disciples. Able to engage and participate in the culture of which they are very much apart, never forgetting for a moment they are very much set apart.

So today, we feast. We get up early for Mass as a family. We eat too much candy. I make dessert even though it’s comically superfluous in light of 4 overflowing pumpkins atop the fridge. We attend a raucous party on a school night that is wildly inconvenient and unwise in terms of sugar consumption. And tonight during bedtime prayers, we’ll light every candle in the house and crank Matt Maher’s “Litany of the Saints,” invoking the prayers and memories of all our heavenly friends. And did I mention we eat candy?

My kids know plenty about alllllll the Marvel superheroes. They have the Star Wars universe all but memorized without even trying. It’s not realistic for me to expect them to fall in love with the real superheroes of this world unless I put in the effort and the energy to make sure they are known, loved, and emulated. Challenge accepted.

(And sure, we could skip Halloween altogether. And if your family does, that’s totally cool.) Me? I like a little bit of a challenge. I like trying to out-cool the culture in terms of which party is bigger, badder, and lasts later into the night. I like letting our kids have a taste of what’s good from an earthly perspective and allowing it to whet their appetite for what’s good from a heavenly perspective.

And I love teaching them about the saints, our real-life friends in heaven, alive in the presence of Jesus and cheering us on as we run so as to win the race.

(Don’t have a favorite saint? Click here to discover a new heavenly bff of your very own.)

(Want to learn more about a specific saint? Check CNA’s saint archives here.)

 

motherhood, Parenting, politics, reality check, WAHM/SAHM/WM, work life balance

A manifesto on motherhood

October 30, 2017

I shared this fascinating piece from the WSJ with my Facebook followers last week before heading into my weekend social media fast, and it garnered a flurry of mostly positive responses, which was a relief to login to on Monday morning. I was hoping it would be read in a spirit of head nodding “YES, women and babies do deserve better than the current popular setup” and not “yet another volley lobbed into the ongoing internet mommy warz.”

So if you haven’t had a chance to read it, please do give it a glance, unless your paywall has been met for the month, in which case I’ll give you the Cliffs Notes version here: mothers are biologically and psychologically necessary to their children, particularly for the first 3 years of life but crucially so in the first year, and they are not easily or effectively substituted for with alternative caregivers or daycare situations. The second best solution seems to be a dedicated, close family member who can act in proxy for mom, such as a grandma or aunt.

The research behind these findings originates not out of some bastion of conservatism orchestrated and funded by a Washington think tank or a fundamentalist Christian nonprofit, but from years of study in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics by a liberal psychoanalyst from New York’s Upper West Side, Erica Komisar.

The author recounts being blacklisted from the ordinary promotional circuit she would normally utilize during a book tour: places like NPR, MSNBC, and other more liberal-leaning mainstream news outlets. Instead she was welcomed onto Christian radio stations and more conservative new outfits like Fox and Friends. She recounts being virtually shunned by the liberal media and cast as something of a pariah in her own peer group.

But she says she couldn’t ignore the meaning of her own findings. So much so that she applied her own advice and shelved the book project while her own 3 children were young, choosing to back burner many of her professional pursuits during their earliest years at home.

This line in particular stands out to me from the piece: She followed her own advice and held off working on the book because her own young children, two sons and a daughter, still needed her to be “emotionally and physically present.”

I don’t know if that resonates with any of you, but it seared itself into my psyche because as a creative, a writer by trade, and a mother of many, I have never not wrestled with the mythical concept of “work/life balance.”

And let me insert here a big, fat caveat: working moms, too, make enormous efforts to spend quality time with their children, but all too often the significant personal sacrifices they make to be there for their kids go unsung.

I spent the first year of motherhood parked in coffee shops, tapping out freelance work while my son napped in his carseat. Once baby number two came along, I resigned myself mostly to nap time tapping, and by the time Evie joined us a year after that, I waved the white flag and parted with some of my meager freelance income to bring in a mother’s helper for 10 hours a week.

And that’s where we are still: 2 kids in school full time, 2 at home almost full time, another baby on the way in a couple months, 8 hours of in-home child care per week that our budget can just baaaaaarely squeak out, and me tossing and turning some nights wondering how I can continue being productive, being relevant, being effective.

And that’s just the professional side of the coin.

