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Beauty Break: Welcome Autumn

Today was littered with tiny, ordinary gifts that brought me back to the present moment . . . a prelude to the autumn leaves soon to come. Sharing with you the gift of —

Autumn Leaves (1856), by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

Autumn Leaves (1856), by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

* A succulent chicken roasting slow, redolent with the aroma herbes de provence and sliced shallots

* The first cool rains of autumn, washing away the dust and dry of summer

* Sipping the first spiced apple cider this fall

* Making pumpkin honey bread with chocolate chips and pecans, its scent in the oven warming the house

* My son excited, telling me how happy he is with the rain, and the cider, and the bread, and the chicken, and the season

* The voice of my child reminding me that it’s the little things in life that make it wonderful

* Feeling like I could BREATHE for the first time in a very long while

Hoping this day brought whispers and gifts of autumn your way . . .

Ode to Autumn, by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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On the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux

Words to live by on the Feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face:

“If I did not simply live from one moment to the next, it would be impossible for me to keep my patience. I can see only the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to think about the future. We get discouraged and feel despair because we brood about the past and the future. It is such a folly to pass one’s time fretting, instead of resting quietly on the heart of Jesus.”

St. Therese, help me always to believe as you did, in God’s great love for me, so that I might imitate your “Little Way” each day.

For more information and resources about St. Therese of Lisieux, click here.

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

The Holy Grail, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

One of the very best books I read this summer — perhaps all year — was Christian McEwan’s lovely World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. I posted an excerpt here that really spoke to me. Christian points true north in her recommendation that we reclaim quiet and slowness, and relearn to savor awareness in lives too often gone awry by speed, haste, and multi-tasking, our creativity and imagination suffocated by the noise that attends these harried, unfocused but increasingly “normal” behaviors. I have an intrinsic horror of chaos and I do not believe it is possible for me to live a truly creative life, in either a spiritual or an artistic sense,  in an environment that seeks to encourage chaos instead of order, harmony, and balance.

The truth is, I don’t have to participate in the chaos. I do have a choice, though I may be made to feel as though I don’t, or that in exercising my choice to slow down and swim on my own side of the stream I am somehow “not with it” and need to “get up to speed.” I’ve been struggling with the sense that my life, my mind, my health, and my world have all been unravelling with greater speed and urgency over the last couple of years, so Christian’s book was just what the doctor ordered. I took quite seriously her encouragement to “Choose to refuse,” and have been practicing the simple art of saying “No,” along with the attendant art of not apologizing or feeling guilty for saying it and using the resulting new-found time to be more available to the opportunities God is offering to me in the sacrament of the present moment.

Being more present to what is happening in the moment is necessarily going to look different for each person. It all depends on how plugged in or overextended you are. A good friend of mine is experimenting with unplugging from the Internet each weekend to allow for quiet spaces to process her writing. One thing I’m doing is trying to stay with the task at hand and resist heartily the urge to multi-task — meaning if I’m helping my son with his math lesson and the phone rings, I let it ring. This is extremely difficult to do because as a full-time mother and housewife, full-time home schooler, and part-time high school teacher I’ve got my hands full and there is rarely a moment when someone doesn’t want or need something from me. How do I meet everyone’s needs and still have something left over? Prayer is essential, but so is slowing down and making a place for quiet and a more moderate pace through the day.

One of the things people praise our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, for is his ability to make the person with whom he is speaking feel like the only person in the world. This is a tall order. But should it be? Why is it so hard for us to pay attention to who or what is right in front of us, without being distracted by something or someone else? Obviously, prudence and discretion is required: if I’m driving and my son wants me to look at or listen to something that requires too much of my attention, well, he simply has to wait. Keeping us alive and safe in that moment is the most important thing. But in this time of instant gratification and self-centered social interactions, this kind of patience is difficult to acquire and practice, for others and for ourselves. Yet it seems to me essential. Rather than whipping myself and others into higher speed, I must learn to be OK with allowing myself and others to move slow, appreciating the time it takes to be on task and do a job well and thoroughly before moving on to something else, and allowing the person I’m interacting with the gift of my full and undivided attention. Because God is present to me in the moment, not in the next thing on my to-do list, not in what I could be doing instead. But right there, in what I am doing NOW, in who I am with NOW.

