Monday, December 31, 2007

When the Monsters Win: Wifely Insurrections

Calling all readers! Sarah at "Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering" has orchestrated the latest Catholic Carnival with characteristic creativity and insight. Be sure to ring in the New Year with a cup of your favorite tea (see below) and a good read! Happy New Year!

Before I get to the insurrection bit, I'd like to alert you to a soothing, guilt-free bit of pampering that was given to me yesterday by my favorite sister-in-law (her husband, Craig's older brother, is also a prince). At Craig's birthday party yesterday, she handed me a box of Higgins & Burke "Black Currant Herbal Tea." After tasting it at a friend's house she had called around to every food distributer in the greater Michigan area, looking for it ... finally sent away to Canada for a six-pack (in boxes) of the heavenly brew (the aroma is the best part), which I've been chain-sipping ever since. (Did I mention there's no caffeine in it?) Lovely ...

Given everything else that happened yesterday, I confess such a soothing treat was monumentally undeserved yet doubly appreciated. My "Mommy Monsters" were in rare form. I was mad, mad, mad ... and I was not going to let it go without a fight. Right before Mass. On my husband's birthday, yet. (Oh, Heidi, when will you learn?)

To add to the irony, this weekend Catholic Exchange ran my article on the second reading. "The Beauty of Feminine Genius" reflected on the wisdom behind Colossians (3:17), which touched upon the complementarity of married intimacy that I had all but destroyed in one ill-timed tongue-lashing. One verse in particular stung as it fell upon my ears:

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them....

There is something humiliating, yet undeniably effective, about reading such a well-timed admonishment in an article I had penned myself. I had to admit, first to myself and then to my dear husband, that the insurrection in our children had been largely attributable to my own failure to surrender to the "unity of two."

First, a little background. For the past two days, Craig had crawled home from work in the wee hours, giving him just a couple of hours of sleep before leaving to go to work again. If I had taken my own advice and tried to be a beautiful "feminine genius," I could have gently reminded him that working such long hours several days in a row was not good for his health, not good for our family, and not good for his productivity levels.

Instead I lectured him about how he had not kept his promise and come home before midnight. Twice. And how his daughter's nocturnal antics (up every two hours, like clockwork) were not going to improve until we resumed our regular family routine. Shrieking like a fishwife, hands on hips ... in the words of Ray Barone, "unhuggable." (Kinda makes a guy look forward to coming home after working so hard to provide for his family, don't you think?)

The children picked up on the tension between us, and it backfired in a bad way. When I stood up to do the first reading at Mass that morning, the entire congregation was treated to a full-blown temper tantrum. Our five-year-old daughter proclaimed in the shrillest possible manner that she wanted to come WITH me to the lecturn, and she DID NOT want Dad. Finally he picked her up football style and carried her, kicking and screaming, out of the sanctuary. My face was hot as I found my place in the lectionary and began to read from the book of Sirach:

Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

As I read the words out loud, a thought struck me: How can I expect my children to revere their father, if I treat him like a child? Why should they want to be with him, or seek out his company, if the peace of our home is being disturbed by my score-keeping?

Craig and I have been married nine years this coming year, and clearly I still have much to learn about wedded bliss. Fortunately, I had the good sense to marry the most patient and mild-mannered man on the planet. We managed to make it to the end of the liturgy without another incident. Then we went home, and Craig took both kids out for a little Daddy Time in the local park, leaving me home to get the house ready for the birthday/Christmas celebration that afternoon. Ninety blissful minutes to straighten up, chop vegetables for my Southwest Nibblers, hunt for birthday candles, and put on my party face. And I needed every single, solitary minute.
Now, a day later, I sip my tea and think about marital promises. On our wedding day, we promised to be faithful to each other "for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health..." Overt infidelity is unthinkable for either of us -- when he comes in at three in the morning, I know he's been battling the computer gremlins again. Yet, "fidelity" takes many forms, doesn't it?

Respect. Kindness. Consideration. Putting others' needs first.

It is the stubborn intention to love, honor, and cherish ... till death parts us.

  • Not, "unless he loses track of time again."
  • Not, "until he leaves me cooped up with the kids for seventy-two hours straight with a headcold."
  • Not, "provided he is sufficiently penitent when he isn't as kind and considerate as I expect."

No, love that lasts goes deeper than this, knowing that each offense against the "unity of two" is a kind of death, too. And so, we work together to rebuild that "shining barrier" against such atrocities. Like Van and Davy in my favorite love story, A Severe Mercy, we use these momentary lapses to inch our way closer to each other -- and, holding on to one another, to stumble toward holiness.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Catholic Carnival #151

Merry Christmas, dear readers! If you have a little extra time in your Christmas stocking this week, be sure to check out Ebeth's gift to us ... a lovely, Rockwell-themed Carnival full of thoughtful posts that will nourish both mind and spirit. So head to "A Catholic Mum Climbing the Pillars" with a hot mug of toddy and enjoy!

To be honest, I was a little late opening this particular gift this year. We were out of power for three and a half days, and got to experience our own frenetic version of the

"Twelve Days of Christmas."

Twelve meals a'grilling,
Eleven stores a'hitting,
Ten gas cans pouring (into the generator),
Nine children dancing (really only three, if you count the dog, but seemed like more),
Eight Kleenex-boxes emptying (did I mention I have a cold?)
Seven piles of snowgear melting,
Six loads of dishes a'washing (yes, by hand),
Five pumpkin pies (one at a time in the convection oven)!
Four new DVD's (still in the box)
Three indoor campouts (another round of Scrabble, anyone?),
Two out-of-town guests,
And one Christmas tree without the lights (fa, la, la)!
Next year it's Christmas at Grandma's (in Georgia, where my mother says the power never goes out).

The highlight of this Christmas was the "midnight Mass" (10 p.m. at my church), which my parents attended with us. Craig is singing in the choir, and they came specifically to hear him sing! It was nice to have mom sitting next to me, to belt out the alto part of the Christmas carols.
The other Christmas gift, serving on the altar with our senior priest were five (count 'em) young men from our parish currently in seminary studies. I feel a little guilty admitting this, when there are so many other parishes closing -- even here in Michigan -- due to shortages of vocations. But we have two priests and two deacons ... and we keep them all busy, all the time. Father Will has a gift with teenagers, and his hard work is bearing rich fruit.
Even with the little inconveniences of powerlessness (thanks, DTE!), we had so much to be thankful for. Family who had traveled all the way from Georgia, and didn't turn back when they heard it would be a dark Christmas. A warm, generator-powered home with outdoor grill to do the turkey and convection oven to do the pies. (No oven, but stove is gas.) Two children who are growing up fast. Christopher got his first "big boy" suit (complete with jacket and vest), and we were delighted to discover he was as quiet as a mouse at Mass "because this is how a gentleman behaves at Mass!") Sarah got her very first watch ... I think we're going to have to wrestle it off her when it's bathtime.
Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Congratulations, Lisa Hendey @ Catholic Moments!

My friend Lisa Hendey just got word that her "Catholic Moments" podcast has been picked up at SQPN -- a giant leap forward for this powerhouse communicator of the faith!

For more details, click on the title above ... or go directly to the SQPN link here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Leap for Joy ... with Compassion

The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
By beloved is like a gazelle,
or a young stag.
Behold, there he stands behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
For lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.... (Song of Songs 2:8-12)

It seems like a strange reading, given where we are in the liturgical calendar (so close to Christmas). And yet, the Gospel reading gives us a hint (Luke 1:39ff). A young woman, full of life and wonder, hastens toward her dear, infertile friend Elizabeth, with whom she is about to share one of the most profound of all womanly experiences: motherhood. And as Mary's delighted greeting fell upon Elizabeth's ears, the new life within her leaped for joy.

Today something happened to me that made me consider this passage in a whole new light. Craig and I attended Christopher and Sarah's school Christmas pageant, and I struck up a conversation with a woman whose son was in one of my children's preschool class. "Anna" has three children and has never been married. I asked Anna whether she was planning to do something special with her kids over the Christmas break, and she admitted that she only had off work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The rest of the time the children -- the youngest not quite two -- would be in daycare.