The other nights? Those I spend worrying that I’m stealing from my kids’ formative years, giving them un unhealthy dose of screen time while I subsidize our family fortune with my professional contributions, scarring them by crouching behind a glowing fruit logo for hours a day.

I’m being a little dramatic (aren’t I usually?) but I really do wrestle with the implications of what my presence – and not merely my physical presence, but my emotional presence too – has on their wellbeing. And with a freshly-minted 7 year old in the house, I’m suddenly personally aware that oh, my, it does actually go by really fast. One eternal Tuesday at a time.

But like many other women I know, my not working isn’t really an option. I’m profoundly grateful to have been given a gift I can monetize almost exclusively from home, but yeah, I still wrestle with mom guilt. And the mental weight of wearing the professional and personal hats 24/7 gets a little unwieldy at times.

But I have it better than many, many moms. I have the option of working from home and an employer willing to accept my contributions remotely, figuring I’m more valuable creating content from afar than not creating it to begin with. And I’m able to keep my workload to around 20-25 hours a week, many of which can be broken up into weird chunks during available nap/sleep times for the kids. But they still spend a good deal of time hearing “in a minute, mama’s working” – and those minutes add up.

What I want to talk about is not government-mandated maternity leave or even whether or not mom and dad are biologically interchangeable for childcare purposes (Komisar’s research says nay) but about the elephant in the room whose bulk prevents us from making meaningful cultural progress in this conversation: if we don’t value motherhood to begin with, how uncomfortable (and impossible) to make the case for its necessity-by-design.

And our culture does not value motherhood. I am aware of my own contribution to the narrative of shame by rushing to offer my “real” identity to strangers at the park or grocery store: “well, I’m a writer, but I work from home. Yeah, I’m really lucky.” Gush, gush.

But why do I feel the need to lead with the socially-superior identity?

Because we live in a culture that values production and technology before people and relationships.

Because I went to college and even a little grad school, and I have the student loans and “broadened horizons” to prove it.

Because I refuse to be typecast as a stereotype who never wanted anything “more” than diapers and dinners and laundry. (As if those sacred duties are meaningless and easily cast aside and outsourced.)

Etc. etc.

But, to the degree that I myself kick against the traces of the profession I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to, I do my own small part to lessen its significance in the eyes of the world.

Why not stay noncommittal when someone asks “do you work?” (Yes. I have kids. I work constantly.) Why not own the fact that, truly, most of my waking hours involve kissing owies and spreading peanut butter, and that it’s only the margins that get filled in with typing and word craft?

Why not surrender even just on an internal, emotional level, to the reality that right now, this family is my primary occupation, and just be thankful that God has given me a little side hustle to bring in some cash from the marketplace?

Why insist on donning the costume of “professional” identity in public?

I guess because if I’m being totally honest, I’m a little insecure in my own decision to toss it all aside, at least for a decade or so, to raise these ferocious and unpredictable human beings. Because I feel a shameful surge of envy when I see the announcement of another mom’s latest book title or new media project come across my Instagram feed. Because I watch worriedly each month as our bank account trickles down to zero and frantically cast about in my brain for ways that *I* can help shore up that bottom line.

Because I feel trapped, quite frankly, between an economy that seems to demand two incomes and a domestic situation that necessitates my presence at home 90% of the time. And I can’t seem to make the numbers totally work, either in our kids’ favor or the budget’s.

So it’s a bit of a catch-22. And I think that’s where the majority of the backlash to this research, minimal though it was at least on my FB page, comes from. Because other mamas out there whose kids are in daycare or who can’t seem to get the budget to balance or who wrestle with the ennui of not being quite enough on any level are about ready to throw their hands up and scream in frustration, “how can I win???”

There’s no winning. We’re 3 generations deep into the modern experiment of the dual income model of family life, and to opt out at this point in time carries with it no small amount of hardship. And yes, I’m well aware that former generations worked the land together and ran a home economy that depended equally upon both spouses, but the big fat difference there would be mom available to the children’s needs as a default setting and dad able to support the family on site, not away in an office (or on a plane) for 12 or 14 hours a day or 3 weeks out of the month.

Here I do not mean to romanticize the past, truly, because thank God for antibiotics and internal combustion engines and anesthesiologists.

But, still, there are grave imperfections within the modern economy, and perhaps none so glaringly offensive as the impact on our children.

