Monthly Archives: September 2011

Slipping into October

After a few weeks of very high heat (here in the Bay Area, you invariably have to wait until September to experience summer!), it’s now starting to cool off.  As I write this, I can hear the wind whipping around the corners of the house.  Our neighbor was out with his rake today, gathering in the rusty brown leaves that have begun to pile on his lawn, a sight that makes me feel downright nostalgic.   Even though I was a child of the Silicon Valley suburbs who never actually had the classic experience of jumping into a pile of vivid autumn foliage, those leaves still touch some primal chord inside, some deep longing for all the traditional loveliness of fall.

September is a month that demands a certain level of emotional energy from me.  It’s a month to remember past losses, as well as to be thankful — oh, so very thankful! — for present blessings.   And now that we’ve celebrated both boys’ birthdays, had a big party complete with bouncy house and Cars 2-themed cake, and increased our toy collection by several toy vehicles, a bowling set,  and a Little Tykes basketball hoop, it’s time to sit back and slide slowly into what [I hope] will be a relatively quiet, reflective October.

I know that nothing is ever really quiet or reflective when you have small children in the house, especially not when those small children have a whole host of shiny new battery-operated birthday presents to send careening over the hardwood floors.   And that’s okay.  But still, I cherish a hope that I can carve a bit more quiet time out of October than I did out of the month preceding it.  I hope to be able to sit at my prayer desk and look out at the large Japanese maple just outside the window, the green trunk and feathery leaves that are the backdrop to so many moments of stolen serenity.  Every fall, those green branches turn gradually to a vivid, glorious orange-red. It would be a shame if I’m moving too fast to notice and savor that transition.

So that’s my goal for October: to take a brief moment, every day, to sit or stand at the prayer desk and look out at the tree.  It’ll be my little way of celebrating the slow slide into fall, a wordless prayer of thanks for all the seasons that have brought me to where I am today.

Spiritual books for kids [and moms]: The Secret Garden

When it comes to writing about The Secret Garden, it’s hard to know where to start.  I could talk about how the book is largely responsible for turning me into a hard-core, lifelong Anglophile.  (The Shoes books by Noel Streatfeild played a  part in this obsession, too.)  I could explain how it’s the story that first introduced me to  Gothic literature, to the eerie deliciousness of a huge English manor house with winding passageways and cries in the night.  I could wax lyrical about the edition I had as a child, with iconic illustrations by Tasha Tudor: the picture showing Mary Lennox breathlessly turning the key in the ivy-framed door, the pastoral image of the country boy Dickon sitting on the grass, surrounded by woodland creatures, the scene where Mary discovers the invalid Colin, his head lit up in an unearthly candlelit glow.

Or I could talk about the story of this book, one that held me spellbound the Christmas that I was ten.  An orphan girl is sent to a cold forbidding Yorkshire manor house, where she discovers the walled garden that has been shut up for a decade.  She finds the key, goes inside, and discovers that although the garden may look brown and abandoned,  it’s not dead; there are green shoots coming up through the carpet of dead leaves, and the roses are “wick,” alive.  With the help of one and then two and then three friends, she secretly tends the garden and brings it to joyous, colorful, vibrant lushness.  And in the process, her own cramped soul expands and grows into happiness.  A sickly boy learns to walk again, and a remote, depressed father learns to embrace life, not run from it.   It all happens because of a garden that once seemed dead but which holds in its soil a potential for healing that no one in the book could have foreseen.

And really, it’s this spiritual message that makes this book so moving to me now, almost thirty years after I first lost myself in its pages.   Isn’t that the Christian story right there? — out of death, there is life; out of despair, hope.  Nothing — and no one — is too far gone to be reclaimed and brought to his or her fullest, most beautiful potential.  It’s a message that  I see every spring in the garden, as I watch the roses that were once barren and stubby explode into color and fragrance.  I could live to be five hundred, and I’d never get bored by that.  Every single spring, it thrills me to watch the slow return of those shiny reddish-green leaves, then the buds, then the petals, all pushed into being by some force that I can’t see but which feels, every time, like a miracle happening just outside my windows.

This book celebrates that force, that miracle, in all of its manifestations.  And the characters all hunger for that miracle, whether they are conscious of it or not.   They all long for Life, and by the close of the book, they’ve found it.

And there is no happier ending than that.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  To read more about the Spiritual Books series of posts, click here.

Happy trucks, Sherlock Holmes, and God

Sunday evening is such a blah, yucky time, with the specter of Monday morning  looming large before me.  It seems like a good opportunity to think about the things that make me happy.

Here are three of them.

1.  My  boys’ artwork. Behold “Happy Truck, ” drawn by Matthew.







Given the temporal nature of his chosen medium, I took a picture of this drawing to keep for posterity.  It makes me smile every time I look at it.

2.  Great quotations about faith.  Someone I know recently shared a memorable line from our pastor:  “Stop trying to define God, and let God define you.”  Man,  I could meditate on that quotation for days.  Am I letting God define me?  This quotation also inspires me to ponder all kinds of related questions, like What am I called to be and do on this earth, for the short time that I am here?  Which unique little piece of the spiritual puzzle do I offer the world?  How can my own experiences  help other people make sense of their lives — and how can their experiences do the same for me?   I love sinking my teeth into questions like this.

