Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Over a dinner of stir-fry, my seven-year-old, Elijah, attempted to distract us from the broccoli he had been picking at but not actually putting in his mouth, by starting a little small talk. “So-o-o,” he began “what do guys think you’ll be doing in the year 2015?”Troy and I exchanged the glance we pull out when one of our kids exhibit a personality trait equally foreign to both of us. Although I am wise to Elijah’s avoidance techniques, I have to admit this conversation starter did give me pause for thought. “What do you mean?” I inquired.

“What are your goals or resolutions?” Elijah explained, with a little hint of “duh!” in his answer.

Troy shared visions of his children doing well in school, preparing for college so they could earn a decent living and care for us when we get old.

“What are some of your goals, Elijah?” I asked, unable to come up with any future plans of my own, beyond loading the dishwasher.

“Well,” he said, “Since I am not a fan of hypodermic needles, I would like to invent a vaccine you could put in apples.”

“That is a really great idea.” Troy and I agreed.

“I would also like to invent things from garbage. Like a shirt made completely out of Coke cans.”

“Wow,” I cringed. “That would sure be something.”

Elijah had clearly been thinking all this through for a while. His eyes lit up with the possibility of changing our world for the better, one invention at a time. Eight years from now, if all goes according to plan, you may be able to purchase your own 3-D comic book, or ward off polio with an immunized banana. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find aluminum tank tops, jackets, or even pants on the wish list of every cool, environmentally conscious teenager in America.

It is so refreshing to witness true optimism in action. On her kindergarten “All About Me” poster, Priscilla said that when she grew up, she would be a singer, a dancer, and an animal doctor; all this on top of being a mommy to six lovely children, of course. Benjamin would like to be a “sing-a-long prince” (your guess is as good as mine). The best though was my brother, Bobby, who at the age of 8 was absolutely fixated on becoming a superhero. He would design elaborate web shooters and costumes, including a mask with special lenses for brave young men, like himself, who happened to be nearsighted. The next year he directed a neighborhood performance of The Hatfields and the McCoys (we had just been to Sea World and had watched this classic family feud performed on water skis). Our version starred Bobby, me, and a couple of kids from across the street. We made posters and everything, but by the time the scheduled show rolled around we had forgotten about it completely. Bobby nearly hyper-ventilated with panic when he realized he had neglected to take down the posters, sure that half of Ohio would be crowded outside our front door demanding the advertised play they were promised.

Very few memories of my own come to mind regarding pie-in-the-sky notions of greatness because in general, I have always been a moderate achiever. There was that week in 1984, after Mary-Lou Retton had won the gold medal in the Olympics, that I toyed with the idea of taking gymnastics. But since I was already ten-years-old, ancient by a gymnast’s standard, the odds were against my success. In eighth grade, my mom bought me a sweater for getting a C in pre-Algebra. After the scores were calculated from the ACT test I took my junior year, I started getting calls every week from army recruitment officers. In community plays I was always in the chorus, moving stage props between scenes as a side gig. I have felt quite content my whole life with being a good friend to ambitious people, riding along on their waves of passionate conviction.

Maybe it was this document I found in a folder entitled “Elijah” in Microsoft Word that set it off:

Little House,

Little Home

By Elijah J. Sabourin

“What is this?” I asked him.

“Oh, that’s the cover page of my biography.”

Here was my son, capitalizing on his nearly eight years of living experience, setting out to create the next “Best Seller”. Having no concept or fear of failure, he is certain that anything he sets his mind to can indeed be accomplished. Looking over my shoulder a couple of weeks ago while I was typing in Word, myself, Elijah asked, “So, when are you going to put the stuff you write in real pages, like in a book?” Defending myself, I started to explain book proposals, public interest, and profitability factors, but his look of boredom conveyed a child like unfamiliarity with stumbling blocks and hindrances. Maybe it was my children with their wide open view of life; maybe it was my husband who recently took on a bigger bite than he could chew, career wise, but has risen to the challenge and broadened his experience because of it; maybe it was the confidence I acquired by successfully getting four newborns through babyhood without permanent damage to anyone of us; whatever the reason, I have recently had my own surges of ambition and the experience has been disorienting, to say the least.

There are some things I’d like to try, some daunting projects that would take up my time but would never pay the bills, clean the house, or get the clothes ironed. When the surges come knocking, my first inclination is usually to push them away “How foolish!” “How impractical!” I say. But even with my hands holding them down, the fluidity of my desire bubbles up through the cracks between my fingers. “Could it possibly be,” I wonder, “that the desire is not originating from my own underachieving mindset? Are these dreams a gift, requiring humble obedience to fulfill?” I fear the dreams because I fear the failure. When I dwell on the possible outcomes, I am paralyzed from taking a single step forward. When I prayerfully sit and create, however, ignoring the stumbling blocks and hindrances, in faith, the process itself brings peace to this harried mother who discovers hope and beauty in going outside the call of duty.

I get a thrill from finding ornately colored pictures scattered on top of the dining room table or from changing the sheets on the bunk beds and uncovering the chapter books hidden underneath Elijah’s pillow, imagination brewing on its own. “This must be good,” I figure, “because God gave us pineapple, peacocks, and pussy willows, when He could have stuck with manna, grass, and cows and we would have never known the difference. How do I begin to inspire my children to dream for the sake of punctuating the days, developing heavenly-minded spirits, and shedding light where it is dark and gloomy? Well…I suppose I can start by pouring a gigantic cup of coffee, scooting the clutter out of my way, and typing one word first, and then another. I can have dreams myself, and be joyful because of it.

Below, for those family members incapable of being annoyed by shameless displays of pride, is an essay Elijah just wrote for school called “Mary”.

