Saturday, July 8, 2017

My Friend With an Empty Vacuum Cleaner Bag

I got a little time to myself yesterday.  My husband took the boys shooting and no one needed me for hours.  I was already out, so I took myself to lunch and went from store to store, shopping for a rug to go under a particular chair in my house, or anything else I couldn't live without that was less than five dollars.

And this is happening more and more, only subtly, here and there.  The guys all want to see this action movie or that war documentary, and I'm out.  Sitting in the other room, doing whatever girl/Mom activity I choose.

I used to be the generator, facilitator, supervisor, or recipient of every activity my boys dipped their toe in.  Every activity.  And it was exhausting.  I see parents of young children, now, and remember just how exhausting.  I admire them so much.

Overall, my thought about raising kids who are growing up and seemingly need me less and less, is one of great joy.

But, there is the occasional, and always unexpected, lump in my throat.  Like when I was on my way home from Wal-Mart the other day.  I passed the elementary school that my older boys attended and my youngest still attends.  But, only for two more years.  And in that moment, I felt like I was visiting this town from the future, where elementary school and boys who go there, are but a foggy and distant memory.  And I wanted to cry.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn captures this feeling perfectly in The Cancer Ward, as one of his cancer-stricken characters reflects on his life:  "Sometimes I wonder whether the children were real, whether I didn't just dream them.  Maybe they never existed?"

It's clear, now, that my children are real.  Their bodies are lounging around my living room (including the one who is sharing my couch cushion), Lab Rats is on TV, there are army guys by my coffee cup, a t-shirt on the floor, and dominoes are strewn all over my dining room table.  The evidence of real children is all over the place.

Among our summer sojourns, we've made a friend at the park.  He frequents it five or six times a day, because by his own admission, he doesn't have anything else to do.  He's divorced and his children are grown.  He admits that sometimes, he vacuums, just for something to do.  The bag on his vacuum cleaner stays empty, because his house never gets dirty.

Surely, this will never be us.  Right?!  

But, surely, it will.

Our friend reminds me that I'm living the American dream.  To be happily married, with young children, and time to enjoy all of it...

I'm afraid to admit it, but I need the reminder.  It is easy to miss the treasure of the dailiness - between basketball practices, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and repeating, while never, ever asking myself, "Did I really need to sweep or vacuum?!"

So, in case you don't have a wise friend at the park with an empty vacuum cleaner bag and time to enjoy your kids, I'll loan you mine.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Singing For the Belly Dancers

I did something tonight I haven't done for years.  I sang and played the guitar at a once-a-month-downtown-stays-up-late event called First Friday.  I set up in my old place, but other than the buildings looking the same, it wasn't anything like it used to be.  Now, there's an approval process, obtaining and posting your permit, snow cones, kettle corn, clowns, musicians scattered about, and lots and lots of people.

As I continually discern God's will for my life, I consistently have the feeling that music is supposed to be part of what I'm doing.  But, it is so easy to talk myself out of it.  I keep asking myself, "Can a simple girl like me, singing simple songs, with a simple guitar played very simply, really glorify the Lord?  I'm sure the answer is yes.  At least I'm sure in my head.  Or is it in my heart that I'm sure?  I'm not really sure where I'm sure, I guess.  But, I'm pretty sure.

When you're only one person and you can't agree with yourself, I think it is important to make an effort to stay as objective as possible.  To that end, I've kept a little book for several months now of reasons I should keep singing.  It starts with a note to myself, and is slowly being filled with encouragement to praise God, for as many reasons as there are ways.


With the exception of one entry, it is all Scripture.  The exception is pretty exceptional, though, and my mind returns to it often.

When we sing, we repossess some of the Eden that we lost when Adam fell...Music stirs our hearts and engages our souls in ways we can't describe.  When this happens, we are taken beyond our earthly banishment back to the divine melody Adam knew when he sang with the angels, when he was whole in God, before his exile...the devil...forever plots how to make humanity stop singing...The devil wants to thwart confession, stop forgiveness, and silence our songs of praise, because they frighten him.  
-St. Hildegard of Bingen

And so, I sing.  Opportunities come up here and there, things go well, and momentum builds.  And instead of just accepting opportunities that come, you start looking for them.  And you end up at First Friday, because you can and it's free.

