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A new perspective on Christmas ‘obligations’

As we started to map out the Christmas season, one thing became clear: There would be nothing remotely relaxing about this holy holiday. I’m not just talking about the shopping and wrapping and cooking. I’m talking about the driving from town to town and state to state, the weather worries, the hotel stay, the kids asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

For many of us, the holidays mean zigzagging the state or region or even the country in an effort to visit family members. I’ve done each of those variations at one time or another, and I can tell you first hand that it can take a little of the merriment out of Merry Christmas.

Earlier this week, after Dennis and I had declared that this would surely be a “lousy” Christmas because of all the driving and time spent in a frantic race from one place to the next rather than in front of our own tree with a glass of nog, I stopped and asked if maybe we should just bag the plans and stay put. If we are preemptively declaring our favorite holiday “lousy,” maybe we need to rethink the plans.

So this is how I decided to evaluate the situation: If I knew this was going to be my last Christmas, how would I spend it? And I realized that if I had only this Christmas left, I wouldn’t want to spend it in isolation up north but with family. Yes, I’d want to get in the car and drive to see my dad and step-mom, my grandmother and aunts, my cousins and in-laws. Because what fun is Christmas if it isn’t shared? Do I wish my family lived closer so we could be together during the day and still return to our own beds at night? Absolutely. But that’s not an option for those of us who no longer live in our hometowns or whose parents and siblings have moved on.

Although I’m still kind of dreading the time spent in the car tossing juice boxes and snack bags to the back rows as the kids stare zombie-like at the various screens playing different age-appropriate movies, I have to admit that contemplating Christmas from a somewhat dark place has actually made me more merry.

How are you spending your Christmas? Is it the way you would spend it if it were your last?

Testifying to the Light: Merton, Gaudete and More

It’s always right around this time each Advent season that I move into high holiday spirit. I take that pink candle very seriously. Gaudete! Rejoice! And with that I break out Christmas boxes and begin to decorate the house. My kids, having been not-so-patiently waiting for a couple of weeks by now, finally get to light the lights and string the ornaments and push the buttons that play Christmas carols on endless loops.

I like the waiting time of Advent. I’m not a patient person, but in this season I tend to find my stride, enjoying the slowness of preparing for the feast, stepping out of character and trying not to rush things, knowing it will all be here and gone soon enough. But it won’t be gone, will it? Only the external trappings will be gone. If this season does what this season is meant to do, we will be left with the internal light that shines long after the ornaments and singing Santas are put away for another year.

This weekend at Mass, one line from the Gospel kept ringing in my ears:

“He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

That role isn’t reserved for John the Baptist. We are all called to testify to the light so that others might believe. But how do we do that? It’s not always easy in this frantic world, where people steal our parking spots at the mall and smash into our cars without leaving a note (both of which happened to me this week).

I recently had an experience of light that jumped out and grabbed me. I was at Kripalu yoga center, attending a workshop called “Pray All Ways” by Paulist Father Thomas Ryan (which I posted about briefly last week). At the end of the weekend, Father Tom asked us to do a lectio divina exercise, using the weekend itself as the point of reflection. We were to find the thing that stood out to us, pray on it and share with the group. Although there were many, many gifts received that weekend, one thing kept coming to the front of my mind, from the very first session of our workshop. Here’s what I shared with my group (more or less):

As I sat in this circle, sharing faith stories and prayer with a group of strangers, my mind kept returning to the famous Thomas Merton story, where he’s standing on a street corner in Kentucky and looks around at the people surrounding him and feels complete love for and unity with them. I never really “got” that story because most of the time I’m standing on the street corner feeling frustration and wondering when all those people are just going to cross the street, for goodness sake. But here, at Kripalu, from almost the first instant, I knew exactly what Merton meant. I looked around and felt complete love for complete strangers, people from all different walks of life who are searching for the same thing — a deeper connection to God. Being in this place gives me hope. And Merton’s words keep echoing in my heart: There’s no way to tell people they are walking around shining like the sun.

When I returned to “real” life later that same day, I tried to bring that light back home with me. The truth is, I often withdraw to my sacred space to pray or do yoga or both and then emerge only to jump right back into the chaos without letting my prayer reverberate in my words and actions. But the point of the weekend workshop and the focus of my prayer life these days is to take what happens in that sacred space and let it influence everything else, because my children and husband and friends will never understand the power of God’s love in my life if I don’t let that love come out through me, if I don’t walk around shining like the sun, or Son.

It’s hard to keep that light shining through all the difficulties and frustrations and annoyances of life. It’s much easier to slip back into dissatisfaction, to take up my poor-pitiful-me position and wonder why everyone can’t make it easier for me to be prayerful. Sigh. It’s not supposed to be easy. What merit is there in being prayerful if it only sticks when times are good?