You should see my baby sister! She loves my grandmother. But when she leaves, my little Mary cries and cries. One time, my dad was done changing her diaper, he gave it to her and asked if she would throw it a way. Mary smiled, grabbed it, and started walking to my room. When she got there she threw it on the floor. Dad picked it up and gave it back to her. “Not here,” my dad said. She grabbed it back. This time she headed to the bathroom and she threw it in the …you don’t want to hear this. You do? Fine. She threw it in the toilet! Dad had to get it out and put it in the trash. When I sit on her chair she screams loud. She’s also really, really, really cute when she claps! I’ll love her forever and ever like a loyal dog.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


What started out as just a snag had been pulled at, one small tug at a time, until the whole situation became hopelessly unraveled. I couldn’t tell you what the argument was about or how it had escalated to such dramatic proportions, but I can describe in detail the look of malice on his face and the sickening sensation of failure that left me nauseous. Mothering an oldest child is like riding a roller coaster for the very first time; the unknown intensifies your entire experience. That stomach dropping rush of barreling through the highs and the lows, euphoria mixed with terror, can never quite be duplicated again. No one in this world can tear at my heart like Elijah.

On that particular Friday morning two enormous hazel eyes stared me down with contempt. The boundary between mother and son had been smudged by the hurt we were each heaping upon the other with every word exchanged. All of us have limits and buttons to be pushed. None are more qualified to find them both, than those who know us best. My son has a fierce sense of justice. When he feels he has been judged unfairly, he will not back down – even in the face of stern consequences. “You do not understand!” he repeated, over and over again, drowning out my attempted explanations. I knew, in the back of my mind, that I should cut it off right then and there, that we should separate and regroup. But I wanted respect and an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. I was obsessed with dominating his defiant spirit.

When he ran to his bedroom and started up with the slamming of his dresser drawers, I knew exactly what he was doing and to my shame, I didn’t care. Emerging seconds later with a fully loaded backpack, he announced to me his plans of running away. “I’m leaving this place, and I’m never coming back!” My six-year-old, my baby boy, stood trembling before me, cheeks red and wet from fury mixed with sadness. A part of me was tempted to let him go, but as he reached for the doorknob I lowered my voice and the boom on this out of control situation. “Elijah, you will go to your room, put down that backpack and sit with me on this couch, do you understand?” Too tired to resist, he followed my orders, and now I felt the tears start to well.

“We are a family,” I finally managed to mutter once both of us were seated, eye-to-eye. “For better or worse, God put us together, forever. We can feel angry, annoyed, and disheartened, but leaving is never an option! Love means sticking together, even when we don’t feel like it. Love is hard work and requires an awful lot of ‘I’m sorrys’ and forgiveness. You can be mad at me and I can be mad at you but we never give up, you got it?” As I held my boy, I apologized for my part in the argument, for exasperating him instead of maintaining my composure. We agreed that threats of abandonment would not be tolerated. Over a year later, that moment on our couch in Chicago remains significant to both of us. “Remember mom,” Elijah will ask out of nowhere, “when I wanted to run away?” “I certainly do sweetheart. I certainly do.”

Why is it that we are born into families, that we live in packs instead of emerging from out of under rocks on our own? The intimacy of creating, carrying, and birthing a child cannot possibly be a superfluous component of evolution. No matter how hard we try to dissect the organic nature of reproduction, to reinvent love and commitment, hollowness will always outlast infatuation if our devotion is not anchored in the divine. Monogamy, along with self-denial, makes little sense outside the context of a Trinitarian perspective. There’s not much motivation to work at love or to stick with those who know too well our weaknesses and imperfections, without a higher calling. “Does God only live in church?” Benjamin asked me last Sunday during liturgy. “We can find Him in everything, if we look,” I answered. “He is here, He is outside, He is in our house and in our family.” And I wondered then, when I had last attempted to find Him there, myself.

Sometimes I can’t quite grasp the backwards notion of God concerned with me. How is it possible that He has not permanently been turned off by my stupid behavior? But if I search no further than even two feet away, I can find hope in my love for Troy, Elijah, Priscilla, Benjamin, and Mary. My pack united for better or worse, was brought together for the purpose of salvation. For here, before me, are unlimited opportunities to experience the nonsensical fulfillment of giving without expecting anything in return. I learn, in the most practical of ways, that true love, divine love, does not leave, does not give up, and does not give in. Family keeps us humble, keeps us praying, and keeps us from drifting into the soul-numbing abyss of self-indulgence.

More than once, I have stared dumbfounded into the positive end of a pregnancy test. “I really don’t think I have the strength to do this again,” I said to Troy, to God, and to anyone else who made eye contact. Yet even in that, I found Love, providing just enough daily bread to keep me from dying of hunger, to keep me in remembrance of His presence in my life. On a daily basis I am overwhelmed by the eternal responsibility of raising children, but when they are sleeping, all curled in their beds as still as the night itself, I kiss each in turn, from youngest to oldest, thankful to tears for such beauty.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


I knew it was time to move when I was loading the kids into our van outside of a McDonalds Play Land and Elijah, pointing to an iridescent puddle of oil pooling under the pick-up truck next to us, in wonderment said, “Look, mommy, a rainbow!”

It was by no means an easy decision. For the last decade Troy and I had been city dwellers. From 2001 until just last May, we were living with our dear friends in a two-flat, they on top and we on the bottom. What started out as a financial investment, evolved into an emotional, and spiritual one as well. Together, we pulled off yellow and green floral wallpaper in two inch pieces at a time; we ripped up carpeting and refinished hard wood floors; we planted perennials; we cried in fear over unplanned pregnancies and over pregnancies planned for years without materializing; we earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work; we produced an independent short film; we adopted a beautiful baby boy from Korea. We lived out their experiences and they lived out ours, giving each of us a taste of the holiness within community.

For as long as possible, we delayed the inevitable. I home schooled Elijah. We converted a porch into an extra half bedroom. We cleaned out the basement for a few more precious square feet of living space. With the birth of Mary, however, our family of six was busting at the seams of our 2 ½ bedroom bungalow. And then our garage was broken into. All of the hubcaps were stolen off our van. Troy was almost hit by a car recklessly speeding down our street. I was feeling tense and claustrophobic. The kids were sprouting wings and wanting to fly.