At this time of year, she admits, she lives on credit cards and basically works to pay for daycare. With no help from the children's father -- she can't afford a lawyer to fight for her in family court, while his lawyer has had the father's childcare payments reduced twice -- she doesn't feel she has much choice. And to a point, she's right. Many of the most important choices she could have made are behind her: the most important being the choice "up and come away with" a wild stag, and to have and raise on her own several children. Like many single moms, she puts her head down and copes as best she can, fighting to keep the wolf away from the door ... while her "stag" leaps and grazes far ahead, oblivious to her plight. How does one begin to give this woman the kind of assistance she needs, help that will remove both her and her children from this swirling pool of despair?

Back to today's Gospel. We tend to read this account of the Visitation with the eyes of faith, with Mary running joyfully to share her news with Elizabeth, who welcomes her young cousin with unabashed joy.

As I left the program today, I had a different thought: Was it possible that Mary's haste was even partly due to the fact that she needed time and space to process what was happening to her? That she ran to Elizabeth not with elation ... but a teensy bit panicked? Her fiat had been willing and unreserved while she basked in Gabriel's heavenly radiance. But when the aura disappeared, did her misgivings creep in with the shadows?

How different, then, was Elizabeth's role. She was not simply the recipient of grace, but a benefactor as well. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" Because of infertility, Elizabeth knew what it felt like to bear the judgment and shame of wagging tongues, and was in a unique place to be able to reassure Mary. She must have known difficult times were ahead of her young cousin. While she did not doubt Mary's story -- that God had chosen her to be the mother of His Son -- she knew that the young woman would still need help. A listening ear. A helping hand. Above all, an open heart.

It's the same for all of us. We all make choices (some intrinsically sinful, some merely imprudent) from which we need to be rescued, or certainly assisted. In this case, Mary had made a courageous choice (just as my friend Anna chose life for each of her children). She made it, knowing full well that tongues would wag and even those closest to her might judge her harshly. But she did it anyway, trusting that God would make her way straight.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, is there someone in your life -- perhaps someone God has specifically placed in your path -- that needs your help? It may be that this person is suffering the consequences of his or her deliberate actions. Then again, this person may simply be "Jesus in distressing disguise," as Blessed Mother Teresa used to say. Take up the Spirit of compassion, relinquish judgment, and extend yourself in the name of the Christ Child, who gave up all of heaven so that one day we might share it with Him.

If you don't know anyone personally, this might be a good year to pitch in at your local domestic violence or crisis pregnancy center, shelter, or soup kitchen. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Adoptive Family Planning: A Wise Choice

Today on the adoptive parent channel of “CafĂ© Mom,” a story was posted about an adoption gone terribly, horribly wrong: A Dutch couple living in Hong Kong, who had adopted a South Korean infant, decided to “return” the little girl (now seven years old) to the orphanage where they had found her. Claiming that the little girl had not adapted well to their culture, they decided to “return” the little girl soon after her mother became pregnant (they had been told she could not conceive).

Reading the story, I was reminded that people with limited adoption experience tend to paint both the adoption process and adoptive parenting in black-and-white terms: overly sentimental on one hand, overly critical on the other. In reality, both the people and the process tend to be far more complex. In the example above, the press vilified the Dutch couple, painting them as cold and heartless individuals who cast away their own daughter like so much trash simply because they had a “real” child on the way.

Doubtless the reality was far more complex. Consider what it would be like to be a mother in a strange land without the support of family and friends, married to a man with a demanding job that took him away from home for prolonged periods. You decide to open your heart and home to a little girl in need of a family – and discover the reality of adoptive parenting is a lot harder than you thought. The little girl has needs and challenges that were not initially apparent when the child was placed with you. Still, you persevere, hoping that the difficulties will smooth themselves out.

Instead, the pressures build. The child does not get better. Then you and your husband are ecstatic to find out that – miracle of miracles – you are pregnant. After the initial exhilaration, reality begins to set in. You have barely been able to manage the needs of the one child, and now you will be juggling the needs of two!

Looking for reassurance and support, you call home … and get a series of well-meaning but demoralizing half-truths. “You’ve done everything you could. Now you have a child of your own – your own flesh-and-blood. You’ve got to think of her. Soon you’ll be coming home; if you bring that Asian child with you, she’ll never fit in. She’ll always know – everyone will know – that she isn’t really yours. Is that fair to her? No, better to find a family for her among her own people. It’s really for the best…”

And so, back to the orphanage from which you got her. The dark-haired little girl doesn’t even cry. She just looks at you reproachfully, clutches her doll a little tighter, and follows the social worker back inside the cold gray building you all thought she had left for good.

Now, it is possible that I’ve added or omitted details that belong in this story – I don’t know these people, nor do I have details about the case itself. What I do know is that there is more to the story than meets the eye. Because when it comes to adoption, there is always more going on than can be perceived by the casual observer.

How Could She Do It?

It’s hard to imagine how that mother felt – barely able to breathe, torn between horror and relief, anxiety and a guilty sense of liberation. The nightmare was over, the fairy tale about to begin. And yet, she felt more like the selfish stepmother than the princess. And in her heart of hearts she knows that the joy of motherhood will always be tainted by the memory of the child she failed, the child she left behind.

How can I pretend to get inside this woman’s head, when I’ve never met her? In reality, I can only draw upon the memory of how it felt for me when Craig and I asked the agency to find another home for our oldest foster child, after she had been with us for more than a year. We had our reasons – most of which would not be appropriate for me to discuss here (for her sake, not mine).

I will always be grateful for the couple who stepped forward to love and care for this little girl, who will always be a part of our lives. She is my children’s sister, and she has grown up to be a beautiful young woman – just as her older brother, adopted by another couple, has grown up to be a fine young man.

But how much heartache could have been avoided – how much needless pain was inflicted on everyone concerned – because we overestimated our own abilities and resources as new parents, and underestimated the challenges ahead. It was an easy mistake to make under pressure. I looked into those three little faces, and my heart shouted, “Yes, I can! They need me … and I just know God wants us to do this.”

Again, I know whereof I speak. Because of that, I encourage prospective adoptive parents to assess – as accurately and dispassionately as possible – their own situations to avoid making an impulsive decision they may one day regret.

“Should We Take This Child?”
Questions to Consider …

Among the questions you need to consider before accepting a foster care or adoptive placement:

Have you spent enough time around and alone with children to have an accurate picture of the ongoing demands of parenting? Reading is an important part of parenting, but there is no substitute for hands-on experience. If you’re unsure you’re up to the challenge, consider “borrowing” the child of a friend or relative for a weekend or even longer.

Have you decided what age and/or gender of the child you feel best able to help? For example, some adoption experts strongly advise against disrupting the natural birth order – fostering or adopting a child who is older than children already in the family.

Do you know how you respond – physically as well as emotionally – to prolonged periods of sleep disruption and other environmental stressors? (New parents wanting to adopt or foster more than one child may want to consider carefully “spacing” placements to allow time for bonding and adjustment.)

What commitments do you have at present (e.g. existing immediate and extended family needs, work or educational goals, etc.)? How will a child affect these commitments? If the mother is currently working outside the home, can the family get along without her salary? (If at all possible, adoptive mothers stand the best chance of forming a strong bond of trust with their new child if she is the sole caregiver, especially early in the placement.)

If the child is part of a sibling group, is additional support available to ensure that each child gets enough individual “bonding time” with her new family? Does one or more sibling have extraordinary emotional or physical needs that make it difficult to meet the needs of the others? (If so, is it possible to separate the siblings, even temporarily, if it would mean the difference between a successful and disrupted placement?)

What do you know about the child’s medical case history, including information about his birth family? Does the child have siblings or extended family with which the child should maintain contact? Especially with domestic adoptions, have the rights of both birthparents been relinquished or terminated? If the child has been in more than one foster home, do those foster parents have observations or concerns about the child and his or her ability to bond with another family?

Does the child have a history of abuse or neglect, or suspected history of abuse or neglect, that may require extraordinary time and attention or jeopardize the health or wellbeing of other members of the family? If so, have you received sufficient training so that you will be able to help this child? Approach those with unknown or sketchy histories with an extra measure of caution, spending extra time and securing independent assessments as necessary in order to get the most accurate picture possible. Those with special needs deserve a loving family – an informed, loving family that is prepared to help that child become all God wants him to be.)

