mental health, motherhood, prayer, Uncategorized

The space between

February 20, 2019

Lately I’ve been making use of a previously overlooked and formerly unavailable slot of time in my life: the very early morning. I was lamenting to my best friend at the beginning of January my very slow progress towards accomplishing anything outside my ordinary stream of productivity: laundry, the blog posts I compose for CNA every week, the meals I cook, the uniforms I wash, the floors I mop, any freelance work I take on, etc.

I can get more done than the bare minimum across all fields, but everything else seems to suffer when I do. I do know it’s only a season, and a brief one at that. My oldest is 8, next fall everyone but the baby will be in school all day, at least on Mondays and Tuesdays.

It’s wild to think in the span of 4 years I’ll have gone from 4 kids under 5 needing me every second of every day to, well, whatever the fall will look like. I remember acutely the bittersweet passage out of the season of all-together-all-the-time, and wondering if I would be able to withstand the heartache of separation from my oldest, and then his brother, and so on.

Spoiler alert: we withstood. And we flourished. And I have come to deeply love the rhythm of school year life. It has afforded me an occasion for intimacy with my younger kids that I would not otherwise have enjoyed, something approximating the life their older brothers led, but with a slightly older and wiser mom who is really much more relaxed and, I’d wager, more pleasant to be around. I’m not quite as bouncy on the playground as I once was, but I’m much more likely to let you keep eating that sucker you dropped on the ground.

Anyway, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: God blessed us with a miraculously good baby. All babies are good babies, but this baby is an especially good baby, and sleep is her top performing skill.

So I can get up early. And the time I have always marked out as sacred and necessary for sleep (and will do so again as future babies come, no doubt) is suddenly available.

For more than a month now I’ve been creeping downstairs in the still dark hours before 6 am, hopping in a weird pattern from across the painted linoleum kitchen floor because the squeaky subfloor is sufficient to wake early birds (ask me how I know). I flip the espresso machine on and make my way to the couch or the kitchen table, depending on the temperature. The couch is warmer, but it’s hard to type there, sitting hunched over my laptop with an overstuffed pleather pillow cranking my neck forward in what I can only assume is a definite ergo-no-no position.

It’s hard to focus on prayer early in the morning. It’s hard to focus on prayer any time, honestly, when you’re human. When you’ve been lax about it or you’ve got a bunch of urgent tasks – however mundane – jockeying for your attention. I love my little people but they are nothing if not urgent. And I know God wants to grow in intimacy with me now, not 20 years in the future when I have uninterrupted time for Adoration and meditation and daily Mass.

Anyway, back to this morning. It was almost 6 now and the kids were starting to trickle downstairs one by one. I pulled the baby off the cat for the second time in as many minutes, (wondered briefly about feline brain damage caused by lack of oxygen from toddler Evie’s having smothered her as a kitten, because the cat, she does not move. She has no survival instincts.) and moved into the productivity portion of my pray + produce hour of power.

I didn’t get a ton of writing done, but I was satisfied to have another page, at least, Five paragraphs in need of polish but there on the screen, and better than the five I hadn’t written before this morning.

Later in the shower I lathered my hair with real shampoo, scrubbing away at the vestiges of a week’s worth of the dry kind. I’d set my phone down on the counter reluctantly to finally step into the steamy spray only reluctantly, wanting to keep…what?

It occured to me that on some level, I’ve become uncomfortable being alone with my thoughts, uncomfortable being in a “non-producing” state.

A state like, well, the shower. Which explains why I’d briefly considered launching a podcast episode to play in the background for those 8 otherwise fallow minutes, ultimately deciding no, it might drown out my ability to hear Luke wreaking havoc in the kitchen downstairs.

Dressing with a firefighter’s speed, eager to check in on Luke the destructor lest too much time pass without adult supervision, I flung piles of clean clothes from the floor up to the bed, mentally composing yet another task list for the day ahead. And in my restless, striving stream of though, the Lord bumped His way in, lobbing a football towards me that I reflexively stopped to catch. What He said was this:

“Remember to fill the space between your ribs before you fill the space between your ears.”  

I think He meant this, that in my mad rush for productivity and achievement and results, it’s very easy to operate under my own power. I used to go hours and days without really stopping to pray. Still do, sometimes. I forget what the system runs on, so to speak. Until I come up against something that is bigger than I can handle, that is. Then I’m right back on my knees, yessir, pleading for help I didn’t think I needed when I was “competent.”

I have a bad habit of filling up on head stuff, to the detriment of heart stuff. I’ll read some spiritual writings or theological content, maybe recite a rosary while driving to school. And I should do those things! But I can easily forget that thinking about God isn’t the same as communing with Him in my heart. Isn’t the kind of intimacy human beings were made to run on. Not solely, anyway.

Yesterday we had a confusing doctor’s appointment for one of the kids. Afterwards, my head whirling, I spent hours messaging with friends, talking with my mom, Googling things, reading reviews of different providers. When night came and I was still wrestling with some anxiety about the situation, I realized I hadn’t once prayed about it. And look, I know God knows and sees everything we’re up against, is with us in every moment, but gosh do I spend a lot of time filling up that space between my ears, believing on some level that I can research or call my mom or crowd-source my way out of most any problem.

I also spend an awful lot of time filling my day to the brimful, overflowing with information and sensory input. A book in my car, my Kindle in my purse, my laptop on the counter, my phone in my hand…there is almost no need for me to ever sit idle, alone with my thoughts, or in conversation with God. And it shows. And I don’t think I’m unique in living in this manner that is almost a fleeing from silence.

Fill up the essential space first.

Fill the space between your ribs before you fill the space between your ears.

abuse, Catholics Do What?, current events, Evangelization

2 things I believed about the Catholic Church that were totally wrong (and why anyone would stay Catholic)

February 12, 2019

How about a little remedial ecclesiology today? (Trigger warning: if you don’t like going past 1200 words, this piece might stretch you 5 uncomfortable minutes past your limit. I know, I know. Same! I tried my best to rein it in.)

The summer of shame is well in the rearview now, and we’re underway into a whole new calendar year. As 2018 waned, the days shortening and the nights darkening, it seemed that there would be no end in sight for the rage and pain felt by faithful and lapsed Catholics alike; how could this vile evil be seeping forth from the Church we knew and loved?

For survivors of abuse – men and women who knew all too well the evil that often lay hiding in plain sight – this pain was compounded by perceived silence and cowardice from high. Where were our pastors and shepherds back at the height of the summer’s scandalous and widely-splashed headlights?

Little by little we began to grapple with the ramifications of too few pastors speaking out due to, perhaps, their own lack of credibility. It’s awfully hard to condemn the log in your brother’s eye when you’ve got a telephone pole sticking out of your own retina. Others held back out of fear, perhaps at the advice of legal counsel. Still others felt – rightfully – personally horrified and enraged by the failures of their brothers when they had themselves been struggling heroically, often with little support, to walk the walk.

Many Catholics left. Some had distanced themselves eons ago, but made their separation a public affair after ingesting the wretched evil laid bare in the Pennsylvania report.  

Others quietly stopped trusting, stopped believing, and stopped attending.

For those who stayed, each of us have had to answer, if only for ourselves, why we did.

Peter, do you love me?

God knew that each of us who profess a faith in Jesus Christ and the Church He founded would need to dig deep in these days “to give an explanation for the hope we possess.”

It’s not like this was a curveball to the Almighty. He tells us plain, “Whatever is done in the dark will be brought into light.”

In other words, truly private sin is a human fantasy. Maybe it’s one of the oldest fantasies – I wonder if Eve thought, somehow, that the same God who had fashioned her from nothing, breathed life into her lungs, would somehow fail to notice her small act of rebellion? Like He was super busy checking on the mountains and fish and stuff.

Anyway, I’ve had numerous conversations with Catholics and non-Catholics alike over the past 8 months. Answered hard questions from strangers about why we’ll stay, about why we’ll never, ever leave.

But I can’t say I haven’t considered it. Back in July when revelations were coming to light seemingly faster than the Internet could link to them, I was daily overcome with rage and sorrow. And confusion. What I knew about the Church, the papacy, and the gates of hell all seemed, well…wrong. And I felt adrift.

I am a JPII Generation Catholic, as they say. I fell in love with the mystery and the history of Catholicism during the early years of Benedict’s papacy, called home by a mysterious grace seemingly wrought just for me in the final hours of St. John Paul II’s life. My conversion solidified and matured at Franciscan University of Steubenville where I encountered the word “theology” for the very first time. I probably know more about Catholicism than the average Sunday Mass-going Catholic, if only because of the Aquinas and Kreeft and Hahn and DeLubac I was assigned to read.