Our house was on the market for three months. Three months of having to show our place at any given moment. Three months of waiting for offers, offers falling through, and discussions about lowering the price. I was as skittish as a heroine in a horror film. By the time the sale was finalized, after a nail biter of a closing, all the nostalgia had been drained from my heart. We found an old Victorian in a quaint neighborhood. Our new house was twice the size, and three times as far from Troy's job down town. Throughout the process of sorting and packing, I was distracted from dwelling on the changes that were just around the corner. Perhaps, in all honesty, I couldn’t bear a formal goodbye. The feelings were too raw for handling just yet, too sore for an intrusive examination. We drove off into the future, without looking back.

Of all of the millions of concerns tossing about in my mind last year, my children and their adjustment to this move, was not one of them. I had packed them up, along with the picture frames and dishes, assuming they were just as unfeeling as the glass and porcelain we wrapped with such care. “They are too small,” I thought, “to notice the difference.” But a week into our new lives as Hoosiers, once the novelty wore off and the permanence was starting to set in, Troy and I found ourselves with a small mutiny on our hands. “This house is too creaky and too scary! I miss my neighbors and our old park!” The disappointment expressed by my kids astonished me. “Are you serious?” we asked. “You have freedom here, and room to play. We live close to the library and bike trails.” But I was missing the point, entirely. Their longings could not be fulfilled using facts and logic. It takes time to develop roots and blossom in foreign soil.

I was reminded of that this month because in January, nine years ago, Troy and I became Orthodox. Like our Chicago exodus, the conversion became imminent when it was obvious staying in place was no longer an option. It was a bold move, a big move and one that affected not just our lives, but also the lives of so many around us. We had been romanced by the beauty and antiquity of the Faith. We felt compelled to move ahead in the direction of God’s leading. We were confident in our decision, and journeyed toward the future, without looking back. Once the novelty wore off, however, and the permanency of sacramental living set in, my soul put on a little mutiny of its own. It wasn’t a matter of facts and dates. I knew in my head how sound theologically were the hymns, creeds, and teachings of Orthodoxy; I would never have leapt into Her depths without this certainty. But being only a tiny seed, newly planted in the richness of Tradition, it was hard and humbling to have to wait on elements outside my control, for nourishment only given by God, Himself, before I could experience the stability of growth.

Like a tree, each year of my continued conversion forms a ring, marking a slow but steady development. A nine-ringed Oak is substantially stronger than a seed, but nowhere near close to reaching its maximum potential. There are Maples, Willows, and Evergreens all around me, thick with leaves, needles, and branches. There are tender shoots of green beside me, peeking out from under grass and dirt. All of us are stretching upward, toward heaven, at our own unique pace. Every tree is dependent on the sun, the rain, and the oxygen so generously offered from the hand of God. A forced asceticism will quickly bloom and wither away, but a consistent and patient yearning to conform to the image of Christ will withstand the storms of doubt and persecution. It takes time to develop roots and blossom in foreign soil.

On our way to Troy’s parents in December, Elijah and Priscilla asked if we could please drive through the city. It was a little out of the way, but they were so excited by the possibility, we agreed to take the detour. It is captivating, all those buildings and the lights reflecting off the water of Lake Michigan. “Ah, Chicago,” said Elijah from the back seat, “the city of dreams!” I realized then, they were not mere possessions. My children were individuals with their own distinctive passions and sorrows. They would adjust, as they were ready, in their own time and in their own way. I was to love, and respect the process. “I think I left my batman in my old room,” four-year-old Benjamin told me yesterday.” I promised him, that we had checked for such things before moving. “Let’s go upstairs,” I said, “to your new room, and find it together.”

Monday, January 22, 2007


“It is shocking to look in the mirror,” my mom once told me, “because I feel that I am the same age as you, but then my body will stiffen and tire out and I remember that I am growing older.”

In 1976, I was two-years-old. My brother was 5, and my mother, representing her era with the utmost authenticity, was a mere 27. Seeing her image captured in a family photo I can only assume was just one in several shot that day (judging by the “please take it already” look on all of our faces), I try to process how young she is, how if I met her now she would actually be five years my junior. I imagine us bumping into each other at the park district pool during swim lessons, or talking over the fence in our adjoining back yards, as peers, but it is too weird of a scenario to take seriously. At some point in my daydream, I always end up asking my younger-than-me-mom to help me clean my oven, or take me out to breakfast because I am desperate to get out of the house but am low on cash. Even now, she tells stories from her childhood and I secretly think, “Yeah, right, we all know you didn’t exist before me.”

While making dinner this past weekend, my four-year-old son and I had an interesting conversation about adulthood and marriage. I was prepared, due in part to his older brother going through a similar phase at his age, for the concept of growing older to be met with much skepticism. After laying down the ground rules for what type of person he could marry (i.e. a girl he is not related to), Ben decided that he and his new bride would most likely continue living with me, in this house. I filed that comment away in my long-term memory so I could for sure bring it up again at his actual wedding. “That would be nice,” I told him, “I enjoy spending time with you.”

And then it came, the sad realization for both of us that glimpses of separation and mortality had broken through the barriers of blissful thoughts on super heroes and ice cream bars. “When I’m a parent, mommy, are you going to die?” he asked. For the next few minutes we went over how I still had a mommy, and daddy still had his mommy, even though both of us had grown up and had children. He really wanted a guarantee rather than examples, however, so looking into his hopeful face I whispered a prayer and offered what I could. “Mommy will be around for a long, long time.”