Are your families and friends generally supportive of your decision to adopt – that is, are they willing to lend practical assistance as needed? If not, be cautious about making a permanent commitment to a child with extensive physical or emotional needs.

Have you spent significant time talking and praying through your decision, both alone and with those who will be part of your support system after the children become part of your family? Take the time you need to be sure you are basing your decision on the Holy Spirit’s leading – and not just your own idealistic wishes and dreams.

Adoption and foster care can be a beautiful, joy-filled experience. Yes, it is possible to love a child – fiercely and without reserve – who comes to you through adoption. However, the bonding process may happen on a somewhat different timetable. Be patient. Gather as many facts as you can before making your decision. Tune out those who are unnecessarily negative on one hand – or overly idealistic or “pushy” on the other. (This especially holds true to caseworkers, whose first priority is often finding homes for as many children as possible, as quickly as possible.)

Above all, remember the words of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “God does not call the equipped; He equips the called.” If God is indeed leading you to bring another child into your home, you can count on Him to give you everything you need – and peace above all – to bring your family together as He intends.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

This morning as I frantically stitched up the last of my Christmas gifts, and ran to get ready for the first of several family celebrations this weekend. (Why do we always do this to ourselves?), I suddenly realized that I have not done a blessed thing about Christmas cards this year.

Something has to give. And so, this morning I decided to take a moment while my lasagna noodles boil, and share with you (and remind myself) some of the many ways God has blessed us in this past year.

As I whip up the third batch of royal icing to make 22 gingerbread houses for Sarah's kindergarten class to decorate, I'm thankful for my own home. Especially now, with the aroma of gingerbread and pine in the air, and the twinkly lights and Advent wreath. And I remember those who have lost a home this year due to unemployment or other financial hardships. May the Incarnate Lord, born in a stable, be close to them.

As I ponder what to get for the men in my life -- particularly my husband and our fathers -- I'm thankful for the wonderful, intrinsically manly qualities they possess. And I remember the many boys and girls in this country who are growing up without a loving father at the breakfast table. May St. Joseph, patron saint of families, be their constant intercessor.

As I think about my soldier nephew and my niece who wants to be a missionary, I'm thankful for them ... and for the wonderful example of motherhood my sister (their mother) has been to me. And I think of the Wise Men from the East who traveled the world to find the true Source of Light ... and for all those who are struggling to find and follow the truth. May the Star of Bethlehem shine in their hearts.

As I pull out yet another batch of cookies from the oven, I'm thankful for each of the friends and family members who will be enjoying them over the next few weeks. I think about friendships that have grown "inactive" in the past few years, and pray for each of those families by name. We may not see each other very often anymore, but I'm so grateful for the part each of these families have played in our lives.

Yesterday at the grocery store, I ran into our associate priest -- a vibrant young priest who genuinely seems to like being around people. I'm so thankful for what Father Gordon has added to our parish community, and I pray for vocations to serve the many parishes in the U.S. who are struggling without a priest in residence. May Our Lady whisper into the hearts of our young Catholic men, and lead them deep into the Sacred Heart, where they will serve their Lord faithfully and well.

Finally, I think of all that is going on this busy weekend: dinner with Christopher's godparents tonight, "Messiah" community sing followed by my husband's company Christmas party tomorrow, "girls" Advent tea Sunday afternoon, and my husband's performance in "Amahl and the Night Visitors" Sunday night. Whew! But then I remember those who are alone and isolated this Christmas, especially those in nursing homes and hospitals, single parents whose families are celebrating without them this Christmas, and children "in the system" who are longing for families of their own. May the Holy Family make a special place at their table, and possibly even prompt us to make a place at ours!

Oh, come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
Merry Christmas!

For Women Only...

Cheryl Dickow asked me to help spread the word about the new online women's study that is going to be going on at starting January 7.

She writes: "Catholic Exchange is sponsoring a unique onine woman's study to celebrate the 20th anniversary of John Paul's Apostolic Letter on the Dignity of Women. We are asking that you share this link with friends and family as a way to help us spread the word about this fun
and rewarding experience. Registration is currently underway and the study begins January 7th."

For more information, click here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Be Not Afraid: A Prayer Request

This week the "Catholic Carnival" (#148) is hosted at Bryan Murdaugh's blog (thanks Bryan). If you have a moment, stop by and have a look! Here's the link.

Yesterday Sarah came down with her doll baby, holding her in the "feeding" position and kissing her tenderly. "Aren't I a good Mommy?" she asked me. I smiled and assured her that she would make a wonderful mother someday.

Then she casually walked over to the stash of paper grocery bags, pulled one down and opened it, then gently lowered her baby into it. "There! Now she's in the dead box." (Have I mentioned we attended my grandmother's funeral over Thanksgiving week?)

So perhaps it isn't all that surprising that Sarah refuses to let me out of her sight, even to go to church, without breaking down into a torrent of sobbing. She will not stay in her bed, and only reluctantly agreed to a spot on the floor.

I'm afraid I've scarred my daughter. And I'm not sure what to do about it.

In his new encyclical, the Holy Father writes about the hope that is the lifeblood of all Christians:

Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himsef as Love .... The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through.

Spe Salvi (5-6)

I'm sure the preoccupation with death is temporary; Sarah knows all about heaven, and talks eagerly about going there so she can play with Missy again. And yet, there also seems to be an untapped well of fear and anger in Sarah that is just now beginning to break to the surface. These strong emotions are compounded by the fact that she isn't sleeping well because she keeps checking to be sure we're still there. If I wrap her up like a burrito and hold her on my lap, she'll nap ... but it doesn't last long.

My best guess is that it's an attachment issue, based on the books I've read. And so there will be some work ahead of us. Please say a prayer, if you think of it, that little Sarah will learn to "Be Not Afraid."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Life Lessons Worth Remembering

OK, this is the second time this week I've come across something somebody else wrote that was so insightful, I just had to share it. Today I received this from my friend Deacon Jene Baughman. It is a copy of a column penned by Regina Brett, columnist for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland, Ohio. You can read more of this breast cancer survivor's wisdom here.

As we start the Advent Season (ready, set ... go!) I'd like to pass along some of these life lessons. I wish I'd read them years ago! I've highlighted my favorites.

Lessons in Life By Regina Brett

To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me. It is the most requested column I've ever written.My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here's an update:

1. Life isn't fair, but it's still good. 2. When in doubt, just take the next small step. 3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone. 4. Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does. 5. Pay off your credit cards every month. 6. You don't have to win every argument. Agree to disagree. 7. Cry with someone. It's more healing than crying alone. 8. It's OK to get angry with God. He can take it. 9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck. 10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile. 11. Make peace with your past so it won't screw up the present. 12. It's OK to let your children see you cry. 13. Don't compare your life to others'. You have no idea what their journey is all about. 14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn't be in it. 15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don't worry; God never blinks. 16. Life is too short for long pity parties. Get busy living, or get busy dying. 17. You can get through anything if you stay put in today. 18. A writer writes. If you want to be a writer, write. 19. It's never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else. 20. When it comes to going after what you love in
life, don't take no for an answer. 21. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don't save it for a special occasion. Today is special. 22. Over prepare, then go with the flow. 23. Be eccentric now. Don't wait for old age to wear purple. 24. The most important sex organ is the brain. 25. No one is in charge of your happiness except you. 26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: "In five years, will this matter?" 27. Always choose life. 28. Forgive everyone, everything. 29. What other people think of you is none of your business. 30. Time heals almost everything. Give time, time. 31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change. 32. Your job won't take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch. 33. Believe in miracles. 34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn't do. 35. Whatever doesn't kill you really does make you stronger. 36. Growing old beats the alternative -- dying young. 37. Your children get only one childhood. Make
it memorable. 38. Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion. 39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere. 40. If we all threw our
problems in a pile and saw everyone else's, we'd grab ours back.
41. Don't audit life. Show up and make the most of it now. 42. Get rid of anything that isn't useful, beautiful or joyful. 43. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved. 44. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need. 45. The best is yet to come. 46. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up. 47. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind. 48. If you don't ask, you don't get. 49. Yield. 50. Life isn't tied with a bow, but it's still a gift.

Calling all writers!