And I still considered leaving.

It turns out you can’t reason your way into continued belief. Faith is, at the end of the day, a gift. And an act of the will.

I am becoming increasingly aware that faith is both gift and choice. And that, having been handed the gift, I will be asked over and over throughout my lifetime to reaffirm my choice, and to continue to grow both in love and in knowledge of the Faith with a capital F.

Catholicism isn’t mine to interpret or define as I see fit. A radical notion for a postmodern mind, but one that we all fall prey to from time to time. My impoverished philosophical foundation led me to believe some fairly common fallacies about the Church which greatly intensified my pain and confusion this past year. Here are two of the errors I didn’t even realize I was carrying around in my brain; consider this a sort of “Ecclesiology 101” (ecclesia = church, ology = study of).

Myth 1: The Holy Spirit picks the Pope.

I don’t know that I literally thought this was what happened, but I certainly behaved as if I did.

Standing in a sodden St. Peter’s Square and breaking into wild jubilation with a hundred thousand strangers while watching that white smoke billow out of the Sistine Chapel chimney on the night of Pope Francis’ election didn’t do much to help dispel this myth. The papacy has always felt big and kind of magical to me. Probably because of the circumstances of my awakening to the Faith, and because of the big moments we’ve shared as a family with different Holy Fathers.

Nevermind that the Church, in 2,000 years of Petrine ministry had numbered in her ranks countless ineffective popes, weak popes, mediocre popes and outright evil popes. Because my Church history was an inch deep and my love for the modern popes was a mile wide, I was primed to be deflated by any shortcomings in a Roman Pontiff, either perceived or actual.

Reality: The Holy Spirit inspires the actions and deliberations of the College of Cardinals, assuming they are actively seeking His Will and living lives of virtue. (If I could double bold that last line, I would.) And then the Holy Spirit guarantees that whomever is elected can’t make a fatal mess of things.

As best as this armchair theologian can figure, the Holy Spirit really does this heavy lifting when it comes to preserving and protecting the Deposit of Faith:

The apostles entrusted the “Sacred deposit” of the faith (the depositum fidei),45 contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. “By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.” CCC 84

…And in preventing heretical or erroneous teaching being promulgated “ex cathedra” or “from the chair” of Peter. Translation: The Pope cannot err when proclaiming, with the full weight of the Magisterium and in keeping with the revealed Tradition of the Church, the truth of something pertaining to faith and morals.

Can the pope have a mistress? Father illegitimate children? Be a heretic, privately? Give dumb answers to questions journalists ask? Believe wrongly that the superior flavor of gelato is crema? All yes. Which is so freaking hard to believe. But bear with me. Because myth number two which I believed was:

Myth 2: the Pope is the head of the Catholic Church

I mean, we do have a hierarchy, do we not? As an American who lives in a society of rules and laws and order, familiar with the organizational structure of human institutions, this is another one which I, frankly, sort of took for granted. Hence the outraged tweeting for the Holy Father to DO SOMETHING. FIRE SOMEONE. WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING??? last summer.

But, um, guys…the Church is not just a human institution.

Protects, defends, and transmits? Occasionally, when it suits, and sooner or later.

He is the leader of the Church on earth. The head of the Church’s hierarchy, the shepherd of the Universal Church on earth. But it isn’t Pope Francis’ Church, any more than it was Pope Benedict’s, or Pope Innocent’s, or Pope Gregory’s, or Pope John Paul II’s. 

Reality: Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.

“Christ is the Head of this Body:” Christ “is the head of the body, the Church.”225 He is the principle of creation and redemption. Raised to the Father’s glory, “in everything he (is) preeminent,”226 especially in the Church, through whom he extends his reign over all things. CCC 792

Jesus died for us, for His Church. Jesus had to forfeit His life in exchange for ours, hot mess that we were/are. And in an interesting throwback to myth number one, Jesus only personally chose the first pope: Peter.

So why have a pope? Why have a Church? Why have a Bible? Why not start from scratch every generation and do archeological and anthropological research to try to piece together anew what the OG Christians of Corinth circa 67 AD must have practiced and believed?

Is that what Jesus willed for us? To have to start from zero every time the saving water trickles over the brow of a new Christian, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son…”

The Trinitarian formula for baptism, by the way: how are we sure that’s a thing? Should we each be researching and verifying and making sure for ourselves way out here in 2019 that we’re practicing Christianity as Jesus Christ intended? If that’s the case, thank God for Google, rising adult literacy rates, and the printing press, right?

But the Church is for all people, for all times. The Church is not only for moderns with internet access and small group Bible studies. The Church is not only for white people with comfortable sanctuaries and good youth programming. The Church is not only for prisoners in need of mercy, for orphans in need of fatherhood, for prostitutes in need of conversion and redemption.

The Church is for all of us, for all of humanity, past, present, and future. The God who promised “I will not leave you orphans” has not abandoned us to our own devices.

We do not have to rely on our own wisdom, our own clever understandings of theology – or our not-so-clever understanding, for that matter – or even on the goodness of one particular person who holds a position of power at a given time in history.

St. Jerome says “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” The words of the Old and New Testaments wash over me every time I go to Mass, whether I’m sitting in recollected silence or wrangling an nasty toddler. I am steeped in Scripture when I sit in the church, which is mysteriously both a building and the Body of Christ, of which I am mysteriously a member and an essential physical component. I am brought into deeper relationship with Jesus Christ through the ministry of His Church and the encounter of His Word. The Church is both guardian and guarantor of the written, living Word of God.

I cannot turn away in solitude from the Body of Christ while clutching the Word of Christ to my heart.

What I read in Scripture casts new light in what I practice on Sundays. The liturgy is rooted in – not added on to – the Bible. Without the Church, we’d have no Bible.

Without the Church, we’d have no Sacraments. Without the Church, we wouldn’t know what to believe- we need the Church’s authority to teach, lead us, and sanctify us.

Because we can’t live without Jesus.

No matter how badly we humans behave. Perhaps because of how badly we humans behave; we need Him all the more. Come hell or high water – and perhaps the water will come right up to the gates…we need Him.

books, Catholics Do What?, Culture of Death, current events, decluttering, design + style, minimalism

Coffee clicks: What the Friday?

February 8, 2019

This week was one for the record books in terms of watching news come across the wires and wondering not once, not twice, but, well…a lot more times than that if we are, in fact, all still living in reality.

The Virginia governor who suggested keeping resuscitated hypothetical newborns comfortable until “doctors and parents” decide whether or not to….what, kill it? Literally we’re discussing after birth abortion now. Aka murder.But massage that language enough and you’ll get fascinating mind benders like “post-birth abortion” and “4th trimester abortion” and “newborn fetus.” Anyway, seems like he was a great guy in high school, too.

But wait, that’s not all! During President Trump’s SOTU address he made a few impassioned pleas for unity around the idea of not killing babies who accidentally survive abortions. Unsurprisingly, by this point in the week, these were not pleas that enjoyed bipartisan support.

But you know, it’s not all bad news. This episode of CNA Newsroom was one of the more beautiful things I’ve listened to in a long time. The comment towards the end of the second segment where the mother speaks about “emotional closure” is a profoundly edifying concept to meditate on, particularly in light of our culture’s desperate, clawing fear of suffering. We’ll do anything to avoid it, crush whatever innocent thing stands in our way, and yet the true path to serenity and long term emotional wellbeing is often found cutting directly down the middle of that suffering.

This is the real poverty of nihilism and atheism: To be alone, to be made to suffer alone and without meaning. For this reason I can think of almost nothing more devastating than abortion, separating mother from child, severing a most fundamental human relationship, and leaving a child to suffer terribly, and alone. Abortion is never the answer. Yes, even when it’s “medically necessary.”

Ashley’s ode to her oldest on his 9th birthday had me thinking how crazy fast things are starting to go. Especially as I did the math and realized I’m half a year away from having my own 9 year old. That’s wild to me. I must be getting older, because those “blink and you’ll miss it” statements used to make my eyes roll. Now they make them water:

“With a blink, it will be gone and ghosts of Lego messes and dance parties past will haunt me with such longing—uncaring that I spent every waking moment with them. It won’t ever be enough..”

Should Catholic politicians who publicly endorse – even clamor for – abortion be excommunicated? Perhaps. But I think it’s unlikely to happen, and even less likely to accomplish anything meaningful in the life of the excommunicated, as per the intention of the censure. Better to withhold and restrict reception of the Holy Eucharist which is the public affirmation we make as Catholics that we are united in practice and in belief with the Catholic Church and all that She professes.