As I hem and haw over every parenting decision I make, I forget sometimes that my kids have absolute confidence I know exactly what I am doing. That, in fact, if Benjamin went back seventeen years in time and found me on a high-school football field in a cheerleading skirt and 6-inch tall bangs, he probably wouldn’t bat an eye before asking me to pour him some cereal or tie his shoes. To all my kids, I am not a person with needs and insecurities. I am a feeling, a smell, and a presence validating their own identities. My husband works in the child welfare system and tells me about case after case where abuse was obvious but the child remained loyal to his birth mother or father. It is humbling, as a parent, to realize that such loyalty isn’t earned by wisdom and patience, but rather, is given away freely out of an innate desire to be connected – to be inexorably linked to another soul.

Admittedly, there are many moments when I question my own purpose. I agonize over my identity and my place in this great big world. “What do I have to offer,” I wonder, “from within these walls?” On my really bad days, I can it take it even further. “I am doing nobody any good by just holing myself up in this house all day with the laundry and the dirty dishes.” “Poor me,” I blubber, while my children, regardless of my enthusiasm, remain loyal and certain of my place, as the end-all, be-all of their existence.
It is up to me to either take courage from their assuredness or seek approval from elsewhere.

“Give this to your mom.” A woman handing out calendars at the grocery store confuses me for a teenage daughter. I laugh and hand the calendar to my mother who is with me, shopping on a Saturday morning. Now that I am pretty sure a low-grade fever does not necessitate a trip to the emergency room, and digested play-doh does not require a stomach pump, I am able to start appreciating my mother as an individual, separate from me. I admire her for putting in millions of hours without a formal acknowledgement of her service to our family. I am aware of the idiosyncrasies that make her fabulously unique. I can be thankful for her without trying to be her, or having her life define my own. Running errands, as friends, we compare cleaning products and share cooking tips and only briefly do I regress upon seeing a box of Cookie Crisp in the cereal aisle. “Please mom!” I almost beg for old times sake, but everybody knows that cereal is way too expensive to eat everyday, and my 33rd birthday is nowhere near close enough to count as a special occasion. “I’m going to grab some laundry detergent,” I say instead. And I pick up the pace, wrestling my cart into submission, because I have an awful lot of important work to do when I get home.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


There is nothing like a Saturday to put things in perspective. It takes just a little to refuel, even though it feels sometimes like all the therapy and chocolate in the world couldn’t pull me out of my slump. A trip to Aldi, a conversation with my son, a cup of coffee with my sister-in-law, all work together to build up the reserves that have sunk dangerously low by Friday afternoon. “Oh, I’m fine.” I decide, “Everything is on the mend.”

Of all my thousands of weaknesses, the worst my priest assures me, is my tendency to despair. This, he says, is a major “no-no”. To ever give up hope, as a follower of Christ, is to deny that God is merciful, loving, and ultimately victorious over death. “A slippery slope,” he has called it, a slippery slope indeed. So today, I ‘m very thankful that I am forbidden to give up on myself. I am thankful for forgiveness and second chances.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Three spaces into my journey through the Hundred-Acre Wood, I start to realize that it is not the ideal place to look for honey pots. The rules here are always changing, and never in my favor. I can’t even flick the spinner without being chastised. “No, mom, you have to do it like this!” says Ben, lying on his tummy. “Lay here, like I’m doing.” Sometimes the squares, cut in half by the fold of the board, count as one. But sometimes those same squares count as two, depending on how many honey pots are sitting on them, waiting to be claimed. But I have to put my foot down when the back end of the arrow, the non-pointed side, lands on Pooh Bear and Benjamin cheers, “I get to go honey pot hunting!” “You do not!” I object, because I don’t care that he is only four and the middle child, sometimes overlooked to my great shame; I don’t care that his eyes are as big as saucers and his face as animated as a Saturday morning cartoon; I don’t care that he is convinced either side of the arrow is a legitimate pointer… that is just plain cheating.

Board games are not my love language, especially board games played with anyone under the age of seven. The lemon sucking pout on the face of Priscilla, when she is sent back home during a competitive round of Sorry, pokes a slow, steady leak in family fun time. After awhile, our original, puffed up expectations deflate into flat-out disappointment. It is amazing how early on in life the desire to win is instilled. I was surprised this week when Mary squawked at a playmate, whose chubby, bowed legs, out-waddled her own in pursuit of a stuffed snowman. “Already?” I thought. “Take this, or this!” I offered, distracting her disappointment with second-rate alternatives.

I am not, by nature, all that competitive. But every once in awhile I pull my head up from out of the sand and notice a few things. I observe that the guy in front of me just rolled an 87 when I could of sworn the highest number possible was a 6. “H-m-m,” I think, “that is interesting,” and I jot it down in the notebook I am using to keep score. “How come she gets to start 10 spaces ahead of me?” I wonder. And I write that down too, because eventually all these rules are bound to form a logical pattern. Quickly, I start to realize that an awful lot of people are passing me by. I become less of a casual observer and more of a referee, blowing my whistle and calling out fouls. “No fair!” I scream, but the game goes on despite my expressed objections.

While turning around in order to get my message out louder and clearer, I notice them; the quiet group of players who seem to linger at the starting line. No matter what strategy they come up with, it only results in negatives and it breaks my heart. Then the guilt, oh the guilt that racks my spirit. “How could this happen?” I sob, “Where is the justice?” I rip my rulebook and gnash my teeth until I am all cried out and blotchy. That’s when it hits me, it has been ages since I, myself, have moved anywhere. I am suspended between envy and remorse, paralyzed by doubt and confusion.

Do you remember the Un-Game? It was the 80’s answer to poor sportsmanship. There were no sore losers because everybody won. Land on a square and answer a question, like “What is your favorite Christmas memory?” So why did this watered-down, milk toast version of after dinner entertainment die out with Aqua-net and tight rolled jeans? It is my theory that we all, secretly, crave the tension. It is titillating, the drama of losing and winning, of keeping tabs on whose done what and where we stand in comparison. The harder you play, the less likely you are to be bogged down by nagging little whispers and open-ended questions. Competition is a salve to soothe the wounds of being mortal.

