Saturday, November 22, 2008


It was this time of year in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th grade, that I would make turkeys at school from out of handprints, or Popsicle sticks, or paper bags, even. I would also list on autumn themed worksheets, which we would tack onto bulletin boards designed to look like giant cornucopias, what exactly I was thankful for. Though I can’t say for certain this is true, I would bet that if you compared those lists side-by-side, they would be nearly identical. “I am thankful for my family,” they would undoubtedly have included, “and God, and having food to eat.” In the latter grades, I may have mentioned “freedom” or possibly our mangy Shi-tsu dog, but all in all, it is pretty safe to say, I covered the basics, the expected, and was done with it.

In but a few short days, I will gather around a festively set table with my in-laws where everyone present will take turns sharing why it is they are grateful. In the past, I’ve mentioned pregnancies, employment for my husband, a new home, and yes, God, food and family. There’s nothing wrong with stating the obvious. Counting frequently my overt blessings is an excellent way to dispel the myth that we are somehow missing out on that greener grass up yonder. But I am thinking of mixing things up, just for kicks, perhaps taking my cue from Metropolitan Philaret’s morning prayer: In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. This Thanksgiving, I’d like to try and redefine what constitutes, as Martha Stewart might say, “a good thing” by digging around a bit in the dirt, examining closer what appears on the surface to be nothing but plain old yuckiness, in search of meaning, enlightenment - gold. So here is it, a rather unconventional, 2008 version of my thankful list displayed here for your viewing pleasure in no particular order:

Last winter at this time, I became ill with a nasty sinus infection, which moved swiftly to my lungs and rendered me agonizingly unproductive for nearly two months. I couldn’t sleep at night, couldn’t function during the day. Our house reeked of sick and sadness and claustrophobia. Remembering back on how my steady diet of sugar and caffeine mixed with zero aerobic activity, had (surprise, surprise) not really fortified my immune system, I determined a few weeks ago to make some serious changes in preparation for the upcoming flu season. Out of sheer terror, I began exercising regularly, watching what I stuck absentmindedly in my mouth, taking my vitamins consistently, and going to bed before 11:00 pm. Although it’s completely possible that I will still get sick despite these extra precautions, the side effects of my wellness inspired vigilance have been remarkable. I am awake, wide awake. I have fewer cravings for empty calories. By hitting bottom, I became desperate enough to better myself physically and ultimately emotionally as well.

The Demanding Threes:
Oh, I know what they say about the terrible twos, how that period from 18 to 36 months is the most trying for parents, the most frustrating. But having lived through that stage four times over, I beg to differ. For me, it was (is) the threes - the “demanding three’s” I like to call them. At three-years-old, each of my children turned a corner developmentally and they used all those burgeoning verbal and reasoning skills to strip me of patience, with the speed and utter thoroughness of piranhas ripping flesh from a floating carcass.

My daughter, Mary, for instance, was a mild mannered baby. She’d play quietly with her toes, smile readily, and drift off in her crib peacefully without me rocking her or pacing the floors back and forth swinging her steadily in my arms. In August, however, she left toddlerhood behind and crossed over the threshold into preschooler territory. Ever since then, pouty lips, nonsensical requirements (such as socks that are neither too tight, too stretchy, too purple nor too bulky, for example) and clinginess have replaced her previous ability to independently entertain herself. She’s also stopped taking naps unless I lie down right beside her until eventually she falls asleep, at which point I can sneak, with ninja-like stealth, out of her bedroom.

At first this new cramp in my afternoon schedule made me fume inside with annoyance, thinking of all I wasn’t accomplishing just lying there for half an hour, staring at the walls. After several days of this, however, I surrendered to the present situation at hand, the one that wasn’t changing no matter how stern I got or how many bribes I offered. Mary’s dainty little body inhaling and exhaling, her warm and delicate breath on my face, began to lull me into a state of relaxation. I now look forward to our naptime, or at least I don’t resent it and that is kind of like being thankful, so it counts.