Possible alternate headline: “Millennial takes socialism to its (il)logical conclusion”.

Tearing through this book, “Cozy Minimalist Home” – Myquillen Smith’s follow up to her runaway bestseller “The Nesting Place” – and guys, I AM HERE FOR IT. I rearranged my entire main floor this morning and it looks like I spent a grand at Home Goods. (Husband: I did not. I spent nothing.)



p.s. My entire “what I read in 2018” book list is here if you’ve got a case of the Februarys.

Have a great weekend wherever you are!

mental health, mindfulness, prayer, reality check, self care

The despair of comparison and letting God in

February 5, 2019

Do you ever take your eyes off your own paper just for a minute, maybe not every day, but every so often? What do you see when you look around?

I don’t necessarily mean on social media, but let’s start there. Maybe you sit down for a few moments of peace in between meetings or mountains of laundry. You tap the screen and lose yourself for a few minutes – maybe more than a few – in those perfect little squares. (Yes, I know I pick on Instagram a lot. No, I’m not sorry.) In the span of a few moments you’ve maybe seen amazing vacation pictures, a victory shot of a new number on the scale or a new pair of jeans.

A lucrative new opportunity someone else has been handed, a pregnancy announcement, the money shot to a set of keys to a new home being handed over. A gap-toothed kid smiling with a solid gold report card. A kitchen reno. A mission trip overseas. A road trip over state lines.

Whatever it is that you’re seeing, when it causes your heart to contract, tightening with pain instead of expanding in gratitude and wonder, what is happening there?

Original sin, sure. A touch of envy. A dusting of avarice. A smidge of self righteous resentment. Quite possibly, yes.

But what if the pain is also a sign of something more foundational than plain, boring old sin?

What if God is examining an old hurt, probing an imperfectly-healed wound with His finger, showing where it’s still tender, infected, impacted?

I was on the treadmill last month in a fit of mid-January despair, multitasking between (I kid you not) a motivational podcast with a self-help book pulled up on my Kindle while maintaining a vigorous pace. Of the two entire times I exercised during the month of January, this was by far the more strenuous.

My mind wandered from the podcast as my brain strained to toggle between audio and visual input. Frustrated, I switched off the Kindle and stared into space. What was the use, anyway? I can intake all the self help advice on the planet and still only show up at the gym twice a month during this season of life. I just don’t have the hustle. I just don’t have the grit.

God gently quietly inserted Himself into my negative stream of consciousness and this thought popped up: “But do you spend time with Me?”

Not lately. My conscience was seared on the spot, but with the gentle precision that only the Divine Physician can wield.

During the tumult of the holidays and a very sick month for our family, time with God – along with my amazing diet and great sleep hygiene and New Year’s Resolutions to slay all day – had fallen along the wayside.

I saw myself in that moment on the treadmill in a crowded gym at 10 pm on a January night and I laughed at how perfectly, perfectly I embodied my perpetual desire to save myself.

God constantly has to remind me to stop fighting Him for control of my own life.

Basically from the time when I first gained self awareness right up to present day, I’m in a constant cycle of forgetting Him, forging ahead, enjoying moderate success under my own formidable head of steam, having some kind of stress or effort or circumstance-induced breakdown, crashing and burning, and then calling out to Him in despair. And repeat.

He always picks me up again. Consols me with an intimacy that doesn’t seem possible outside of a retreat setting.

For about a week or two – however long I manage to maintain my newfound enthusiasm for a good prayer routine, however long I can perceive Him metaphorically rubbing my belly – I lap up His closeness like a good-natured dog who is so, so happy the master came home from work again.

Inevitably, life creeps back in and the intimacy fades. As I’ve come to understand in my slightly more mature walk of faith, it is almost always me withdrawing from the Lord, not vice versa.The morning after my little treadmill epiphany I came to God with some pretty specific questions, asking Him why so-and-so had already achieved such and such, wondering what was wrong with me, my work, my commitment, my ability, etc. He was really clear and, again, really gentle: “What I have given to her would not have been good for you.”

Unfortunately that sentence wasn’t followed immediately by “but I’m going to give it to you soon!” Happily, neither did He finish with “And I’m never, ever going to give it to you.”

I guess He’s leaving the more nuanced work of discernment up to me.

It did get me thinking that some of my specific struggles with jealousy are tied to specific wounds or weaknesses of mine: the fear of not being chosen, of not being enough, of bringing my best to the table and still being rejected – this specific fear usually manifests for me as paralysis and procrastination. Because they can’t reject what you’ve never offered in the first place, am I right?

I’m the guy who buries his single talent in the ground and then obsesses about why everyone else is having so much success with their talents, while simultaneously trembling in fear of being called out for it one day.

Where is this going? I guess my point is twofold. First, that God uses specific weaknesses and wounds to speak to us about His vision for our lives and to remind us that we need Him. When something hurts, it’s an invitation to turn towards Him and ask for help.

He wants to heal us, He longs to…but He won’t force His way into our lives. If we turn away and refuse to show Him the cut, He can’t bandage it up. I’m sure it pains Him to watch us dripping blood all over the place like crazed toddlers, clutching at the injury in agony, wondering why He won’t help us but refusing to come near enough to let Him do so.

Second, He will continue to bring our pain to the surface, offering us opportunities to address it with Him. The woman from today’s Gospel who grabbed at Jesus’ robe in the crowd, had she tried everything in her own power already, was she desperate to be healed and finally reaching out to Him as a last resort? Or had she been crying out for years, unable to articulate what it was exactly that she needed until the moment she laid eyes on Him: the source and summit of her healing?

His mercy is new every morning, but so is our freedom to turn away. It’s a constant sacrifice of the will to turn towards Him, confiding our hurts and insecurities, our jealousies big and small. He wants all of them, begging us to lay down our burdens, longing to draw all the poison to the surface and make us well, make us whole.

As for me, I can wash my face and not quit my daydream and hustle like I mean it all day every day, but unless I hand my dreams, my heartbreaks, and all my brokenness over to Him, I’ll never reach the potential that He has in mind for me.

decluttering, marie kondo, minimalism, motherhood

The life changing magic of bagging it up (even if it was a gift)

January 31, 2019

I’m going to hone straight in on sentimental objects in this next installment on minimalism and decluttering, because without a doubt it is the area that trips more people up than perhaps all other categories combined, and also because it turns out a lot of the people who read Mama Needs Coffee are moms (hi, moms!) and moms get a lot of stuff given to them for their precious ones, everything from Christmas gifts to hand me downs from the neighbor kids.

Moms, lean in close today, because I’m going to unload some heavy artillery in the form of what I hope will prove, ultimately, to be self love: you don’t have to keep anything in your house that you don’t like/ doesn’t serve your family.

(insert disclaimer about toddler underwear and your husband’s whatever collection here)

A toy that is super annoying and makes your kids fight like animals: get rid of it.

A dress your best friend in college gifted you in your early twenties (and which fit in your early twenties): bye!

A decorative engraved flask with your husband’s college nickname on it he got as a groomsman gift … in 2007: see ya. (Obviously ask him first. But it couldn’t hurt to gently inquire when the last time he sipped from said flask was.)

A hulking, dark wood bookshelf that doesn’t match your home, is totally not your style, and is mostly just a clutter magnet …but your now-deceased grandmother left it to you when she died? Oy. Tough one, right? But still, goodbye. Before I delve into my explanation for being so hard hearted, I want to take a minute to unpack the meaning of gift giving.

When somebody gives you a gift, there are a couple mechanisms at work. At a fundamental level, a person gives a gift in order to express some kind of affection, appreciation, or commitment.

We give wedding rings on our wedding day to symbolize the covenant we make with our spouse. We give a beautiful necklace or a bouquet of flowers to our moms once a year to commemorate their motherhood. We slip Starbucks gift cards into our teacher’s hands at Christmas time to express our gratitude.

These are all good, beautiful reasons to give gifts.

We give smaller, less significant gifts too, all the time. A scarf for a birthday present. A rosary from a meaningful pilgrimage somewhere, a book you think someone will love, etc. What is really highlighted in these more common gifting occurrences is the intention: you’re essentially saying to someone, “hey, I was thinking of you!” or “I missed you while I was on this trip” or maybe “I hope this helps you take your mind off the difficulty you’re enduring right now.”

Gifts are transactional in nature, at least for human beings.