And you come without a microphone or amplifier because you can't remember if you need all of that. You don't have it anyway, so going without makes a lot of sense.  The open parking spot, a stone's throw from where I was supposed to set up, was a sure sign of God's providence.  With my first tune underway, I noticed some activity across the street.  A sound check was proof their amplifier was working.  The shimmery skirts, bare midriffs, and cameras were working, too.

Oh, man.  Maybe I was a little premature about crediting providence for my parking spot, because I was pretty sure this wasn't where I wanted to be.  Do you know that feeling when a beautiful girl walks in the room and you go from feeling normal/great/beautiful to ugly?  Blech.  Have you seen Monsters Inc.?  I felt like Randy, the purple chameleon, blending into the wall of the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store.

How those girls have that kind of courage and move like that, I have no earthly idea.  Sheesh!  No wonder Herod offered half his kingdom! I'm pretty sure it was after watching something like this.  And I had to submit a video to make sure my music was family-friendly?!

So much for repossessing some of Eden before Adam fell.  I think he fell a bunch of times tonight.

And there I was, moving in and out of invisibility, wondering where I misunderstood what God was asking of me.  Until friends showed up.  And show up they did, in a steady trickle throughout the two-and-a-half hours I was there.  A pleasant surprise, every one of them.  In those moments, I felt like maybe I hadn't gotten it all wrong.

I was really grateful for those moments, too, because there were others that were as cringe-worthy as the friend-moments were terrific.  Like when the guy on a bicycle parked two feet from my face and told me I needed a pick, smack in the middle of nailing Amazing Grace.  Or when the little boy looked in my guitar case and said, "You only have one dollar in there.  We saw another guy who had a $20 bill in his."  And later, "You only have two dollars in there."  If only I needed an accountant.

His report got me thinking, though.  Either they're being very generous "over there", or I must suck, or he put that money in there himself.  This made me consider putting some of my own money in, to encourage other people to put their money in, but even the thought made me feel kind of sleazy.

So, I played until my fingers rebelled and my pride was begging me to go.  I laid my guitar on top of the four dollars in my case and saw somebody approaching out of the corner of my eye.  It was one of the belly dancers.  She introduced herself by saying, "We were across the street."  I wanted to laugh out loud.  I'm pretty sure everyone knew where they were.  I certainly did.  She offered me a dollar tip for my beautiful music and a sweet apology for their music being a little loud.  I was as charmed as I was flabbergasted.

It is easy to equate stares and applause with being observed, and assume that if we don't see ourselves being observed, then we're not being observed!  I would have bet any amount of money they neither saw nor heard me.  It's a good thing I didn't.

And that's the thing.  You just don't know.

So, you dance like nobody's watching, and you sing like you're in the Garden of Eden, and you beg God for the courage to do it again, and get chicken strips and an icy Coke on the way home because you're proud of yourself for trying, even if it wasn't anything at all like what you imagined it would be, and you're glad it's over, and you've been reminded that friends and carbonated drinks make everything better.    


Monday, May 29, 2017

Day After Day, Week After Week, Month After Month, Year After Year...

I finished a book today that I bought four years ago for my husband.  It was recommended by a beloved priest then, and again last week by my spiritual director.  

It reminded me of something I used to know and how it inspired me when I learned of it, and motivated me to practice it consciously, at least for a little while.

The vision of the kingdom, the call of Christ to labor and suffer with him, has overtones of a great and noble crusade - yet we must each of us translate that vision and retain that spirit in the routine, humdrum events of every day at a time, frustrated and perhaps discouraged, each twenty-four hours filled with as many defeats and frustrations as victories, each hour made up of sixty minutes of humdrum things and little people busy and concerned about many other things, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year...

...Each day, every day of our lives, God presents to us the people and opportunities upon which he expects us to act.  He expects no more of us, but he will accept nothing less of us; and we fail in our promise and commitment if we do not see in the situations of every moment of every day as his divine will...

I simply cannot be reminded of this enough.  Brother Lawrence in the The Practice of the Presence of God and Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence have been two great teachers for me on the subject.  But, I read them so long ago, and had forgotten, again.  So, thank you, Fr. Walter Ciszek for reminding me, yet again, to celebrate the sacrament of the present moment!  