I don’t have a pat answer or a neat solution. Just a shared sense of “um-hmm” while reading Komisar’s research and a conviction that, having come to a similar conclusion, I’ll do whatever necessary to be with my kids while they’re little.

But I can’t pretend that decision was made lightly, or without staggering cost. Nor can I shrug away the imperfections inherent even in our own best practices. I freely acknowledge how much needs to change in the current socioeconomic setup to implement many of Kosimar’s conclusions. And I think it will be a grassroots chorus of voices raised to demand more from individual employers and the culture at large and not an idealistic government-mandated policy of paid parental leave.

In order to be wholesale and effective and truly humane, change must come from the foundation and make it’s way up, revitalizing society from the most fundamental level: the family.

And also this: that those of us who have freely chosen this path have a responsibility, in a sense, to joyfully announce the gospel of suffering inherent in the vocation of parenthood, and motherhood in particular.

To recognize that in this earthly life there will likely be no perfect solution, no adequate policy, no neatly wrapped package of relief which solves the issue once and for all. We ought to be honest with ourselves and with the culture at large, acknowledging that to be counter-cultural at times comes with an accompanying price tag of pain, whether it be loss of income, loss of professional experience or social status, or even plain, old fashioned loneliness at being misunderstood and undervalued.

And that it’s worth it.

It’s worth it to look foolish in the eyes of the world in order to do right by our kids. And it’s worth it to embrace even the messiest reality and say, yeah, I can give myself over to this. It is in giving that we receive. Whether it be the grace to endure the hardship, the unexpected windfall to pay the orthodontic bill, or the encircling love and support of a small community of families – virtual or tangible – who get it, too. 

coffee clicks, design + style, house reno

Coffee clicks + bathroom pics

October 27, 2017

Snappy, yes?

There’s a nesting bug infestation at our house right now, so at the end of this week’s list of must-reads from around the Catholic inter webs, I’ll regale you with a tale of two vanities. It was an endeavor of monumental proportions (mine) and really pleasing bang-for-buck, because our master bath and the kid’s bathroom look utterly transformed by about $50 in paint and supplies. My kids have become accustomed to mommy disappearing to the nether regions of the house to paint things for most of their short lives, so the only real advice I have to other aspiring DIY-ers out there with small children underfoot is “paint early, and paint often.”

Also, Netflix.

But first, our list. In honor of the upcoming observance of All Hallow’s Eve and the great Feast of All Saints, this week’s offerings are a tad diabolical in nature.

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Italian exorcist: “There is a demon that targets the family.” Anyone who gives even a cursory glimpse to the headlines most days could confirm that suspicion, much as it’s out of fashion to attribute suffering in 2017 to the existence of evil. Still, a chilling and appropriate read this time of year. How do you talk to your children about the devil? About the existence of evil, and about the spiritual warfare we are involved in as baptized Christians?

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This one hits close to home – literally. We live about 5 blocks between the two schools featured in this piece, and in fact I’m writing this from a Starbucks adjacent to Arapaho High School, where posters promoting “Offline October” adorn the community bulletin board. Archbishop Aquila touches on some really crucial points in the battle for our children’s hearts and minds, particularly in supporting burgeoning young adults learning to navigate a profoundly different world from the one even we oldest millennials came of age in. Take a quick moment to say a prayer for someone who is contemplating suicide today. You never know where those prayers could be directed.

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I think this piece is always worth re-running this time of year. I had an interesting conversation on Facebook with a Latin American reader yesterday that got into some of the differences between the way Halloween is celebrated outside the United States. Obviously I’m writing from an American perspective, but what I’ve observed about the holiday over the years (and participated in with my own kids) bears little resemblance to anything dark or demonic. We don’t do witches or devil costumes. We don’t do chainsaw killers or Harry Potter or grotesque decorations. But I see little harm in dressing as a super hero or a princess (or heck, recycling that saint costume you’re going to be putting on again in the morning) and mingling with the neighbors for candy. Plus, there are some decidedly Catholic origins to the way we practice Halloween today.

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Not everything that pops up around this time of year is harmless, however. Ever heard of the cult surrounding “Saint Death?” Drug lords, folk religion, and a pinch of superstition all wrapped up in one ugly package.

