Lent Day 5: Cheesecake??

As Scott Reeves explains so well, Lent is more than just a self-help program.  That said, if you aren’t going to gather up the fortitude to reckon with your near occasions of sin during Lent, when will you?

That is the rationale behind our resolution to eliminate extraneous sugar from the family diet.  We theorize, but aren’t certain, that at least one of our children would benefit from a diet with relatively less sugar and relatively more fat, protein, and complex carbohydrates; we suspect that making that transition will improve the mental health of everyone, directly and indirectly; thus it’s a switch that, we think, will make it easier for all of us to become more like the people God created us to be.

That’s the hypothesis.  We’re testing it during Lent because honestly it’s hard to make yourself give up something good, easy, and pleasant when you aren’t even sure it matters.

With that in mind, SuperHusband went to Costco.

“Please don’t bring home more of those yogurt things,” I asked him before he left.  Yogurt in itself is not a problem food, but the individual servings of flavored yogurts the kids devour like starved goatherds come with a piles of extra sugar.

“But [certain child with low appetite] loves them, and they’re mostly healthy,” SuperHusband observed.

“Well, just look at the nutrition information and do the best you can,” I said.

So he and our reluctant eater went off to Costco and came home with . . . cheesecake.

Um, darling?  Lent?

Outside of the penitential seasons, we always get some kind of good treat for Sundays.  But during Advent and Lent I tend to scale back — not a hard and fast rule, mind you, but let’s just say that a giant tray of cheesecake is more Easter-Christmas-Birthday than Sackcloth-and-Ashes.

SuperHusband explained: “I looked at all the nutritional information, and this one had the best fat-to-sugar ratio of just about anything.  A bazillion times better than those yogurts.”

I believe him.  We’d acquired this particular cheesecake a few weeks ago for a birthday party, and it was noticably better than typical, and it was not overly-sweet at all.  Very much in the real-food category of convenience items.

Okay, then.  My goal isn’t to satisfy some preconceived image of what is and is not “penitential” enough to satisfy the St. Joneses.  My goal is to meet the unusual but pressing nutritional needs of one of our children.   Cheesecake to fulfill our Lenten resolution it is.

 

File:Raised slice- 10-18-15.jpg - Picture of a whole cheesecake with one slice removed and being held up by the spatula.
You want to know what penance is? Scrolling through Wikimedia looking for just the right picture of cheesecake . . . and not eating any of your kids’ cake sitting in the fridge. No need for a hair shirt here, thank you.

 By Sirabellas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lent Day 3: Put a Raincoat on It

Something we are doing this Lent is cutting out extraneous sugar from the family diet.  (Why?  Not to lose weight.  I’m the only chubby member of the family, and I don’t eat all that much junk food.  But we’ve noticed that some of the castle residents tend to be more emotionally volatile when they are living from snack to snack, and thought that peace in the home was worth attempting.)

There’s not a hard-and-fast rule to that resolution, but there are some obvious changes.  Don’t stop for donuts as a way of rewarding the kids for meritorious behavior, for example.  One of the chief challenges is that the children are all enthusiastic chefs, and several of them specialize in variations on pastry chef.

Therefore I had to confiscate the sugar.

If I didn’t, they’d go on quietly creating delectable baked goods whenever the parents weren’t looking.  They  might not even do it out of defiance — it’s just a habit.  So I took the sugar canisters from the open shelves in the kitchen and stowed them in a laundry basket in the parents’ bedroom (double Lent: that room is already cluttered enough without adding “pantry” to its list of responsibilities).

Next I had to take the chocolate chips.  Mid-morning Ash Wednesday I find a child happily creating chocolate candies.  “They aren’t for today!” she chided me solemnly.  How dare I question her penitence, sheesh?  So I added the canister of open chocolate chips to the laundry basket, and later found the resupply of chocolate chips* in the laundry room cabinets and put those in the basket too, because otherwise children would take the initiative to fix the Lenten inventory problem in the kitchen.

So now in my bedroom I’ve got a basket full of sugar and chocolate chips — really good chocolate chips, not those sorry ones that are mostly corn syrup.   Really, really, good chocolate chips.  In my bedroom.  Staring at me as I walk in after dropping a child off for an internship, on a Friday morning when I’m pretty hungry and trying to be virtuous but have not had breakfast, and did I mention they are really, really, good chocolate chips?

So thank goodness not-my-truck needed an oil change and so I had to switch vehicles with the spouse so I could take care of that this afternoon, and therefore I had to empty my junk out of the truck before he went to work, and that meant, as I was being reined in by the siren song of especially, wondrously, notoriously good chocolate chips, that I had a raincoat slung over my arm.  I was going to hang up the raincoat in the closet, since it’s a sunny day and I thought I wouldn’t be needing it.

But you know what needs a raincoat on it?  A basket full of chocolate chips.  And then I don’t have to look at temptation, glowing in the rays of springtime — Lenten — sunshine every time I go to my room.

Thank you, raincoat.  Thank you, oil change.  No thank you, chocolate chips.

 

Four umbrellas against a wood backdrop.

