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A New Kind of New Year’s Resolution

While I’ve never been much for making New Year’s resolutions, I do try to think about the things I’d like to do differently and the things I’d like to accomplish each New Year. And that is the thing about resolutions – they are all about “I”. This is not necessarily a negative; goodness knows there are an infinite number of things I could and should work to improve upon in my life and in my self. But this is where most resolutions begin and end – with ME. Which is likely why most of mine fade into the background, because I lack the resolve, strength, memory, or will to fulfill them over the course of the year. There is a paradox here – I want to be the one to make the necessary changes, but the truth is I am my own biggest obstacle.

Mary Untier of Knots. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mary Untier of Knots. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It isn’t a coincidence that the Catholic Church celebrates New Year’s Day as the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. This is a day, the first day of a new year filled with hope and promise, in which the Church invites me to remember that I have a mother who is very concerned with everything that concerns me and all those I care about. She wants me to remember to involve and include her in my thoughts, plans, hopes, dreams, and resolutions for the year. This year, instead of going it alone as has been my past practice, I’ve decided to turn over my resolutions and all that needs fixing and improving and adjusting in my life to someone else’s more capable hands: Mary, the Untier of Knots. (Read more . . . )

Take Back Your Time

The Head of Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones

“In terms of taking back our time, the first essential tool is saying no. No to our own greed and self-importance. No to the extra work we carry home. No to hearing without listening, looking without seeing; no, above all, to the insistent voice of advertising, which thrives on our restlessness and dissatisfaction, and does everything it can to exacerbate them. A Brobdingnagian NO to all those things makes space for an even more gigantic YES.

My private code for this is to refuse and choose.

We . . . can refuse to participate in the ‘mad race of time.’ We can choose to talk face to face with our friends instead of via email or on the telephone; we can play with our children, now, this very afternoon; we can go off for long walks across the hills. We can turn off the television once and for all. In short, we can rejoice in being one of the elite who actually does have the privilege of choice instead of complaining endlessly about our lack of time.

The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse

Of course it can feel difficult to drop out of the rat race: to stand at the side of the road while our friends and colleagues race on across the horizon. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. In Matisse’s painting, “The Red Studio,” the clock has no hands. We need to find a ‘red studio’ of our own, the studio of our own insistent heart, perhaps, in which to set up an easel or a writing desk, or pull a dreaming daybed towards a broad, wide-open window. It sounds so simple — almost too simple to be worth saying — but slowing down can be a tremendous source of joy.” (Excerpted from World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwan, pp.30-31)

What would you do if you had more time? Find one thing, and then find the time and make it happen.

Gifts of Grace, Hope, and Beauty in the New Year

The new year opens with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 8) and the bestowal of gifts from the three Magi to the Christ Child, which calls to mind not only the hope and promise in the gift of a new year, but reminds me that my life is meant to be a gift as well, both to God and to others. Sadly, I am apt to forget this.

I’m not much for making New Year’s resolutions. But I noticed, when examining and thinking back over 2011, that as the year progressed it became increasingly difficult for me to be mindful of beauty in my daily life. Juggling home, job, and volunteer work along with my writing became a whirling abyss of speed and busyness that threatened to overwhelm me. When my life feels like I’m “going down the rails on the crazy train,” beauty eludes me. Giving becomes taking and I know it’s time for a reboot.

Clearly, some changes need to be made in 2012 and I’ve come up with a list that I’m hoping will help me regain my balance and make beauty more prominent.

1. Take Along My Trusty Blanket

I need to acknowledge when things are spiraling out of control inside me and put myself on a time out in a soft, safe place — preferably with my trusty purple blanket. There’s a very good reason why little ones have their blankets, thumbs, and binkies along for the daily ride. I would do well to learn from their example. Paying attention to the inner signs that signal the need for a time out will help me to avoid  becoming a destroyer of the beauty around me.

2. Plan for Extraordinary Family Time

This means two things especially: travel and music.

For Christmas I gave my husband this great book of themed California itineraries. Being that the three of us love the open road and have an eccentric streak that would lead to the moon and back again, I’m thinking this is the year we plan for manageable travel. Maybe we will each pick a trip from the book and try to do one every few months. They’re simply awesome and have adventure written all over them. Two of my personal favorites: the Alice Waters’ Culinary Tour and By the Book: Literary California. Of course, pondering A Burrito Odyssey has many possibilities, as well.