Michelle Aldredge at gwarlingo has taken up the clarion call issued in McEwan’s World Enough and Time and has an article today about Christian and her book as part of her new series on creativity, which I highly recommend following — it’s worth every minute you’ll spend reading. You can also hear an interview with Christian on Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon. Christian’s book is worth seeking out and reading slowly. Treat it like a personal retreat, a gift to yourself, a promise to take back some of what you might be allowing to be taken from you. Reading it may be a step towards reclaiming a more creatively aware, spiritually intuitive self. Not everyone is going to be happy with your choosing to refuse and not everyone will understand the grace that will be revealed to you in each moment that you choose to pay attention and focus on what is happening NOW. But you’ll be better for it and the inner change it will work in you will be evidence that you’re on the right path to living a saner, more peaceful, more present life.

What have you got to lose?

Sons and Mothers

Truly sons are a gift from the Lord,/ a blessing, the fruit of the womb.” Psalm 127:3

Today my only son is 10 years old. When I told an old friend yesterday that today was my son’s 10th birthday, his response was, “How traumatic!” He is the father of a two-year-old boy, so I guess 10 is a long way off, perhaps unimaginable to him. But he’s right: it is traumatic in some ways. Skippy is in an interesting place, standing with one foot in childhood and the other in boyhood.  It’s a twilight time for me as a mom. Things are changing, rapidly.

I love the fact that in many ways he is still “little,” happy, innocent, and free to do things that soon he will no longer want to do. On a recent family outing to a lovely park which had a babbling brook running through it, Skippy invited us to play “Pooh sticks” on the shady wooden bridge crossing the brook. He was very excited and said he’d show us how to play, that it was easy. And it was. (In case you’ve never experienced the rare pleasure of Pooh sticks on a shady bridge overlooking a gentle brook in the cool breeze with ducks standing by, here’s how Skippy explained it: You each choose a stick. Walk up to stand in the center of the bridge, looking over one side. On the count of “three” everyone drop their sticks into the water, then quick dash across to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick floats by first.) Such a simple game, such fun to play together. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing was seeing him so excited because he finally had the chance to play “real Pooh sticks,” something that until that moment, he’d only read about in A. A. Milne’s beloved children’s books about a silly old bear in the 100 Acre Wood…..I share this because it was a reminder to me that there will not be many more of these simple, innocent moments of childhood. It was a reminder to be grateful, and to be very present and aware of these moments, before they are gone for good.

God is merciful to me, because as he enters his 10th year of life, Skippy is still in love with Winnie-the-Pooh, talks regularly with his stuffed animal “friends,” wants to snuggle with me on the couch, and holds my hand wherever we go. He’ll still spend an ocassional afternoon watching Max and Ruby with me, sits enthralled while I read aloud to him, and enjoys looking at his picture books, even though he has “outgrown them”.  God knows, I want with all my heart to hang on to these moments with him — I’m absolutely not ready to let go of snuggling, not yet! He is my only living child — this is it for me, or at least it looks that way. I don’t have any more coming up behind him to fill in the gap of things he will soon be leaving behind.

But I know this is not fair to the boy he is becoming. I know I have to let him go. Already he is taller, his feet are bigger. His face is narrower, older, having lost the roundness that little children possess. The same with his fingers — not pudgy and cute any more, but longer, stronger. He’s more interested in Super Hero comics, likes to spend more time alone in his room, and is generally more mature in social interactions. He is so competent and can do many things for himself — he makes simple meals and tells me more and more often, “Don’t worry, Mom, I can handle it.” He still needs me, but in a very different way. And as much as it is difficult for me to let him go, I can also appreciate and admire how he is growing and the kind of person he is becoming. I can enjoy this in-between time of his childhood, with all of its different phases and accomplishments, like I have enjoyed all the others so far. But though I know this, it seems to me that a door is closing, a phase of the journey of motherhood is slowly coming to an end, and a new phase is beginning.