Photo via Wikimedia [Public Domain].

*The reason I have an inventory of chocolate chips is because we prefer, when possible, to acquire them from Equal Exchange or some similarly reputable source.  Since we live in the South, we can only mail-order chocolate during the cold months.  It’s practically pioneer living, you know.

Lent Day 1: Father Gonzo Makes His Mark

1.1 This morning, an unwary child says: “I haven’t decided what to give up for Lent.”

Evil Dictator: “Not to worry.  I’ve got you covered.”

Between cutting out extraneous sugar and sending us all to bed on time, child, it’s gonna be a long Lent.  But a calm one, so we hope.

1.2 A different, diligent little Catholic bear, was determined to set a fixed penance.  “What if I give up Netflix and Amazon?”

“What’s your goal?” Evil Dictator inquires.

Discussion ensues.  Child finally resolves, after taking advice, to write on her card to turn in at school: “I will give up all TV and movies, with the exception of shows my parents or teacher tell me to watch.”

1.3 Good problems: And your Catholic school student wants you to come to the school Mass in the morning, which is always very good . . . and your spouse and your boy are going to be singing Allegri’s Misere Mei Deus at the evening service.  Here’s an abridged version:

Another version, unabridged, and with girls in it:

So yes, I went to both.  Ashes and Holy Communion at Mass #1, and then sat back and enjoyed the music and prayed along at Mass #2.

1.5 My school child wasn’t so keen to double-dip, and asked if maybe I could require her to watch a little Netflix while I was at the second Mass.  Well, darling, funny you should mention that.  Evil Dictator’s got quite the talent for finding all the kids’ French-language videos on YouTube, and that’s something you need to be watching over the next few months.

I pulled up tabs of French-language entertainment and . . . she read books instead.  Her English is gonna be excellent before Lent is out.

1.6 So I show up at church for Mass #2 and Father Gonzo takes a look at me and says: “Did I do that?!”

Jen with massive black ashen cross on her forehead.
I sure didn’t do this to myself.

“Yes you did.”  And let me say: There’s nothing like walking around all day with Father’s Revenge, as the guidebook calls it, to bring out all the evidence of your horrid inner disposition.

40 days to get my act together.  Or forty seconds, everyone’s hoping.

Learning to Appreciate the Big Things in Life

So the reason I vanished from the internet like I’d been kidnapped in broad daylight is that I had to quick plan a massive trip to Europe.  (I know!)  A different day, I will write more about the how-to’s of pulling off that feat; for now just know that yes, it consumed my every free minute from the moment the opportunity opened up until the transport, lodging, and insurance were firmly established.

You understand, because you, too, have something you want to do that, if you were suddenly given the chance, you’d drop everything and make it happen.  I want to talk about what it takes to make that thing happen for you.

The One Big Thing

I think “bucket lists” are nonsense.  Life isn’t like that.  My list of priorities looks like this:

  1. God.
  2. My vocation as a wife and mother.
  3. Everything else.

#1 and #2 are inseparably intertwined — doing one means doing the other, always.  #3 is composed of all the other things that might be important, but that when push comes to shove you can pout all you want, I’m not available to do that thing you think I should be doing, if it interferes with #1 and #2.

Still, there’s a pile of good stuff behind door #3, including a long list of, “It would sure be nice if . . .” items.  It would sure be nice to have a bigger, prettier house.  It would sure be nice to visit New England.  It would sure be nice to take the kids to Mount Vernon (God-willing, that’s next summer).  The One Big Thing also sits behind door #3, but in a different corner of the Everything Else room.

We have a friend whose One Big Thing was to invest in a large, well-appointed home for his eventual wife and children.  It was so important to him that he started saving up for that house while he was still in college.   It’s not that he would have felt like he’d failed in life, or “missed out,” or that his happiness depended on having that house.  It was just important enough to him that he was willing to sacrifice a lot of other good things in order to make it happen if he could.  (And he did.)

You have some things like that.  Things that maybe are achievable or maybe they aren’t, but if you do get the chance, you’d be willing to set aside a lot of other good stuff in order to make your One Big Thing happen.

The Things We Set Aside

So I’ve been thinking about taking my kids on this trip since I was sixteen years old.

(Yes, that’s right: I wasn’t dating anybody, I hadn’t yet met the man I’d eventually marry, it would be another decade before the first child was even born.  I was sixteen years old and walking along a misty tree-lined alley leading up to a historic French chateau, and I knew that one day I wanted to share that moment’s experience with my future children.)