And about that music. . . . well, for Christmas, Santa brought a record player. We have inherited the record collections of both sets of parents, plus some from the grandparents, and we still have all of our own, from our childhood through the 80s. Some of our favorites are old radio theater recordings of The Shadow and Suspense, which Skippy has never heard but which we used to amuse ourselves with long ago when we lived in San Francisco and had an old turntable. Let’s just say we have a lot of records and, until Christmas morning, no way to enjoy them. This is the year of the record player! Skippy is enthralled and says over and over “Records are just so amazing.” Every kid should be so lucky.

3. Make Time to Experience the Arts

I find beauty and joy in experiencing the arts.  Unless I plan I am not exposed to nearly enough of it. The arts help me to keep life in perspective and to remember and enjoy the many ways human beings have been blessed with the gifts to create beauty in the world. This year, I plan to nurture this love by attending plays and concerts, planning museum outings, sitting in at literary salons, and watching art films. It may be in the company of a like-minded friend, relative, or my husband, but I plan to make time for these experiences even if it means going alone.

4. Nurture the Artist Within

“Do something creative every day.” That is the motto of my favorite stationary store where I purchase many supplies. I find I am more attentive to the beauty in daily life if I nurture my own artistic gifts and talents. While the list of things I need to do every day as a wife, mother, and teacher is literally endless, nurturing my own creative life is just as important as any of those things. And I find I am a happier wife, mother, and teacher if I don’t neglect those gifts. I will make time this year to write every day, cook interesting and healthy meals, and plan for and work in my garden — all essential things that feed my heart and soul, but which often go neglected in the mad rush to get other things done.

5. Curl Up More Often With Good Books

Reading relaxes me and feeds my mind and my soul. Other moms ask me how I have the time to read. I always wonder how can I NOT read? It’s easy to feel guilty for taking time out to read, but this isn’t a luxury. It’s a sanity preserver that helps me to maintain my equilibrium. Most often, my personal reading is done in bed and is the very last thing I do for the day. Some people nap; I read. This year, I also want to make it a priority to spend time each day reading aloud to Skippy. When we don’t make this a priority, days and weeks can go by before we get back to our read-aloud. It’s time we both treasure and too soon it will be gone.

6. Appreciate and Learn From the Gifts of Others

My friend, Christina, had the inspired idea for her New Year’s resolution of reflecting on the people closest to her and asking herself what qualities in those people she would like to try to learn from or emulate — this struck me as genius. Everyone has gifts and brings something unique and beautiful to the table. No one currently in my life is there by accident, but for a very particular reason. This year, I’d like to follow Christina’s example and ask myself: what particular gifts and qualities is God trying to share with me through the people whom He has placed on my path? And along those same lines, what is it that I am supposed to be sharing with them?

7. Cook My Way Through France

Many people I know have hobbies or other creative pursuits. Cooking is mine. I love to cook, eat, and feed people. I read a cookbook like any other regular book and I especially appreciate literary cookbooks. For my birthday, my husband gave me two: Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan and The Way To Cook, by Julia Child (both culinary heroines and beloved writer friends). I find that cooking is a good time for me to slow down and reflect, to be mindful of the foods I am using and where they came from, to be amazed at simple tools, to revel in scents and textures and the nearly miraculous transformations that happen when ingredients are brought together just so.  France and especially Paris have been beckoning to my heart with increasingly intensity over the last few months. So I’ve decided to give in to the inspiration, embrace my inner Collette, and embark upon an armchair cook’s tour!

8. Practice Mindfulness Throughout the Day

If I do not make an effort to find beauty, it will elude me. Everything is a grace and everything is bestowed by God for my benefit. I will find beauty in the ordinary circumstances of my daily life to the extent that I am willing to put in the effort to look for it. Brother Lawrence was a simple Carmelite monk who taught the practice of the presence of God in daily life. He writes: “The most excellent method of going to God is that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing people but purely for the love of God. We ought not to grow tired of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”  While it is extremely difficult for me to do, I find I need to redirect my attitude and efforts towards their proper end. God Himself is the author of Beauty and every good thing. It is this mindfulness that will allow me to perceive beauty in everyday events and to receive the gift of beauty He wants to give to me, as well as enabling me to hopefully share that same gift with others. But I cannot give what I do not possess.  It is my hope that taking the time this year to nurture the different things I have listed here will help me to make my life more of a gift to those around me and to the One to whom it belongs. 

Do you have plans or resolutions for the new year? Please feel free to share them here!

Wishing all my regular readers and new visitors a healthy, peaceful, and blessed 2012.