3.  Really good TV.  Saturday night, unwinding on the couch, Scott and I re-watched Episode One of the BBC series Sherlock.  I blogged about it a while back, and all I can say is, it’s just as good — if not even better — a second time around.  When you update the character of Sherlock to modern-day London, all sorts of interesting questions come to light.  The writers for this series really make you look at Sherlock in a new way — he’s a genius, as he always was, but somehow the contemporary setting makes them freer to touch on the fact that his genius comes at a certain cost.  His brain works differently from the brains of others, and that causes problems for him, such as a lack of natural empathy.  (“Sherlock is a great man,” the character Lestrade says at one point, “and maybe someday he’ll be a good one.”)  Even so, the writing and the acting in this series are so brilliant that you end up liking Sherlock, even with his undeniable narcissism.  And there is some fabulous humor in the series, too, which is lacking in a lot of the earlier adaptations.  Definitely worth a watch, if you like well-written drama (and, as I mentioned earlier, this is one BBC series that my husband likes just as much as I do, if not more … and that is really saying something).


Happy Monday!


The Best Gift My Mom Gave Me by Mitch Finley

What’s the best gift your mom gave you? That’s the question behind my new series of guest-posts.  Today I’m pleased to welcome the writer Mitch Finley as my guest!   Mitch is the author of more than 30 books on Catholic themes, including The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between (The Word Among Us Press) and Key Moments in Church History (Sheed & Ward).   His reflection got me thinking about something I’ve never thanked my parents for … and should.   Thank you, Mitch!

My mother and father were young and naive when they married in 1943, he 21, she barely 19.  Hindsight reveals a couple of kids who, at that time, had no business getting married, to each other or, for that matter, to anyone else.  Having studied for many years what makes a resilient, lasting marriage, I can see that their marriage didn’t have a ghost of a chance.  That they stayed together as long as they did, some 20 years, is attributable to their decision to do so for the sake of the kids–myself and my younger sister–by itself never a good reason for any couple to stay married.

All the same, had my parents not married I would not have been born, so I have to thank them for that, as I must admit that I’m glad I was born.  To echo Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “So it goes.”  It’s also true that my mother had some spiritual/religious leanings, and for some reason these leanings inclined her toward the Roman Catholic Church.  After I completed second grade in a public school, she announced that my sister and I would, the next fall, attend the local Catholic school which was presided over by Benedictine nuns.  Then, a couple of years into that experience, she and my father “took instructions” from the parish priest, and one sunny Sunday morning in May each one of us inclined our head over the baptismal font and became Catholic.

I had a few dark hours in the Catholic school, but all in all I felt at home there, was thankful to be there.  I grew to love being Catholic, and while I can’t claim to be a cradle Catholic, all but the first nine years of my life have been Catholic years, and for that I am thankful, too.  I would never choose to be anything else.  I love being Catholic, I love following the Catholic calendar and being a member of the not infrequently wild and crazy Catholic community.  I love the sacraments, and the scriptures, and everything else about being Catholic.  And for this I have my mother to thank; this was the best gift she ever gave me.  She it was who prodded our father to agree to send us to a Catholic school, and it was at her urging that we all were baptized Catholic.  She is the reason I’m Catholic today and have been so for lo, these many years.  Were this not so, I would not have majored in Religious Studies at a Catholic university, would not have enthusiastically earned a master’s degree in Theology at yet another Catholic university.  For me, my studies truly were the fides quaerens intellectum of Saint Anselm, faith seeking understanding.

My mom did not have an easy life; that she was what I would call “emotionally challenged” led her to make some unwise, unhappy choices.  But she gave me the gift of life, and then she gave me the gift that surpasses even the gift of life, namely, the gift of the Catholic faith.  Thanks, Mom.

The lessons of September

I had planned to write a leisurely blog post about books tonight.  But then around eight o’clock I heard Lukey crying in his room and went in to investigate. He stood up to greet me and then promptly threw up all over the crib and the floor.

Matthew, who was five minutes away from bedtime himself, looked at the mess wide-eyed.  I girded my loins and pulled my little boy out of the crib and plunked him in the tub for his second bath of the evening.  He protested weakly, the poor little guy, as I washed and rinsed him clean.    Scott was working late, and my heart sank at the thought of having to clean up the carpet, wipe down the mesh sides of the crib tent, and wash sheets, pillowcase, blankets, and stuffed dogs all on my own.

“Mommy,” said Matthew helpfully from the doorway, “it might be good for Luke and me to watch TV while you clean up.”

They sat through an entire episode of Caillou while I mopped up the mess.  Alas, when I put fresh clean Lukey into his fresh clean bed, he threw up again.  The good news: I pulled him out of the crib before it could spread to his stuffed bear. The bad news: in the process of doing so, my shorts were sacrificed to the cause.

In all, it was an entire hour of bathing, scrubbing, washing, rinsing, sterilizing, and showering.  I went through two sheets, countless antibacterial wipes, and no small amount of Lysol spray.  I also went through a range of  emotions: grim determination, self-pity, and deep sympathy for my sick little guy.

This is the stinky part of parenthood.  And yet here’s the good news: even though I started by having a full-on pity-party in my head, I was still eventually able to take the long view and find — yes, it’s true — the positive.  Maybe this is because it’s September, and every September gets me remembering  the past. Six years ago at this time, I had just had my second pregnancy loss in a row — a devastating miscarriage which came a year after a devastating ectopic.   We seemed destined to have to experience all the possible ways that  a pregnancy can fail, and it was brutally painful.  I was seriously doubting whether I’d ever be able to carry a pregnancy to term.  Throw in the grief I felt for those two little lives that had been lost inside me, and it was a very dark time.

So six years ago, on September 20th of 2005, if you had told me that I’d one day be spending an hour wiping vomit off of my son’s crib, I’d have been absolutely wild with joy.  Bring it ON, I’d have said, and meant it.   And you know what?   Tonight I look at my messy little boys and the laundry that stinks to high heaven and the big old can of Lysol, and I think: I’m blessed.  I’m richly blessed.

For real.