And now for some lighter fare. Actually, it’s still pretty dark. I went with a charcoal-ish navy blue to bring these sad, 70’s oak bathroom vanities into the light of the present day, and I think it turned out pretty nicely, if I do say so myself. And I’ve got the pixilated cell phone shots to prove it:

Before:

This is not my bathroom. Every time I got close enough to the scene of the crime (carpeted toilet-surround) I had to back away lest I vomit. I think we ripped the carpets out 5 hours after we closed, a week before we moved in.

Progress shot. The friendly gentleman at Home Depot recommended a thorough chemical stripping and sanding. I opted for a biodegradable cleaning solution and a baby wipe. Progress over perfection, that’s my motto.

Midway point:

This is always when I run out of steam and think, gosh, can I just skip the topcoat of polycryic and get on with my life? (Short answer? No. Not with 5 kids.)

 

And, voila, after:

Master

Kids’ (didn’t my father in law do an amazing job on our tile? It was super cheap, too. Under $100 for both bathrooms, though I can’t promise that’s accounting for the toll on his knees and back.)

Nesting for me literally manifests as “oh my gosh, what should I paint today????” And meanwhile, barely cooking dinner. PB+J but a really nicely coming-together house, that’s my 3rd trimester MO.

(And guys, don’t worry, the paint was low VOC. Definitely safer than bleaching baseboards.)

Colors, for anyone who cares:
Mirror: Valspar chalky finish in Oxford White
Vanity: Behr premium plus in Night Sky

Happy weekend to you and yours!

 

 

Catholic Spirituality, Catholics Do What?, Evangelization, Family Life, feast days, liturgical living, saint days

Liturgical living for the lazy mom

October 26, 2017

Hey, do you have a kid or several and are trying to raise them Catholic and sort of had no idea, when you were growing up, that there were liturgical seasons, let alone an entire liturgical calendar cranking along in tandem with the secular year?

Yeah, me neither. I mean Advent and Lent, sure, but between public school and a decidedly lackluster parish, I credit my parents immensely that we ended up Catholic at all. Never mind that I didn’t know the Memorare till I was 23. They nailed the basics.

Lucky for you, for the past 7 delightful years, thanks to a combination of maternal hormones and the internet, I’ve been working to enthusiastically integrate feast days, baptismal day celebrations, and an holistic (I hope) recognition of the liturgical year in my own family. And I’ve got you covered for ideas.

Here’s why you should listen to me over some domestic goddess with finer attention to detail and legitimate retail-level crafting skills: because I am going to tell you how to do it in the absolute laziest, most basic way possible. On the off chance that there are other women out there who, like me, would actually prefer to do laundry or write up budget reports than craft elaborate saint-themed art projects, I figured it might be worth a write up.

(I happen to think those aforementioned domestic goddesses are pretty extraordinary, and I love catching a glimpse of their domestic liturgies through instagram or Facebook. But don’t ever show my kids what’s going on in their backyards, lest I have to devise something more profound than “here’s a marshmallow in your lunchbox: happy baptismal day, son!”)

Let’s make a little list, shall we? It seems to me we have a few categories at hand: major feasts and seasons of the liturgical year, family/personal devotions to particular saints, and baptismal days.

We’ll start with the major feasts/seasons, since Advent is very nearly upon us.

I’ve written a bit about how we’ve celebrated Advent in our family, and you’re welcome to check out some of these older posts for ideas. Since adding more kids and chaos to the mix (sweet chaos, but, nonetheless…) we’ve simplified further. First, an awareness that it *is* a different season for the Church. We point out the swapping of missals at Mass towards the end of November, telling our crew we’re entering into a season of preparation for baby Jesus as an entire Church. We point out the changing music, and we try to listen to a little bit of it at home. I try to keep the Christmas music to a minimum before the blessed event, but we’re not militant about that. If it’s a Sunday in Advent or a big feast day in our family (Juan Diego, St. Nicholas) we’ll crank dat Bing, never mind that we’re still weeks out from Christmas. But I try to steer clear of the 24-hour stations in the car, and impress upon the small people that while it’s exciting to prepare for Jesus, He’s not here yet, and so we’re going to make a tiny little sacrifice and not listen to Christmas music for a couple more weeks. (Full disclosure: this year, being uber pregnant and needing the serotonin boost, I may be much more lenient with this practice. And I may have listened to the James Taylor holiday station on Pandora for an hour yesterday.)

