Memento Mori

While All Hallow’s Eve is no day to be dabbling in the demonic (no day ever is), it’s as fine a time as any for pondering one’s mortality.  A little artwork for the season:

Danse Macabre from the Domincian cemetery in Bern
:

File:Manuel, Kauw; Bartholomäus May.jpg

Stained glass from the Bern cathedral, photo by Andreas Praefcke CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons:

File:Bern Münster Totentanzfenster detail2.jpg

Fresco: The Triumph of Death, on the external wall of the church of Disciplini, photo by Paolo da Reggio via Wikimedia, CC 2.5:

File:Triumph death clusone.jpg

And for those who have been pondering the blog silence of late (including a few overdue book reviews, sorry there): It’s due to a distinct lack of death in these parts.  Camping, volleyball, children studying music, adults studying the Bible, children and adults putting on an All Saints Play, a writer posing as a literature teacher beginning this Friday, friends visiting from out of town, friends visiting from in town, a Quiz Bowl around the corner — life is good.

Pain Bleg Update –> How’s It Going, Jen?

So if you post something like last month’s Name This Pain bleg, it’s a good idea to update sooner, rather than later, when you rejoin the happy world of healthy-type people.  Otherwise, every time you turn up some friend will peer at you with concern and ask gravely, “How are you?”

If you are me, it’ll take you a minute to wonder why they are asking this way, because I’m somewhat forgetful in this regard.

(My description of a particularly difficult bout of unmedicated childbirth:  “It took me several days to be willing to do that again.”  Whether this level of forgetfulness is good for the overall survival of the species depends on which sort of calculations you favor.)

So first of all, many thanks to those who replied to me.  The most interesting response was that many people wrote in to say it sounded like their own experience with Restless Legs Syndrome.  This was curious, since it means that a number of physicians have ditched the “urge to move” component of the diagnostic criteria for that disorder.

More interesting: Two readers with RLS and one reader who did not mention RLS said that their symptoms (identical to what I described) were caused by medications.  The three medications mentioned were: Antihistamines, ibuprofen, and migraine medication (Imitrex, I think?)

Whether any of these are a factor for me, I do not know.  I ran some experiments which were inconclusive.

Here is something I do know: God hears the cry of the migraine sufferer.

That’s not me.  That’s my poor friend and colleague from whom I really needed some information, and even when she explained that she was standing in the dark because she had a migraine, did I leave her in peace?  No I did not.    Even though I KNEW that I was being a horrible person and begging for divine retribution, I persisted in asking my questions anyway — which she answered quite helpfully, just as I’d hoped.

So then when I came down with a couple days of non-migraine-but-still-deeply-irritating headache shortly thereafter, the explanation was obvious.

I don’t know that I wouldn’t risk it again, honestly.

***

Anyhow, I am doing wonderfully this month.  Perfectly perfect, other than when I’m courting wrath.  You who have been praying, I am immensely grateful.

Me with Larry Peterson

Here’s me looking as happy as I am, after lunch with Larry Peterson today.   I am really enjoying this thing where I just go around places having a good time, done.

 

Bleg: Name this Pain

Two interesting things happened this week:

(1) I finally met the physician I’d been referred to last October, and now I know why there was a seven-month wait on appointments.  The guy is both competent and humane (like Tod Worner, but a different guy).  I like that in a doctor.

(2) I’d been planning to tell him everything’s fine now, but actually it’s not fine.  I’ve had a wind-up of fatigue and the same kind of pain I was having last fall — it was still fairly mild on Thursday, but is getting more rather than less intense.

The purpose of this post is to try to find out if anyone else has experienced the thing I’m getting.  The rheumatologist has never heard of it, and he’s pretty experienced in his field, and he is also familiar with the types of pain associated with disorders outside his field. The internet isn’t giving up much so far, either.  But rare disorders exist, and so conceivably there are people in the world who either get this thing or have seen it in their practice.

If you are that person, my e-mail is below, scroll down to the bottom.

If you are not that person, help yourself to the blog discussion group for the purpose of general commiserating or talking about the thing you get that isn’t like my thing but you still want to talk about it.  Please do not e-mail me with those well-meant comments, because I am notoriously bad at keeping up with my e-mail as it is.

Do please share this post around, though.  There are sharing buttons below to make that easy for you.

(Please assure helpful strangers that I’m not interested in talking about religion or politics with them.  My rheumatologist isn’t really into that.  This is strictly a medical-bleg.)

The syndrome we’re talking about is this:

(a) Muscle pain.  Not joints, not skin, not your stomach or your sinuses, none of that. Feels like it’s muscles.

(b) Aching predominates, some burning, and the odd needle-like stab.