Wrapping up Memorial weekend and kicking off a summer with boys ushers in a lot of memorable moments...
Like trying to build a hobbit house under a trampoline

Hanging out with friends and explosives
Launching a cardboard paratrooper from a rooftop

Shooting an AR-15
Fishing, again.
And finding a little beauty in a fungus for me, in the middle of all this boy stuff
And these are just from the last two days.  But, I know there are exponentially more unphotographed and unrecognized moments than photographed and fully present ones.  That's okay.  It will always be that way.  But, the gap doesn't have to retain its seismic features.  I can close it, little by little.  Not by taking more pictures, but by being present and remembering, believing that the details are the expressed work of God.  

This is not easy, but for me, very worthwhile.  If I can work to believe that God is at work in my life (because, sometimes it is work), all of the moments that come to us, come with their own sense of peace and joy.  People, places, inconveniences, and drastic changes in the plan can be received with new energy and acceptance when considered as the will of God, hand-delivered.  

Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!  
Mark 9:24

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Fish, The Calendar, and The Hood - Happy Mother's Day!

Mother's Day is upon us and I have to admit I always feel a little giddy when it rolls around.  I know it's going to be a good day, for sure.  Because, along with my birthday, it is one of two days out of the year I don't cook and I don't feel guilty about not cooking.  Cards?  Probably.  Gifts?  Probably not. Not cooking?  Definitely.  Every time.  Happy Mother's Day to me...

Today, motherhood looked like this.

I caught this catfish.  It bit my bait on my line on my fishing pole and I reeled it in until it was completely out of the water and laying on the sidewalk.  My son told me to text the picture to my husband and tell him he caught it.  I texted the picture, but didn't write anything.  My  husband assumed my son caught it.  I was going to let that ride.  At least until we got home.

But, then.  Then my son, who prides himself on being a fisherman, told a fellow fisherman that he technically caught it, because he saw it first.  Oh, no.  Nope.  This was the biggest fish I've ever caught in my life. So, today, motherhood was a little private conversation in hushed tones about not taking credit for things you don't earn and giving credit where credit was due, and "You're not the only person who can catch a fish around here."

Yet another picture perfect example of feeling like a great parent and a jerk all at the same time.  Say cheese.

Not long ago, there was another conversation.  This one was about basketball and the place it holds in a person's life.  This "game" was soiling attitudes, self-image, brotherhood, motherhood, and annihilating character like no game ever should.  So, this mother painted a pretty good picture of a basketball-less life and closed the conversation with a fiery ceremony burning all of the negativity written down (as an I'll-be-waiting-for-you-to-show-it-to-me-when-you're-finished-assignment), up.  Burned it up.  For real.

Haven't heard one negative comment since.

I heard once, that convincing your kids that you're crazy, can encourage obedience and good behavior.  They don't know what that one thing is, that is going to make you crack.  I think it's working.

Also working, is this...

This is the fruit of my silent retreat this year.  Intentionality.  Each day of the week, every week of the year, one of my guy's names is written down.  That is my cue to make an effort to engage with them for at least 15 minutes, in a way that makes them happy.  

This was going along beautifully, and unannounced, for about a month.  Then, one of the boys saw my calendar.  Hey!  Why is each of our names written down on your calendar?  I explained.  

Word traveled fast.  It's been several months now, and talk about accountability.  Sheesh!  "Mom, whose special day is it today?"  It's 9:00pm.  "Umm, it's yours, but since it's so late, let's do it tomorrow and I'll double your time."  Say cheese.

It's eye-opening to see who always gets their time, on time, and who often gets overlooked.  Gotta be careful about those "easy" ones!  They just don't demand much, and can slip through without a lot of fuss.  Yikes.  Accountability might be just the thing. 

But, kids and husbands aren't the only ones who get overlooked.  I just realized (and we're a couple of months in, here) that my name is not on my calendar.  What was I thinking?!  There's nothing like celebrating Mother's Day to encourage a little self-care.  Next year, for sure.  It's not like anyone else has a calendar with my name on it.  Next year.  Hold me to it, will you?

If you know me, you know I love quotes.  I only have one quote about motherhood, but it is definitely my favorite.  And not just because it was my son who said it.  Or because I know what it means. Even after trying to get him to explain, I'm still not sure.   