Everybody has a different financial picture, so this isn’t a talk about how if you just do what I do you can have your big thing.  But I want to make it clear that there’s a long list of good, worthwhile things we’re forgoing to make the One Big Thing happen.  On that list:

  • All superfluous purchases.  I was going to bring home flowers for Valentine’s day, but I need that $2.99 to be in the bank this summer.
  • A laptop that works.  My trusty Surface Pro has given it up, and thus one of the reasons I don’t write as much lately is that I don’t have a computer I can take to another room when the family’s all home, and I do have to jockey for time on the shared machines.  So basically I’ve made the decision that something I really love, writing, is just not going to happen as much as I’d like, for a while.
  • A new-used car.  Our minivan has 170,000 miles on it.  The doors either don’t lock or don’t open or sometimes both.  The paint job is Green and Black Cheetah because we’ve filled in with primer where the original finish is rusting out.  There is no interior carpet anymore, just bare metal with strategically-placed rubber mats.  We’d been planning to upgrade to something conceived this millennium, but my mechanical engineer tells me we can get that baby to 200K, no problem.  So that’s what we’ll be doing.
  • Living room furniture.  When we updated the circa-1985 paint in the living room and hallways this Christmas, we donated our couch and recliner, from the same era and in the same general condition, to other worthy recipients.  What’s there instead?  Lawn chairs.  Really nice ones, yes: They’re the ones we got from Lowe’s on clearance and had previously been using to kit the screen porch.  They just got promoted to a full-time, permanent gig as Chief Living Room Furniture.
  • More house space.  Eventually that minivan is going to need to be replaced.  Good thing we just painted, because this family of six is going to be squeezed into the three-bedroom ranch for a long time to come.

I mention that last one not because it’s a big deal (I know larger families living in smaller houses), but because to a lot of people, a spacious home is their One Big Thing.

You just have to know yourself and know what trade-offs fit the kind of person you are.  No matter how rich you are, you can’t have everything you’re able to want.  We all have to prioritize, and give up some good things in order to have other good things that are more important to us.

Seizing the Day

I’m not omnipotent nor omniscient, and neither are you.  There’s no telling what will happen between now and the end of June.  Perhaps our plans all come to naught.  One of the ways you know you’ve hit your One Big Thing is because you can honestly say to yourself: Even if this doesn’t work out, I have to try it, because I will always regret not having taken my chance when it came.

[Tip: If you are making a significant financial investment in anything, get that investment insured.  You can insure a house, a car, a boat, a musical instrument, and yes, even a trip.]

In our case, what happened is that we were thinking about taking a much more reasonable, but still-ambitious, stateside family trip.  That was another thing we’ve always wanted to do and here we were: The kids were at the ideal age, my health was finally decent again, there was a slot when we could take the time off and make it happen.

So we talked about a variety of other, much more sane choices.  Then one day I came to my senses.  I told my husband: I would rather not go anywhere this summer, and save up for as long as it takes to make my One Big Thing happen.

And he briefly set aside all reason and scruples and determined that he really, really loves me, and that maybe we should talk about this.  I pointed out that I’ve been talking about doing this trip since as long as he’s known me, and also there has not been a single time in the past decade when I was physically able to make it happen.  Our son graduates high school next year.  If I wanted to do it, now was literally the only time.

So I did it.  Trip is booked.

File:1138357639 3c5c483074 o Haut Koenigsbourg CC by Fr Antunes.jpg

This is where we’re going.  Photo by Fr_Antunes (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. And no I won’t be live-blogging it, because: I don’t have a working laptop.  That’s fine.  My One Big Thing wasn’t “taking the internet on this trip,” it was, “taking my kids on this trip.”  I don’t recall ever giving birth to a computer, thanks.

Why I Love My Parish Catholic School

This time a year ago, my littlest homeschooler asked if she could go to St. Urban’s, the elementary school that serves several parishes in the region. We knew some of the families at the school and liked what we saw.  She had made friends with girls her age at parish events.  It was not an agonizing decision, because we had already been considering the move for about a year.  We did a little more research and decided this was the time.

Our experience so far has been nothing but positive.  Since this is Catholic Schools Week, let me share a few of the reasons we love our school.

Everyone is kind and friendly.

When I was researching the school, I spoke to a friend who had volunteered there and at a number of other elementary schools in the region.  She said to me: “I can honestly say that St. Urban’s is what a Christian school should be.”

The administration actively works to promote kindness and encouragement among the students.  Recently on the drive into town my daughter told me she had to write a persuasive paper, and she had chosen the topic of whether there ought to be school uniforms. She asked my opinion, and I gave her the long list of reasons mothers love uniforms (thank you, school, for a simple, stain-resistant, affordable set of uniform options).  I finished up by adding, “And that way, for example, a mean girl can’t say oh your skirt is so ugly, because she’s wearing the same skirt.”

To which my daughter replied: “Mom.  This is St. Urban’s.  We don’t have bullies.  The worst thing that happened is that Scholastica wanted to play with Benedicta at recess but not Ignatia, and then they all ended up playing together anyway.”

The friendliness is welcoming to me, too.  The administration respects my time.  The school’s academic reputation isn’t built on sending home young children with mountains of homework every night. We parents aren’t saddled with a bazillion overwhelming volunteer projects and fundraisers.  When teachers or staff do ask for parent help, they take into account our varying circumstances.

I know some private schools have a “type” of parent, and if you don’t fit in you’re on the outs.  Our school is truly Catholic — truly diverse.  Not just in terms of race and national origin (though there is that), but also in terms of the parents’ professions, state in life, personalities, and dare I say it: social class.  It’s not a prep school, it’s a parish school.

Our faith as Catholics is 100% supported.