A Meditation on Woman, in Celebration of the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Edith Stein was a prominent Jewish philosopher, writer, teacher, and professor in pre-WWII Germany. After reading The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, Edith converted to Catholicism and eventually became a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She continued to write and study. During the war, Catholics of Jewish heritage were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps. St. Teresa Benedicta was executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942. Her feast day is today, August 9.

Much of St. Teresa Benedicta’s work was given to illuminating the role of women and their vocation. She has much to say to us today and deep reading gives echoes of the writings of Blessed John Paul II. The following is taken from “The Ethos of Women’s Professions,” a lecture given by Dr. Stein at a meeting of the Catholic Association of Academics in Salzburg, Austria, on September 1, 1930. The entire text can be found in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol. 2: Essays on Woman.

“Only by the power of grace can nature be liberated from its dross, restored to its purity, and made free to receive divine life. And this divine life itself is the inner driving power from which acts of love come forth. Whoever wants to preserve this life continually within herself must nourish it constantly from the source whence it flows without end — from the holy sacraments, above all from the sacrament of love. To have divine love as its inner form, a woman’s life must be a Eucharistic life. Only in daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wishes and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others. Whoever seeks to consult with the Eucharistic God in all her concerns, whoever lets herself be purified by the sanctifying power coming from the sacrifice at the altar, offering herself to the Lord in this sacrifice, whoever receives the Lord in her soul’s innermost depth in Holy Communion cannot but be drawn ever more deeply and powerfully into the flow of divine life, incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, her heart converted to the likeness of the divine heart.

Something else is related to this. When we entrust all the troubles of our earthly existence confidently to the divine heart, we are relieved of them. Then our soul is free to participate in the divine life. Then we walk by the side of the Savior on the path that He travelled on this eath during His earthly existence and still travels in the mystical afterlife. Indeed, with the eyes of faith, we penetrate into the secret depths of His hidden life within the pale of the godhead. On the other hand, this participation in the divine life has a liberating power initself; it lessens the weight of our earthly concerns and grants us a bit of eternity even in this finitude, a reflection of beatitude, a transformation into light. But the invitation to the transformation in God’s hand is given to us by God Himself in the liturgy of the Church. Therefore, the life of an authentic Catholic woman is also a liturgical life. Whoever prays together with the Curch in spirit and in truth knows that her whole life must be formed by this life of prayer.”

Beauty, Grace, the Big Screen — a follow-up….

After reading this post, my friend, Rose, reminded me about Holy Wood Acting Studio, here in Culver City, CA. Its a new acting studio, dedicated to helping actors fulfill their mission to be true artists and servants of Truth and Beauty in the world. If you know anyone who is interested in acting, or if you are at all interested in the power of film as an art form, the studio is worth looking in to. Be sure and watch the introductory video that comes on before you click on the link to enter the site. Its only about a minute and a half and it is very inspiring.

The mission of the studio was recently written about on the National Catholic Register website by Joseph Pronchen, which he followed up in print with a longer article.  The article gives a clear idea of the goals of the studio and articulates the important role of film in accomplishing the goal of all art, which our late holy father, Blessed John Paul II, said “is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit.”

Hoping and praying many good film projects, and good people, will be coming out of this studio in the future….

“Remember that you, artists, are the custodians of Beauty in the world.” — Blessed John Paul II, Letter to Artists

A Total Loss?

When I was a little girl, I suppose I enjoyed school. I have a lot of memories and none of them are particularly horrible, though there are some I’d rather forget. I don’t remember getting in trouble too often — mostly I was disciplined for being, as one teacher I dearly loved put it, “too loquacious,” which you can read as “talkative.”

Nothing was ever too terribly difficult — except for math, which was maddening and frightened me generally because I am very slow about some things and often need time to think and so could not keep up with the pace of learning new concepts. I liked reading ever so much more, because I had time to think and process. And if I didn’t quite get something right off, well, then I could go back and read it again,. And I could ponder things while I read and have the leisure to make connections and think about them and see things along a sort of continuum, I suppose. This was the same whether I was reading for history, or science, or just a book of literature. And then, unlike math where there was ever only one right answer, words could mean different things just by the way they were used or punctuated in a sentence, and a single word could evoke an entire picture or even a story in one’s mind that, for me, numbers and their sentence-like equations simply failed to do. I think after all I probably enjoyed school because it was so very word-based. I love words and language and was an accomplished speller and writer all through my elementary and high school years. It’s probably no surprise then that I became an English and writing teacher.