And then I went to Mass on Saturday evening, and my pastor hit the nail on the head with a homily focused on that same theme. He reminded us that to rejoice isn’t to be “up” all the time, outwardly bouncing around happily from one thing to the next. To truly rejoice is to remain inwardly joyful even when times are hard because our joy isn’t in things of this world; our joy is in God and what God has done for us. Amen.

When I was at Kripalu, Father Tom led us in many Taize chants at the start of each session. One of my favorites was this one:

“Our darkness is never darkness
in your sight.
The deepest night is clear
as the daylight.”

The play of light against darkness is so apparent during this season when the ever-increasing glow of the Advent wreath stands in stark contrast to the darkness outside. I am often all too aware of the darkness, sometimes even seeking it out when there’s light all around me. But once we realize there is no darkness with God, everything becomes clear, and we shine like the sun, even at midnight.

So rejoice! Testify to the Light that can never be extinguished.

Advent awakening. Finally.

I felt a sense of panic last night as I realized we were already a few days into Advent and I had not been to this space to offer any words of encourage- ment or any observations or even any recipes.

The days leading up to Advent were packed to overflowing. Between the Thanksgiving holiday and my four-day trip with Noah to the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indiana (not to mention visits from family and friends and our first 5K race) things just felt totally out of hand. There was none of the quiet slowness that should herald the onset of this beautiful season.

Then this morning, as I felt the panic heighten due to a mounting number of work deadlines, I just stopped in my tracks. I closed the laptop, dumped the newspapers into recycling, cleared the table, made my oatmeal, and lit a candle. I sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” all by myself at my kitchen table as the steam from my breakfast cereal rose to the sky like incense. And suddenly Advent had begun.

I’d like to think that those few minutes of total silence and stillness are going to be more the norm than the rarity this Advent season, but I’m not that naive. December usually moves at full tilt, with shopping and planning and concerts and parties. I have no illusions of what’s to come, especially since I am currently working on two books on tight deadlines. And yet, still, I feel a settling now where a few days ago I felt only unrest.

I think we often forget that the peace and calm that prayer brings to our lives doesn’t come without some effort on our part. We can’t move through life at breakneck speed, sending a shout out to God along the way, and expect to become centered and balanced and serene. That only comes from the occasional silence we actively create in our lives.

As I told a group of teens earlier this month during a talk on prayer, if we give God just five minutes of silence a day (which will feel like five hours the first few times you do it), we will begin to see subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in our lives in short order. Five minutes a day of total silence. That means turning off everything — phones, computer speakers, Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts, TVs and stereos. Tune out every sound you possibly can. And then just sit and wait for God.

I experienced that kind of silent waiting, believe it or not, in a stadium of 23,000 teenagers a couple of weeks ago. One of the MCs at NCYC had the audacity to lead that giant, noisy group of excitable kids in lectio divina. When she started out, I thought she was nuts. By the time we were sitting in absolute silence, I was in awe. Imagine that many teenagers just sitting in silence, longing for a connection with God. If that don’t get you some religion, I don’t know what will. (I plan to write more about the NCYC experience in days to come. Sorry for the delay.)

Yesterday day, during Morning Prayer, this verse from the Book of Tobit jumped out at me:

“When you turn back to him with all your heart,
to do what is right before him,
then he will turn back to you,
and no longer hide his face from you.”

So this Advent I plan to try to turn back to God with all my heart, not an easy task by any means. I know how quickly and easily I get thrown off course, but try I will. I’ll have the added benefit of some intense spiritual time this weekend, when I head to Kripalu yoga center for a workshop with Paulist Father Tom Ryan, a certified yoga teacher, called “Pray All Ways.”

In addition to the workshop, Father Tom will celebrate Mass late Saturday evening for those who want a Sunday Eucharistic celebration. He told me we would sit in a circle, chant, and have an interactive homily. I am beyond excited to experience all that is in store for me. (And my friend Michelle D., who bravely decided to join me for the workshop and share a room with me. Thank you, Michelle!)

I’ll be back with tales from the journey. In the meantime, slow down, breathe, be silent, if only for five short minutes.

Why I live in – and love – the northeast


When we decided to move back to New York from Texas 10 years ago, there were a couple of reasons. First, all of the grandparents live in New York and New Jersey, but not far behind was the fact that New York has the beauty of four distinct seasons. In Texas, the seasons are pretty much hot and hotter. But here, just when you think you’re tired of a season (especially a long, cold winter), along comes a new season to fill you with joy and hope and awe.

As much as I loved Austin (and I lived there twice), I loved autumn more. Every September I would miss the crisp northeast air that would blow in one morning and let you know that summer was over and it was time to pick apples and watch the leaves turn into a kind of visual poetry. And then along would come that first snowflake and I’d fall in love all over again.

Now it’s spring, and I find myself staring out my back window every morning, watching the barren limbs turn vibrant green. I actually get a little giddy every time a new bloom appears somewhere in our yard. I know this wave of cool color will eventually give way to the hot and humid tones of summer, sometimes tinged brown by drought. But that will bring with it the big bobbing white heads of the hydrangea, the bats swooping overhead at dusk, and the anticipation that a tart and crispy McIntosh apple is just around the corner.

Here’s some of what awes me in my own backyard this week:

The bleeding heart I rescued from a high-traffic area at the edge of my yard when it was just a single branch with one bloom. Now look at it. Pretty obvious why it’s called a bleeding heart when you see it up close, no?



Lilacs. One of my favorites. This is the first year we’ve had a lot of blooms, at least on one shrub. Maybe next year one of the other three will join in.


Vinca. A groundcover really, but such a pretty one. And it can survive in the shade, which is why it grows wild in my yard, which was at one time pretty much all deep shade. Not so much now that they’ve clear cut the three lots around us.

A potted begonia and a basket of pansies, which I had to include because Chiara took these photos. Not bad, eh?



And, of course, at the top of this post is a long view of my raised bed. This is what Our Lady of Guadalupe looks like when she’s not serving as a snow-measuring device, as was the case in THIS POST. I bet she was glad to see a change of seasons this year.


Snow drops, bright stars and sore throats


A sure sign of spring in upstate New York is the arrival of the snow drops, the first tiny flowers to emerge from the cold, dark earth. I snapped that picture above more than a week ago, but — because of an illness, which we’ll get to later in this post — I never did get around to posting it. So the snow drops have been here for about nine days, and have been battered and bruised by two minor snows. And still they remain standing strong. I think that’s what I love about these little flowers. I look forward to seeing their bobbing white heads from my kitchen window every year around this time. It’s a sign of hope, a reminder of what’s to come — eventually.

And while they look so delicate, so easily broken from the outside, they are, in reality, incredibly strong and ferociously tough. How else could they push through the winter-hardened ground and withstand freezing temperatures and snow and, often, the trampling of little feet. They are deceptively resilient. And that’s why I love them. I can see them now, way out in the yard, only four inches off the ground but towering above all the other brown, withered plants.

As I mentioned, I’ve been sick for more than a week, a nasty sore throat that turned into abscesses, that turned into swollen tonsils and more. It left me unable to work, unable to move, unable to think. I just sat on the couch, like a zombie, staring forward. And so I did something I almost never do. I watched endless amounts of TV, mostly cooking channels but every so often a certifiable “chick flick.” And my favorite of the week was “Bright Star,” the story of the tragic love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne.

First let me say that Dennis should be thanking his lucky stars that I streamed this one from Netflix while he was at work. He would have fallen asleep in the first fifteen minutes, but I thought this film by Jane Campion was just beautiful. And it reminded me that I once spent an entire semester studying Keats and his Romantic counterparts — Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge. Remember those days of spending an entire semester on one slice of something? No wonder I can’t remember stuff anymore. Maybe if I had an entire semester to take notes and read commentaries on every novel I read, I’d remember more about the books I read nowadays. Or I’d at least remember I read them at all.

I think back to my days at Pace University now and marvel at the fact that I could take an entire semester of Russian lit, Irish lit, Shakespeare (although I did at least two on Shakespeare) and still only scratch the surface. Remember those days? Weeks on end of Irish literature but still not enough time to handle Ulysses, which was a course unto itself. Anyway, Bright Star made me want to revisit those Romantic poets — and some of my all-time college favs, like Anna Karenina — from my more mature vantage point. What subject or book would you go back and revisit if you could return to your college days?

Finally, a little faith story to go with the sore throat nightmare. Friday night did not look good for me. After more than a week of illness, three different antibiotics, four doctor visits (including two that felt like something out of a horror movie thanks the procedures that were required), seven pounds lost in seven days due to my inability to eat, and endless amounts of pain and lost sleep, I thought I was going to the Emergency Room. My tonsil had swelled to the point that I felt as though my throat was closing up. I moved my head this way and that and found a way to avoid the ER. I slept sitting up in a recliner since laying down cut off my airway. Dennis checked on my breathing throughout the night. It was a little ridiculous.

When I woke up on Saturday, things didn’t feel much better. Dennis and Noah had to work at our parish school all day, so I was alone with the girls. I had the phone in my hand in case I needed to call 9-1-1 at a moment’s notice. It was that bad. I assumed that at some point I was going to the ER no matter how hard I tried to fight it.

Then I went upstairs, dug around my closet for a bag I brought back from Italy this fall, and pulled out a Miraculous Medal. It’s not an expensive or fancy medal, just one of a few I purchased in time for the papal audience so it could be blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. But this medal is extra special for one reason: Later in my trip, I brought that medal to the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II and asked the guard to lay it on the tomb for me.

I took the medal from the bag and pinned it to my shirt as close to the my swollen tonsil as possible, and I prayed to John Paul II. About 90 minutes later, my throat felt clear. No difficulty breathing, and, for the first time in about eight days, no difficulty swallowing. I ate lunch. Lunch! I could talk without struggling. I kept waiting for the throat problems to return, but they never did. By afternoon I made a big tray of baked ziti and a giant salad and sat down to a feast for dinner. Dennis and the kids stared in amazement as I wolfed down cheesy pasta. Every other time I’d try to eat dinner with them for more than a week I would leave the table, unable to take more than one bite. And I usually cried through that from the pain.

When I went to bed last night, I figured that was the test. I would lay down and realize that I still couldn’t breathe properly. Wrong. My head hit the pillow and I slept undisturbed for about eight hours straight. As I said on Facebook, I’m not saying all this is cause for canonization or anything, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s my own personal miracle. I was headed to the ER one minute and whipping up dinner the next. Thank you, John Paul II.

Lowering my Lenten expectations

Lent is one of those seasons that always begins with the best of intentions and rapidly goes downhill, at least that’s how it usually plays out for me.

I plan to pray more and eat less and find creative ways to make my favorite time in the Church year meaningful for my children. Unfortunately, the ashes hardly have time to settle into the wrinkles on my forehead before I’m feeling like I’ve already failed.

I think maybe part of the reason is because I tend to set my sights too high, forgetting that, like a baby learning to walk, I’m going to have to take a lot of wobbly first steps before I can run full steam ahead. Lent is a time to put one foot in front of the other as I hesitatingly toddle toward the rich spiritual experiences I know are waiting to be had.

I guess I need to think about Lent the way I tell Noah to think about piano: You don’t get to be an expert by simply sitting close to the lesson books. You have to work at it a little every day in order to see true progress. And so it is with God. We can read books about God, even write books about God, but until we put everything away and spend regular quiet time with God, we’re going to have a hard time getting out of the starting gate.

Somehow that concept seems a lot easier to understand when I’m explaining it to my children. As they face their own Lenten challenges, I remind them that if they fail one day, they can just get up, dust themselves off, and start over. I remind them that Lenten sacrifices and promises are not about making us feel bad but about clearing out a space in our lives where God can squeeze in. Big rewards can often spring from small actions.

I remember going to a birthday lunch with some friends during Lent a few of years ago. When it came time for dessert, I quietly ignored the chocolate cake sitting in front of me, hoping that no one would notice. Someone asked me if I wasn’t eating the cake because it was Lent, never mind that half the women present were skipping dessert because of various diets. My friend went on to say how silly it is to give up insignificant things like sweets for Lent when there are so many important things I could be doing to make a difference in the world.

Point taken, even if it was through gritted but smiling teeth. And yet, as I mentioned to my lunch companion that day, while we are called to pray and help the poor during Lent, we are also most assuredly called to fast and sacrifice. That is not some antiquated notion without meaning in our modern lives. Giving up a daily bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream or a nightly glass of wine might not seem like much of a sacrifice on the surface, but if those small actions inspire us to contemplate Jesus’ own sacrifice for even one moment, if they make us empathize with those who have less than us, then what may appear silly to others is in reality spiritually significant to us.

As I contemplate what I’ll do for Lent this year, my promise is simple: Make the sacrifices and the actions meaningful even if they are not monumental. And if, as in year’s past, we get to the end of Lent and realize there are only a few lonely quarters clanking around in our Rice Bowl because we forgot to make regular donations throughout the 40 days, we’ll write a last-minute check to make up the difference and bring it with us to church on Holy Thursday, taking one more wobbly baby step in the right direction.

From where I’m sitting…



Here’s the view from my “office” today. The snow may be coming down like crazy, but the temperatures are warm enough that I can get the three-season sun porch to a comfortable temp with an electric “stove” and space heater. Not a bad way to have to work. (And the kids are in the basement, apparently unaware of my temporary relocation.)

The view above is from my workspace on the couch. Below are some shots of the scenery.



The icing on the church

When I walked into Sunday Mass yesterday, I was taken aback by the beauty of the icicles hanging from the eaves all along the main church. I vowed to go back later and take a picture. I did not. Then, today, I went to 12:15 p.m. Mass, and, as I came up the sidewalk, realized I forgot all about the icicles. So after Mass I ran home, grabbed the camera and went back. I’m sure my pastor must have thought I was nuts if he spied me out the window. I couldn’t resist. You can see the result in my new header photo for this blog and below.