Near the end, I start passing out honey pots like Halloween candy. “Look Ben, we each have the same amount!”

“Let’s play again, mommy! Please!”

“How about something else?” I say. “Maybe we can read a book or get out the play-doh.”

“Play-doh!” he squeals. And I find the rolling pin, cringing in advance at the mess that is bound to follow. It can be tedious, this staying home with children, and my chores, and the words that fill my head. Where reminders of frailty, sin, and grace are all around me. I can bear it for a while before I start to drown, before temptations outside weigh heavy on my heart. “What would it hurt to peek, to assuage my insecurities by making judgement calls on whose is writing better or who is mothering worse” I think, “to play a round, to compare myself, and then to come back home?” Because even though I hate the injustice, the rules that change with every turn, I still feel drawn to roll the dice and try to play the game.

“Be Careful,” call the whispers, floating warnings through my understated existence, asking questions in the quiet of my soul.

Let us try to live in such a way that all our actions, our whole life may be, not a sleepy vegetation, but a development — as strong and deep as possible — of all our potentialities; and that this may take place not some time in the future but now, immediately, at every moment. Otherwise, irresolute and slovenly living will inevitably give birth to an impotence and flabbiness of soul, an incapacity for faith or any intense feeling; life will be squandered in vain, and we shall scarcely be able to rid ourselves of the cold scum which covers us — the fire of genuine heroism alone will be all that can consume it in that case.
– Fr Alexander Elchaninov, The Diary of a Russian Priest

With thanks to Grace for posting this quote originally on her website, This-Side-of-Glory.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Mary has taken to begging, like a baby bird, for scraps from our table. I will be sitting alone, sipping coffee and eating eggs or a muffin, when out of the corner of my eye I am alerted to the presence of a very tiny person with her mouth open wide enough to crack her jaw. The fact that she waits so quietly, so expectantly, would lead a casual observer to believe that this how I have always fed her; with scavenged bits of oatmeal, banana, or whatever else I could forage from the aisles of Jewel-Osco.

It is funny how off base we can be, making summarizations by observing open spaces through a peephole. “It is raining,” one might say, “grab your umbrella!” unaware of the sprinkler quenching thirsty perennials in the heat of a sunny summer day. We all make our mark with bits and pieces of the truth; twisting a many faceted personality in order to shed light on the angle we hope will be most appreciated by the company currently present. How many times have I softened my voice for the sake of a stranger, five seconds after cutting into my child with criticisms sharp and stern?

The other night I invited two neighborhood friends over for coffee and dessert. At 6:58pm, two minutes before their scheduled arrival, the crying and whining in our house was escalating with every second. Our oldest was livid at having to be upstairs with the “children” at such an early hour. The middle two were arguing over what bedtime story would be read first. The baby was screaming from exhaustion, and I was dangerously close to a heart attack, imagining the doorbell ringing and having to expose the gritty underside of our whitewashed family unit. In the nick of time we got the chaos under control, and welcomed our guests into a quiet, tranquil home; where the peace was as tenuous as the tabbed dress on a paper doll.

It is hard to view this life in context. Through peephole observations, my hope rises and falls on the tide of current circumstances. The bigger picture is too abstract to make much sense of. When I go to my e-mail “inbox” and find yet another “thanks, but no thanks” rejection in response to one of the many submitted writings I have packaged up and sent out to publications, not currently interested in the musings of a thirty-something mother of four, I tell myself it doesn’t bother me. I delete it, along with recipe ideas from Better Homes and Gardens, but sometimes it sticks and I can’t shake off the feeling that it’s raining, raining, raining on my parade.

“You can never assume you know the whole story,” I told Priscilla when she complained about a new boy in her class who she thought would probably be a troublemaker. “He could just be nervous, or sad about having to move,” I argued. Unconvinced, she reiterated her original position on the matter. For all I know, she could be right. His backpack might be full of spitballs and whoopee cushions. But that’s just it, neither Priscilla nor I know all that much of anything. We can speculate on the virtues of that little boy until the cows come home, but without some background information that’s all we’re going to have; theories and speculations.

I am sure it is possible to form some sort of working hypothesis out of spitballs, baby birds, and e-mailed rejections. I could also try and reproduce a Rembrandt using nothing but Popsicle sticks and colored water, it’s my life to waste as I choose. But the fact of the matter is, I am not a painter, a philosopher, a fortune-teller, or God. I believe, out of necessity, the perennials are out there blooming and growing even as the rain beats down, blurring my vision. This is not the lifetime for summarizations. These are the days for pulling on rubber boots and splashing in the puddles; with you, my family, and my neighbors, believing and forgiving and loving the parts that make us human.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


I am at the vigil for Theophany, alone. My husband, Troy, graciously offered to watch the kids so that I could take in this marathon service without distraction. Breaking out my rusty alto, I join in the choir I’ve hummed along with every week while whispering the words of the creed and the litanies into the ears of my toddler. Anyone doubtful of the Orthodox Church’s devotion to Scripture should immerse themselves in the feast of Christ’s Epiphany, which is literally drenched in readings from Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, and I Corinthians. I am trying my best to take advantage of this rare opportunity by following the service book line by line - by singing with my mind and my heart, rather than forming the words that pop into my head subconsciously due to habit and rote memorization.

For the next two-and-a-half hours, I am schooled in the heavy symbolism of Christ, the man, convening with John the Baptist at the River Jordan. This moment, rich with significance, is the first public appearance of Jesus as the Messiah. It is a foretaste of His death and resurrection, and a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. The Son of God allowing Himself to be dunked in the waters of this earth, once pure at creation but now dirtied and polluted by sin, is to be celebrated because He has met us in our weaknesses and offers hope, sanctification, and a chance to drink once again from purified water, guaranteed to quench our thirst for eternity.