One thing I remember loving about school is the Read-a-thon. These were randomly infrequent occurrences during the glory days of the RIF literacy movement where we were given practically the entire day to read a book of our choice! Now, was it the entire day, or just a portion of it? Who knows! To any child under the age of 18, the school day in its entirety seems interminable and time is an illusion. For all I know, we were only given an hour after lunch — but in my mind, I remember being given hours to just sit quietly and read, in school! No tests, no math worksheets, so spelling book pages……just the bliss of getting lost in whatever book I happened to be in love with at the moment. I used to anticipate these days with great eagerness. Our teacher reminded us repeatedly beforehand not to forget to bring our books for the read-a-thon. I seem to remember we had to run the book by her first — it had to be a real book, not a magazine or a comic book, but something with a story that would demand our sustained attention over a period of time. Beyond that, whatever we chose was up to us. I remember being excited and thrilled. We were in school and we were reading all day and it was OK with the teacher. We were free. Amazing…..

Which brings me to today.

Skippy and I were both nursing a serious fatigue hang-over after an incredibly busy and active weekend. On top of that, I had to work this morning. Typically on days when I work, Skippy gets a schedule with all of the school work he can do independently and we both just work quietly on our own. Once I’m finished with my project, then he and I will spend the afternoon doing the things I need to “teach” him. But today didn’t quite work out like that. Both of us were wrangling with brain fog and drowsiness. He made a valiant attempt at his list, but then quickly moved to the two items that demanded the least amount of “effort” — his reading assignments. Before you knew it, we were in full read-a-thon mode. He was throughly engrossed in his books and just didn’t want to stop reading. When his timer went off after the first assignment (he reads each book 10-15 minutes a day), he came to me and said “My St. Thomas book is getting really good. I don’t want to stop reading. I wish I could have more time.” I thought for a minute and wondered, “Well, why not? Yes, he does have more work to do, but he’s really engaged…..what to do?” The teacher in me has two voices: the one who feels like I have a Big Brother Principal-Administrator constantly looking over my shoulder was running through the list and thinking how behind we’d be if I gave him more time; the other was thrilled that he had found such “friends” in his books and wanted nothing other to encourage that interest and give him the time he was asking for.

I gave him the time……

By the time we dropped off my project and came home for lunch, he was more than half-way through the novel he had started for his literature reading and was sharing plot points and character descriptions excitedly with me while we drove in the car. I told him he could have a “reading day” if he finished his spelling, grammar, and piano after lunch. I was prepared to let the rest of his “core subjects” go for the day if he would be reading.

So was the day a total loss? Viewed through the eyes of the current assessment-driven education culture, my son didn’t “produce” a single thing today, didn’t offer up a quantitative test score that could be used to measure him against other kids in the district or the state, didn’t write anything that could be used to assess his understanding of any given time period in history or any particular character in said period. And as a teacher, I well know those things are important — but there is a time and a place for them, and today was neither the time nor the place for that kind of work.

Today while reading my son learned: what it means to be a virtuous man who stands up for what he believes in, even when someone in power tries to make him do otherwise; the importance of faith and family in one’s life; what it means to listen carefully in order to discern God’s will for each person; and what it costs to stand up for what you believe in. In addition, he learned a lot about pre-Reformation England, Parliament, and King Henry VIII — all this from reading a historical novel about St. Thomas More. Today while reading, my son also learned: about the behaviors and traits of various types of owls; that sometimes even the closest members of one’s own family don’t tell the truth; that sometimes one has to leave everything one knows and loves to find out that truth; that history can be “changed” when facts are misrepresented or are missing entirely and that these errors have an impact on succeeding generations; that each individual is given a gift and something that makes them uniquely themselves and that they have a choice not only as to how to use that gift but whether to use it at all — all this from reading book 7 in the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series.  Today while reading my son also learned new vocabulary, the importance of character, pacing and organization within a story, and how to devote sustained, concentrated attention to the task at hand. He challenged his memory and practiced storytelling, paraphrasing, and inference by narrating back to me the events of the books he was reading (an often better tool for assessment than the standard uninspired book report kids are required to churn out). And let’s not forget the connections he has made between both of these books and the medieval period in British history that we are studying — because of events in the St. Thomas book the occur between the king and Parliament, he better understands the way early England was governed; and because of the way the owl communities are formed in Ga’Hoole, he has a better understanding of the early craftsmen’s guilds in Europe. Not bad for a day that didn’t include the regular school “formula.”

In these fast-paced, technologically frenzied days, there is something to be said for “learning” how to slow down, pay attention, and get lost in whatever book you happen to love at the moment.