Rough, with walls filled with drawings done when no one was looking and difficult to escape?  
If so, I think he nailed it.

"Motherhood is like any other kind of hood."  

Happy Mother's Day from the Hood!
(whatever that means...)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tree of Hope - A Lesson in Adaptation

Late last week, we traveled to San Antonio for our nephew's graduation from Air Force boot camp. Since my Facebook account is deactivated, I was doing what people used to do in the car - Looking out the window.  And I saw this:

And I exclaimed.  But, by the time everybody else looked up, our minivan traveling 75mph, was too far past for anyone else to see.  We took note of the upcoming intersection and surrounding landmarks, so we could stop and get a good look on our way home the next day.  And we did, which is when this picture was taken.

It took me awhile to put words to what my soul already seemed to know and understand.  The words sound like they're coming right off the page of a Marine's combat manual...Adapt and overcome.

I felt proud of this tree and grateful to it for teaching me its secrets, hard-won.  

I thought about which came first, the chicken or the egg.  The fence or the tree.  I don't know for sure, and I'm not sure it matters, but I bet it was the tree.  And if so, there was obviously no parent tree around to settle the age-old "I was here first!" argument. And so it grew, in spite of having been there first.

It grew and grew, and it leaned just a little with the weight of the seasons.  One day, it noticed something unlike itself.  Something hard.  Something uncomfortable.  Something immovable.  

Incapable of running away, the tree had to choose between giving up or pressing on.

It pressed on.  But, not just on.  Around.  Around that thing that made it so uncomfortable. Completely around that thing.

And now that thing is a part of itself.  

Maybe the strongest part, as a friend pointed out...  

How long do you think that would take, my son asked?  I don't know, son.  I really don't know. Probably a long time.  Seems to be a tree thing.

But, for people, there are a lot of hard things in life and fences are the least-hard of all.  

ALS, cancer, losing someone you love and feel lost without, struggling with depression, alcoholism, being laid off, and sometimes, just getting through an ordinary day in an ordinary life.  These are some of the fences in the lives of people I love.  And these are just a few.

They look very different from one another, but they're very much the same.  They're hard, uncomfortable, and not going anywhere any time soon.   

Take heart, my friends.  
The tree knows best.  
When even one day at a time is too much... 
lean on the fence, 
and rest.  

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Cutting the Facebook String and Flying Free

I deactivated my Facebook account four days ago, right after I left my weekly holy hour.  It was an hour of realizations.  During this hour, I was reading a book, and I realized how much I was enjoying reading and being fed by the content of its pages.  I also realized that I don't read at all like I used to, which was a lot.  I also realized that the reason for this is Facebook.  Every free 5 or 10 or 15 minutes was consumed by consumption of social media.

I've known this for a long time, of course.  My awareness of it was never more evident than when I found myself envious of the people I visited in the nursing home.  Envious of the time they haven't wasted on Facebook, and the pressure they don't feel to post pictures of their last Bingo game and their family and friends during their visit on Sunday.

During my hour in the chapel, I felt like God handed me the grace I have been praying for (for about a month), to detach from the world, except to engage it for His glory.  I can't describe the freedom I feel.  But, if you are a frequent Facebook visitor, my guess is that you can understand.

Over the years since I established an account on Facebook, it has been a love/hate relationship, at best.  When it has come up in conversation, it sounds like this is how it is for most of the people I know.  There are lots of reasons for this, and some are different than mine.  But, for me, it was like always being tied to something by a string of varying strength.  It was always pulling on me.

Apparently, FOMO is a real thing for kids these days.  Fear of missing out.  I don't think this describes my tied-by-a-string-sensation, but I think vanity and social responsibility do.  I didn't want to overlook or ignore any possible attempts to receive feedback, respond, share, or engage with my 500-something friends in a meaningful way.  But, curiosity moves in quickly once the scrolling begins, and who knows how many minutes have passed, or what life I have missed in my own living room...

Did you get that gift from Facebook at the end of last year?  The one that showed all of your friends, how many items you liked, etc...?  I was horrified.  Did you notice what they didn't include?  The hours you spent on Facebook.  Good move.  