(c) Affects muscles that have been recently exercised (in the past day or two).  So usually legs, since I’m a person who walks, but if I did an abdominal workout it’ll be abs as well, if I did a lot of upper body stuff it could be arms or shoulders, etc etc.  It is utterly unlike normal post-exercise muscle soreness. Do not make me lecture you on how experienced I am with the normal stuff.  It is not that.  Not. at. all.

(d) The pain only comes on when the muscle is at rest.  (I get some calf pain with use, but let’s ignore that since it’s distracting.  I want to focus on the more perplexing stuff.)  By “at rest” I mean when the muscle is relaxed, for example if you’re sitting down your legs might be relaxed even if your upper body is engaged in some activity.  So it’s particularly noticeable when laying down during the day for some reason, or when going to bed, but it certainly does not require the whole body to be relaxed.   Time of day is irrelevant. The key factor is that the muscle that starts hurting is not presently doing any work.

(e) The pain is temporarily relieved by movement, stretching, or pressure, but returns as soon as the muscle is again completely at rest.

(So if I’m sitting and my leg starts to hurt, I can fidget and the pain goes away.  As soon as I forget to fidget, it’ll come back.  Unfortunately, one cannot fidget oneself to sleep.)

This presentation is extremely consistent.  It started intermittently about a year ago, became significantly problematic last fall, had largely gone away for six months, and has returned in exactly the same form as previously.  This consistency is why I’m persuaded it’s a physiological problem that surely other people have experienced.

Some additional notes that may or may not be helpful:

(f) There is no correlation with mental state.  Thinking or not thinking about it has no bearing on whether the pain shows up; being anxious or relaxed or distracted or you-name-it is irrelevant.

No relationship to menstrual cycle either.  I haven’t detected any other certain associations, other than fatigue and exercise.  (This prospect does not really keep me from exercising, because don’t be stupid, you need to exercise.  But the sleep-deprivation?  Yes, that will slow me down a lot.)

(g) Mine does respond to ibuprofen pretty well most of the time.  (I try to avoid taking it habitually though; I only use it if I’m really desperate for sleep.)

(h) For those who are curious, yes my dysautonomia symptoms are ramping back up as well.  So there does seem to be a strong correlation between when I’m feeling all that stuff and the pain-thing.

(i) In addition to the muscle pain, I also get random fasciculations along the same pattern, but they are not as prevalent. The muscle that is twitching is not a muscle that is hurting. (Probably because this particular thing involves muscles not hurting if they’re being used?)

(j) My diet is great and I take all the things and do all the things and present as a very healthy person.  I have a happy and enjoyable life, including a loving family and many good friends.

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I pretty much live in the present.  When something’s not bothering me, I promptly forget about it and move on and think everything’s fine now.  Therefore I’m always a bit surprised and mildly insulted when symptoms come back later. (I thought you were gone. What are you doing here? Can’t you see I’m busy?)

Anyhow: If the description in (a) through (e) rings a bell with you, please e-mail me.

I can be reached at: currentresident [at] fitzes [dotcom].

Put something really obvious in the subject line such as answer to your bleg on “name that pain”, or I’ll accidentally delete you as spam.  I get a lot of spam, so if your subject line is “hi” or “help” or “about your blog post” or “hot Russian singles want to sell you cheap Canadian Viagra” you’ll be cast into the outer darkness.

Thank you!

Jen.

 

File:(Army Hospital Operating Room, Pepperell Manufacturing Company) (11179190325).jpg

Photo:By SMU Central University Libraries [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Easter Report: Five Good Things

#1 Fr. Gonzo finishes strong. I probably shouldn’t call him that, it might encourage him.  The man who gave me this thing forty-something days ago decided to launch, his words, the “Mother of All Easter Vigils.”  If that man left out even a single speck or jot of an option, as found or legitimately inferred in ye olde Roman Missal, please, not a word.  Also next year, I’m having a nap and a cup of coffee before the vigil.  Or else just doing like last year and going to the Sunday evening Easter Mass, which was quite nice and ought to be offered more widely.

#2 There was a bacon accident.  Sometimes people are like, “Oh you’re a homeschooler? Could you make me a craft and a casserole?” These are the very same people who would squirm if I said, “Oh you work in an office?  Could you make me a 1040x and a manuscript proposal?”  So anyway, I tried making bacon in the oven Sunday morning, and I did it by following the directions on the package.  More or less.

The difficulty is that it came out perfect.

Perfect bacon is cooked to the point of extreme crispiness, just short — but nearly to the point — of crumbing at an untoward glance.

Sadly, the man I married and many of our offspring are under the impression that bacon is meant to be sort of chewy and moist.  I’m okay with that.  All bacon is good to me.  I will totally put on my inner St. Therese and eat wet bacon.  No problem.  Canonize me now.