We give to express some kind of emotion, and in return, we’re usually hoping for joy, a smile during the unwrapping, a warm hug or, at the least, a heartfelt thank you. Even if the gift is given with no strings attached, rare is the giver who isn’t hoping to elicit pleasure from the receiver.

When my mom, for example, gives a gift to one of my children, she is giving them a tangible expression of her love. And that’s what makes it so hard to part with grandma toys, right?

Wrong! Hear me out. That tangible expression of love? It actually happens the moment she hands the gift over. It helps to think of a gift the way you might think of a hug or a kiss: offered, accepted, received, over.

What happens to the item itself after we’ve gone home and assessed whether we have room for it in our life is actually kind of beside the point; my mom was able to communicate her love to her grandchild, and her grandchild, hopefully, acted appropriately grateful in return.

This is an especially important realization to come to when you have someone in your life whose love language is gift giving. I’ve found far more success with graciously accepting the gift and then deciding after the fact whether or not it fits in my life than in trying to reprogram the giver to switch to giving ballet lessons or zoo passes.

You can definitely make those suggestion! Don’t get me wrong. But know that they may not stick, especially if the person you’re dealing with is an avid and enthusiastic shopper.

One of the most frequent criticisms I hear about minimalism is that it’s impossible to maintain with the constant influx of gifts. My first thought is wow, how loved are we to have gifts coming in constantly?! My second thought is (and this is NOT a critique of someone who genuinely expresses love through gift giving) what an incredibly materialistic and consumer-driven society we live in, that people are constantly giving and receiving gifts year round.

Graduation? There’s a gift for that. Wedding season? Off to Bed, Bath and Beyond. New baby? New blanket. Moving houses? I’ve got a vase for you. Made up holiday? Here’s an appropriately themed trinket. And so on.

One super easy way to break the cycle in your family or circle of friends is to start giving only consumable gifts, with rare exception. You’d be hard pressed to name an occasion that can’t be improved upon with a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers.

Think of it this way: we’ve all got probably too many coffee mugs in our cupboards and scarves in our closets. Many of us are struggling to find balance and peace in a cluttered house, as evidenced by the massive market for all things minimalist.

And then there’s this: lots of people are struggling to balance their finances, especially around Christmas time, and may actually find it pretty taxing to buy gifts not only for their immediate family, but also for a widening circle of friends and acquaintances.

Giving begets giving, and that’s not always a good thing. Make a pact with like minded friends or family members that you’re letting each other off the hook next year, and make plans to go see a movie or go out for drinks together instead.

Finally, it might be helpful to think like this: the perfect gift is a unicorn. Rarely, if ever, will someone’s vision for what you’d love/appreciate/need/wear/etc line up with the reality of what you actually love/appreciate/need/wear. I have a friend who is uncannily good at picking out earrings for me. I own maybe a dozen pair of earrings total. 3 of the 12 were gifts from her.

My husband, on the other hand, whom I deeply love, has given me exactly zero pairs of earrings which I both love and wear. And that’s not to say he hasn’t tried to give me earrings (love you honey), but just that his taste and mine are imperfectly matched.

I think that’s probably more typical than nailing it, every time. You’re not going to give – or receive – the perfect gift more often than not. Rare are the opportunities when your tastes, budget, and selection match perfectly with the recipient’s interests and style. Don’t expect to find a unicorn every time! And don’t feel bad when you don’t. They’re rare for a reason.

Where I’m going with this is, you only have room in your house for unicorns. If something in your house, a gift or not, is not a unicorn, set it free! No guilt. (And hey, it might be someone else’s unicorn, and how thrilled are they going to be to find it for half price at the Arc?)

So accept gifts graciously, donate or repurpose gifts thoughtfully, and give gifts mindfully.

With this knowledge in mind, remember that a perfect gift that ticks all the boxes is exceedingly rare, and feel new freedom in being able to assess the things you have been given as gifts with clear eyes. Because they have already performed their fundamental purpose, whether or not you actually like or use them. What a relief.

If you do end up giving away something that was a gift, say a little prayer for the person who gave it to you as you bag it up. Think fondly of a memory you have with them, something that you can hang onto long after the gift itself is faded or useless, and release yourself from the unnecessary burden of hanging onto it – or to any guilt.

About Me, books, ditching my smartphone, reading, self care, social media, technology

Want to become an awesome reader? Do these 5 things

January 28, 2019

I received a flurry of comments, emails, and DMs after the year-end book list I published in late December. There were plenty of thanks for the recommendations, but there were even more incredulous queries along the lines of how do you read that much? and Do your kids bathe, feed, and clothe themselves? And I haven’t finished a book since college!

Which I totally and completely understand. Reading for pleasure can seem like a tough row to hoe some seasons, especially when career demands are intense and babies are small and plentiful.

I really subscribe to the idea that reading, like any other skill or hobby, is something that waxes and wanes during different seasons in life. I don’t swim much in the winter when it gets dark at 5 pm and my kids have schoolwork, whining, and endless snacking to accomplish before bedtime. When the summer sun rides high until 8pm I can easily slip out to the gym once Dave gets home. Winter nights though, I’m more likely to be dreaming about slipping into bed myself by that point in the evening.

When the kids were younger and my sleep was more disrupted, I definitely did not read as much as I do now. Nursing required at least one hand, sometimes two, and I didn’t have an e-reader yet. It was much easier to prop open a laptop and stream some mindless content or better yet, alternate between staring dreamily into my baby’s eyes or vacantly into space. During my later babies’ early days with smartphones on the scene, I had to make an intentional choice to leave that phone somewhere else sometimes.

Now that everybody is sleeping through the night and still young enough to be abed by 9pm  – ahem, most nights. To hell with this Oregon Trail winter we’re having; thank God nobody is dying in a covered wagon. Instead they’re sucking down steroids in a house with a roof – I usually have at least an hour or two of open time in the evenings. Provided I’ve prayed already, packed the lunches, sent the emails, etc., I almost always choose to spend this time reading. And 10-14 hours of reading a week can add up to some big numbers over the span of a year.

Here are a few things I do in order to maximize my consumption of the written word:

1. Make your smartphone smarter: I know, I know…but my ongoing effort to break up with my smartphone is mired in the annoying reality of life in 2019. Do I need a smartphone to survive? Of course not. But life without one – like the summer before last – is more difficult than it needs to be. Our school communicates via a private email system, my office communicates via a chat app, my sense of direction functions via Google maps…anyway, I still have a phone that is smart. So I’ve hacked it a bit to make it smarter for me. I’ve done this by: removing all social media from my phone, decluttering the front screen to the bare minimum, hiding all communication apps (Voxer, Whatsapp, GroupMe, etc) in a separate folder on the last page, no work email, and refusing to download an app for anything unless it can’t be done in a browser (looking at you Whole Foods/Amazon discount).

When my phone is less interesting and less capable of distracting me, I am more likely to pick up whatever I happen to be reading in those lulls of activity during the day, be it in car line or standing at the counter stirring dinner and sipping a glass of wine.

The one thing I’ll probably do again this summer when my kids are home is delete my internet browser which makes the phone even stupider (and harder to use for mindless scrolling) but which is too tough to manage during the school year. I’ve done this every year for 3 summers now and it’s been really great for keeping me more engaged with my family, at least once I get through the horrifying lack-of-immediate-Google-ability detox of the first week. Shudder. My brain is melting.

Without the tempting glow of a tiny screen beckoning you to disappear for a little scrolling, you are now ready to:

2. Get an e-reader. I’ve been a loyal Kindle reader for about 7 years now, I think. It was an actual lifeline when we lived in Rome in 2013, still tethered to my library in the States and able to provide me with instantaneous digital content in my native tongue. I like Kindle because we already use Amazon for so much (thus hastening the decline of civilization as we know it) and because almost every book is available in Kindle format. It also has cross pollination with other Kindles in your family and other devices, so you can share titles with your spouse or kids and if you do find yourself in a pinch when you’re out and about but left your Kindle at home, you can download the Kindle app to your phone and pick up wherever you left off in your book. But don’t do this unless it’s an emergency, because reading on a phone is terrible for you.

I like the Kindle Paperwhite because of its eyeball-friendly display and its husband-friendly backlighting which makes it perfect for snuggling with under the covers without disturbing your bed partner’s sleep. It vaguely thrills me in the same way hiding with a flashlight and a paperback used to do at age 10.