The school Mass is both beautiful and edifying.  Prayer is part of the rhythm of the day.  There are Bible verses on the walls, a well-delivered religion curriculum, and an enthusiastic attitude towards Catholicism that permeates everything the school does.  I don’t know all the teachers very well, but I know that the two teachers who have the most influence on my daughter both exhibit a sincere and profound faith.

Before she went to school, my daughter was homeschooled by me.  There are ways the Catholic faith was shared in our homeschool that don’t happen at the parish school, but the reverse is also true.  When I came to eat lunch with my daughter, I asked her as we sat down and pulled out lunch bags, “Do we wait for grace?”

“We already said grace in our classroom,” she said.  “And also the Angelus.”

The children ate and then talked quietly.  The teacher who was serving as lunch monitor complimented the children, as a group, on how her husband had been moved to tears by their beautiful singing that Sunday at Mass.  The children swept up and prepared to leave.  Before dismissal to recess, everyone stood and faced the massive crucifix in the cafeteria and prayed the second grace, thanksgiving after the meal.

My daughter’s teachers know her.

The school is small.  There are about fifteen children in each grade (it varies), so that the total school enrollment hovers comfortably within knowable limits.  (See here for the theory of Dunbar’s Number, and here for The New Yorker’s explanation of it.  I have found this to be true in practice.)  My daughter has been with the school less than six months, and already knows the names of all the students except the very youngest.  But more important me: Her teachers have time to know her.

When I went to the parent-teacher conference after the first quarter, the 5th grade teacher sat down with me and talked about my daughter. She talked about my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses; what she needed to work on; and how her transition to school was going.  To all of it, my only answer was: Yes, you are correct.

I’ve been teaching and rearing this child for ten years, I know her.  All these things you describe? That’s my girl.  You’ve paid attention, you’ve gotten to see the real her, you obviously care about her.  She’s not lost here.  There’s a real relationship going on, rooted in both love and quantity-time spent together getting to know one another.

The curriculum is well-chosen.

Between homeschooling and my years of small-format teaching in religious education, chastity education, parenting classes, French, economics, logic, debate, apologetics, can’t remember what else, and maybe a little tutoring here and there . . . I’ve evaluated curriculum.  Oh and I wrote a book that has a thing or two to say about how to structure a class.

If nothing else, I know how to see whether a class is working or not, and what is or isn’t successful.

Everything that happens at our parish school makes sense.

Sometimes the book the teacher is using is right off my shelves, sometimes it’s one I’ve never heard of before.  But I am still waiting for the day when I see some assignment or activity and can’t figure out what the point is. Everything I’ve seen so far fits with the goal.  I can immediately see why the teacher chose a particular activity, and how it fits into the bigger picture.  There is no busy-work. Everything converges on a well-built whole.

Sure, I’d heard it was a decent school, but I wasn’t quite expecting it to be this good.  I’ll take it.

The school makes the most of its strengths.

One of the mistakes people make about homeschooling is thinking that it’s supposed to be just like school.  That approach doesn’t work.  Homeschooling isn’t for that.  Homeschooling has a dynamic that’s unlike school, and that’s part of the point.  If you try to re-create school at home, you’ll be harried and overwhelmed.  The trick to homeschooling is to make the most of the distinctive strengths that only homeschooling can offer.

My parish school does that too.

There are ways to teach and learn that can only happen when you’ve got a dozen or so students the same age.  There are cooperative projects with other programs nearby that take advantage of St. Urban’s downtown location.  Even the way the classes are organized teacher-by-teacher makes sense developmentally — at least in the upper grades, which is what I’ve seen, the right teacher is assigned to each grade and specialty subject.

My daughter loves it there.

No school can be everything to everybody.  My daughter thrives on structure, gentle but firm discipline, clearly stated learning objectives, and frequent feedback via formal assessments.  Any time a child changes school systems there’s an adjustment period.  She didn’t arrive at school having mastered The Way Things Are Done Here.  Her teachers brought her up to speed through a steady combination of clear correction and enthusiastic encouragement.

She’s a normal kid.  Left to her own devices, she’d gladly sit around watching sitcoms and eating endless bowls of ice cream.  There’s a time and place for leisurely pleasures, but what she gets at St. Urban’s — the reason she’s excited to go to school every day — is the profound happiness that comes from having her genuine needs met so well.  Her need for love, her need for guidance, her need for growth: Everyone at the school works together to do their part in meeting those needs.

Addendum: About that award she got.

Some people from the parish who read this blog might be thinking You’re just all rosy in the afterglow of your kid getting an award after Mass this morning.  Truth?  It’s the other way around.  I started writing this post in my head months ago, and sat on it because I kept waiting for the inevitable bad day to show up so I wouldn’t be all honeymoon-googly-eyes.  I started writing this post on my PC earlier this week, but it’s been coming along slowly because my primary vocation keeps getting in the way.

And thus before I could finish writing, first semester Awards Day came around.  You know what happened?  They quick gave out certificates to the honor roll kids, and then moved on to the big event.