I will admit that my back is starting to stiffen, and I wish that I had not chosen to hang my coat in the coat rack on the other side of the sanctuary. A draft of cold air keeps me rubbing my hands back and forth, attempting to find warmth in the friction. I like it here, in the choir, where members are jovial and team oriented. Pages fly back and forth. Liturgical books are opened, closed, set on the floor in front of music stands, and then brought back up again for another usage. My fellow alto, a real pro in my opinion, writes notes in the margins of the page. “Watch the wording” they will say, or “sing slowly”. Her love for this hymn, this choir, this parish is evident by her dedication to detail and the worn thin strands in the rug beneath her feet, where she stands at every service without exception.

Finally, Father Bill brings out the basin of water to be blessed. We hear Old Testament Prophecies, readings from The Gospel and Epistle. The Holy Spirit is invoked and the cross is dipped three times while we sing the Troparian,
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, and called Thee His beloved Son! And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee!

This water will be poured into bottles for members, it will be sprinkled in our homes as a blessing. For ten years, ten years, I have participated in this essential aspect of Epiphany without really knowing what to make of it. A bottle of Holy Water has been a permanent fixture in our refrigerator, each year refilled with a fresh supply. My husband has been faithful about putting it to good use, but whenever I open the door to take out an apple or a gallon of milk and see it there, staring at me, I find myself thinking, “What do I do with you?”

I am inching along the spiritual path toward thinking like an Orthodox Christian. For the most part, I have embraced with joy the organic mystery of Eastern Christianity where elements of the faith, deeply rooted in Scripture and Tradition, are to be tasted, touched, and lived, rather than dissected. But there are still moments when my old black and white tendencies escape, strapping mystery to a table where glaring white lights are aimed and tools stand by in an impossible effort to extricate the innards of that, which is fluid and indefinable. There is no hocus-pocus here. No magic tricks for starting a miracle in motion.

Tired and frigid, feeling the droplets flung from a brush in the hands of my priest now trickling down my forehead, I begin to internalize the purpose of welcoming this blessing into my home and my body. Like an icon is more than paint and wood, and the Eucharist more than bread and wine, so is this water more than an Orthodox condiment staying cool in my kitchen year after year. I felt nothing when I expected the water to activate my faith, but I see now it is my faith that activates the curative elements in the water. I am spiritually healed by the physical act of drinking from my portion of the Jordan, because all creation was sanctified through the Baptism of Jesus Christ.

Each time blessed water touches the lips of this frazzled wife and mother, of her husband stressed with the responsibility of providing for his family, of her child feverish and achy; the recipient is united with his or her original calling to be cleansed and enter God’s Kingdom. The water stains from a house blessing, barely visible on the glass framing my pictures, mark my soul with the remembrance that my old sinful past has been washed away and that all things were made new again by the rising of Jesus from the river. “How beautifully practical,” I marvel, “to incorporate this promise, so easily smothered by mundane distractions, into the everyday lives of those striving for salvation."

After vigil, there is small talk and a few items to go over regarding the Liturgy taking place in the morning. I am flattered by the appreciation of my presence by fellow parishioners and singers; it feels good to be part of a community. I am hungry from the strict fast in preparation for tomorrow’s feast. I am longing for a hot bath and warm pajamas. But mostly, I am thankful. Thankful that the Christian faith, the faith that has defined me as long as I can remember, still continues to amaze, transform, and ignite my spirit with sparks of love fanned into flames through prayer, the sacraments, faith, and this water, flowing clean and clear by the grace of God.

Listen to this reflection by clicking HERE. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Birthday Party

Isabelle, my niece, was turning three. My brother and sister-in-law hosted a small, scaled-down, fete in honor of this milestone. There was pizza, homemade cake dripping with blue icing, presents, and family – everything needed for commemorating her official promotion to “big girl”. My own four kids made up the bulk of the guests but Isabelle’s neighbor, six-year old Lexi, was also invited to join us. Lexi, like my Priscilla, goes to afternoon kindergarten. Although they have different teachers, I thought Priscilla might recognize her since a sliding divider is all that separates the two classrooms. “Hey,” said Priscilla, matter-of-factly, before we left for the party, “I know Kelsey.”
“You mean Lexi,” I corrected her.
“Oh …yeah, Lexi.”

We pulled up to Bobby and Paige’s and unloaded the van. Our kids rushed in, carrying the present that Priscilla had wrapped but had not necessarily wanted to give. For fifteen minutes we had a discussion in our kitchen as to why we couldn’t run back to the same store and pick up a second doll that transforms into a cupcake so that Priscilla and Isabelle could have matching ones. “We can’t afford … blah, blah, blah …not your birthday … blah, blah, blah …next year’s Christmas list…” was the by-the-book lecture that I blandly doled out to my disappointed daughter only to have Troy, looking for ways to connect with the mystery that is his five-year-old girl, enter the room and announce, “Wow, what a cool doll! I wish we could have one of those at our house!”

Once inside, the kids screamed and scattered with enthusiasm. Elijah ran for uncle Bobby’s Playstation, Priscilla and Lexi squealed and embraced like long lost relatives, Benjamin took off for the toys, and Mary commenced the two-hour battle between me, her, and the staircase. Isabelle, her three-year-old face gleaming and spectacular curls bouncing, ricocheted from one end of the house to the other, short-circuiting from the stimulation of so many potential playmates, gifts, and electric blue treats dotted with rainbow sprinkles. For the adults, sitting down was not really much of an option.

The social lives of children are raw with emotions unfiltered by age, experience, or etiquette. Their unchecked passion can evoke much squirming in the parents trying to reign in either their over-the-top adoration or unsystematically cruel tendencies. I, for example, was a bit uncomfortable with the Christmas card Elijah wrote to his teacher saying, “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, My love has gone too far for you!” He was so proud of his poem, I didn’t have the heart to question his word choice, so instead I just grinned nervously and taped it to the gift, mentally working out the explanation I would give to the school social worker if she called me concerned about my second grader’s fanaticism.