An e-reader is also the ultimate budget-friendly way to read; other than the original cost of purchase, you can basically read everything you could ever want for free, minus your annual Amazon membership. I’m not sure how other e-readers stack up price-wise, but like I said, Jeff Bezos helps the wheels of our domestic economy turn, so we’re already paying for it. Also, don’t pay a crazy amount for one! I think Dave and I got both ours on Prime day or black Friday a few years ago for less than $60 apiece.

But don’t you spend money on books, Jenny? 90-something titles is a lot!

Au contraire, my friends. I spent possibly $50 on books this past year. Possibly. If there is an obscure title that pops up for book club unavailable in digital format, a title I just have to have in hardcover the moment it comes out (cough cough Michael O’Brien), or a friend publishing a new title, I’ll buy it. Otherwise? I’ll…

3. Use the library like a boss. Our library system is amazing. We have convenient locations, attractive and updated (if not beautiful) new buildings, and massive collections of titles. But I almost never check out books irl. If we go to the library, it’s either 100 degrees outside and the kids are home or I’m meeting a girlfriend for a government-sponsored playdate. I don’t go there to check out books, period.

I mean fine, sometimes I let the kids each grab a stack. Which I then spend the next several weeks repenting, finding titles sodden in the backyard, shredded in the baby’s mouth, stuffed under car seats and behind couches, etc. That is when we find all the titles. Books, like puzzles, live at the library for our family. At least for now.

But digital books? Oh, my friends, digital books are what I use to placate myself if ever I think too long and about bloated, wasteful government expenditure of my tax dollars. Digital books are my smug little secret, new release titles by the dozens filling up my hold request que, recommendations from friends or some erie algorithm hastily copy and pasted, waiting their turn in a notes app I continually update. Some months I might be reading $150 worth of brand spanking new releases, all without opening my wallet.

Some library districts might not be so generous or so response to digital title recommendations – almost every book I’ve ever suggested my library acquire, they have, save for a handful of older or explicitly Catholic titles – but did you know there are some library districts that grant non-resident library cards? Mind blown.

Of course, you don’t have to be an e-book apologist like me to work the library system. Turning your to-be-read wishlist into a physical hold request is almost as easy, if a little less convenient. If you don’t mind picking up and returning books irl, this is the option for you. Bonus: less time wandering the stacks and rolling the dice on a title that ends up being a dud, or trashy. Downside: less time wandering the stacks. And less likelihood of you picking up a title you might otherwise never lay eyes on.

4. Be intentional with your leisure time. Don’t let downtime just “happen” to you. If you want to become an enthusiastic reader, you have to be at least a little bit intentional about it in 2019. There will always be something to stream, a newsfeed to scroll, screens to watch, and noise to attend to. Gone are the days where you might pick up a book out of boredom or lack of options. You have limitless options, and boredom can be banished with a simple keystroke. If you’re going to read, you have to make time to do it and resist the siren song of passive consumption of entertainment.

Getting your oil changed? There’ll be a show playing in the waiting room, and possibly music, too. And unless you brought your current read or your Kindle along for the ride, you’re going to find yourself spending 35 minutes of your life learning all about high stakes extreme crab fishing. Ask me how I know.

Similarly, at night, if you don’t set parameters around your screen time and your plan for how you’ll unwind once your duties for the day are done, it’s all too easy to find yourself hopping on instagram for “just a minute” only to look up an hour later, bleary eyed and hunchbacked at the kitchen counter. Don’t ask me how I know.

Decide you want to use your fringe hours to read, and then prepare to be shocked when you can easily cruise through a book a week. No, you’re not necessarily a genius, you just got 10 hours of your time back by refusing to cede the precious resource of your attention span to an algorithm designed to be irresistibly captivating. So actually, maybe you are a genius.

Try it even for a month and see what happens. Cal Newport (author of Deep Work) has a forthcoming title called Digital Minimalism that is all about having agency in this area of our lives, evaluating each new piece of technology and each practice and asking if it truly serves us, and if so, assigning it designated space in our lives. Down with passive consumption and automated upgrades. Up with the thoughtful, intentional application of new trends and technologies in our lives.

5. Find a reading buddy. It could be a whole book club full of many buddies. It could just be the other users on Goodreads whose titles and reviews you peruse when looking for new reads. It could be your long lost bff from college who you commit to rekindling the flame with. Try this: pick a title, both of you get the book, download Voxer or some other voice messaging app, and spend a month reading and virtually discussing your pick, no set meetings or irl encounters necessary.

Reading is really fun. And you can do it on a train, you do it in the rain…you get the idea. And unlike many other hobbies and pursuits that may find themselves sidelined during different seasons of life, it’s something you can pursue whether you’re 5 or 95, provided you have the right glasses, I guess. So while I may not be able to get out and run a 4 miler right now (I want to say because snow, but really it’s because mombod. #cantdoitall), once my kids are down for the count tonight, I’ll be happily indulging in the luxury of opening to the current location in a good book.


A litany of thanks for ordinary time

January 24, 2019

This morning I followed an internet rabbit trail leading to an account of startling and sobering diagnosis of a stranger’s child. From a suggested blog on my feed reader to an ominous sounding “why I’ve been away” post to a devastating Instagram account.

In the span of a half dozen clicks I’d happened upon a parent’s worst nightmare. My heart clenched painfully reading this mother’s account, keening inwardly and instinctively for the sweet face on the screen.

It’s a harsh climate we’re living in right now. Spiritually, politically, even outside my window cold, hard snow pellets – not flakes – are pinging off the back patio and accumulating in grainy piles atop dirty, frozen piles leftover from last week’s storm. It’s a hard time to look around and see the goodness in people, especially if your face has spent any amount of time behind a screen recently.

I set down my phone and looked into the upturned faces of two preschoolers, one sickly and miserable with the umpteenth virus of the season and one just … three. With all the toddler angst and death defying curiosity that seems to arrive hand in glove with the third year of life.

Fueled by a surge of gratitude for this ordinary day, I stooped to grab a stainless steel mixing bowl and ducked out the door into the freezing yard for a quick procurement of snow. Scooping (bare) handfuls of the fresh stuff into my bowl while two sets of eyes popped in surprise, I hustled back indoors with fingers burning from the cold and a massive bowl of messiness.

I’ll just mop the floor once it melts all over the place I told myself, setting the bowl down on the dirty, painted linoleum and handing out plastic plates, spoons, and gloves. It did make a mess. But it also made them really, really happy for 7 minutes.

For quiet mornings filled with fresh coffee and new fallen snow, I give thanks.

For kids who, while sick, are not that sick, who sleep safely in their own beds night after night, well enough to stay home with us and too young to want to be elsewhere, I give thanks.

For a husband who loves me and comes home every night with enough energy and compassion to jump right into the fray of the most frenetic hour of our day, I give thanks

For money to buy groceries, however much it seems to burn through our checking account, transforming rapidly into granola bars and oatmeal and hot dogs, I give thanks.

For a warm, safe house, I give thanks.

For knowing that an unborn human being is still a human being, I give thanks.

For a good and holy school where my children’s minds are being enlightened and not indoctrinated, I give thanks.

For a larger extended family that supports and accompanies us, I give thanks.

For a parish with holy priests, regular confession hours, and dozens of Mass times a week, I give thanks.

For quiet nights at home, bedtimes that culminate by 9 pm, homemade cocktails shaken up and enjoyed side by side on the couch, and a cat that almost always misses the carpet with her hairballs, I give thanks.

For piles of clean laundry to drape across healthy little bodies, I give thanks.

For shoes without holes, tiny little boy jeans with lots of holes, and piles of crayons and scribbled “masterpieces” strategically scattered everywhere for me to admire, sweep up, and throw promptly into the garbage (#minimalism) (#bygarbageimeanrecycling), I give thanks.

Ordinary time can feel sober and drab in the absence of Big, Grand Celebrations, and quiet seasons of life can seem bleached of all excitement and passion. But the divine is hiding in these simple and most insignificant of days. I’m sure of it. I’m sure there is a reason why most of Jesus’ time here on earth is hidden from our knowledge, intentionally obscured by His decision to come here then, and not now.

Jesus had no platform, He had relationships. Though He was God, He did not have an elite blue check.

Why don’t we know what Jesus did at home in Nazareth day in and day out? Why did He obscure from us His ordinary time? Could it be that there is something holy and necessary about hiddenness and not simply that it wasn’t worth retelling, wasn’t useful?

Could the Son of God have done so with intention? Could the Son of God have done anything without intention? Jesus, by Your hidden life at Nazareth, redeem and sanctify these ordinary days.