What’s the big event?  Grade by grade, each teacher gave a short talk about two students in her class who merited particular distinction.  One student was lauded for attitude, effort, and improvement academically — not for grades earned, but for the student’s perseverance and diligence regardless of academic difficulties.  The other honored student was praised, in descriptive detail, for kindness, integrity, piety, generosity — all the virtues that aren’t about being Number One, and are about being more like Jesus Christ.

That’s what I want in a Catholic school.

File:Pages from a hundred years of Dominican history - the story of the Congregation of Saint Catherine of Sienna - by Anna C. Minogue (1921) (14587455058).jpg
The sisters agree: If you cultivate the virtues, you’ll get the best academics you can have.

 

A page from 100 Years of Dominican History, published in 1921.  Photo by Anna Catherine Minogue, b. 1874 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

Wowzers Life is Good

#1 Guess who’s going on a diet and getting a massive makeover this year?

That’s right: My house!

So far we’ve hauled two truckloads of junk to the thrift store, shoved off a minivan-load of books and toys to other families, persuaded some anonymous kind soul to rescue an ancient free-to-good-home sofa off the curb, and dispatched to the landfill  sundry other items which had mistakenly taken up residence on our property — which has never actually been a landfill, it just looked like one, thanks.

While other people were piously praying the O Antiphons, Superhusband and our eldest daughter were mortifying themselves by removing 40 acres of popcorn ceiling. The other 4/6ths of us did support crew.  (Thank you, Costco, for existing.  Amen.)  Hallways are now primed, painted, and back in service; after a break for the feast, the living room is underway.

Pro Decorating Tip for People Still Living in 1979: If your home is built like a cave, go for shiny ultra-white every time.  Harvest Gold doesn’t look so sunny if there is not actual sunlight present.

Tiny tree wrapped in a big white gift box.

Festival of light for us, indeed.

#2 This is possible because . . .

Whoa boy, I haven’t been this healthy, functionally speaking, in three years.  I do not know what’s going on.  There are several possible explanations that correlate.

Drug theory: In October I was the worst I’d been since forever.  Went to my GP about the neuromuscular problems that had cropped up with a vengeance, he came up blank after mostly-normal bloodwork and referred me out, but the appointment is for May 2017.  I know!  That’s a lot of months of “try Tylenol,” kids.   As it happens, my situation most closely mimics the symptoms of “mitochondrial disease” which I put in quotes because that’s a very broad category of problems, not a single illness.  The going treatment is a combination of symptomatic support (aka, “try Tylenol”) and a set of available-OTC vitamins and, um, things.  So I googled around, picked one of the vast number of debated protocols, and tried it.

Prayer theory: I checked in with several of my chief prayer-people back in October when the situation was very ugly, and they have been working on my case with extra diligence.

Random Coincidence theory: Lots of diseases have a relapsing-remitting course, and I might just be enjoying a lucky break.

Some Other Thing theory: Maybe I needed to accumulate enough hours doing carpool and then I’d be healed.  Or who knows.  We’ll see how things unfold.

#3 Regardless, it’s possible.

I was banned from painting anything, ever, way back sixteen-and-some years ago when we first converted the soon-to-be-nursery from Vintange Mint to You’d Be Willing to Raise a Child Here.  (I recently got clearance to repaint some rusty shelving that’s going on the back porch, though.  I think the craftspersons are either desperate or delusional.  Or maybe the rule is: If we were otherwise going to send it to the landfill, Jennifer is allowed to try to paint it first.)

Needless to say, I’m strictly support personnel for this recent venture, since the goal is to make the home presentable to the general public.  Still, even the low-profile jobs are a pile of work.  In addition to emptying the living room and doing the house-diet runs, the boy and I have been cleaning up the yard.  Since I track my activity level, here’s the change:

This time last year, I was good for an average of 5,000 steps a day, with one rest day a week.  I was hitting a lot of higher-count days, and also I didn’t figure out about artificial heat sources until late in the season.  [The deal with that: I was needing an extra two hours of sleep through the cool months to make up for the energy spent keeping myself warm at rest.  That would be eleven hours of sleep a day.  That’s a lot of time spent not-awake.]  If I broke that rule and tried to go longer than a week without a rest day, I’d be completely laid low for a week or more.

This fall, going straight to avoiding making my body produce its own supplementary heat (at rest – when you’re up moving around, you generate heat regardless), and with a more regular daily routine, I was at 5,000 steps a day, steady, no rest day needed as long as I kept it mostly under 6K on the upwards end.  Note that one cannot accomplish very much with this activity level.

That’s where I was mid-October, and also having Fun with Pain and things like that.  (“Try Tylenol!”)  I was completely wiped out by a cold in November, to the point that I skipped Thanksgiving.  That was fine, emotionally, but obviously things were not good.

Once I got past the cold though, things went upwards fast. Pain and Things dropped off to non-interfering levels, and my stamina creeped up and stayed up.  I can talk without getting lightheaded.  I can sing, somewhat.  I’m averaging 10K of steps a day, no rest days needed.  Though I get the normal muscle soreness that comes from increased activity (yard work, moving things around the house, Costco), it’s all just the normal thing.