At the party, we hushed angered tones. “Don’t follow us Isabelle!” said Lexi and Priscilla, dampening my spirit, just a little, with the reality that grade school girls (myself, at that age, included) can be as vicious as soap opera vixens, plotting the destruction of a nemesis. We lunged at tiny hands gripping, pulling, and pushing with frustration. “Don’t grab now, we have to share.” We sighed at the screams, the hectic pace, and the mess. But mostly, we laughed. Tired of our own worn-out agendas and adult preoccupations, we held out our hearts toward the six adolescent firecrackers exploding with jaw dropping vividness, hoping to catch a spark and ignite a little fire of our own. The children more than satisfied our hunger for wonder with their unadulterated exuberance for delivery pizza, paper streamers, lit candles on a cake, and the singing of “Happy Birthday”.

Around 7:00 pm sleepy eyes and tired cries launched a half-hour search for shoes, jackets, and a misplaced pacifier. “Happy Birthday Isabelle! We offered once more, “We love you!” Later that evening, after the kids were tucked away under their covers, I said to Troy, while unloading the dishwasher, “Can you believe that you and I spawned four complete people?” He agreed that it was somewhat mind blowing. Before falling into bed myself, I kissed the faces of our miraculous progeny, eerily still with exhaustion. When I wrapped my arms around Priscilla, she pushed me away while mumbling, “no, Lexi, no.”
“It’s just me, sweetheart,” I assured her.
“Was today really Isabelle’s birthday?”
“It sure was, honey.”
“Was Lexi really there?”
“Yes, Lexi was really at the party.”
And with that, she drifted off again, dreaming of new friends and quite possibly, of the cupcake doll that would be hers when we all gathered here in July to celebrate her own milestone of another year passing.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


We worked it out in the parking lot. Elijah would push any buttons that opened the front door to the library. Benjamin would push any buttons on the elevator. Priscilla, who wouldn’t be pushing buttons that morning, would get to enter the library and the elevator first. As soon as Mary started to squirm and squeal in her stroller, all five of us would check out our books and high tail it out of there.

Shockingly, I lost the library events calendar. I wasn’t sure when Ben’s preschool class started up again after the holiday break, but decided we would all show up at the regular time that day, just in case. The children’s section was empty but Miss D, who teaches the class, was there working at the reference desk.
“Hi Miss D!” yelled Ben.
“Well, hi there Ben. Did you have a good Christmas?”
“When is class starting Miss D?”
“Oh Benji,” she explained, “Class doesn’t start for two more weeks.”
My four-year old stared, mouth open, at his teacher while she told him in great detail how many more days there were before preschool started up again, and what exciting activities the new preschool program would entail. Surprisingly, he didn’t interrupt but waited patiently before presenting his next question. Never taking his eyes off her face he asked,
“So what are we learning today, Miss D.?”

Jennifer, a dear friend of mine, is a phenomenal listener. When she sits down to catch-up with you, it is obvious from her body language and gentle feedback that the words flowing out of your mouth are landing squarely in the flattering realm of her undivided attention. With her elbows perched on her knees, she leans toward you, resting her chin in the palms of her hands. Her eyes penetrate, and her expression transforms into one of quiet interest, free from any trace of boredom or patronization. Although my issues for the most part remain unresolved, I am always struck after our conversation by how good it feels to be truly heard.

In the two years that I actually left the house to work in a real office, with cubicles and conference rooms, I attended workshops geared toward becoming more attentive to the needs of clients. There were tricks for remembering names and personal details about family and hobbies. Appealing to the love of self was a surefire way to get a foot in the door - to break the ice and seal the deal. When being introduced, we were told, always repeat the individual’s name out loud in order to remember it later. “Molly, this is Susan” it would go. My response should then be, “Hello, Susan, it is so nice to meet you!” I should also try to pick out a distinctive characteristic and link it to her name. “Silver Susan,” I might come up with if her hair was gray and black, like salt and pepper.

As a kid, it used to frustrate me to no end when my parents would tune me out, offering only lukewarm “uh-uhs” and “mmms” in response to my highly interesting commentaries on four square, friendship pins, and sticker collections. When I finally started my own family, I could hardly to wait to converse with my babies. Like an experienced linguist, I did my best to decode each gurgle, grunt, and groan. “Did you say cat, sweetheart? CAT? Troy, get in here, Priscilla said “cat” or maybe “coat”, isn’t she brilliant?”

Now-a-days trying to follow through on one complete thought in my house is like attempting conversation in a nightclub. The constant vibrations of noise, cutting off sentences and drowning out clarity, sabotage all pursuits of concentration. Becoming a mother has slashed, gnarled, and all but obliterated my listening skills. Every day I keep one ear open while my children tell me their own highly interesting tidbits on Transformers, Barbie Pegasus, and Choose Your Own Adventure books. I do have limits, however, and once their squabbles, knock- knock jokes, and “can I’s” pile up high enough in my brain, it simply shuts down – an age old defense mechanism designed to keep me from going insane, as it did for my own mom and dad decades earlier.

Over the last eight years, I have become quite comfortable with the fragmentation of family chaos. This flexibility has made it possible to actually get a thing or two done around here but it also, unfortunately, has made me socially, somewhat awkward. Every Sunday at Church, I am guaranteed to interact with other adults. While I always look forward to this opportunity, it also reminds me of how entrenched I am in this “other than” existence known as motherhood. I can pretend to be a regular person, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, hair brushed, and wearing mascara, but five seconds in to any interaction I must abruptly excuse myself to stop Ben from licking all the donuts on the platter, or Mary from crawling up the stairs. I can’t be very engaging while constantly averting my eyes and doing head counts. “So, how long have you lived in Portage, just a minute … no, no Mary, stay over here …I’m sorry, what was I saying?