There's a "wish list" opportunity at "Silent Canticle" for those who are interested in a paying gig...



Monday, November 26, 2007

Memento Mori

This was a difficult Thanksgiving for my family. We had funeral services for my paternal grandmother on Tuesday, interred her on Wednesday … then sat down Thursday to remember her favorite holiday, Thanksgiving.
I held down the fort at my aunt’s house while the others traveled five hours away for the burial. Small children ran amok while I made deep-dish pumpkin pies that, a day later, collapsed in a depressing pile of goo instead of gleaming slices of custardy goodness. Clearly, I had been off my game that day in the kitchen.

For me at least, the difficulty was not the funeral itself – Grandma was 92, had not been in her right mind for some time, and we were not especially close. I write about my last encounter with her here. And yet, she had mothered three of my favorite people: my father, my godmother Aunt Susan, and my Uncle Pete.

As I looked over the sea of faces at the funeral, the raw grief of these three beloved people, sitting side by side in the front pew, struck me hard. They had lost their mother; nothing – not even their conviction that she was at that moment cooking Thanksgiving for her husband in heaven – could mitigate their anguish.

Then it hit me: In all probability, the next funeral I attend would likely be one of theirs. Only then did the sadness overwhelm me … not the finality of hers, but the certainty of theirs.

In the Gospel this weekend, Jesus warns his disciples of the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life – and of the inherent dangers of getting caught up in what, in the final analysis, simply doesn’t matter. Even those of us whose days of “carousing and drunkenness” are a hazy, distant memory are sometimes lulled by the incessant grind of “daily life.”

* Late nights at work that leave empty places at the dinner table.

* Hours of television that fail to reduce the pile of “unreads” on my bookshelf.

* The early morning rush, hustling children and husband out the door with lukewarm efficiency.

* Sunday morning “devotion,” one ear on the priest and the other trained on the movements of my restless children.

With the approach of the holidays, the temptations arise anew. Which will find its mark first, the intoxicating highs of the partying and gift-giving? The anxiety-producing lows of unpaid bills and family dramas? How would it change things if we knew that this was to be the last Christmas together?

“Memento mori” (remember your death) was a recurring theme among the early Christians. Even in times of great joy and celebration, the knowledge of their immanent mortality lent a balance and intentionality to their living that we do well to emulate not because of the dread of death, but because we are certain of a greater celebration to come.

In these weeks ahead, as we anticipate the Light of the World to come, may this sentiment of the early Christians direct our steps and restore our sense of balance as we wait for the encroaching darkness.

Eternal rest grant unto us, O Lord,
and may perpetual Light shine upon us;
may the souls of the faithful departed, and all of us,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Family We Don't Get to Pick

If you enjoy this post, check out more quality Catholic reading at the Catholic Carnival #147, hosted this week by our fearless facilitator Jay at "Living"

The other day I talked with Maureen, whose granddaughter “Janie” – her son’s child – was a ward in another state. Little Janie has two half-siblings (by a different father) who were also in the system, and were about to be adopted by a gay couple. Because the older children were unrelated to her, Maureen wanted to adopt only Janie.

Maureen was upset because the agency had recommended to the family court judge that Janie be placed with the other two children, rather than sent to live with Maureen. They didn’t want to separate the siblings unless it was absolutely necessary.

Maureen thought this was ridiculous. “Why should I take the older two? They aren’t my grandchildren, just a reminder of their no-good father. Besides, that judge should choose family over a gay couple!” Clearly there was a long, sad story behind Maureen’s words, and my heart went out to her. But I was pretty sure the judge wouldn’t rule in her favor.

What I really wanted to say to her was, “Are you sure you can’t find it in your heart to take in the other two children? They can’t help who their father is.” We use the same reasoning to explain why a woman who has been raped should not abort her child: Children should not be forced to pay for the sins of their parents.

Maureen has a difficult choice to make: relinquish her grandchild or welcome Janie’s siblings as well. Not to thwart the adoption plan of the gay couple, but because it is in the little girl’s best interest to stay with her brothers. If she were to be separated from them now, Janie may forget them for a while. However, her brothers’ grief would be compounded … and one day, when Janie finds out what happened, she could very well come to resent her grandmother from pulling her away from the rest of her family.

There are situations when there are serious reasons for siblings to be separated – my own children have two older siblings that do not live with us. We’ve done our best to keep the kids in touch with one another through periodic visits, though it isn’t the same as being able to run down the hall and jump on a sibling’s bed every morning. But in order to keep them safe, we had to make a tough call knowing that one day we will have to answer for that decision.

In the world of adoption – particularly with the prevalence of “open adoption” – the traditional definitions of family become rather fluid. Yes, our children are really ours … but the relationship between other family members is less clear-cut. We find ourselves being tangentially related to people we would just as soon disappear. The temptation, of course, is to ignore the connection and write them off – after all, these people mean nothing to us.

But it isn’t that simple. Even when the bonds of birth are stretched, they are never wholly broken. Separation may be the better of two bad choices. The pain and longing remains. Periodic visits are no substitute for being able to giggle over Cheerios every morning.

We do not choose to have these people in our lives. But in a very real sense, they are the “family we didn’t pick.”

“We’re going to see birth-mom and dad,” I tell my noisy bunch.
They squeal and jump in car seats, ready for their junk-food lunch.
I’ll pay for their indulgence; As they bounce till they get sick.
Thank you, dear birth parents, family I didn’t pick.

Time for Christmas with some people who are clearly less than glad
“those children” are still with us since we’re not “Real Mom and Dad.”
Hand-me-downs and garage sale finds will have to do, St Nick.
Give me patience,” I pray gamely, “with these folks I didn’t pick.”

When asking for a sibling group, we only wanted two.
The social worker asked us if instead we would take you.
Who’d have guessed it? It was madness! What a dirty, rotten trick!
That we should fall so much in love with three we didn’t pick!
H.H.Saxton, 2004

Friday, November 16, 2007

Heidi on "Relevant Radio" Monday...

Tune in to the "Drew Mariani Show" on Relevant Radio on Monday, November 19 at 4:45. I'll be talking about ... guess what?

A. The Green House Effect (not likely, unless you're talking about mildew in our shower)

B. Why I Heart _____ (insert safest candidate of the moment)

C. Adoption: The Definitive Pro-Life Choice

Right. It is a call-in show ... so feel free to call in! The number is: 1-877-766-3777

Are you interested in adopting a child from the foster care system (or a ward of the state, immediately available for adoption), and want to know where to start? Click here!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sounds of Sweetest Praise

Last week the kids started our parish children's choir. I sat with Sarah during the rehearsal, at her request, and enjoyed each little tune. She barely sang above a whisper, which surprised me to no end; at home she sings loud enough to peel the paint off the walls.

At the conclusion of each song, I noticed that she turned and gazed expectantly at the mothers who were sitting in the pews, waiting for their children. "Why don't they clap, Mommy?" Sarah wanted to know. "I don't think they usually clap at rehearsals, Sarah," I explained. She pouted.

I tried another approach, and when the next song concluded I clapped my hands together enthusiastically ... just loud enough for her to hear. "Hurray!" I whispered.

Sarah was not amused. "No, Mommy! YOU don't clap! You SING!"

Fair enough. (*sigh*)

Meanwhile, Christopher was carrying the tune manfully in the second row. He kept turning and looking behind him; the organist had caught his attention with this "king of instruments." After the rehearsal was over, he made a beeline to the organ and got an impromptu lesson about how all the pedals and stops and keys work together to create the sounds of a symphony.

"Can I play it?" This request caught me by surprise. I had started lessons at the tender age of five, and was hired by a local Lutheran congregation seven years later as their organist. It was there that I cultivated a taste for liturgy.

I must confess, I felt a little thrill when I saw that Christopher wanted to learn to play the same instrument that I had studied as a child. In the same way, I feel my throat get tight whenever I hear Sarah's voice echoing in my ear as we sing together at Mass. Although they do not have our "music genes," they have obviously caught our love for music.