Skippy’s birth was both joy-filled and frightening. It was an event marked by loss, as though God were preparing me for something that back then I was not yet ready to understand. I still don’t understand it, but every year his birthday continues to be a strange emotional mixture of sadness and joy for me. He was born 6 weeks early and though there were no life-threatening complications, he spent his first week in the NICU. I left the hospital, a new mom, a first time mom, without my child and came home to an empty nursery. The elation of motherhood was tempered by this emotional trauma. Seven days later, on the day we were to bring him home for the first time, we were awakened by a telephone call telling us about the terrorist attacks on the East coast. It was 9/11. Grief-stricken for the people killed by this horrific event and their families, afraid and uncertain about what was going on, we soon learned that we were unable to get to our child — the freeway to the hospital 30 minutes from our home was shut down for hours because it passed by a major airport. Suddenly, we were united with others affected by this horrific event. We were helpless, powerless, and scared. The months after his birth and homecoming were extremely difficult. I felt guilty being happy when other had been so devastated. And I kept wondering what kind of world were we bringing this child in to? It is an understatement to say that everything surrounding the birth of my son was a challenge to a barely awakening faith.

As Skippy has grown, those early events surrounding his birth have made my heart wiser and more knowing. The losses I continue to experience as a mother are no less painful, but they are perhaps less surprising. I love being a mother, I love the gift of my child. But it would be a lie to say that this gift is not also full of heartbreak, sorrow, and loss for the things that are passing away. It is the gift of beauty, with thorns. I believe that the is an especially unique truth for the mothers of sons. While a daughter may remain close and perhaps become a “friend” in adulthood, a son is continually growing up and away from his mother.

My friend, Cathy, just recently saw her only son head off to college in Florida. He is now an entire continent away. When she asked me to pray for her son and their family, she said, “When times get frustrating with Skippy, imagine him leaving the state permanently and it might make the present frustration seem a bit smaller.” Cathy’s words hit home. In the day-to-day routine with all its attendant frustrations, I seldom think about the big picture. It is so easy to get caught up in the struggle of the moment, to get irritated by the little things. I do not often imagine my son grown, leaving. I do not often imagine never snuggling him, never holding his hand again…..I do not imagine him leaving for good. Cathy said that her son’s leaving, even though it was expected, even though she knew it would be hard, “felt like a death in the family” and gave her that feeling that life is fragile, and moments with our children precious. She said that,” Seeing his room filled with furniture and yet so empty is a strange experience.  It is also a time of looking back at all I didn’t do and that which I did — it is hard knowing I don’t have any do-overs, something else to remember when times are trying.” This is something I struggle with a lot — the feeling that I get one shot at this. Not in a way where I feel like everything depends on me; more like I have to be vigilant and do my very best the first time because, really, it’s the only time. Cathy’s experience, though I am 8-10 years from going through the same thing, still echoes the smaller, different losses I am experiencing now. We are like bookends, she and I, on two sides of a very similar experience.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-07930-CW, copyright Radiant Light, 2011

I find, as both I and my son get older, I am growing closer and closer to Blessed Mother.  She knows exactly everything I have gone through, what I am going through now, and how it will be later. She went through it all with her own Son. Her Son’s birth was also surrounded by trauma and uncertainty. She also experienced continually the “loss” of her child as He grew, pondering things in her heart, until one day He finally left. She understands from her own experience both the unique joy and sorrow of being the mother of a son. I find it is easier to bear the bittersweet experience of these emotions and the journey with her at my side, to talk to and to share with, to ask for her help and intercession both for Skippy and for me. And I can entrust her more and more with my own son’s care and safekeeping. She can be with him always, even and especially when I can’t. She can obtain for him the graces he needs to fulfill whatever mission God has planned for his life. She can help to repair my mistakes and to fill in the many gaps I leave. And she can keep our hearts united no matter how far away he goes. 

It is no coincidence that this month of September is dedicated to Mary, Mother of Sorrows and the faithful are encouraged to meditate on the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. Here’s to the next 10 years of my life with Skippy. What a blessing and a privilege to be his mother. May God give me the grace to be more acutely present, to both the beauty and the thorns, of every passing moment of the remainder of his childhood and to enjoy it to the fullest.