About Me, Catholic Spirituality, deliverance, Evangelization

Evangelizing with your story

January 17, 2019

I tend to lean pretty far in the self disclosing direction when I share here on the blog. I’ve pulled back a little bit as the kids have gotten older as far as the specifics I share about them, images, etc, but I’m still a fairly open book with my own story. I share bits about our marriage that Dave approves, but for the most part I’m a one woman show in this space.

The reason I share so much about my own life and my ongoing conversion is because I believe so deeply in the power of story.

When I was reawakening to the truth towards the end of my first run through college (I basically had two separate college experiences – 4 years at CU Boulder where I did my level best to uphold the party school reputation, and 3 years at Franciscan University of Steubenville where I finished my BA and started my MA) much of the awakening happened while listening to CDs and tapes (this was pre podcast era, people) of other people’s conversion stories.

I found Dr. Scott Hahn’s story particularly riveting. I remember one night with particular clarity. Hidden away upstairs in my converted attic bedroom, I could hear the happy, sloppy sound of my roommates and their friends banging around downstairs as they came home from the bars, sliding furniture across the battered floors of our rental and clinking bottles. Barricaded in my room, I pushed play on a borrowed boom box and listened for the third or fourth time as Hahn described his surprising journey into Catholicism.

I was a cradle Catholic with at least a tenuous grasp on my faith, so it wasn’t as if the details of his tale were totally unfamiliar to me. It was his conviction that gripped my soul, wearied as it was after years of blurry football games and black out partying and inch-deep friendships. Could somebody really take God this seriously? To turn away from their life, their career, leave everything behind to jump in faith?

The things coming out of the speaker sounded more like the stuff of Bible stories than current events. In my twenty-something years of living as a Catholic, I hadn’t encountered what seemed to me a radical application of Catholicism; not merely part of life on Sundays or used as a modifier to describe oneself, but as the essence of a person. His identity seemed to rest, now, post conversion experience, entirely in being Catholic.

I didn’t know anyone like this in real life. My parents didn’t count, at the time, because caught in the snares of my adolescent misery, I couldn’t see clearly how much love they’d expended, how hard they’d tried.

What I knew of being Catholic was duty, sacrifice, and a sort of stoic resignation. I’d stopped living my faith in any meaningful sense except one: I still went to Mass most Sundays. But I was not sober, I was not chaste, I was not kind or honest or patient. Duty-bound, I dragged my hungover body out of bed for the latest possible service on Sundays, head down and heart numbed in the pew as the liturgy – often banal and irreverent because Boulder – washed over me in a comforting, familiar rhythm.

What caused this profound disconnect between my head and my heart? What allowed me to profess the Creed with my fellow parishioners on Sundays and party recklessly with my fellow classmates on Fridays? I can’t say for sure, but I imagine it had much to do with a lack of community. With a fragile catechesis that only went skin deep, the profound truths of the Faith I’d professed since childhood eluding me as a jaded young adult.

I knew who Jesus was as a historical character and, theoretically, Who He was in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar at Mass. But I didn’t know Jesus as my Lord. He didn’t call the shots in my life. I was living for me, directed by me, and in pursuit of what pleased me. Jesus was an afterthought, and His Church was the window dressing I put out as a flag to signify to others what I was about. Being Catholic defined me in the same way being an American did, or being a woman. It was something intrinsic and immutable but nothing I had real agency in.

When I started hearing stories like Dr. Hahn’s, the universe tilted. I came to recognize that faith was as much a gift as a choice. That this man, and countless other men and women throughout history had chosen Christ, had made a decision to orient their entire lives around Him. Not by reciting an “I accept you as my Lord and Savior” prayer – though a well-meaning roommate had once coached me through that, sensing an opening in my confusion over the question of whether or not I was “saved”. The fact that we recited the prayer after smoking pot in her Honda Accord did not seem to deter her from helping me go through the motions.

I don’t fault her for her confusion – my faith wasn’t any deeper! Her “Lord and Savior” line was similar to my weekly attendance at Mass, in that we were both going through the motions we’d been taught, unsure of what it meant to concretely apply our belief in Jesus to our lives, or unwilling to make the leap.

The joy I heard in Dr. Hahn’s story was infectious. I can’t think of any other reason I’d have wanted to replay over and over again this recording of a forty year old man telling his life story.

Later in the night my roommates came and pounded on my locked door, begging me to come out and join in the festivities. I feigned sleep as I lay there in the darkness, the CD still playing and hot tears rolling down my cheeks. I wanted out. I wanted joy. A fire had been rekindled inside of me earlier that semester with the death of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.

His passing had left me dazed and weeping, shocking me with an intensity of grief and regret such as I had never felt. I was still dazed, some weeks later as I lay there listening to my old life progress outside that bedroom door and feeling certain that something new was on the horizon.

My path back into full practice and belief was not linear. For brevity’s sake and to construct a coherent narrative, it sometimes reads that way. The years that would follow, however, were marked by pain and uncertainty as much as by profound consolation in prayer and joy in newfound Christian community. And as I learned to read The Story with new eyes, my heart burning as the Scriptures were unfolded for me, I came to recognize the power of my own story, too; to console and to inspire and to attract.

We tell our stories because we love to share ourselves, but also because apart from the grace of baptism, the story God is writing with each of our lives is the most miraculous thing that will ever happen to us.

When I look back over the seemingly disconnected events in my life, the unexpected twists and turns, the disappointment of unanswered prayers, the highs and lows, it can seem random. When I do so applying the lens of faith, the resolution seems to improve a bit, the principal image coming into clearer focus: I love you.

God is writing a love story with each of our lives. When I remind myself of this, when I remind other people of this by sharing parts of my story, I pull back a little corner of the veil between this world and the next, a burst of His light and love escaping forth into the darkness.

We live in a world shrouded in darkness. We needn’t – shouldn’t – let the fear of humiliation or a little stage fright hold us back from lighting candles in the darkness. And every Christian has this light burning within them, ignited by the specific, personal love Jesus has for every single person ever created. Every single soul is the story of salvation history all over again: rejection and redemption, suffering and salvation.

Later this week, the Catholic Woman will publish a letter I wrote about my younger years. While parts of my story are painful to share, the cost is more than warranted when I consider the immensity of what I have received.

decluttering, design + style, Family Life, large family, minimalism, Uncategorized

Big family minimalism + the life changing (yes, really!) magic of tidying up

January 11, 2019

(First in a series of essays this month on minimalism and its particular relevance to family life.)

(Update 1/14/19: Once I got a few episodes into the show, they introduced storylines involving cohabitation and homosexuality, so consider this your content warning and get ready to skip over a couple episodes. Womp womp.)

I’ve been an armchair minimalist since before minimalism was a buzzword. 8 moves and 5 kids in less than 10 years of marriage means I’ve honed the fine art of “do we really need this?” to a science.

Netflix launched a new series this month, and it’s fantastic: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (of Life Changing Magic fame) Kondo is warm and gracious and my kids get a kick out of hearing spoken Japanese. The families she works with – at least so far – have been anxious to cooperate with her process and seem genuinely happier at the episode’s conclusion. There is no bootcamp style shaming or furtive confessional-style camerawork: the couples are taught Kondo’s signature method and timeline for tidying, and then seemingly left alone for days at a time to put her methods to work.

The footage of the process and of the interaction between the families has a distinctly different vibe than most reality shows; rather than encouraging strife and plot-driving tension, Kondo reminds the couples to focus on their own possessions rather than haranguing their spouses.

What I most appreciate about the show – and the process of tidying she espouses – is that it is custom fitted for each home, and for each family.

The first episode featured harried millennial parents of young toddlers and the requisite piles of laundry and dishes and toys – and chaos. When they’d completed their month long tidying endeavour, the couple were communicating better (their early scenes did seem a little overwrought with domestic tension, but the dishes! I get it!), enjoying their kids more, and seemingly more content with their already beautiful and perfectly serviceable home.

The next episode featured an older couple who were empty nesters and, frankly, hoarders. Their completed space still produced a mild panic reaction by my standards, but they did a ton of work in only 6 weeks, undoing decades of neglect and recreational shopping habits as they worked together to sort through their belongings.

Both families had clearly different styles and spaces and were in totally different stages of life; both benefited from learning that stuff, however little or much you have, won’t make you happy.

Minimalism, to me, is the idea that less is more, and that stuff can’t make you happy.

That stuff is actually value neutral, and that the space we inhabit and the things we bring into that space should be working together in harmony to increase the value in day to day living, not competing to suck it away.

A bigger family like mine is going to have a greater variation of sizes of clothing, but not necessarily own more clothing overall.