Adoptive parents often wonder whether nurture or nature is the stronger indicator of how a child will turn out. I suspect the answer is, "both." But today, I was so grateful to find one more way that our children are truly, "ours" -- that is, that they are like us. We would love them even if that was not the case, of course. And yet, such unexpected gifts make the loving that much easier, that much sweeter.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Birth Mom's Story

I was on YouTube a while back and found the video (shown below) by "Cari," who shares with unflinching courage the story of how she made an adoption plan for her daughter. In another video, she gives us a bit more background of herself -- an account of abuse and neglect that is as painful to read as it must have been to make.

Although she is still clearly finding her way out of the darkness of the past, I couldn't help but admire her desire to find a more hope-filled future for her child. Have a look ... you'll never forget it.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Real-Life Love

“Are you the Mommy?” He was just two years old, and already he understood “Mommy” to be as much about function as biological fact.

I hesitated, then smiled. “Yes, Christopher. I'm the Mommy. Would you like to come and see where I live, and stay with us for a while?”

With a confidence that took my breath away, the little boy slipped his hand into mine and we set off toward the McDonald’s Playland. I was the Mommy who was going to play with him, at least for now.
That was five years ago. Two years ago, my husband and I adopted Christopher and his little sister, Sarah. I love them fiercely, more than I thought it possible to love another human being. Frankly, I think I got the better end of the "love deal," since on most days they are infinitely easier to love than I am.

The other day in an adoption forum, the question came up, “Is it possible to love an adopted child unconditionally?” Now, most people put a comparative spin on this particular question (i.e., “Is it possible to love an adopted child as much as one that is biologically related?”).
However, since I’ve never given birth and can’t address that question with relevant first-hand experience, my first instinct is not to compare it to biological parenthood. I have spoken to many people who have both adopted and biological progeny, and believe the core parent-child bond feels the same no matter how a child enters your family. Some people believe this quite passionately. I find that inspiring.

I just don’t come at this question from the same direction. To me, the word “unconditionally” has a magnanimity that I’m not entirely sure I possess. I mean, couples pledge “unconditional love” on their wedding day ... and fifty percent of them wind up in divorce court. Parenthood would seem to require a higher standard, because there are higher stakes. And so, I promise my kids something that doesn’t sound quite so flowery, but fits the bill just as well, and perhaps even better. Not “unconditional” love, but “every day” love.
  • Every day … I promise to start the day by putting your needs above my own.

  • Every day … I promise to give you the security and affection you need to overcome the past and set your sights on the future.

  • Every day … I promise to be there – good, bad, or indifferent – even when no one else in the world is on your side.

  • Every day … I promise you will be in my thoughts as I go to sleep, in my prayers when I arise, and in my heart everywhere I go.

  • Every day … I promise to love you with every fiber of my being, just as I promised to love your father.

  • Every day … that I don’t feel up to the challenge, I promise to call in reinforcements knowing that there is always One who loves us all … unconditionally.
It’s a real-world choice, made in real-world time. God in His infinite perfection can truly pledge “unconditional” love. Me, there are days when I aspire to “adequate.”

I know my own limitations. The best I can do is one day at a time. God knows just how pitifully flawed and frail I am, how far from perfection I fall in my capacity to love. My children do not have the perfect mother ... but they do have a Heavenly Father who always fills the gap.

And so, they call me “Mommy.” I tickle them, and we fall in a heap of hugs and giggles. It’s not perfection, but it is real-life love.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

For All the Saints

One of my all-time favorite hymns is "For All the Saints," byWilliam How (d.1897). He was ordained an Anglican minister in1846, and served as rector of Wittington, Shropshire (England), where he served 28 years and wrote more than 50 hymns. How was known for his work among the indigent and industrial workers.

Claves Regni, an online magazine, observed that verses 3,4, and 5 of the original hymn (which had eleven verses, reprinted in their entirety here) were omitted from most hymnbooks because of their references to the Te Deum, an ancient hymn attributed to St. Ambrose. (For lyrics in English and Latin, click here.)

My very favorite verse (which again I sing with far more conviction as a Catholic than ever I did before, and which is especially appropriate today) is verse six:

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From Great Hymns of the Faith, 508

Today, as we remember our spiritual mothers and fathers who precede us to heaven, and who are there even now praying for us, let us never forget that "blest communion" that holds us close to the Sacred Heart.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"Everything I Wish I'd Known About Adoption (but didn't think to ask)."

November is National Foster Care Month! If you have ever considered foster parenting (or foster adoption), find more information here.

We had been married almost three years when Craig and I looked at each other and said, "Well, no baby yet. Now what?" International adoption was W-A-Y too expensive, and besides there are lots of kids right here that need a good home. "Maybe we could take in a half-dozen of them ... there's lots of room for a triple set of bunkbeds upstairs!" (I may have said that last sentence; Craig tends to be the cautious half.)

A few harrowing months later, we had a sibling group of three. A month after that, I learned the first important lesson of parenthood: I had overestimated my capacity by at least half. Thankfully, God agreed. Nine months later we were down to two, and happy to keep it that way.

These past five years -- three as foster parents, two as adoptive parents -- have been replete with "aha" moments, important insights that would have come in handy at the outset of our adventure. Then again, who knows if we would have been smart enough to catch them second-hand. My top ten (related to foster adoption) include:

* (Before deciding on an agency) Don't sign up with the first agency you interview. Always ask to speak with other foster parents (or adoptive parents) about their experiences.

* (During orientation meetings) Pay attention to how social workers and other agency representatives talk to you -- and talk about other foster or adoptive parents. If the social worker treats you like a not-quite-bright child, or part of the problem instead of part of the solution, find another agency.

* (During training) If you feel unable to help certain types of cases -- sexual abuse victims, or severe trauma -- it is infinitely better to get training about recognizing and helping children with these kinds of problems than trust the agency not to send you kids with these kinds of problems. Forewarned is forearmed ... and children do not always come with complete case histories.

* (Before home study) Yes, the questions are invasive. (Just think of how exposed a mother feels during labor and delivery). Just remember that it's a means to an end, and that this interview is an important way to weed out unsuitable candidates -- including those who are just in it for the money, and who might expose these children to additional danger. Instead of being offended, be grateful for their diligence.

* If it looks like red crayon on the wall, lock up your lipstick collection. If it looks like brown crayon, give it the sniff test before getting the Mr. Clean sponge. If the closet smells, clean out the cottage cheese and put a childproof latch at the top of the closet door.

* Foster kids need closer supervision than other kids. You may get a better night's sleep if you let them sleep next to you (or you next to them...) Especially in the beginning, don't leave them alone with animals or other children. Not even "just for a minute."

* Foster kids also need more structure than other kids. Older kids (4 or more) may cope with the out-of-control feelings inside them with ordering you around. The more (loving) structure you build into the day, the better they will adjust.

* There is "real time" and there is "agency time." If the agency estimates that it will take a month to get your levels approved, mentally double the figure before you start asking questions. For each "layer" of bureacracy involved in the decision, double that estimate again.

* Every time you hear yourself saying, "Oh, I couldn't handle it if ______ happened," stop. Nothing is gained by going there. You have enough to handle already. Just stay focused in the present, and trust God for the future.

* "Forever" isn't always forever. "Never" isn't always, either. If you want a child to love, there will always be someone who needs someone to love her. Even if you have that child in your life a short time, you can make a big difference. And that child will make a big difference in you, too.

This week I am hosting the November 4, 2007 edition of "Adoption Blogpost Round-up." This week's post is dedicated to adoptive parents who discovered a few things after bringing Baby home that they didn't know before they got their little bundle of joy. Now that I've shared mine ... here are the offerings of other adoptive parents, too! Some are Catholic, some are from other (or no) religious traditions; all have written in to share their "Eureka!" moments in

"Everything I Wish I'd Known About Adoption ....

(but didn't think to ask)."

"I didn't know..."

"... how unprepared I was to witness the relinquishment." Heather at
Production, Not Reproduction presents a letter to her son's first mom on Mother's Day, telling her how her brave choice changed Heather's life.

"... how my children's grief would become my grief, too." Jane at Building the Ark presents Mother's Day 2007, in which she recounts the powerful emotions she felt when she was trying to help her adopted children cope with the grief and loss of losing their first families.

"...I didn't know how strong I really was." Jessie at The Making of a Mom presents What I Didn't Know. In it, this former social worker and adoptee shares how surprised she was to discover how little she knew about the adoption process until she was going through it herself. "What a crazy little journey this has been!"

