Category Archives: Monday Meditations

Mary on Monday: It’s the arrival, not the journey

Tomorrow is a fabulous Marian feast day: the Feast of the Visitation.

I have to say, for most of my life I never gave the Visitation much thought. Then in May of 2005, when  I was going through a hard time following a devastating pregnancy loss, it all changed.   Through a certain series of events,  the image of Mary and Elizabeth supporting each other became enormously comforting to me.  (That image also helped me make a decision that had been weighing on my mind … if you’ve read Mary and Me, you know the story already).

A few months later, while conducting interviews for the book, I talked to a fascinating religious sister.   Her personal connection with the Visitation cracked the scene wide open for me.   I saw aspects of the story I’d never seen before.

Now, years later, the Visitation is still relevant.  As with  most things in my life, though, the story means something different now that I have kids.  I go into more detail in my latest column: A Lesson from the Visitation.

And Happy Memorial Day!  Many thanks to all those who, through their dedication and sacrifice,  have made this country such a good place to be.

Image courtesy of Holy Cards for Your Inspiration

Mary on Monday: Letting go of your baby

Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea by James Tissot

When I was a junior in college, I studied in Paris for a semester.  As I boarded that plane at San Francisco International Airport, hauling my comically overstuffed Samsonite, I was nervous and excited and totally ready to immerse myself in a foreign culture.  And I had a fabulous time … so fabulous, in fact, that I resolved to go back and live there again someday.

About a year later, I did.   After graduating from college, I found a position teaching English in a  Parisian suburb, used my junior year connections to find a reasonable studio apartment, and embarked for nine more dirt-poor but unforgettable months in the City of Lights.

It’s only now, years later, that I fully understand what my mom had to go through while I was gone.

She hid her worry pretty well, all considered.  But looking back now, I can understand the anxiety that must have been there, especially that first trip. After all, I was going off to a foreign country I’d never seen before, living in a big city with a host family none of us had ever met.  There were the differences in language, culture, and social norms to navigate.   There was the very real chance that I might meet some dreamy European male who would sweep me off my feet and inspire me to take up  permanent residence in the other hemisphere.  And my two stays in Paris happened before the advent of email and cellphones made the world shrink in size.  There were many, many  times that I was out with friends on the town, or on a train to Germany or Italy, and there was absolutely no way for my parents to contact me unless I called them first.

I’m sure all of this was going through my mom’s mind before I ever boarded that Northwestern plane on that January evening.  But she hid her fears well, because she knew how desperately I wanted to go.  She knew how much I’d been aching to see the world, and  that I’d never be entirely at peace until I let the waters of a totally different culture close over my head for a while.  That’s what moms do: we let our kids go chase their dreams, even though it costs us a heckuva lot to see them leave.

And Mary did this too.  She let Jesus go off and preach and teach and fufill his own potential, doing what he was born to do.  I believe that Mary was a woman of great faith, but let’s not forget that she was also a mom, and I suspect that she worried pretty ferociously about her baby.  After all, he wasn’t off talking about puppy dogs and rainbows and safe, nonthreatening things; he was challenging the system, pointing out hypocrisy and pettiness, which is an excellent way to make people want to shut you up for good.  She must have known that he was getting on the wrong side of very powerful people who could cause very powerful trouble.  But she also knew that this was his calling, that it was what he was born to do.  She couldn’t keep him from it.  All she could do was love him, hope for the best, and pray like mad that he’d be safe.

That’s what my mom did, twice.  It’s what I’ll likely find myself doing someday, if my boys have inherited even an iota of my wanderlust.  And as we let our kids go off and pursue the lives they are dying to live, we can rest assured that we are in good company.  In this — as in so many things — Mary was there before us, showing us how it’s done and loving us as we do it.

Mary on Monday: Faith that our kids can do it

Marriage at Cana by Giotto

Here’s the thing I’m learning about motherhood: it is all about having faith.  It’s about having faith that you can make it through the rigors of pregnancy and delivery, or the emotional ups-and-downs of the adoption process.  It’s about having faith that you will be able to handle the countless demands of an eight-pound bundle of crying newborn neediness, even though you’ve never actually spent much time around babies before.  It’s about having faith that your kid will make it through the first fever, the first stomach flu, the first trip to the ER — and that you will make it through all those events, too.

And, most of all, it’s about having faith that your child will one day do things you have never seen them do before.   Smiling, laughing, sleeping through the night, walking, talking, using the potty, riding a bike, reading — as moms, we know in our gut that our kids will one day reach these milestones.  Often we have no evidence to support that knowledge … just that solid core of faith that someday, it will happen.

It occurred to me, several months ago, that this is exactly why I like the story of the Wedding at Cana.  There they are at a wedding reception, mother and son, and the wine runs out.  Mary points this out to Jesus, in the full confidence that he will be able to do something about it.  How does she know this? It’s not like she’s ever seen him do a miracle before.  He hasn’t been taking classes or practicing in his room at home. All she has is the faith of a mom, the faith that her child has the ability to do something he has never done before.  She’s amazingly confident in the fact that he can do it, and that he can do it now.  And thanks to her confidence and encouragement,  the water becomes wine, the reception is saved, and the party goes on.