My Husband’s Long Work Commute:
Oh boy, this is going to be challenging.
I knew that when we left the city and yet Troy’s job didn’t, a major downside to our otherwise lovely life in small town America would be the twelve-and-a-half hour work days Troy would have to put in due to a really long train ride in and out of Chicago. What this has meant for me is that at 5:30 pm, when I naturally start shutting down, he isn’t there the way he used to be to tend to the kids while I finish making dinner. He isn’t there at 6:30 pm to start the bedtime routine while I clean up. He can’t come home if I feel sick, can’t go in a little later if I’m particularly exhausted and unfortunately, there’s very little “us” time in the evenings. And now I need to interject a moment to tell all of you single mothers or mothers with husbands in the military gone for weeks and months at a time, that in my eyes you’re akin to cape sporting, high-flying, super heroes and just knowing you’re out there raising your children all on your own makes me actually feel very sheepish about my bellyaching.

But thankfulness, back to thankfulness. I am thankful for the minutes that come after my declaration of: I simply cannot do this anymore! Because it turns out that when you have to go on, despite the fear, loneliness and weariness, despite what looks and tastes and smells like insurmountable obstacles in your path, by God’s grace, you somehow do. And though our methods for staying afloat may not be pretty or ideal (i.e. Elmo or pancakes –again- for dinner), the fact that you made it through to other side of those baths, that tantrum, that never ending, teeth- clenching afternoon means that you and I are more resilient than we ever imagined we could be. It means that yes, yes we can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).

The High Price of Food, Clothing and Technological Gadgets:
So I was standing in the middle of Aldi not too long ago holding a calculator and a shopping list. Things were tight, the refrigerator was empty, and payday was another week away. I’d brought cash so as not to overspend, as is easy to do with credit cards. What I had was what I had. Period. I began with my staples– milk, eggs, cheese, fruit and vegetables. From there I had to separate my actual needs from my perceived ones, which, it turns out, were merely “wants” masquerading as things we absolutely, positively, cannot live without. I pared down that original list, more than once, by the time I got to the check-out line. I left the store with a dollar in change and an unexpected sense of fulfillment at having successfully avoided the costly trappings of impulse buys and convenience foods. By thinking twice, I had beaten a system based on knee-jerk decision-making and an “enjoy it now, pay for it later” mentality.

See, here is the thing (the thing I’m trying to explain to our kids who swear backwards and forwards to me that if they only had that one special item, they’d be satisfied forever): having stuff is addicting. I know this because, say, I get a dress – automatically, I want shoes to go with it. New pillows for my couch – I’ll want a throw rug. What’s cable without a DVR? What good’s a cell phone without Internet access? A new winter hat? What about gloves, a scarf – heck, a better quality coat? A-h-h-h! Somebody stop me! Oh wait…I can’t afford any of those things, not when my children need to eat and stay warm and become educated. By not having the minimal funds necessary to even begin competing in the game, I am totally disqualified from playing. So, once again, I am oddly thankful, thankful for the financial limitations that, for now, are protecting me from getting caught up in a rat race I’m not yet disciplined enough to simply stroll through without getting trampled.

And then there’s the engine light that’s gone on in our minivan and the mysterious leak in our attic. What about $3.00 ATM fees or all that spam in my e-mail inbox? Maybe next year, I’ll have matured enough to find their silver lining. After all, it is a process, the changing of one’s mindset from superficial to eternal, one I’ll struggle to undergo throughout the rest of my life. But here’s the good news: God is patient. He understands how hard it is to stay spiritually alert what with all that distracting noise and, what the younger generations like to refer to as, “bling” up in our faces. Thus His gifts of the holy Church, the holy sacraments and the Holy Spirit, to help us stay focused. ‘Tis the season, as they say, for remembering our great fortune at having access to Christ’s goodness and mercy in even the most difficult and trying of circumstances. I wish for you and for me, an extended spirit of gratitude made more palpable by our hope and acts of kindness.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


It was a hard call. On the one hand there were article deadlines looming, but then again, the boys were all out of underwear. Dinner? Oh, please; that wasn’t even on my radar screen and, oh yeah, I just remembered, I also volunteered to lead a book club for 4-7 year olds this Thursday centered around the riveting theme of “Apples.” What to tackle first? With so much on my plate, it was important to proceed wisely, making the most of what little time I had available to devote to each task. With so much at stake, I sat myself down and chose… avoidance. I caved in to my impulses. I wasted an hour researching digital cameras and reading articles while the mess got messier and my mood, grumpier. It’s tiring, stressful, frustrating to fall behind.

I grew up immersed in order, watching my mother fight clutter like her life, our lives, depended on it. My job was to clear the table and clean the bathrooms; my brother emptied the garbage and mowed the lawn. Sure, I resented it. I couldn’t fathom why my mom would get so testy about our lack of concern over smudged windows or a sink-full of dishes. I went to college and rebelled by throwing everything, including clothes, folders, and textbooks, on my dorm room floor.