"... about gay penguins." Veronica presents What makes a family? posted at The Red Thread. This frankly feminist mother teaches her daughter about adoption with a book about two male penguins who tend another couple's egg. (Her daughter finds the story "sad." I agree.)

"... that the dog wouldn't love such a beautiful baby!" Erin Thomas presents Ella's Adventures posted at Journey To Ella, where she shares Ella's first month at home.

"... that forty dollars could be so much fun!" Jenny Alicea at Yes, They're Mine presents The Journey in which she rediscovers the joy of teeter-totters.

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of adoption blogpost round-up using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Monday, October 22, 2007

40 Reasons We'd Do It Again ... Thoughts on Adoption

This past weekend my article on Post-Adoption Depression Syndrom (PADS) was posted at CatholicExchange, and generated a great deal of discussion. Some of them hinted (some quite broadly) that the article was unnecessarily discouraging prospective adoptive parents, and that I should be doing more to encourage more couples to consider this option. (To read the article, click on the header above.)

I agree that more couples should consider adoption. With more than 500,000 children currently in the U.S. needing temporary or permanent homes, there are ample opportunities for generous souls to reach out. On the other hand, it does no good to go in "blind." Information is power, and letting couples know up front that some struggle with the transition ... and then go on to form happy families ... Well, that is information worth knowing. Forewarned is forearmed.

Having said that, I do believe that there are many good reasons for considering adoption. And here are my top forty reasons why Craig and I would adopt Christopher and Sarah all over again if we could. (And hopefully do it a little smarter the second time around.)

1. Kids are natural virtue builders. They are the perfect antidote to self-absorption and an inordinate sense of self, and bring out (sometimes by force) untapped stores of patience and gentleness. Not to mention humility.

2. They add laughter and affection. Whether it's the sight of Sarah clad in glittering loungewear and sunglasses, or the feeling of one of them snuggling close to me at Mass, children have natural gifts that brighten all of life.

3. They are a built-in marriage enhancer. While some aspects of married love are more difficult to enjoy with a five-year-old permanently camped out on the bedroom floor, others are that much more enjoyable. The "Ewwwwwwwww. Gross!" that a tentative peck elicites frequently inspires my DH to come back for seconds, with greater feeling. Then we remind them that we have a license to do this anytime we want, and then it's the most beautiful thing in the world.

4. They are a built-in "Get out of ___ free" card. This works especially well when you have kids with emotional or behavior challenges. "Well, yes, I can be on your committee ... so long as my children can be there, too." You'd be surprise how often my services are suddenly no longer needed....

5. They are a built-in conversation starter. Like many writers, I tend to be something of an introvert. I can (and often do) force myself to make small-talk, but I've gotten a lot better at it since joining the "Mommy League." And if I get trapped, I suddenly can hear my child calling me. ...

6. They tend to make hard-to-love people ... more loveable. I don't mind saying that my kids (when they're on their best behavior) are pretty cute. I can say this, since I didn't have anything to do with the particular arrangement of their genetic code. But one look into those chocolate-brown peepers of my daughter's, and even the stuffiest soul has offered a grudging, "My, aren't you sweet!" Sometimes yes, sometimes no ... but first impressions are important!

7. They provide a built-in excuse for buying children's books and movies. I have a friend who has five floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, full of children's books. I'm nowhere near that dedicated (my five floor-to-ceilings are a mix of children's books and theology tomes). But having two early readers gives me license to browse and read to my heart's content. Research, you know.

8. They provide a built-in excuse to trot out my childhood traditions. Yesterday was "Apple Dumpling Sunday," the morning after our first fall trip to the orchard. In a few weeks we'll build gingerbread houses, then the Advent mother's tea. The whole Christmas cookie marathon. And of course Christopher's favorite, "Green Eggs and Ham" on St.Patrick's Day.

9. They give me a chance to see my parents in a different light. My mother was born to be a grandmother. My Dad says so, too. All of her great qualities -- her creativity and humor -- rise to the surface when the grandkids are around, while other less desireable traits evaporate. It's easy to smile when you know the urchins can be returned to their parents at any time.

10. Party dresses. Lucky for me, I got a built-in princess who loves swirls and ribbons and bows. Second only to running around naked.

11. Dress-up boxes. I can search the racks of the Salvation Army for the most garish and sparkly offerings, knowing that by taking them for my daughter's treasure box I am sparing some other individual a serious fashion faux-pas.

12. Birthday cakes. This could fit under "family traditions," but they deserve a separate category. Barbie up to her armpits in angel food and ganache. Dora the Explorer figurines up to their ankles in a buttercream forest. Castles with marshmallows and inverted ice cream cones. What fun.

13. Daddy magic. There is something about the sight of my husband down on all fours, charging like a wild rhino as the kids swing from the shower curtain like Tarzan and leap upon his (poor) back that brings out the Jane in me.

14. Mommy magic. For a few more years, at least, I am the smartest and most desirable of all living creatures to two (three if you count my husband) living souls. It can be a tiny drag when I want five minutes of peace and quiet to take a shower, but most days I get a real charge out of having them return with their father and fling themselves in my lap with wild abandon. "MOMMY!" Yes, that's me.

15. Mother's Day. For 20 years or so (1983-2003), I always cringed a bit when May rolled around. I knew that, barring a miracle, I'd never have a child the conventional way. Now I look forward to the burned toast and handmade cards with a special kind of eagerness.

16. Father's Day. I don't mind telling you that my husband was born to be a father. He is kind and patient and gentle and good. He is also intelligent and interested in world around him. I get a huge kick out of helping the kids express in their own precious, grubby fashion how neat they think he is, too.

17. Superbowl Sunday. I hate sports, particularly televised sports. When we got married, I made Craig a deal: If he kept it to no more than two games a year, I would make sure he celebrated those two events in style. He keeps his end of the bargain most years ... and now that he has someone to watch the games with, I don't have to feign interest even those times. Sarah and I can go do something fun, and leave theboys with their stuffed mushrooms.

18. Built-in tea party partner. Sarah has picked up my taste for high tea, and loves nothing more thanto put on a fancy party dress and go to my favorite tea shop with me, to sip apple juice from fine china and nibble on petit fours. Sometimes my MIL comes along, and having Sarah there always keeps things light and fun.

19. Christmas. There is nothing like Christmas with small children. The excitement. The gifts. The treats. The preparation... yards and yards of popcorn strands and paper chains. Best of all, the music. Christopher is a little more understated in how he carries a tune, but Sarah belts out the "Christmas" section of the hymnal with unrelenting abandon. And so, I might add, do I.

20. Vacations. There are some kinds of trips that are much better shared. Dino Land. Bug Village. Thomas the Train Day at the Henry Ford Museum. But the very word "vacation" has a particular meaning for our kids. It means a hotel -- any hotel, really, as long as there is a pool and pizza delivery service.

21. Water. I learned to swim when I was fairly young, but for the past twenty-five years or so have studiously avoided being caught in a bathing suit in public. With Sarah in tow, it just doesn't matter. No one is looking at my cellulite as long as Sarah is running around the deck with her bathing suit cap pulled down, making her look like a Shar-Pei, screaming, "LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME!!!!" (splash.)

22. S'mores. Need I say more? Ditto cotton candy.

23. Christmas pageants. Sure, watching little kids pull their angel costumes over their heads and torture the upper ranges of "Silent Night" is endless fun. But it gets even better when the third angel from the left is YOUR little flasher.

24. A Second Childhood. Growing up, we didn't do certain things. Celebrate Halloween (including trick-or-treating). Watch Tom-and-Jerry reruns (we didn't own a television set). Go to Disneyland. Swing dance. I get to do all these things now ... with my kids.

25. Spiritual milestones. I was thirty when I entered the Church, and so I never got to experience First Holy Communion the way my daughter will in a few years. I already have her white dress and veil stashed away in my closet. Christopher, too, loves to hear about the day he gets to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. And I never get tired of telling him.

26. Faith through a child's eyes. Thanks to my children, I get to experience the wonder of faith all over again. The retelling of Jonah and the whale, and David and Goliath. ("Hey, Mom! Was the giant REALLY nine feet tall?" They wait breathlessly to hear the angel in the bellfry ringing the bells that call out, "Come to church, come to church! Everybody come to church!" And listen again as the Eucharist is elevated and the chimes ring again, knowing that we are never closer to heaven than at that moment.