I love that.

And I also love the full-circle aspect of this story.  All along, Mary was there to witness her son’s firsts: his first smile, first laugh, first steps, first words.  It is perfectly fitting that she is there for his first miracle, too, nudging him into it, having utter faith that the little boy who had so many firsts is now a man who is ready to bust out with the most amazing one of all.


Mary on Monday: When normal life is kicked out from underneath you

Rest on the Flight to Egypt by Luc Olivier Merson

Last year, our house had major plumbing problems.  This is what happens when you have a postwar home with terra cotta pipes: the ground settles, the tree roots grow and find little cracks in the sewer lateral, and next thing you know there is water backing up into the garage  every time you flush the toilet.  My intrepid husband became an expert in snaking, but it soon became clear that we’d have to do some major plumbing work, to the tune of more money than I’d like to remember.    But until that work was done, there were evenings when we couldn’t flush, couldn’t run water down the kitchen sink, and had to shower at the neighbors’.  It showed me two things: 1) I should never take indoor plumbing for granted; and 2) I don’t deal well with disruptions to the normal routine.  (Oh, and it showed me that we have fantastic neighbors.)

And as disruptions go, that was relatively minor.  There are so many people in the world who have to face much more serious, long-lasting, painful upheavals.  A natural disaster, the loss of a home to foreclosure,  the death of a family member, a grim medical diagnosis  — well, these are pretty major changes.   Any one of these events can kick normal life right out from underneath you.  Sometimes, it can take a long while before you find your footing again.

Looking at most images of Mary, it’s so easy to forget that she knows all about this.  She looks so peaceful and serene, untouched by worry or conflict or change.  But the fact is that shortly after she became a mother, her little family had to leave the country that they knew and flee to a foreign place.  They were refugees in a land where everything was different.  The normal comforts of home — the family and friends you love, the language and culture you know — they lost it all for a time.  It must have been profoundly disorienting.

That’s why I really like the painting above, even though it is probably wildly historically inaccurate.  I like how Joseph is camped out on the ground in his cloak, and Mary and Jesus are huddled up against the vast stoniness of this sphinx.   Somehow it captures that sense of isolation and uncertainty that Mary must have felt as she took her newborn son into a place that was far from everything familiar.   And it reminds me that as much as I love the serene images of Mary, I can’t forget that she knows what it is like to have to be resilient in the face of utterly disorienting change.   That very young mother learned how to become one tough cookie, for herself and for her family.  And I love her for it.

Mary on Monday: The Kickoff

It is, suddenly, warm around here.  Yesterday Scott took the patio furniture out from under its winter wraps, and I planted my first bed of flowers.  I cannot tell you how good it felt to work that bag full of garden soil into the ground.  It smells intoxicating, that rich dark soil: like chocolate, or very good coffee.  I planted a whole host of little multicolored impatiens, and now have to wait impatiently (sorry; can’t resist a pun) for them to bloom.

I love that the warmth and the spring-y feelings came in tandem with the first day of May.  This is Mary’s month, and it is wonderfully appropriate to usher it in with sunshine and flowers.

And for this month’s Monday Meditations, I’m going to concentrate on Mary.   For the five Mondays of May, I’m going to share some little insight about her that has proven meaningful to me — some aspect of her life of experience that resonates with me, a writer and teacher and mother and seeker of truth.  Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Mary, in the past ten or so years of actively thinking about her and reading about her and writing about her and praying to her and getting to know her, it’s that she is deeply, utterly, profoundly relevant.  You don’t have to be a mom, or a Catholic, or even a Christian.   You just have to be someone who is open to the ways in which this woman’s story illuminates our own.

And maybe the first step of that process is simply to register the presence and love of Mary.  Catholics believe that she is the spiritual mother of us all; and, like a good mom, she knows what her kids need at any given time.  Maybe it’s her encouragement, or inspiration. Maybe it’s her prayers for something that is on our minds.  Or maybe it’s just a her quiet constant presence, the kind that the French writer Paul Claudel writes about in this simple and beautiful poem.

Midday.  I see the open church.
It draws me within.
I did not come, Mother of Jesus Christ,
to pray.
I have nothing to offer you.
Not to ask of you.
I only come, O my Mother,
To gaze at you,
To see you, to cry simply out of joy.
Because I know that I am your child,
And that you are there.

She is there, for all of us.  We just have to be willing to see her.

Poem from  Spiritual Writings of Mary, edited by Mary Ford-Grabowsky

Monday Meditation: I Left My Heart

Going away is nice … it really is.  I love travel and seeing new places.  All the same, I’m always happy when the plane touches down in San Francisco.   I don’t live in the city itself, but it’s still one of my favorite places: the place where I met my husband, where we dated and fell in love, where we got married.

In the novel Brideshead Revisited, there’s a scene where the two primary characters are on an idyllic outing in the English countryside.  Sebastian says, “Just the place to bury a crock of gold.  I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.” That’s sort of how I feel about San Francisco. I’ve got pots of gold buried all over this beautiful place.