I wish I could blame it solely on my environment - on cell phones, on the Internet. I’ve tried to hide behind a conviction stating women need no longer be held captive by domesticity. It would be convenient to claim for myself a free-spirited, unconventional identity and be done with it already but the truth is, I’ve wrestled for years and years and years now with feelings of guilt and anxiety due to my living by the seat of my pants and just barely getting away with it – because I’ve been permanently stuck in crisis mode. I’ve overspent, overeaten, overreacted and under appreciated my many, many blessings in response to that terrifying sensation of feeling out of control. For years and years and years, I chastised myself for a myriad of reasons including what I assumed was a lack of empathy and a limited amount of patience. I agonized over character flaws I was sure were deeply rooted in my soul.

Two weeks ago, my husband, Troy, went to town on our garage, installing hand-me-down cabinets and putting away bikes, tools and beach toys. Inspired, I rolled up my sleeves and got busy myself, tackling one room at a time while washing load after load of laundry. For eight hours, eight literal hours, I scrubbed, swept and sorted, pausing only to prepare meals for my kids. By that evening, I was sore and sweaty, and giddy with satisfaction. I’d given my all to a difficult task and the outcome was unbelievable fulfillment. For in the arduous process of bringing beauty and rhythm to our home, I forgot to check my e-mail, to long for stuff we can’t afford, or to dull my mind with stimuli neither relevant nor affirming. All those pesky “what-ifs” that often leave me shaking in my boots were effectively muted by nothing more than simple elbow grease and the thrill of accomplishing something I had started.

What my mother embodied while raising us, which as an adult I struggled for so long to emulate, was not superhuman talent or energy, but rather a solid sense of purpose uncomplicated by the lure of rampant escapism effectively stripping our generation of a respect for moderation, stick-to-itiveness and frugality. She was, and is, an excellent steward of the gifts bestowed upon her and has long understood that the quality of her life hinges solely on her willingness to make the most of her present circumstances. Whether she’s ironing, filing papers, entertaining guests or baking scones, she commits to that specific undertaking wholeheartedly and thus enjoys the many fruits of her labor, including relief from the nagging self-doubts that often accompany idleness and taunt a mind all wrapped up in itself. “Wow," my sister-in-law, Paige, once told me, “When my house is clean, I remember how much I like it.” And isn’t that true of anything we care for including jobs made more enjoyable by a tidy workspace, dinners more scrumptious because of a table set neatly, feverish babies finally resting on the shoulder of a parent willing to temporarily set aside their heavy workload for the sake of their child.

The more we separate ourselves from reality by way of living beyond our means, having an unhealthy preoccupation with instant access to stuff, entertainment, and information via our computers, Blackberries and DVR’s, and withdrawing from our communities in favor of keeping to ourselves and our self-absorbed addictions, the faster numbness and unbridled restlessness will set in until we forget, altogether, what it means to be truly, thoroughly, joyful. For the past fourteen days, I’ve endured a sort of technological detox, praying through the urges to flee the mundaneness of my responsibilities and surrender to the lure of on-line videos, healthy eating tips, and homeschool chat rooms. I exchanged irritability, seclusion and shame for a vested interest in the people and objects pertinent to my role as a mother, wife and neighbor. I tasted of achievement and it was far more delicious and nourishing than the unsubstantial, muscle-zapping sugariness of evasion.

Twice last week, opportunities to meet a need presented themselves – opportunities I would have never considered or even noticed had I been drowning in my usual ocean of chaos. I could be hospitable, volunteer to bring dinner or watch a child because for once I was being proactive, rather than passive. Just a bit of organization went such a very long way in allowing me the enormous pleasure of participating in Christ’s mission to sacrificially love others. There is no shortcut, no substitute for a strong work ethic when it comes to squeezing the most you possibly can from out these brief years spent on earth. I ask for your prayers as I continue to battle, every minute, for victory over my laziness and weak resolve. The faith of a mustard seed is what I’m aiming for, here, and confidence that God will pick me up and dust me off - will forgive me when I stumble. It’s not painless, my friends, all that unplugging and sustained exertion but nothing can compare with the elation that comes with freedom from enslavement to our barren whims. There is no time like the present to choose depth over shallowness and excellence over cheap and easy. Enough procrastination … let’s begin!