27. Silly songs. My mother gave me a million of them. The Austrian that Went Yodeling. Waltzing Matilda. I'm Wild About Cars (that go "wah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, ooga, ooga"). The entire Gilbert and Sullivan reperatoire. I enjoy them a lot more now that I have a captive audience.

28. Family stories. My parents -- and his -- are REALLY their grandparents, so we do what we can to pass along the family history, including family recipes.

29. Simplicity. Life with kids is about juggling priorities. Do I really want two shelves full of bisque china figurines, knowing they can be instantly converted into expensive landfill with a well-aimed swipe of a pirate sword? Do I need 46 pairs of unmatched socks and 450 back issues of Guideposts, knowing that they can and will be spread from one end of the house to the other in a matter of nanoseconds? Do I need 7 kinds of eye purple eye shadow, knowing all the many, varied (and frequently uncleanable) uses a five-year-old can find with a pot of eye shadow and a jar of Vaseline?

30. Nature Channel, Travel Channel, and History Channel. I'd forgotten how interesting learning can be. With kids, self-education is a matter of self-preservation. I don't want to wait until my son is in fifth grade to start sharpening the ol' hatrack.

31. Life Membership in the Mommy Club. Shortly after getting the kids, I joined the Mom's group at church and made a whole new set of friends. Kids have a way of pulling down barriers between people.

32. A new view of the world. Those who adopt internationally get an intimate connection with a part of the world they might otherwise not have discovered. Those who foster-adopt have a bird's eye view of state and local government, and what it's like to be on the receiving end of those tax dollars at work. It's humbling ... it's also motivating. I've written more letters about the sorry state of the social services system and how it treats the children in its care than about almost any other subject. I've seen a children's home. I've met the social workers. As a foster parent, I was the only advocate my children had (I had already come to think of as "mine") when they needed services. Suddenly the label "pro-life" took on a whole new meaning. I wanted to know whether a candidate continued to represent the needs and interests of children even after they were safely born.

33. Empathy for the marginalized. Shortly after we got him, we registered Christopher in a special Montessori preschool program -- a very expensive one -- that we had been told was good for foster children. He lasted a month before other parents (most of them devout Catholics) got together and pressured the teacher to have Christopher withdrawn from her class. He used words like "dead" and "kill," and generally was a "bad influence."

That was a low point for me, as a parent -- especially since the teacher clearly believed Christopher's behavior problems were entirely my fault. She went on and on about his poor table manners. (It was true, he didn't use a knife and fork very well. On the other hand, he no longer stuffed cottage cheese in his pockets, either. Little victories.) That experience reminded me how important it is to teach children tolerance and consideration even at a very young age. (Christopher taught his classmates "kill," but they taught him "stupid.")

34. A better understanding of the Fatherhood of God. God has adopted each of us, calls each of us His children. The full extent of this hit me after we adopted our kids. An adoptive parent loves regardless of whether we are loved back. An adoptive parent looks for ways to reach out and communicate that love. An adoptive parent must be patient, and allow the child to approach on his terms in order to build a sense of safety. God is like that, too.

35. A better understanding of Mary as Mother. She had one perfect child, and was herself "immaculate." This was way out of my league ... most days I had to aspire to "adequate." But by becoming an adoptive parent, I cultivated the habit of turning to Mary throughout the day, just as my children turned to me. And just like a good adoptive mom, Mary waited for me to ask for help ... and stepped right in with what I needed most.

36. A better understanding of the cross. This most public and painful of excruciating deaths was what it took for the Son of God to complete the salvific work done on our behalf. To a certain extent, parenting shares a certain amount of painful and public humiliations ... but adoptive parents get to share in it in a unique way. Just when we want to shout to the world, "IT'S NOT MY FAULT THAT THIS KID _____," we realize that this would do no good anyway. So we take a deep breath, get a better hold of ourselves, and keep going. Others have gone before us, and will come after us, who can empathize. But even Our Lord felt the weight of rejection... "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (The difference is, of course, that we are never truly alone.)

37. Limitless writing material. When in the early throes of parenthood, my brain cells wouldn't arrange themselves into coherent sentences, so I did a lot of late-night journaling. The stories from those first months are precious to me now, and the whole parenting experience has given my writing a texture and nuance that wasn't there before.

38. A bigger heart. I have more patience now, and am less quick to jump on other people's shortcomings. I know that there is often more than meets the eye in any family situation. And I try to be as generous and understanding as others have been with me.

39. An appreciation for the "encouraging word." Sarah and Christopher are in opposite ends of the behavior spectrum. Sarah responds to praise infinitely better than even the most constructive criticism. Her eyes light up when you celebrate her accomplishments with her ... and her foul moods pass like a thundercloud if she catches the sunshine of my smile.

40. Their birth family. I've heard that the essential bond between a child and his first (or birth) parents is never truly broken. The loss of that bond is something that affects a child for life, no matter how wonderful the people who adopt him (or her.) Someday I'm going to have to help my children come to terms with this loss ... and will be able to tell them about a mother who never wanted to let them go, but got caught in a lifetime of bad choices. Knowing her story has encouraged me to look at my own choices a little more carefully. I never want to inflict that kind of pain on another human being.

BONUS: Adoption has changed me ... mostly for the better. People look into adoption for all kinds of reasons. Some are infertile, some simply have a heart for a certain country or a certain kind of child. Some have relatives they simply don't want to see go "into the system." Some decide it is the definitive pro-life choice (which it is). But whatever motivates a person to love in the abstract, that motivation changes when a particular child enters your life. That's when the transformation truly begins. Yes, you are about to change a child's life ... for the better, one can only hope. But be prepared: that child is going to change you, too. Count on it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lift High the Cross

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
Till all the world adores His sacred Name!
Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
Till all the world adores His sacred Name!
Each newborn servant of the Crucified
Bears on the brow the seal of Him Who died.

George Kitchin and Michael Newbolt (1916)

In today's first reading, we find Moses leading the Chosen People in war against the soldiers of Amalek. He sends Joshua ahead with the troops, while he and his two trusted aides -- his brother Aaron and brother-in-law, Hur -- assist Moses in intercession. Moses raises his arms in prayer, and as long as he maintained this position, the Israelites were successful in battle. Each time Moses lets his arms down, the enemy gets the upper hand. So Aaron and Hur stood alongside Moses and physically held his arms in place until the battle was won.

Why had Moses chosen these two in particular -- apart from the fact that they were related? Aaron was known for his eloquence; when God commanded Moses to speak to Pharaoh, the prophet urged God to send his silver-tongued brother instead. According to the Hebrew commentary known as the "Midrash," Hur was killed while trying to stop the people from bowing down to the Golden Calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the law.

Eloquence and faithfulness; wisdom and integrity. These were the qualities embodied in the two men closest to the first leader of the Hebrew People after they were liberated from bondage. While his successor, Joshua, was at the front leading his people in battle, Moses remained behind to inspire and intercede. So long as he persevered in his efforts, God was with them.

Lift High the Cross

The classic Christian hymn quoted at the beginning of this reflection (to hear it, click on the header and "Cyberhymnal" will strike up the tune) ties in well with this intercessory theme. It reminds us that the battle is not yet over. All around us, enemies of good seek to destroy us, or at least silence us. The "40 Days for Life" campaign is but one recent example of how Christians are banding together to stop the holocaust.

However, we need to be fighting the good front at home as well. In response to my article at CE yesterday, someone wrote to thank me for expressing the struggle some adoptive parents face. "I used to pray, 'Lord, take my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh,' and God in his goodness answered my prayer," she said. That answer was painful at times; and yet this dear woman had chosen to lift up her arms in supplication ... and take up the cross that had been entrusted to her.

In our war on the culture of death, we need our young warriors facing down the enemy. Some protest. Some counsel. Some even take the casualties -- damaged and hurting children -- home with them. We need prayer warriors, like Moses, to intercede. And we need the faithful and the articulate to take the message of life to those who need it most. And yet if we are going to be faithful to this calling, we must be prepared to suffer as well.