(That itself is a gift: Being reassured that yes, you have all along known the keen difference between normal muscle soreness and This Is Not Right.  And kids? Don’t take Tylenol for normal.  Not worth the side effects.  Normal pain is just normal, enjoy it and use it wisely.)

So yes, things are astonishingly good here.  By which I mean, normal.

#4 Dread Diseases Will Teach You Useful Skills

A skill I do not possess is the ability to sing well.  I enjoy singing, but I am not skilled at it. Not being able to sing, however badly, did not make me happy.  So over the past several years I’ve gotten practiced at lip-syncing along when there’s a hymn at church I really want to sing, but also I don’t want to faint.

You know who is grateful I possess this skill? Everyone who came to the early Christmas Eve Mass at my parish.

Yes, everyone!

I was the parent-on-the-scene with the Junior Miscreants Choristers up in the choir loft, who sound angelic when they sing, but are not, in fact, actual angels.  Now, other than the part where I mistakenly signaled the children to kneel during the Consecration and they flopped around like pious fish in confusion, I was mostly a beneficial presence, I tell myself.  But it would have been very, very unhelpful if I had sung along to the carols loud-and-proud like we do down in the pews.  So isn’t it wonderful that I had several years of practice fake-singing-and-enjoying-it?

Yes it is wonderful.

You’re welcome, world.

#5 My living room is beautiful.

In a half-painted, construction-site sort of way.  Also, my yard’s looking less and less like a landfill every day.  Merry Christmas!

 

FYI if you were looking for interesting Christmas-themed reading, I’ve linked a few things in my Twitter feed.

 

What Happens When You Go Out to Eat on Sundays

Before we begin, let’s clear something up: Sometimes I go out to eat on Sundays.  Credible witnesses can attest to this fact.

***

A friend recently shared St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Dies Domini (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy).   It’s a long, rich exploration of the what’s and why’s of Sundays, so naturally I just skimmed it and made a note to come back later and read it more carefully.  But I link to it now because I’ve been meaning to write about the restaurant problem since last summer.  Here are some pertinent quotes:

65. By contrast, the link between the Lord’s Day and the day of rest in civil society has a meaning and importance which go beyond the distinctly Christian point of view. The alternation between work and rest, built into human nature, is willed by God himself, as appears in the creation story in the Book of Genesis (cf. 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11): rest is something “sacred”, because it is man’s way of withdrawing from the sometimes excessively demanding cycle of earthly tasks in order to renew his awareness that everything is the work of God. . . .

66. Finally, it should not be forgotten that even in our own day work is very oppressive for many people, either because of miserable working conditions and long hours — especially in the poorer regions of the world — or because of the persistence in economically more developed societies of too many cases of injustice and exploitation of man by man. When, through the centuries, she has made laws concerning Sunday rest, (109) the Church has had in mind above all the work of servants and workers, certainly not because this work was any less worthy when compared to the spiritual requirements of Sunday observance, but rather because it needed greater regulation to lighten its burden and thus enable everyone to keep the Lord’s Day holy. In this matter, my predecessor Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum spoke of Sunday rest as a worker’s right which the State must guarantee. (110)

FYI, Rerum Novarum is no commie pinko manifesto.  Actually it’s an anti-communist manifesto.  [And some other things, too.] Go read it sometime, it’s really fun.  If you’re local, you can bait me into a conversation (bring the text, please) basically any time you want.

Anyway, the point for today is that Sunday rest, worship, and Christian fellowship are so important it just keeps coming up and coming up century, after century, after century.  It’s like the Church just. won’t. shut-up. about it.

So let me tell you about my kid.

Woohoo! Gainful Employment!

I have this boy who can cook really well.  Just last night I came home with a tray of chicken, pointed him to the grill, and he caused there to be dinner an hour later.  So last summer we sent him out to find a job, and yes we all considered it providential when he got hired by the local sandwich shop.  A few weeks of doing dishes and then on to cooking and he’s never left the kitchen.  He’s still working there and everyone’s happy.

When he interviewed, he said up front that he had to have Sunday mornings off.  Non-negotiable.  Since this place gets most of its traffic on weekdays, the boss was good with that.  But the restaurant is open Sundays, and so he does get assigned his share of Sunday afternoon-evening shifts.

As a result, he misses out on a lot of the Sunday-afternoon Christian fellowship activities that happen in our area.  He can’t do Sunday afternoon youth group events, and he ends up leaving early to get to work if a friend hosts, say, a relaxing family get-together.  We have some Christian friends with a pile of kids who are getting trained now to cut the birthday cake by 3pm so Mr. Boy can sing, eat, and run.  Everyone else can stick around for hours of heavenly conversation and camaraderie, exactly like St. John Paul II writes about, but the boy gets to go to work.

How Do You Use Your Servants?

The reason he gets to go work is because other people want to eat.

People need to eat.  Every single day, even multiple times a day.  There are situations in which people have good reasons to need to hire someone to prepare food for them on a Sunday, and many more situations in which people have good reasons to want someone to prepare that food.

There are other services we likewise avail ourselves of on a Sunday, for various good reasons.  I do this.  You’re not the only one.