But I accidentally cooked the bacon too long, and it was extremely, very, astonishingly good.  The difficulty is that there wasn’t any spare bacon to undercook for the other people, and that was kind of sad.  I’m open to continuing practice on this art until I nail it.  Eight weeks of Easter calling my name.

#3 First child trained in the ways of the IRS! It’s pleasant having Easter after the taxes go in.  I literally dropped off four envelopes at the post office on the way over to the Vigil.  Mr. Boy got A Real Job last summer, which means he had a real tax return (two – one federal, one state) this spring.  I had him do the process step by step on his own, and then I’d check it and show him what he did wrong (if anything — a 1040EZ isn’t that hard, even if it’s more complicated than it used to be), and he’d fix it, and we’d move on to the next thing.

It is well worthwhile to start doing your taxes on your own right from the beginning, and to keep with it year after year as things slowly get more complicated.  Pays off in the long run.

#4 Fedex is a wondrous thing.  It’ll be three kids and I on the big trip this summer, and I ordered those three some useful books to prep for the trip and work on their French.

FYI of all the suppliers I found, Decitre.Fr had the best deal on international shipping if you’re looking at many low-budget books rather than one expensive book.  Each kid received a book on the Mass. The boy received two history books and an atlas.  The girls each received a coloring book on Alsace (primary destination), a second coloring book on a relevant topic (history for one, all-things-Christian-faith for the other — between the two, they’ll have encountered most museum, historical site, and art-related vocab), and a book of personal interest for motivating the reading practice (cats or rabbits).

I went with cheap books because I wanted them physically light and compact, and intellectually not too intimidating.  That also allowed for a slight overflow on the order, so duds could be culled and everyone still get good books.  –> Not true duds, but a couple of the books that looked nice on the internet turned out to be either too little-kid or else too difficult for a beginning student of the language; I set those aside for me.

Anyhow, on international orders there’s not an option (with Decitre) to have books sent in sub-packages, and I knew a few of the books would take a couple weeks to be ready to ship.  So when I got the shipping notice Spy Wednesday, I figured it would be a late Easter?  Nope.  Packaged Wednesday morning, queued at CDG by Wednesday evening, onto a plane and into my local Fedex office Thursday morning.  I went out for a walk Thursday morning, and as I was coming back to my yard at 9AM the Fedex mini-van showed up with a package for me to sign.

You didn’t used to be able to get foreign books this easily.  I like the modern world.

#5 Journaling Bibles.  So that left one child with no books in her basket, because: Poor planning.  The Easter Bunny was pretty pleased she’d gotten to Aldi to pick up Not-Slave-Labor chocolate, thanks.  So then the bunny remembered this argument from a month earlier.  The girl is in the FCA at school, and apparently all her friends have “journaling” or “notetaking” Bibles.  These are Bibles with wide margins or other white space where you can essentially illuminate your own manuscript.

Could she have one for Confirmation please?  And how about right now, so the Holy Spirit can get to work ASAP?

The difficulty is this: Apparently Catholics have given up on illuminating, or else we just don’t publish trend-Bibles — I’m sure our publishers are full of good excuses for the lapse.  The situation is bad enough that Catholic Icing has a great tutorial about how to convert your Catholic Bible into a journaling Bible by covering up the footnotes with bits of paper.

A girl I know does not want to cover up footnotes with bits of paper

Thus in the spirit of Easter is For Heretics, Too, I caved.  On the way home from Costco with all the Easter food, I did check my local Catholic bookstore to see if there was something, anything, that I could pass off as a journaling Bible, but no dice.  (There are lots of great Catholic Bibles out there, by the way.  Just not ones for coloring in.)  But after that, into the breach: Walmart for Bible-shopping it would be.

[Sheesh, guys, I’m buying some unapproved-translation, books-missing Bible for coloring in, I’m not shelling out a lot of money on this, really??]

Walmart is smarter than a Catholic publisher.  They carry a mass-market, paperback version the HCSB Illustrator’s Notetaking Bible, and it’s easy to find if you go to the book section — shelved both with Bibles and with adult coloring books, since it’s both a Bible and a coloring book.  The inside looks like this:

My child wasn’t looking for one that was pre-illustrated, but we both secretly like it.  Some of the illustrations are very apropos, such as the image of Christ Crucified in the margins next to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant prophecy.  I could do without Mary With Rosy Cheeks, but Catholics have done far worse to the Blessed Mother and somehow the Church still stands.

My teenager spent her afternoon working on her Bible.  Her younger sister said, “We should have brought these to that retreat last month!”  I think I can work with this trend.

Easter Egg Wreath by #3.  Leaving a child alone with a hot glue gun has its advantages.  For more on the cost of becoming a Pinterest Parent, see here. Okay, I see the photos aren’t loading anymore.  I’ll fix that and update. [Update: Okay – all fixed now, I hope!]  The text explains the less-pretty parts of the crafting life. 

 

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.