I’d venture to say that our family of 7 owns fewer total items of clothing than the average American family of 4. Because that’s what works for us. I’m the main launderer in the family, and just by the numbers, I can’t keep on top of 15 pairs of pants and 20 shirts for each family member. As our family size has increased, our net number of items of clothing per member has dropped. Seems counterintuitive, until you remember that even with more kids, you still only get 24 hours in a day. Once I figured out that I didn’t have to live normally, i.e. surrounded by mountains of toys and bins and bins of extra clothing, it was a huge relief.

Having more stuff doesn’t increase happiness beyond a certain point. At some point, you hit peak satisfaction. Peak satisfaction is probably closer to sustainability than we realize. Once you have your basic needs for food, shelter and clothing met, happiness actually levels off fairly soon thereafter. A family living in a 4,000 square foot house is not appreciably happier than a family living in 1,200 square feet, at least not in ways that can be directly correlated with square footage.

So what does this look like, practically speaking?

But first, a caveat. Minimalism treads on privileged ground. It’s not just for the rich or upper middle class – I believe that almost anyone can benefit from it – but it does presuppose a level of security. Self-reflection is a luxury. I give thanks for the stability that enables me to calmly assess our circumstances and adjust as necessary. Not everybody lives in this kind of privilege. I also want to avoid falling prey to the false morality trap. You know what I’m talking about, right? Organized people are not “better” than disorganized people. Clean and well dressed people are not superior to dirty and disheveled people. People who eat conventionally grown produce are not inferior to people who buy organic. In a society that is becoming increasingly untethered from objective moral values, pseudo values have swept in to fill the vacuum, and they’re pretty whack. And minimalism, while it can compliment your values, is not itself a value.

Minimalism begets time:

I read a lot of books. I also write a lot. I also cook at least two, sometimes three meals each day for seven people. I can’t – I don’t want to – spend hours every day picking up toys and books and throw pillows and dirty underwear. An hour or two of that each day is more than enough for me. As such, we don’t have all that many of any of those items, dirty underwear exempted.

There are five throw pillows in our house. Two on each of our couches and one on a chair. I guess if we have a sixth child we might…I kid, I kid. I don’t know why we have so few. I just know that the ones we have, I mostly like, and I don’t mind picking up five pillows off the floor every day. Five feels like a manageable number of pillows to me.

We have 16 dinner plates. About half that many bowls, because I guess my kids can break anything, even Corelle. We use a dozen mason jars for drinks, have a cupboard of 10 coffee cups, all of which I actually like, and there is a shelf of glass barware for fancier stuff than water. Down below we have a single kid’s drawer: 10 plastic plates, 6 stainless steel cups, 6 water bottles (all missing lids), and 2 of those magic silicone toppers that make any cup a sippy cup. Zelie still drinks bottles, and we have 4 of those, and 4 nipples.

Our kitchen is small, a 70s-style galley layout. I’ve had friends comment on how small, but honestly, I don’t really mind it now. I wish I had more counter space sometimes, but for ordinary life, it’s actually fine.

Obviously if we were hosting dinner parties for the high school track team every Thursday night we’d need to own more dishes, and I’m sure as my kids age, we will! But right now? 16 dinner plates is enough. And it means the sink is never overly full of dishes, and that I have time to do stuff besides dishes. Like pick up dirty underwear.

Minimalism begets contentment:

About that galley kitchen. I don’t love it. When we moved in it was a dark brown cave with mustard linoleum accents. I’d love to blow out and rip down and bust through all the walls and surfaces, but the budget won’t permit it, maybe for twenty years or maybe ever. In the meantime, I’m a domestic engineer who spends 90% of her life working at home, and I want to feel good in my space. So month by month, one $30 can of paint at a time, we’ve changed the way it looks and feels.

Slapping a coat of paint on something isn’t minimalism, per se, but slapping a coat of paint on something in order to make it work better for you rather than trying to shop your way into contentment? Totally. I rarely bring new non-consumables into my kitchen, because there isn’t space for much, but also because I like the way it looks now. A cupboard shelf with matching (and allegedly indestructible) white dishes is actually really attractive, even when the shelf they’re sitting on is dated wood, and the countertops cheap composite.

Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not saying that you have to have plain white everything in your kitchen, lined up in uniform columns like a control freak (raises hand), just that when you are intentional about what bring into, or keep, in your daily environment, it makes you happier.

You’ll be less tempted by what you see on Instagram or the aisles of wherever, not because you have achieved monastic temporal detachment, but because you are content. It’s easier to forgive my kitchen for its other shortcomings when I’m not opening drawers that are exploding with logo-tatted water bottles from our insurance company or whatever.

And listen, if your closet floor is invisible beneath layers of rejected or dirty or wrong size clothes and there are bent wire hangers crammed on the rods, holding stuff you haven’t worn since college, then of course you’re going to feel like you need – want – to go shopping.

Set yourself up for contentment by only hanging onto what you love. That’s my version of “sparks joy.” And yes, I love our NoseFrida, for reasons that are less aesthetic and more functional.

Minimalism begets domestic tranquility

Marriage – ay, there’s the rub. “But my husband collects x,” or “my wife wants to have a two year supply of y on hand, at all times!” you may be thinking.

Fine, great! An intentional, curated collection of just about anything can be beautiful in its own way. If he has a garage full of ski gear or a shed full of tools, why not line everything up and mount some hooks to store stuff vertically, and make the space look more like a nicely merchandised end cap at REI and not the scary multi-neighbor garage sale? And recycle the old and broken stuff while you’re at it. You are not going to hit the jackpot on antique road show or one day coach an amateur ice hockey team, half the members of which will have nothing to use but your old dirty gear from 1998, so it’s a good thing you held onto it.

Try sitting down with your spouse and making a list of things that you already own that bring you joy. I can imagine for me it really would be a few pairs of Kendra Scott earrings I love that I’ve received as gifts. For Dave, it would probably be camping gear and some of his barware.

There’s nothing wrong with owning stuff, especially when you’re hanging onto it because it serves your family and makes you happy.

But those garbage bags full of used baby clothes that may or may not come in handy down the road? Those aren’t serving your family right now. And they could, in fact, be serving another family at this very moment. Same with old equipment for sports you don’t play anymore. Books you’ve read and don’t plan – realistically – to re-read in the future. Clothes that probably aren’t going to fit again or, if they do, will be aged beyond usefulness or stylishness.

One of the best places to start with a spouse who’s less inclined to letting things go is to start with the positives: what having, say, an emptier garage or basement or unstuffed dresser drawers or kitchen cabinets could help provide for your family. More space to play and grow. Maybe room to carve out a spare sleeping space (in the basement, probably not the garage but YOU DO YOU) for an introverted child who is currently sharing a room or for hosting overnight guests.  

(I’m going to cover the marriage dynamic extensively in an entire future post, so stay tuned.)

I’m not going to pretend like this concept is super intuitive for everyone to apply. I really think some people are just born collectors (cough cough my eldest son’s horrifying top bunk), and others are more prone to frequent Goodwill . How you were raised factors in, too. How much money your family makes. Whether or not you travel a lot, move frequently, host regularly, etc.

Kondo, while not preaching minimalism in her method, per se, seems to have a tremendous grasp on how to help different personalities embrace and apply her method (which does tend towards minimalism in its essence, I think, because I think most of us hit our hedonistic threshold with stuff much sooner than our linen closets would have us believe) no matter whether they want to have a whole room stuffed full of crafting supplies and musical instruments or if they prefer to live in more austere quarters.

The biggest sell for our family to start – and keep – living this way for so long has been the time freedom. I can clean my entire house in under an hour, no joke. And by clean I mean stuff is organized, de-loused, and re-homed, not that it’s scrubbed and shined. My floors, baseboards and shower tiles will tell you the real story of how “clean” things really are around here. Tidy, though? Anyone can do tidy, I promise.

Our Italian living room/dining room/guest room/play room. Rome was the true birthplace of my minimalism. I owned 4 dresses, 3 pairs of jeans, 10 shirts, and 4 sweaters. The kids had 2 pairs of shoes each. We had a single canvas bin of toys. It was totally crazy and totally liberating at the same time.





ditching my smartphone, mental health, mindfulness, self care, social media, technology

Body image, self acceptance, and the price of Instagram

January 9, 2019

I’ve come to realize something about myself this year, and it might sound a little ridiculous, or it might sound just right to you. It’s this: the more time I spend away from social media, the better I feel. The better my prayer life is. The more I appreciate my own body, my children’s bodies, my husband’s body.