Tony Bennett would obviously agree.  (The song itself needs no introduction; the video is something I’ve seen several times on our local PBS station.  Hula dancers are not a usual feature of life in San Francisco, but they sure are graceful.)

Monday Meditation: ‘Nuff said


It goes without saying that I would not trade my kids for anything.  But sometimes, a mom just has One of Those Days, a day full of whines, messes, sibling squabbles, and toy cars ricocheting off the walls.  And when Those Days strike, this quotation just says it all.

Having children is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain.
– Martin Mull

Photo: the living room on a good day

Monday Meditation: Driving out the darkness


The quotation below was  recently read on the morning announcements at the school where I teach, and though I’d heard it before, this time it made me sit up and take notice.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


It’s easy to hear this quotation, nod and think, “Oh yes, that’s so true,” and then go about our lives doing precisely the opposite.  Fact is, it is intensely difficult to answer hate with love.  And though I don’t (to my knowledge, anyway!) have a lot of people out there who hate me, I can still relate to this quotation.  It is not easy to answer scorn with gentleness.  It is not easy to answer snarkiness with kindness.  It’s not easy to answer rudeness with politeness.  And yet if we want to break the negative cycle, we have to try.

The people who loved Dr. King lost him, forty-three years ago today, on a hotel balcony in Memphis.  And in that tragedy, they had to decide how to respond: with more hate, or with love.  It must have been extraordinarily difficult to find that love; I know it would have been nearly impossible for me.  But Dr. King called us to be better versions of ourselves, knowing that this was the only way to make a better world.   And his words are an echo of the greatest teacher of all, that man named Jesus, who was love and light himself.

So my challenge for the week is this: How, in my thoughts and words, can I use light to drive out darkness?  In honor of Dr. King, I’m really going to try.

Monday Meditation: About Jesus

I was at Mass yesterday sans kids, which means that I was able to listen to the Gospel  for once.  And it was a great reading: the one where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42 ).

It’s a pretty long reading, but I love it, because it’s about Jesus hanging out with someone who is on the fringe.  This is a woman who is operating totally outside the sexual norms of her society (she’s had five husbands, and the guy she is currently with is not her husband).  She’s clearly used to gossip and cold shoulders from the women of the town, and probably used to lascivious looks from their husbands.  She is surely not accustomed to men who recognize that she has a brain and a heart — but that is exactly what Jesus does in his conversation with her.

As the priest said during the homily, Jesus saw two things in her: a capacity for faith, and a capacity for inquiry.  She is open to belief, but first, she asks the tough questions.  She is not afraid to ask and press for details.  Jesus seems to have liked that in her, and it’s a good reminder for all the rest of us, too.  Faith is a process, and Jesus can take the tough questions and skepticism that we may throw at him in the process of making belief our own.

And really, this reading shows how astonishing Jesus was for his time.  He’s treating a woman of dubious sexual morality as an intellectual equal, and she’s a Samaritan woman, to boot (there was no love lost between the Samaritans and the Jews).   There is absolutely nothing conventional about what Jesus is doing here.  And though nowadays we tend to see Jesus as safe and mainstream, the Gospels just keep showing, over and over, that he was actually very subversive.  He didn’t shunt people into society’s strict categories so he could dismiss them easily. He met them where they were, even if it meant operating outside of the expected rules of his time, even if it meant talking to a woman whom everyone else appears to have maligned.  This kind of behavior got Jesus into trouble, time and again.    And somehow, for reasons that just keep becoming more clear to me, it’s the part of his ministry that I love the most.

Monday Meditation: If all people were gardeners

It feels like ages since I’ve been out in the garden.  After that lovely false spring early in February, we’ve had wet, wet weather.  The weeds are growing like, well, weeds, and my pots of last year’s annuals are leggy and definitely ready for composting.  The roses are coming along — I’ve got buds galore — but it’ll be several weeks before they open.  (Yes, this beautiful photo is a few years old.)

The sad thing is that even when it’s warm, gardening is one of those things that  gets sacrificed on the altar of a busy life.  But I think it’ll only get better.  Matthew is now old enough to enjoy helping with little tasks like weeding and watering, and Luke is slowly getting to the stage where I can let him play in the garden without worrying that he’ll try to snack on ants.   Hopefully this summer, I’ll be able to create my own little suburban Eden, a place where impatiens elbow each other happily in the beds and roses run riot against the fence.  Few things make me happier than a summer’s day outside, enjoying the petals and colors that I planted.  And the act of planting them — well, it’s therapy of the best kind.   It’s praying with your hands, in the dirt, in the sunlight.

Lately I’ve been dipping back into the delicious writings of Beverly Nichols, an English garden writer of the last century.  In his book Green Grows the City, published in 1939, he writes about creating a little bit of paradise in an old barren yard in a London suburb.  And in the background of his narrative is the slow march towards war, a feeling of tension mounting throughout England.  The last line of his book offers a poignant insight: “We both know, you and I, that if all men were gardeners, the world at last would be at peace.”

Amen to that.