When we do this, it causes the people we hire to work for us to lose a bit of their Sunday.

This is an Evangelization Problem

There are people like my boy who aren’t under a ton of pressure.  Sunday is not a high-traffic day for his restaurant.  He is only working part-time, and if he were fired for not being available when the boss wanted him, he’d still have his parents at home gainfully employed.  He’s not supporting himself, let alone a family, on this job.

Other people aren’t so lucky.  If they are Catholic, they end up scrambling just to find an hour to run into Mass sometime during the weekend.  If they aren’t Catholic and you tried to invite them to join you for Mass, or RCIA, or that fun thing you do on Sundays, they’d chuckle-cough and say, “Yeah. Sure.  I’ll let you know when I get an opening.”

It is extremely difficult to evangelize someone who literally cannot go to church.

You Only Control a Slice of the Problem

There are parts of this problem that you can’t control.  Some services (medical, police) are non-negotiables.  Unless you’re in charge of the hospital or what have you, you don’t decide what the shifts will look like; unless you’re in charge of the parish, you don’t decide whether Mass times will line up with the local police and hospital and pharmacy shifts.

If that’s not your responsibility, it just isn’t.

Likewise, you probably don’t set restaurant hours.  You’re not the one who decided to keep the amusement park open until midnight and then re-open at 8AM.  To a certain extent, you can’t control whether the worker-bees get an opening for Mass or not.

But you do control a small slice.

When you make the decision to go out to lunch after Mass, you are making the decision that two or three people will report to work a couple hours before you arrive, and they’ll stay on a couple hours after you leave.  What does that do to their day?

File:Paris - A waitress making a Phone call - 4588.jpg

Photo: © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Six Things I Needed to Hear – In the Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion

So this is what it’s like to be a devotional-writer:

I got home from Portland in the middle of the night East Coast time, wide awake because {Coffee + Jet Lag}.  But look! Things came in the mail for me!  No need to be bored.

Box #1 was a stack of these: The Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion. It’s a collection of reusable devotionals for every day of the year, contributed by such a massive collection of Catholic writers that I think they were hard-pressed to find non-co-authors left for the endorsements.  (But they did find a few.)

So I got a beer and flipped through to find my entries, just to see what they looked like and all that.  One gets self-absorbed late at night.  There’s not an index-by-author, so I had to do a combination of trying to remember what days I wrote on and just flipping through.  Three lessons I learned:

1. Goodness gracious I can’t believe who else is in there!  A lot of the co-authors are people I know from the Catholic writing community, some of them famous, some of them up-and-coming.  At the risk of sounding cliche, when you’ve actually met and worked with so many interesting and talented and devoted Catholics? It’s a tremendous honor to be sharing a book with them.

(My favorite part of being involved with the Catholic Writers Guild?  Finding out who the new talent is before the rest of the world gets in on the secret.)

2. Editors are your friend.  When I wrote this post at Patheos, I was in the middle of overhauling a couple of my submissions for this book.  So let’s cut to the chase: We are all very, very glad that my first attempts at the feasts of St. Mary Magdalene and of the Immaculate Conception did not make it into the book.  The revised versions are far better.

3.  I have a predictable soul.  I think I found all my entries (Six? Did I count right?), and there was a consistent theme: The same things I was writing about a year ago are the things I needed to hear just this week.

–> Shout out to my brother-in-law: Why yes, I did get to be the person who wrote on the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.  I was stoked. But reader, if you want to know what I’ve been particularly thinking about the past two days, take a look at what I had to say on the feast of St. Rita.

Contents of Box #2 to be revealed in the next post.

1-59471-661-7
Cover art courtesy of CatholicMom.com and Ave Maria Press.

Pinterest Parenting: Behind the Scenes of Raising a DIY Pro

I want to show you my daughter’s handiwork and explain how it got this way, because it’s a story about what parenting really is.  When you are comparing your crazy life to some glossy home magazine spread, but it’s a real home inhabited by real people, I want you to understand that it didn’t come from nowhere.

So this is my backyard:

Isn’t it gorgeous!  That’s the little grilling area off the kitchen.  My daughter (age 14) completely overhauled this space a few weeks ago, with the help of her sisters.  It was her response to the three of them being kicked outside until they’d cleaned the place up, on account of their not being able to be quiet inside for even one hour while I took a nap.

No really, that’s the story.

Here’s a before picture. Just kidding, but yes, the place was pretty much trashed.

To the left, behind the grape vines growing up around the mailbox, is the famous green castle.  When it was first built the castle looked like this:

That’s the top two stories, and in the photo above you’re looking at a portion of the bottom floor.  It’s a bit worn down now, and we’ve replaced boards and added shade over the years.  We built it because we only had this teeny-tiny strip of private, fenced backyard area when our kids were little, so we had to build up-not-out for the play structure.

Part of parenting is using the talents you have (my husband did the carpentry) and the resources you have to give your kids some space to grow. This is what we had to give.