It’s not just bodies, either; the fewer pictures I see of other people’s houses – not shiny design pictures, because somehow I know those aren’t the stuff of comparisons, but real pictures of real people’s homes, styled or not – the better I seem feel in my own space.

Here’s the difference for me, I think. I love reading and admiring content that is designed in a way that is obviously design-y. When a piece is written for House, Beautiful or as a featured home tour or a DIY project on a design blog, my brain automatically categorizes that as “professionally cleaned, styled and shot, obviously a curated product, and DON’T FEEL BAD ABOUT THIS. This has nothing to do with your lived reality.” When I spend time pouring over real life images though? Something happens in my head that tends to trip my discontentment wire.

Does that make even a morsel of sense?

All I know is the way I feel after 40 minutes on Instagram is … not great. “But I’m just catching up with my friends!” I can rationalize to myself, “I know this is just a snapshot of their lives, a sliver of their reality, a scroll of mostly silver linings.”

But my brain does something else with all those images. My brain misses the “curated reality, do not apply to real life” memo for whatever reason, and refuses to behave as if THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE, DON’T JUDGE YOURSELF/HER/HIM BY WHAT YOU SEE HERE. And my stubborn brain can get pretty down after ingesting a couple hundred beautiful images of how everyone else is killing it/slaying their dreams/nailing their goals and I’m over here just trying to get another iteration of chili on the table for dinner and spraying dry shampoo on 6-day old hair.

And honestly? I like using dry shampoo. My shower in a can, I call it. I’ve always resented the imposition showers make on my busy life, and having a can of degreasing spray powder is actually just what the doctor ordered. Plus it makes my fine, limp, slippery soft hair infinitely more amenable to styling.

Also, my family loves chili.

So my baseline level of happiness, even in this busy, demanding, frequently exhausting season of early parenthood is basically set at “contentment.” Maybe not breathless joy, but still, a pretty great life.

But I find that when I take my eyes off my own paper, peering over someone’s shoulder into their selfie game, more often than not, that calm contentment is rocked. Maybe I should get a blunt chin-length bob, I muse almost unconsciously, clicking on a stream of dreamy images of a lovely woman with 6-month old twins who looks like a Russian supermodel. And just like that, at a single tap, I find myself immersed in the curated world of someone else’s life. But I don’t just “find myself” there…I put myself there. I go there, willingly, to sneak a peek into a another person’s existence through the lens of their camera phone, looking for, what, exactly? Inspiration? Leisure? A moment’s rest while I sit and scroll?

Never happens. It’s never restful. Or hardly ever, at least.

For every single arresting and transcendent image I encounter on Instagram, there are probably thousands I’ve scrolled through to get to it that have had a net negative effect on my mental and spiritual health.

(I’m being awfully hard on Instagram here, but that’s because it’s the worst offender for me. Maybe Twitter is your Kryptonite. Facebook is good for almost nothing save for livestreaming far-off events and private groups.)

I’m becoming more convicted by the year that social media has a net negative effect on the human person.

But Jenny, you’re a blogger!

I know! Cue the identity crisis! But blogging has always been different for me. Less like consumable, scrollable, forgettable (I hope!) social media, and more like an ongoing conversation. And hey, maybe some people can Instagram that way – I believe it’s entirely possible. But I can’t.

A historically difficult relationship with my body and with food is kind of a recipe for Insta angst. I find myself moving almost unconsciously into comparison mode when presented with beautiful pictures. My mind races, unbidden, to do the math when I see a trim, smiling woman holding a newborn, calculating the baby’s age and delivering the result to me like a verdict: 5 weeks. She looks like that with a 5-week-old baby in her arms, what is wrong with you that you don’t look half that good a year out?!

Even if I never let myself voice that thought, don’t entertain it aloud, I’ve still thought it. I’ve still introduced yet another piece of evidence into the neverending and unwinnable trial of “Why Jenny Will Never Be Good Enough: the Defendant vs. Herself.”

Saddest part of this all being, honestly, the fact that I don’t know that mom’s story. Maybe her baby is adopted. Maybe she’s thin because she just beat cancer and although the doctors told her she’d never carry a healthy pregnancy to term, here’s her miracle baby. Maybe this is her first baby after a string of devastating miscarriages. Maybe she’s just skinny.

My personal baggage blurs her humanity though, objectifying her through the lens of my discontentment, filtering her appearance through my own wounds.

This is getting awfully self disclosing, even for a blogger, but I feel really convicted to share it with you because I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not alone in these struggles. Amidst a sea of content about New Year’s Resolutions and goals and ways of eating and changes for the better, I want to make a small and sort of ridiculous suggestion that has changed my life during the course of the past few years: look away more.

Maybe you can handle Instagram in smaller chunks and it doesn’t shake you. Maybe you never had an eating disorder and your self-doubt centers on your personality, your intelligence, your sense of competence, your sense of worthiness of God’s love. Maybe there are no doubts and you’re higher up in the mansion of perfection, and I mean this wholeheartedly when I say good for you. (And also, I’d wager you probably don’t spend all that much time on social media to begin with. Please pray for me.)

But if this resonates with you at all, I want to encourage you to sit with it for a bit. Ask God to weigh in on it. Ask Him if there is something you’re doing to feed the vicious cycle of self doubt and self judgement and, frankly, self centeredness.

I haven’t lost all the baby weight yet, not even close. I’m still eating relatively keto because it makes me feel good, but I’ve stopped posting “progress” pictures and following #results hashtags because it’s just too easy for me to get into a bad place with those images. Even with my own images.

I look at photos of third-time postpartum Jenny and hold fifth-time postpartum Jenny up to her in my mind’s eye, critically evaluating where I’m at now, and where I was then. I’m sure it’s no surprise that I wasn’t satisfied with myself back then, either! I didn’t realize how great I looked, how shiny my hair was or how luminous and unlined my skin. Or how little any of that mattered.

Ah, but youth is wasted on the young. Well, I don’t want to waste any more of it! As the past year unfolded I found myself making a surprising peace with the one enemy I never expected to bury the hatchet with: myself.

Not because I reached goal weight.

Not because I found the perfect workout.

Not because I bought beautiful new clothes or tried great new makeup.

Not because I landed the perfect job or grew my platform or won the lottery or slept through the night for a whole month straight.

I just got out of the habit of comparing. I stopped comparing myself to unrealistic images of friends, strangers, celebrities, and even the younger me.

I caught myself critically assessing some photos from a recent family wedding the other day. There were several lovely group shots of me with my four younger sisters, one of whom is a full decade my junior. I mentally shook myself by the shoulders when I realized what I was doing, and I gave myself permission to look like I was the oldest. Because I am the oldest.

It sounds ridiculous! But it’s something I’m having to retrain my brain do to, because for too long I’ve been caught in a negative feedback loop, cycling over and over again, lifting my head only slightly higher than my navel to gaze into the screen of my phone, and then lifting it a few inches higher to look into the mirror.

I got so, so sick of the view, bouncing between my own midsection, a screen, and a mirror. It’s like Narcissus on steroids, and I finally realized it.

I wish I could tell you how, or why. It’s prayer, medication, therapy, quiet time, self discipline, lack of free time, a good partner, good friends, kids who demand a lot of me, maturity, frequent confession, a good Father, grace…it’s all of these things. There is no magic bullet. I still mess up. I still have mornings where I’m less than thrilled with my own reflection. I got on Instagram for the first time in weeks last night, after having gone almost 2 months without it during November and December, and I spent a half hour scrolling, clicking, tapping, feeling more unsettled by the minute.

When I finally dropped my phone into my lap, I forced myself to sit with my feelings of discomfort, contorting almost painfully into a posture of reflection when my dopamine-heavy brain just wanted to rush ahead to the next thing. “This is important,” I told myself silently, “recognize how this made you feel. Feel these feelings.”

Dear readers, they weren’t good feelings. I did not enjoy peace, clarity, and freedom after my half hour of “leisure” on my phone.

Here’s the long-awaited conclusion. If you’ve stuck it out to this point, good on you, mate.

I think that self acceptance comes hand in glove with working to truly see other selves as human beings, not as competition. And I don’t think social media facilitates much of that. If it fosters a little bit, here and there, glory to God.

But if it mostly steals your peace, sucks your time, and keeps you from attending to your own first things? Maybe it’s too expensive.

One of the amazing pictures from my sister’s wedding which led me to ponder: “What a beautiful family we have! Praise God for all these wonderful new members and my dad being here and healthy and…wait, are those crow’s feet? Why are my arms so big…(<— my narcissistic process in a single paragraph)