Some other Advent ideas include a little box of straw and a small wooden manger for the kids to fill with their good deeds and sacrifices. The better behaved the kid, the softer Baby Jesus’ bed. (And the more generous Santa will be). They totally get it.

Lent is a little tricker since they’re younger, but we take similar care to point out the changes happening at Mass, everything from the colors of the vestments to the changing liturgical decor of the building. We emphasize not saying “Alleluia” and they enjoy cackling gleefully when they catch each other slipping up. We also reserve desserts or special treats to big feast days only (St. Joseph, St. Patrick) and do our best to have a family penance of some sort. Last year it was no DVDs in the car and guess who that ended up being the most penitential for? Yeah…

The takeaway? It doesn’t have to be elaborate, artistic, or even particularly exciting. Just bringing a child’s awareness to bear on the rhythm of the Church’s year has a profound impact on them and helps universalize the experience of Catholicism for them. Isn’t it cool, I’ll ask, that kids in Africa are also lighting the 3rd Advent candle this Sunday? Isn’t it crazy to think that Easter is already going on in Australia right now, while it’s still Holy Saturday here?

Next up we have our favorite saint days. (A saint day = generally the day he or she died, but not in every case.) This is my favorite way to celebrate, and I love that the Church gets how often we human beings need to party. Lent is crammed full of feast days (and so is Advent, for that matter) which naturally break up the otherwise solemn nature of the seasons. And? It’s been a really handy tool to deploy in order to determine whether or not dessert is an option that day. My big boys have become trained to ask “is it a feast day?” with hopeful, gleaming eyes about 30 seconds into dinner, and if it is, and if it’s a saint one or all of us are devoted to or someone is named after, you can bet there’ll be sugar for the second course.

I am not much of a baker, so most of the time we’re talking a box of gf pumpkin bread from Trader Joe’s, a handful of tootsie rolls from the back of the pantry or, yes, a big marshmallow. Popsicles if it’s summer. A trip to 7-11 for Slurpees if it’s a major cause for celebration. (7 year old boys are deeply cultured.) I love this tradition we’ve settled into because a. it self regulates our sugar intake and b. it (hopefully) indelibly links the feast days of the Church to celebration and sweetness in the minds of my children.

Don’t have a favorite/patron saint? Why not peruse the CNA saint archives and see if anyone jumps out at you. Look up the saints for the days of each family member’s birthday, for your wedding anniversary, the day you finished your medical degree, the date of your engagement, etc. You might be pleasantly shocked by what – and who – you find. If your kids are named after saints, that’s an easy one. Find the corresponding day to their name and make it a point to learn a little about the heavenly friend they share a name with. Don’t have a saintly name? Maybe there’s a variant or previously unexplored wordplay connection, like choosing a Marian feast day for a little girl named Grace (full of grace) or commemorating St. Isidore the farmer for a little boy named Hayden (too much of a stretch?).

Finally, we have baptismal days. I’ve tried to get better about, ah, actually knowing which days each of us were baptized (any idea when mine is, mom?) and making it a point to mark that momentous occasion of our entrance into the communion of saints.

I don’t dig out their baptismal candle and light it or even show them pictures of the day, though both are good ideas! I literally just identify the lucky target and we give a round of high fives or applause for the day he or she became a Christian, and I stuff a marshmallow into their lunchbox (are you sensing a high-brow culinary theme here? Good.)

Sometimes we also take a minute or two for a brief catechesis on what baptism is (entrance into the divine life of Christ), what it requires of us (fidelity to our baptismal promises), and what it entitles us to (membership in the family of God.) I’ll remind them that just as they were born into our family and did nothing to earn that belonging, so also they were born into the family of God through no merit of their own, and that it’s up to them to decide whether they want to stay there. Boom, free will in a nutshell.

The biggest reason I try to emphasize these little domestic celebrations and the larger liturgical events of the Christian year?

It’s because I know that I am competing for the hearts and minds of my children, and that the very best bet I can hedge is to attempt to inebriate them with joy. The world is a flashy, exciting, delightful place, and if I want my kids to be as excited about St. Therese as they are about the new Star Wars movie being released, I have to bring my A-game. And that needn’t mean elaborate crafts or themed meals (though it sure could!); but an intentional awareness and joyful celebration of the liturgical feasts (and fasts) of the Church year.