Before we can hope to win the war, we must resign ourselves to the fact that victory is not cheap. The battle is going to cost us something, for our enemy is not without power. And yet,

"Led on their way by this victorious sign,

The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine."

Lift high the cross, my friends!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tribute to my Grandmother

“Oh, what a pretty little girl! Won’t you come here and sit on my lap, and visit with me?” With effort, my grandmother eagerly reached out to Sarah, who exclaimed over the old woman’s rose-colored fingertips. Soon the two of them were chatting like old friends. Sarah enthralled her great-grandmother with stories from preschool, and the unintended joke that had made me laugh just a few days before:

“One mouse, many mice;
One house, many … cats!”

For the past several years, my paternal grandmother has been living in a senior residence in eastern Ohio, down the street from my Aunt Susan. During that time Grandma mellowed considerably – and has also lost most of her memory. When we approached her wheelchair, Grandma clearly had no idea who I was … she only had eyes for my daughter.

As I watched the two of them chat and laugh, I felt a little guilty about the fact that I had not wanted to bring my children to visit her at all. But Aunt Suzy, my godmother, can talk me into almost anything. And so we went … but I wasn’t happy about it.

“Why should I go out of my way to spend time with someone who has never been able to conceal what a colossal disappointment I am to her?” I grumped to my father (another person who can talk me into almost anything).

“For the same reason I do,” he said dryly. “Because she’s my mother.”

In retrospect, I was glad we went. It was the last time I saw her alive … and I was grateful that the memory was a happy one. For all of us.

The Best … and the Rest

As her oldest grandchild – the oldest child of her oldest child – I have vivid memories of the long weekends we spent at my father’s childhood home. Grandma’s tiny kitchen, in which she turned out impressive Thanksgiving spreads one day, and fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon buns the next. The covered porch with its monstrous green glider, where my grandparents sat with us, sipping glass bottles of Coke and munching peanuts. Grandma’s bedroom was lined with photographs of a bygone era; my favorites were the images of the elegant young woman posing for her engagement announcement, and the younger version of herself dancing en pointe.

In her younger days Grandma projected the very image of genteel propriety; she married well, then set aside her nursing career to tend to the needs of her husband and three children. In public she deferred to her husband; in private she ruled her home with a velvet-covered iron fist.

Grandma had high expectations of her three kids – and harbored some unfortunate prejudices. When my aunt fell in love with a Filipino doctor and married him, Grandma did not speak to her daughter for three years, until the first grandson was born. Ironically, this same daughter lovingly tended to her mother’s needs after Grandpa passed.

In truth, what I love most about my grandmother, her greatest legacy, is her children. My father – a quiet, unassuming man who served his country and raised his family (four girls) with understated passion and integrity. My Aunt Susan, who found it in her heart to forgive – truly and completely – the shortcomings of the flawed yet well-meaning individuals who raised her, and who embodies the “sandwich generation,” having raised five children while tending to both her widowed Filipina mother-in-law, whose language she could not speak, as well as her own mother. And my Uncle Pete, just twelve years older than me, who called me his “Sweetie Pie” … and was married three times before finding his sweetheart, Peggy. None of Grandma's kids perfectly lived up to her high expectations, but all of them grew up to be compassionate individuals and hard workers who consistently put family first.

The Glory of, Story of Love

“Friends are the family you get to choose,” the saying goes. And while the reverse can also be true – family members can become true friends – it doesn’t always work that way. On the other hand, those whose company we tend to avoid can be a sure source of grace, if we are willing.

I wasn’t smart enough to look for it. I took my grandmother’s criticisms to heart, interpreting them as rejection rather than attempts to help me. I see now that she was not malevolent in her intentions; she simply didn’t know what to make of me, or of my independence. So I tuned her out, closing my heart to her criticism … and to her.

My sister Kathy managed to look past my grandmother’s gruff exterior – first, by cultivating a close relationship with Grandpa. When Kathy was young she spent hours in Grandpa's shop, his quiet sanctuary. When Grandpa died, Kathy took the loss especially hard … and Grandma found an ally in her grief. Later, when Kathy made devastating life choices, Grandma stuck by her.

No, my grandmother was not an easy person to love. But those who made the effort were enriched by it. As for me, I will always remember that last encounter with my Grandmother as a healing moment. The angry memories that had preoccupied my thoughts were finally silenced as I watched her happy, carefree exchange with my children. Right then, she was the grandmother I always wanted.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Three Things My Parents Did Right

Jen at "Et tu?" has started a group writing project, asking for people to submit a post on the following topic:
"What are three things
your parents did right?"

Here are mine, in no particular order:

1. Listen to God when He asks you to do something. The summer before I went to teach ESL in Senegal, West Africa, I overheard my father defending my decision to a relative who could not believe that my parents would let me "waste" my life that way. I'll never forget his response: "Well, we've spent our whole life teaching her obedience. We can hardly blame her for taking us seriously enough to follow when GOD tells her to do something!"

I've often wondered if there were times he wished he hadn't taught the lesson quite so well. Such as when (to my parents' great consternation) I became Catholic in 1994. They struggled with the decision, I know. But a few years after the fact (right around the time Craig and I married in 1999, in fact), Dad said, "You know, Heidi, I don't waste a lot of time trying to talk you out of something. I know that before you make a decision, you look at all the angles and think it over carefully ... but once the choice is made, that's it!" (He said it like it was a good thing, bless him.)

2. Ask God for what you need. I was in third grade when my sister Chris was diagnosed with bone cancer, and the years that followed were very difficult for all of us ... financially and in every other way. Our church family rallied around us, and finally things started getting better.

One year we decided to host an exchange student. My parents invited her parents to visit us the following spring ... but then Chris wound up back in the hospital. Late one night, my parents debated over whether to send our exchange student to live with another family, since they didn't know how they were going to feed their own kids with all the medical bills.

The next morning as I came down to breakfast, I heard my father pounding some boards on our front porch. I went out and saw that he had hammered a popsicle stick under our mail box that read "Tervetuola." "That means 'welcome' in Finnish," Jaana told me. My parents had decided that we would keep her -- and trust God to provide for her parents.

After breakfast we piled into the car, and Dad warned us not to say anything about our medical bills to the people at church. "They've helped us enough already." We didn't ... and when we got back from church that afternoon, our hearts dropped when we saw the front porch door propped open. Thinking we had been robbed, my dad went ahead to make sure it was safe.

The next thing we knew, we heard Dad laugh. We ran up the front porch steps ... and found Dad standing in the middle of ten large boxes of groceries. And on top of the largest box was a three-layer chocolate cake (my favorite). "It must have been God's hospitality angel," my mother announced. And she must have been right, since no one else ever stepped forward to take the credit.

The food fed us for a month -- and the experience stayed with me for life. Whenever I've found myself in a tight spot, I remember that chocolate cake. Suddenly money for the phone bill doesn't seem like such a big thing.

Twenty years later, I returned to New Jersey to show my husband and kids the house I grew up in. My parents have long since moved from the area ... but that popsicle is still nailed to the mailbox.

3. The best way to stop feeling sorry for yourself is to look out for someone worse off than you. We didn't have a lot of spare cash in those days, but my mother especially was remarkable in her ability to find ways to help others. She'd see my hippie friend Larry coming down the block, and instead of bolting the door she'd go into the kitchen and whip up a tray of biscuits, knowing that he probably hadn't eaten much that day. Biscuits and peanutbutter or honey. He'd polish off the whole tray, every time.

This past month I've spent a lot of time out of commission, and been on the receiving end of other people's generosity. One friend came in and washed my kitchen floor. Another came and did a few loads of laundry. The ladies at church brought meals three times a week. The one who washed the floor (my most hated chore) said it best. "When my back went out last year, someone came over and did this for me, and I promised myself I'd 'pay it forward.' Someday you'll have a turn to do the same ... but for now, go lay down and get better!"

I think there's an element of this in the way my parents have lived, too. When Dad retired last year, the first thing he did was get a regular gig with Habitat for Humanity, and mom took a Spanish class so she could take over the lunch-making ministry for migrant kids in their area. They spent much of my childhood being on the receiving and ... and now they're "paying it forward" with every ounce of strength and enthusiasm they can muster.

Not out of obligation, though. Out of a lifetime of love caught ... one chocolate cake at a time.