Even after this month’s clean-up, there’s still some trashy-looking stuff behind those red doors, but at least it’s down to all purposeful trash.  An example is an upside-down plastic flower pot that serves as a table during “City,” the kids’ economics game that is the successor to the even trashier (literally) “Medieval Game.”  They make up all kinds of sociological experiments when I kick them outside.

More history . . . See this cute wooden bridge leading to the seating area?

We went to Las Vegas to visit my parents some years ago, and in the early morning while it was still cool out, we’d walk around the neighborhood.  The front yard landscaping in suburban Las Vegas is incredible – just gorgeous.  The kids took photos of yard ideas, because they wanted a pretty yard.  One thing they all liked was a wooden bridge over a rock riverbed formation.  Superhusband built them this bridge for the play yard, and it connects to a second patio where we have a laundry sink.  That area is not very pretty, though it’s now 90% less trashy than it was a month ago.

Lesson in parenting: We’ve had all these moments where the kids recognize and appreciate beauty, and we build on that . . . and our yard is still mostly trashed.  They’re still kids.  Their aspirations exceed their self-discipline.  We’re still tired parents who don’t make them clean up enough.   But slowly the beauty-to-trash ratio improves, year by year.

 

Here’s some lemon balm my daughter totally stole out of my part of the yard, and put into a terra cotta pot she also stole.  I’m good with that, she didn’t mess anything up.

I love to garden, but I basically stink at it.  My kids have variable amounts of love of gardening, but it’s not like we’re this amazing family out singing hymns while we hoe all afternoon in the pumpkin patch or something.  We buy plants or seeds, stick them in the ground, and most of what we plant dies of drought or flood or some horrible fungus you don’t want me to describe.  But a few things survive, and we learn more about what will grow in our actual yard (the garden books are wrong and the internet is wronger), and slowly it fills with things that aren’t entirely dead or pestilent.

Every living plant you see in these photos was a gamble.  Life is a gamble.  You just keep trying things.

 

Aren’t these hanging cacti adorable?  They are a little freaky if you look closely, because they are leftovers from a life science lab on grafting plants.  She has to have franken-cacti because non-school plants are expensive.  She took kimchi jars (I know! We buy it! We don’t make our own!) and sawed off the tops, then made the hanging knotwork out of string that came from who-knows-where.

If you want a kid who does DIY’s, you have to let that kid just raid the supplies and try stuff.  This is how my home gets trashed. Yes, my home is mostly-trashed in the pursuit of either beauty or laziness, one or the other.

We fought bitterly over where she was allowed to hang her hanging candles.  All supplies totally stolen from other parts of the house or yard.  Hobby Lobby made zero money on this one.

Look at this pretty sitting area!  I got those curtains cheap when the girls were little, and they get used when you want to hang pretty curtains someplace — like if you’re having a princess-themed birthday party or something.  They are hanging over the clothes rods and clothes lines that were our attempt to make a place to store all our whitewater gear, but it didn’t work out and was a fetid mess.  Blech.

I still don’t know what to do with the whitewater gear.  It’s piled in my laundry room waiting for a new home.

All furnishings and accessories in this photo were raided from another part of the house or yard.  In some cases there was a weak attempt at either covering up the gaping hole or putting an almost-as-good item in place (like: a bathmat set down by the front door where that rug used to be).

Also, I got yelled at because that rustic wooden box had yucky insects in it.  It was super disgusting, I agree with her there — but she totally wanted me to drop everything and decontaminate just so she could have her coffee table.  Darling, part of growing up is learning to battle insects all on your own, thanks.

Final thing: The monogrammed pillow.  That was made by the 14-year-old express for this project.

Let me explain to you about this.

My kids have had virtually unfettered access to sewing supplies, including a varying number of rescued sewing machines, over the years.  Prior to the massive clean-out, this porch was heaped with a crazy-mountain of every kind of craft thing.  I don’t even have any sewing things, at all, any more, because my children have stolen them so diligently that now it’s easier to just make them do the sewing, done.  (I was never any good at it anyway).

If you want kids who craft — who really get good at developing their own style (I never, ever, monogram anything, no child picked up that habit from me), and thinking up a project and giving it a try, and eventually get to where they’re producing good adult-quality work — you have to let them make a mess.

Maybe you’re good at having them clean up after, maybe you’re not.  (I’m not.)  But you have to give them space, and let them experiment, and not be horrible about insisting every project be perfect all the time.  As I write this, my nine-year-old is baking cupcakes.  I just stay out of the room, and she can come ask me questions, and I’ll help her with putting things in and out of the oven when the time comes.  If they don’t turn out — whatever.  It was only cupcakes.

I let my kids play with paint, and now when I needed a patio table re-painted, I could trust a child to paint it as well as anybody.  I let my kids play with food, and now my son cooks dinner as his primary household chore.  My kids aren’t perfect.  Everything they do doesn’t turn out golden every time.  When my daughter took these photos, she carefully framed them to not show the less-pretty parts of our life.

That’s real life: Part beauty, part mess.  Sometimes you really need to pay attention to the mess, and sometimes you need to sit back and enjoy the beautiful.

Photos by E. Fitz, used with permission, copyright 2016 all rights reserved.