Will it guarantee little grown-up Catholics 30 years from now? Nope. But it sure can’t hurt. And I like to think that for little hearts and minds that do stray, free will being what it is, a sweet memory from childhood of a candlelit dinner table and mom’s lackluster dessert could go far in reigniting a weakly-flickering flame in a soul that might be struggling.

It’s not just smells and bells for the sake of keeping our bodies and minds occupied, after all, but about communicating a deeper reality to our souls that sometimes finds greater efficacy in going directly through the senses.

Plus, it’s fun to party. And Catholics really should be anxious to defend the title of throwing the very best parties, culminating, of course, in eternity.

coffee clicks

Coffee Clicks {October 20th}

October 20, 2017

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I wrote up the following for a facebook post. A little tongue in cheek, maybe, but not terribly far into the cheek:

Alternative headline possibilities for this gem of a story:

“Jewish student group at Yeshiva University faces campus tribunal for reading Torah; Holy Book deemed ‘hate speech'”

“Muslim freshman reprimanded by Cambridge Muslim College after reports surface on social media of praying 5x/day facing Mecca”

Would those get our attention?

-2-

I was born in Marin county, not far from wine country, and it has pained me to see the beautiful, rolling hills of northern California decimated by horrifyingly destructive wildfires. If there were anything that you’d pray could get the government’s attention (like we’ve seen in Houston and all over Florida, for example) and convince them to set aside their little pet projects and petty partisanship, you’d hope it would be catastrophic loss of life and property. You would think that, but in California, where the government has officially abdicated the throne of reason, you’d be wrong.

Alex, I’ll take obtuse for 182,000 acres.

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Does it sometimes seem like the tide of LBGTQ+++++ has rolled wholesale at an alarming and seemingly artificially inflated pace across, well, pretty much all of Western Civilization? I mean, sure, the internet. But as any “influencer” on Instagram could tell you, exposure and building a following at breakneck speed doesn’t come cheap. If you’ve ever scratched your head and wondered why hollywood and the media seem just a tad more “progressive” than most anyone you’ve actually met in real life, it might just be because someone – or rather, a lot of well-heeled someones – is putting up big money toward the goal of “punishing the wicked” and swaying public opinion and policy into the camp of insanity. As Ryan T. Anderson astutely observes: “Not every disagreement is discrimination. And our law shouldn’t suppose otherwise.”

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My dad texted me last night that he and my mom were “Pumba crying” (which I guessed to be a Lion King reference?) after reading my little sib-trib from yesterday. Mission favorite child: accomplished.

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This is perhaps a little basic, but it’s also basically brilliant. (Plus, my usual favorite annual link to “Decorative Gourd Season” over at McSweeney’s is a little too hot for some to handle.)

Have a lovely fall weekend!

 

About Me, Family Life, large family, motherhood, Parenting, siblings

“Mom and dad were right”: big family benefits all grown up

October 19, 2017

I left a comment on someone’s super sweet Instagram post last week (hi, Nell!) of a shot of her kiddos headed down the block to her sister’s house in search of cousins to play with. She asked her followers what their own experiences were like with the adult sibling dynamic, and whether they were in close physical proximity. I think I was one of the few – maybe the only – responders to have the great fortune of having both many siblings and many siblings who live close by. It forced me to stop and reflect on the blessing these people are in my life, and also the unique nature of this intentional community we’ve created for ourselves and our families.

I am the oldest of 7 kids. I grew up as the lead duck in a string of ducklings trailing across grocery store parking lots and filling most of an entire pew in Mass on Sundays. We were definitely not a typical sight in the small, conservative town I spent most of my formative years in, and we were for sure, even at then “only” 5 in number, a typical sight in the Bay Area suburb we moved from the summer before my 11th birthday. I got pretty used to the gaping stares, the bobbing, open-mouthed silent counting and eye movement of strangers, and, yes, the occasional insane comment to my mom in the checkout line.


Now that I have my own multiplying string of ducklings, it has become second nature to ignore the interest we occasionally arouse in public. I also think living in a place like Denver, where people are pretty individualistic and open minded (for better and for worse), the shock factor is a little harder to come by. Whatever the case, I’m more than equipped to handle probing questions at Trader Joe’s and incredulous smiles at the playground; I’ve been training for it my whole life.