In addition to being a "time suck", as one of my favorite friends calls it, another problem for me, is that Facebook feeds my temptation to let other people's opinions, comments, and likes influence my opinion of myself.  Not good.  And it keeps me in the center of my world.

I don't want to be the center of my world.

John, the beloved disciple, writes of the Pharisees, "for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God."  In the same Gospel, Jesus says, "How can you believe who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?"

Ummmm...  I don't know?

My most recent Facebook flurry was the posting of a slew of pictures from an incredible Spring Break trip with my family to Big Bend State Park.  I don't know how much time I spent selecting pictures from all that were taken, later deciding which ones should be on my profile, wishing my husband had tagged me in his pictures, because those were different than the ones I posted, and so on.

Later, I was thinking about all of the people who didn't go anywhere on Spring Break.  I was thinking how they might already be feeling badly about not going anywhere.  Especially, if they wanted to.  I would have.  I remember being at home many a Memorial Day, sad, because I knew I should be lakeside, having a picnic somewhere!  And, not that we're responsible for how other people feel about what happens in our life, but I felt sad anyway, thinking that my Spring Break pictures could have been salt in a wound for somebody who was already feeling crappy.  Blech.

So, with these realizations and the gift of answered prayer, I am free.

Now, without Facebook, my phone is for talking, checking texts and emails, googling stuff, looking up the daily Gospel readings, listening to music, and tuning my guitar.  That's it!  HOO and RAY!!!

In the last four days, I've finished one book and am well into another one.  I actually used my phone to call someone (my brother to see if he would send me a picture of his new puppy).  That wouldn't have happened before - my brain and time would have been too clogged with all of the stuff of Facebook.  And I probably could have caught a glimpse of that puppy somewhere on his timeline, anyway.  It is good not to know everything, all of the time.  It forces being personal and intentional. Both good things in my world.

'The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly.'
St. John of the Cross

Sunday, March 19, 2017

This Side of the Rio Grande

We got home tonight after spending four days and four nights camping at Big Bend Ranch State Park.  This park is in the southern most part of Texas, butting right up to the Rio Grande River, the border between the United States and Mexico.  The park continues in beauty and grandeur on the other side, of course, but it is called by another name there.

Our campsite was about 100 yards away from the river and 25 miles away from the main entrance. With only these two pieces of information in mind, I milled around with an uncharacteristic sense of foreboding for a couple of days, as I did my little part in getting things ready to go.  For all I knew, it seemed like the perfect recipe for disaster - being so close to the border, and so far from help.

But, my spirits started to lift the closer we got, and eventually, I figured if we were all going to die out there, it would probably be best not to ruin our last earthly memories with a bad mood.  So, my husband pitched our tent, I put the rug out, and we called it home.  And it was breathtaking.

I could bore you with pictures for days, but I'll just share this one, because it's really the point, here.

I didn't see this particular sign until Day 3, but we were warned verbally and in writing that the price was high for crossing the river, if you were caught.  This rule, like everything else around, took its turn at looming large.  

Just like a little kid who is told she can go anywhere but over there,  I couldn't stop thinking about being in this 300,000 acre place, hemmed in by a river I couldn't cross.  And I couldn't cross it for no reason other's not fair.  Because the people from the other side of the river aren't allowed to cross it.

Which got me thinking...about "those" people.  Those people I was afraid of, walking through our campsite, needing our stuff - maybe badly enough to hurt us.  Those people who are tempted to cross their country's shallow-river-border, not because the sign says not to, but for a chance to live where they can find work, or safety, or education, or opportunities to pursue their dreams.     

And I felt sad for them, and foolish, and like a jerk for having been afraid.  

Pulling into the mandatory border patrol check on our way home, my youngest son tried to hide under his blanket. We answered quickly and confidently that all of our passengers were U.S. citizens and we were bid a good day.  I wondered how many little boys have passed through that same checkpoint, or others like it, hiding under blankets with their hearts in their throats. 

I'm not a politician and I don't have an immigration policy, but I know that compassion needs to be the foundation.  It's not black and white and walls.  It's people.  People born on the other side of a river, which in many places, is no wider than the street you live on.   

*I wrote some song lyrics about this at our campsite, but didn't have a guitar or melody.  So, my 8-year-old helped me record the words down at the river, where it (and this post) was inspired.  You can join me there, here.