I still resort to tricks for triggering identities but feel dissatisfied with this formulaic substitute for a genuine remembrance, interested and concerned for the life behind the name I just recalled. I think of Jennifer and her God given gift to nurture the souls of those around her just by saying less and hearing more. To what extent, during this season of distraction, can I offer that grace, myself? Just this morning, Troy was right in the middle of telling me about a stressful situation at work when a thought, perched precariously on the edge of my memory, blurted out rudely through my lips, cutting him off completely. “Oh honey, speaking of absolutely nothing you just said, can I order some more vitamins today?” And with that, a chance to serve my husband flittered away on the wings of self-absorption.

Somewhere along the way, I gave up trying. While settling in to my role as caregiver, I pressed the mute button on my senses and never bothered to turn it off again. “No,” “Sorry,” “Maybe next time,” “I’ve got kids.” It is much easier to bow out all the time than to evaluate each request on an individual basis. A cup of tea, a helping hand, a phone call, could be arranged with effort. Carving out moments to listen would require taking my mind off of cruise control. Maybe I can’t head up the PTA, take part in parish council, or volunteer as the art lady in Elijah’s elementary school, but I can make eye contact, resist the urge to speak, or invite my neighbor for a visit.

In less than ten minutes, Priscilla and Elijah will come bounding through the front door full of information and requests. I’ll naturally tense up with the desire to get backpacks and coats hung up in their proper places. “Uh uh” I’ll want to say in response to their announcements. But for the price of seven minutes, I can sieze a passing moment to chip away at my selfishness by actively listening on the couch, surrounded by coats and back packs, soaking in the details of a life other than my own.

Thus it does not pay to come to grips with the hard-to-master great vices and bad habits you have acquired without at the same time overcoming your small “innocent” weaknesses: your taste for sweets, your urge to talk, your curiosity, your meddling. For, finally, all our desires, great and small, are built on the same foundation, our unchecked habit of satisfying our own will.

Tito Colliander from Way of the Ascetics

Monday, January 01, 2007


After a solid week of gorging, entertaining, and being entertained, I feel as empty as the wine bottles and gift boxes strewn about our home. I tried this season to dive without restraint into each gathering, rolling in the revelry of rare visitations and a husband off of work. I cooked, I laughed, I forgot completely about household projects and upcoming commitments. Just this afternoon I saw the wet blanket marked, “too much of a good thing” ominously poised to drop on our back-to-back festivities, validating my response of “because it wouldn’t be as special” to my son’s “Why can’t Christmas be everyday?”
The truth of the matter is, I am exhausted.

On my refrigerator a brand new calendar hangs nestled between art projects and photographs. The unmarked squares offer 31 exciting chances to schedule in the predictable resolutions guaranteed to take my joy and efficiency to the next level. I have such high hopes but little faith in my abilities to get healthy and organized. I am that girl who spends $100.00 on yoga gear only to watch the DVD twice before conveniently filling the time allotted for exercise with sleep.

As I type this, I can see from the corner of my eye the notebook I have dusted off and filled with weekly, dated, to-do pages. Sheepishly, I admit to you that I have repeated this symbolic gesture every January since entering the new millennium seven years ago, without lasting success. By mid-February, I resort to my old tried-and-true method of panicking over forgotten details in the middle of the night and switching my wedding band from one hand to the other, like a string tied to a finger, to remind me of the really important thing that should have been done yesterday, but will have to be accomplished half-heartedly tomorrow. I would like to claim that I naturally work better under pressure but that would be a misleading statement, to say the least.

After so many failed attempts at maintaining better habits, I am starting to see my plan of action as somewhat faulty. Perhaps I am putting the cart before the horse here. Deciding for myself what characteristics would make me a “success” and then trying to force those traits upon my malnourished soul, is essentially like attempting to create a blooming rose bush by taping petals to a dead twig. There are probably deeper issues preventing me from bearing fruit.

Why does a whiteboard filled with chores make me resentful? Why do I run from commitment? Why do I take solace in food when life gets stressful? How am I supposed to choose which goals are best for me, for my family, and for my community when there are so many legitimate options to pick from? When my long-term agenda is in a constant state of flux, my daily decisions have nothing sturdy to build upon - no motivating force to keep separating the good from the bad. I run out of gas because I never bother to map out a final destination, fueling myself accordingly. The question I ask myself should not be “what do I want to do?” but rather “who do I want to be?”

This year, before I make any resolutions, I believe it would be in my best interest to sit down and read with open-minded prayerfulness the fifth Chapter of Matthew in which Jesus preached the, still controversial, beatitudes. How I pack for a trip down the narrow path towards meekness, peace, and purity will be vastly different than how I would prepare for a journey towards comfort, security, and notoriety. It isn’t my natural inclination to be righteous so in order to keep stepping forward towards that particular objective, I will need to immerse myself in the lives of those who have already met that goal, following their own steadfast examples with the support of prayer and the holy sacraments.

Being organized is good. Being healthy is essential. These attributes are icing on the cake, icing that cannot stick to raw batter. “Who do I want to be?” I want to be like Christ. This won’t happen today, tomorrow, or even, quite possibly, in this lifetime. It will require countless failures and setbacks but if I can keep my eyes focused on Him, my finish line, my everyday decisions will have eternal merit and meaning. My life will have merit and meaning, and maybe I can become that rose bush after all, sucking nourishment up my through my roots and blooming with vibrancy and vitality.

I picked out a fantastic pen to keep clipped to my ultra streamlined notebook. I have already emptied, with relief, the nagging concerns that threaten my sleep into a tabbed “to-do list” section placed conveniently behind my 2007 calendar. Right above the reminders to call my insurance carrier about a claim and pay my Visa bill, I will use that nifty pen to write out PRAY FOR PERSEVERANCE. This should be scheduled as an “all day event”. Now, if I could only find that DVD …

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . —C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory