Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Morning Prayer Snuggles

Tuesday was rough.  Between the twins' squabbles over toys, potty training mishaps, Cheerios crunching under my feet from breakfast, and the random toys lurking in every corner, it all got to me.  I found myself getting so angry at my kids' such slight misbehaviors.  I started lecturing loudly about how they are supposed to listen and obey instantaneously.  I blamed them for our being late (even though we were just a few minutes behind schedule) and ignored their innocent questions while I drove the car fuming.  

By naptime I was DONE. I retreated to my computer after I had tucked them in, and I was still so worked up I couldn't even look at their picture that is on the background of my laptop screen. It wasn't that I was still mad at them, I was mostly angry with myself.  I was too ashamed to see their beautiful bright faces grinning broadly back at me.  I had lashed out on this innocent, lively pair, and had allowed their little brother to hear and see it all take place.  Surely they had made some mistakes that had called for necessary parental intervention and instruction, but nothing had warranted such extreme moodiness and frankly, immaturity, on my part.  I have little doubt that my increasingly frequent outbursts and their dramatic squabbles with each other are related.

So I started to brood in what I call my Dark Nest, a.k.a my husband's oversized armchair. Even though I knew it was not an uplifting activity, I resorted to Facebook. I snidely rolled my eyes at certain happy posts, and I quickly skimmed over darling pictures of happy families. I dismissed the smiles and became even just the slightest bit jealous, even though I knew that most people post pictures of the good times and rarely post updates of the crummy ones.  Looking at Facebook allowed me to enter a state of jadedness; it was my virtual escape. But being in a constant state of "whatever" is not the same as a healthy habit of learning to sweat the small stuff.... I felt like a complete failure, and the longer I brooded, the longer I remained frustrated with my inability to handle the stress.

I laid down on the couch for a nap, but I was too wound up to fall asleep.  Needless to say, I did not feel rejuvinated when everyone woke up.

By bedtime I was running on fumes.  The finish line was in sight: just one book, one half-hearted prayer, and lights out (cross your fingers they stay in bed).  Elisabeth came back from the bookshelf with her book choice and I sighed deeply.  She had chosen a children's book, written in German, based on folklore from my father's small hometown village in Switzerland.  Normally I would have delighted in sharing a piece of our family's heritage with her, but tonight I just wanted a short and quick story.  This particular story was on the longer side, and I usually read it to them in German, giving a brief summary after every page in English, which meant an even longer story.  I debated just summarizing each page in English, but I knew they would not allow me to get away with short-cutting it.

So I propped up a pillow behind my back, took a deep breath, and started to read.  They cuddled on either side of me with their legs curled up and leaning on my belly.  Elisabeth had her two middle fingers in her mouth, a habit she has had since she was born.  Even though I read in German, they listened intently, and I felt them relax against my body.  Perhaps it was the artful illustrations, perhaps it was the cadence of my voice, or perhaps it was simply the end of a trying day and they were beginning to let sleepiness overtake them....or perhaps they started to relax as they felt me relax, as my angry and sarcastic words had to take a backseat to the clever words of the text.  It was the most peaceful part of the day.

In the morning Elisabeth came into my bed to snuggle, as she does every morning.  She climbed over me and buried herself deep in the blankets next to me, sucking on those same two fingers, her forehead nestled close to mine.  Sometimes she narrates all the thoughts in her head, abruptly ending the morning slumber, but today she just lay there.  I dozed back to sleep listening to her breath and finger sucking, the softness of her skin a gentle reminder of her presence.  The only way I can interpret her action is that it was the softest and sweetest act of forgiveness, one of the most perfect acts a childlike faith can execute.

In that moment I started to pray.  I didn't run down the list of things I need to do, should probably do, might do.....and add prayer to it.  There are some days that I have the mental focus to order my day first thing in the morning, and on those days fitting in prayer is pretty easy, and my day goes well.  But this particular morning I was still feeling overtired, upset, and with Elisabeth gently breathing next to me, undeserving.  I was in no place to organize tasks in my head.  I finally realized that despite the emotional and mental chaos, I can, and MUST, incorporate prayer into the day.  And even though it may not fit perfectly on my agenda, prayer can be done amidst the dirty kitchen, unmade bed, and unfolded laundry.  And yes, even during a morning snuggle.  Especially during a morning snuggle.

Before kids, I used to get up with my alarm, sit with my hot cup of coffee (programmed from the night before), and pray through a running list of things in my head. I made sure everything was covered. With little ones I have opted for catching as much sleep as possible in the mornings, and therefore the set-time prayer schedule has been hard to pin down. Even though I know in my head prayer can happen whenever and however, it has admittedly been difficult for me to fully comprehend the power of unplanned prayer.  I am beginning to realize that my day goes better when prayer is on my to-do list, because I am in control of my agenda.  And yet, on the days when I feel hopelessly out of control, the desperate prayers at the random times get me through the day with so much more grace because it is my ultimate confession that God is in control.

So I prayed in the moment without any structure, without any memorized morning offering, without any mental list of the types of things I should pray for.  I simply begged God for patience for the day, at least more patience than I had the day before.  I told Him how grateful I am for this little body snuggled up close to mine, and even though she's here before the sun is up, I know that someday I will miss these moments.  I asked St. Francois de Sales to pray for me, to pray that I would go through the day with a spirit of gentleness.

For the rest of the day, I was so much calmer .  We went to the preschool story hour at the town library and they girls were wonderful.  I didn't even bark at them when we arrived 10 minutes late.  They let me help them with the craft activity without demanding they do it their way.  They sat with the other kids and sang songs with big smiles.  They politely ate their snack, and even cleaned up on their own, even though I was preoccupied with their little brother.  Lunchtime went smoothly, and even that blasted transition from lunch to naptime was a breeze.  I believe they sensed a calmer, more relaxed mom, and thus didn't have the need to push back or engage in a preschool power struggle.  They knew they had my undivided attention (as opposed to my preoccupied, worrisome, overwhelmed attention), and therefore did not have to resort to getting my attention through bad behavior.  Naptime was long and peaceful.  I did not feel worn out, but had enough energy to pop in an exercise DVD.  The house was just as messy, the disorderly piles of random clothes and toys still taunted me, but I let it go, because I had admitted that I can't do everything.....and I allowed God to take care of the rest.

The beauty of prayer is that any and every activity can be consecrated to God, whether it be changing a poopy diaper, picking up broken crayons, and all the other mundane tasks that are a part of the day.  It doesn't have to be a perfectly quiet and uninterrupted period of time.  I am beginning to learn that there is much peace and even holiness in the daily chaos of motherhood.  I like to think that God is more pleased with the desperate, I-can-only-get-through-the-day-by-your-grace prayers than the regimented I've-got-the-day-already-ordered-and-God-happens-to-be-the-first-thing-on-the-list-prayers.

Being a wife and mom has been the most unstructured, messy, and unpredictable chapter of my life, and it has been the greatest, most sanctifying blessing I could have ever been given.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

7 Quick Takes: Thank you, forgive me, help me more!

Saturday marked the beatification of Don Alvaro del Portillo in Madrid.  Don Alvaro was the successor of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.  To be honest, I don't know much about Don Alvaro, but I have some very dear friends who are part of The Work, and who were able to be in Madrid for the exciting day.  In his letter to Bishop Javier Echevarria, Prelate of Opus Dei, Pope Francis recalls Don Alvaro's frequent prayers: Thank you; forgive me; help me more!  This prayer is so appropriate for today's crazed busyness (I think of myself as I scurry about chasing after the littles and trying keep some sort of order in my head).  No matter how flabbergasted I get during the course of the day, I've been trying to remember to utter this short supplication, because it has been a sort of lifeline this week.

Pre-school for the twins continues to be a hit.  And I'll admit: Mama enjoys having that two hour breathing room too.  I can go food shopping, for example, with two children as opposed to four.  This is huge!  Speaking of food shopping, a new BJ's is open in our area.  Not only can you save a lot of money buying wholesale, but BJ's has shopping carts with four seats!  ....for crazy families like us, of course.

Maybe it's pre-school, maybe it's because this is the 3rd year I've been doing the stay-at-home gig, and like many professional teachers will tell you, things start to come together the third year....but our weeks seem to actually have a little structure and schedule to them.  That is, I don't feel like I have to invent a brand-new plan for each day.  And no, I am NOT over-scheduling the little ones.  I'm talking a very basic weekly schedule: Tuesday's and Thursday's are pre-school for the twins, and Wednesday's are story hour at the town library for all four kiddos.  Other days are open for play dates or just hanging out at home.  Our town library, by the way, totally rocks.  They even schedule field trips!  Here are some pics of us visiting a local farm.

(The kid in the Red Sox jacket?  Yep, mine.) 

The calves were only a day old.  Precious. 

I finally figured out a solution to the daily negotiating of screen time in our home.  I actually sat down with the girls and wrote out a contract.  They even signed it.

If you can't read the terms beneath the scribbles, it basically states:
1.  No screens in the morning (morning is play time!).
2.  TV choices are 2 shows, or 1 short movie.
3.  Mom's Kindle: 30 minutes for apps, but reading books is unlimited.
4.  If we fight over Mom's Kindle, no one gets it!
5.  Giraffes are nice.

I know everyone has their own opinion about the amount and content of screen time.  I am not sharing this to say my plan is the best, but it has been working for us.  I am happy to report that since we have implemented the screen time contract, there have been no tantrums when the TV goes off, no begging for one more show, and I feel less guilty when they do watch TV or use my Kindle because I I've already agreed to a reasonable time limit.

Even though I feel a little more confident in my momming job, I still have moments when I loose my cool, because, well, there are many kids under the age of four living here.  I'm not excusing the times when I bark at the kids, but I do admit it does happen.  And just to rub it in, Gregory, who has been piecing together full sentences lately, has been asking me quite deliberately, "You happy?"  He usually asks this at times when my answer is a resounding NO! and it makes me feel like such a failure.  I have got to work on keeping it together.

To be clear, I am happy in this vocation, but perhaps I could be doing a better job showing the joy that I have in my heart.  Thank you, Lord, for revealing this truth through my son.  Forgive me, Gregory, for letting my emotions get the best of me.  Jesus, help me more!

Monday was the Feast of the Archangels and Thursday was the Feast of the Guardian Angels.  We didn't make whiskey-glazed carrots or anything extraordinarily celebratory.  I had every intention to making an angel craft, but we all somehow got distracted.  Nevertheless, pondering the angels and God's plan for them in our lives brought great peace to me on both days.  Thank you, Lord, for giving us angels; forgive me for not making these liturgical feasts more of a priority in our family's lifestyle; Guardian Angel, help me more!

I think I've become slightly addicted to blogging.  I am find and reading so many good ones!  I've also been playing around with the layout and look to my own space in the internet.  I'd love to hear what you think!  Check out la Joie on Facebook.  It would make my day :)

Thanks to Jennifer Fulwiler for hosting 7 Quick Takes!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Conversion Story part 2: the lure of the daily Mass

In 2009 I landed a position as the French teacher for an all-girls' independent Catholic school. Previously I had been teaching in a small public school in a rougher part of the greater Boston area, and was fighting an ever growing problem with depression.  The numerous dead-end interviews with other schools over the course of two years only added to my depreciating self-worth.  Landing this job was more than a career move; it gave me back my confidence as a teacher and dignity as a professional.

The details of my hiring were marked with odd coincidences.  In short, it was as if God was shining the spotlight on this "funny little school", as the dear chaplain fondly described it. I could not deny that God's hand had opened the doors wide open for me to enter.  Upon my first visit, I found the school quite charming, and the teachers and staff members full of class and grace, so unlike the sarcastic and oppressing negativity that pervaded the faculty morale at my old school.  I was asked to prepare and teach a lesson to a French 4 class, and the girls were simply a delight to teach.  They were engaged, eager, and demonstrated an intellectual curiosity that fuels a rigorous education.  Whereas I had been to other interviews with the feeling of something-just-didn't-go-quite-right, I left this little school doing a fist pump and chattering excitedly to my husband when I got home.

Nevertheless, I had some misgivings of this school, primarily because it had a strong Catholic ethos.  I was unsure and uncomfortable at how this would affect my role as an employee.  My denomination of faith had never come up in the hiring process, but my insecurities made me question if there would be an underlying prejudice among my colleagues if and when they found out I was not Catholic.

The first week of faculty orientation was both practical and inspirational.  Not only did we discuss helpful teaching strategies for the upcoming school year, but we also analyzed a Rembrandt painting and discussed Plato's Cave Allegory all in relation to teaching the student as a whole person. It was refreshing to be a part of these discussions, and I thanked God all the more for enabling me to be a part of the community.

There was, however, one small detail listed on the orientation schedule that made me feel downright uncomfortable: an optional daily Mass for those who wished to attend.  Do I refuse to go and reveal to my colleagues my non-Catholic convictions?  Do I go despite the major theological disagreements I have with Catholicism?   In the end I decided to go....I was not ready to reveal my identity as a Protestant, so I quietly ducked in the back of the chapel and tried to follow what the other attendees were doing.  I was so nervous.  Certainly my hesitancy to stand or kneel at the proper times would make it a dead giveaway that I did not know what I was doing.....

But no one seemed to notice, of course.  The half dozen people who had decided to attend focused only on the altar at the front of the chapel.  There was no music (which threw me off at first), and everyone knew the order of the Mass without the aid of a missalette (I clumsily leafed through one trying to find the prayers being recited).  At the end of Mass the lector read a prayer to St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.  I remember from my childhood days at Mass that people were itching to get out.  But not here.  People lingered.  It actually felt awkward that no one got up to leave right away.  And then I realized: everyone in the chapel was praying.  This was a completely new, and yet riveting discovery for me, especially coming from 6 years of teaching in the public schools, where even the mention of God and faith would cause raised eyebrows.

The peacefulness of sitting in that chapel after Mass quieted my anxiousness.  I may not have known when to sit or stand or kneel, but I knew how to pray.  The women in this chapel may have had very different opinions of theology than I, but I was struck at how seriously everyone took this prayer time.  It was exciting and energizing to know that I was part of such a faithful faculty.

Once the school year got underway, attending daily Mass became much less intimidating.  I realized that I had more in common with my Catholic colleagues than not.  Because I was so grateful to be working in a place that actually set aside 35 minutes of every workday to worship and pray to God, I attended out of my own volition.  Even if I did not agree with everything that happened, I could
sing to God,
pray to God,
listen to His Word being read,
and linger in His presence.

I knew I was not obligated to attend Mass, and there were certainly some days that I did not, but hearing the a cappella voices of all the girls and teachers one floor above my desk was a reminder that a sacred meeting was happening.  Correcting papers at my desk and "getting work done" seemed grossly irreverent.  And yet, I wanted to maintain my proud stance that I was NOT a Catholic.  One morning I told myself I would take the time out of my day to pray at my desk, instead of participating in Mass.  I read from the Bible, I prayed quietly....and I actually found it very isolating.  Instead of reaffirming my Protestant views, I felt my confidence in my theology waning.  It highlighted my lack of confidence in my own faith, and underlined an anger for Catholicism instead of a love for God.  The protest in my own heart was distracting me from the ultimate purpose of the Mass: getting closer to God.

And so I began attending as often as I could.  It started to become a peaceful break and respite to the bustling and busy teaching days.  There was something attractive in the daily Mass that I could not resist.  Even though I was not taking Communion, the power of prayer and His Physical Presence broke down the stony walls in my heart and completely disarmed the anger and defensiveness I had been harboring.

God was preparing the soil for the seed to be planted.

Stay tuned for part 3....