Baby brother holding baby mine. (If only I could get him to change diapers, payback would be in full.)

If you’d have asked 17 year old Jenny (who was less than thrilled that her mom was pregnant with baby number 7 at the time) her thoughts on being the eldest in a large family, she – I – would probably have snorted and quite possibly rolled her eyes. Deep down I didn’t mind it … much. But now, 17 years later, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Far from being resentful of the more than occasional babysitting shift thrust upon me, or the relative lack of disposable income, I would be able to put my hands firmly on the shoulders of my teenage self and tell her, in all honesty, “these are the best people you will ever know. They will be there for you for the rest of your life, in a way that nobody else can come close to. You think giving up a Saturday night here or there is a pain? Wait until the little girl you’re babysitting right now is a college sophomore spending her Christmas break sleeping in your basement so that when your water breaks you can head straight to the hospital. Wait until the annoying sister shadowing you in the high school cafeteria becomes the best friend you call almost every morning, who picks your kids up from carpool in a pinch even though her minivan is also maxed out. Wait till the little brother whose diapers you really don’t feel like changing becomes one of the best men you’ve ever known, and proposes to a woman so wonderful that you ask the two of them to be your yet-unborn child’s godparents.”

The truth is, everything our parents told us: that we were each other’s first and best friends, that high school would end one day but sisterhood and brotherhood were forever, that we’d always be able to count on one another…it all came true. In spades. When I look across the bustling, loud 9:30 Mass at our parish I can see my sister and her husband sitting with their 4 little blonde children spread out across an entire row, my brother and his fiance bookending them and perhaps holding an errant toddler. Or a few rows further back I spot another sister and her husband with their two darling daughters, flanked on one end by the sister who lives with them and the nice guy she’s dating. (And heck, the only reason I’m not sitting with them is because in some fantastic stroke of divine providence, my in laws moved to Colorado 3 years ago and grandma and grandpa come to Mass with us every.single.Sunday. Hashtag freaking blessed.)

Although our personalities are as wildly differing as our heights, this vertically-blessed lineup includes a half dozen of my closest friends on earth. And truly, that’s a huge motivator when I’m knee deep in exhaustive little kid parenting, wondering if we are, in fact, maybe a little crazy for doing what we’re doing with our own family. 

But then I imagine my 3 boys out for beers and a baseball game, 20 years from now. I imagine them dressed in tuxes for their sister’s wedding. I try to envision whether we’ll have another member of team testosterone join the crew come December, or if Evie will at last have a sister to confide in, fight with, and sneak out of the house with. (On second thought, perhaps I should be hoping for another boy?)

Most of all I envision the relationship the 4 – soon to be 5 – of them will one day have. A group hologram to replace the group text that I enjoy with my siblings, frequent nights out to split appetizers and catch the latest Star Wars flick, regular kid-swapping weekends to spell each other from the rigors of parenting, and always, always, a shoulder to lean on, a friend to confide in, and a fellow traveler on the journey to heaven to reach out to in times of darkness and of joy.

My little sister was instrumental in drawing me, her 3-years-older and sooooo much wiser, world-weary college veteran of a big sister out to a tiny, stinky coal town in Eastern Ohio, where I threw my life away (so I thought) and started over. Turns out that dramatic cross-country leap was the most vertical maneuver I’d make in life, still to date.

4 more siblings have since trailed after, beating a dusty path along Interstate 70 eastbound, throwing in the towel on culture and air quality for 4 years of intensive Catholicism 101; a seventh and final sibling is headed there next fall. Which means, in addition to sharing blood and parents and memories of eating cold Spaghetti-O’s straight from the can, we also share a common faith.

This is perhaps the greatest gift of all (narrowly edging out the free babysitting); that we love Jesus together, that we strive for heaven together, and that we can lock arms in a darkening culture with a diminishing moral compass and, like so many hobbits journeying towards Mordor, reassure one another “I got your back. We can do this. Together.”

And that’s no small thing in a world that loves the darkness.

I pray this for my own children: that long after I am gone, the bonds of blood and brotherhood that bind them together will only strengthen with time, shoring them up in moments of great sorrow and great joy, and that I can await them confidently (fingers-crossed) in the life after this one, knowing they’re helping each other along the way when I’m no longer there to guide them.