The Magi and their little friend

 

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I can take no credit for this one.  My eight-year-old put the Elf on the Shelf on the camel; I just took the picture.

But it works, doesn’t it?   Happy Epiphany!

The ongoing process of New Year’s resolutions (and why it’s okay not to keep them)

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It is easy to get cynical about New Year’s Resolutions.  How many years have I resolved to exercise more regularly, and how has that worked out for me?  (not well, alas).

But I can’t help it; when it comes to New Year’s, I’m an incorrigible optimist.

Before having kids, I made a tradition of taking my journal to a cafe somewhere around December 31 and doing some written stock-taking: what the closing year brought and taught, and what I hope for the year ahead.  Since having kids,I haven’t always had the luxury to take an hour and a half of written processing, but I’ve always managed to get a few thoughts in line.  Even if it only happens in my head or in a blog post, it helps.

Because even if I don’t end up keeping all of the resolutions, this act of reflection and stock-taking makes me burrow inward for a time.  It makes me honestly assess what in my life is bringing me joy, and what is getting in the way of living a life in line with God’s best vision for me.  It helps me realize what my priorities really are, and even if I waver on the specifics (I’ve eaten far fewer vegetables in 2014 than I thought I would last January), the general goals behind them do have an impact on my overall life (I’ve been more aware of my physical health this last year than I used to be).

Of course, the older I get, the more I realize how much I’m not in control of my own life.  Things happen in any given year, things you didn’t see coming, both good things and bad.  And resolutions that are too ironclad don’t leave room for the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which can gently nudge us down paths we never expected to travel when we penned our lists.

But I’ve found we can have both the mind that plans and the heart that remains open to change.  It’s a good combination, I think, because both involve reflection, stock-taking, honest and open assessment of the past and present.  I’m going to take my best shot at how to get the 2015 that I want, recognizing that the list I write on December 31st will be revisited, probably many times, in light of new information.  And that’s not failing at my resolutions; it’s discernment, and I’ve learned that it’s the reality of living a spiritual life.

So sometime today or tomorrow, I’ll take a few moments to take stock.  I’ll sit down and review what the year has brought, and what I’ve done and failed to do.  And I’ll look at the wonderful blank page of 2015 and scribble an outline of what I think I might be able to do to become the most mindful, healthy, compassionate, prayerful me that I can be.

And then I’ll close the notebook, keeping my heart open to the Holy Spirit and all the surprises she has in store.

Do you hear what I hear? — Praying with the carols

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“Favorite Christmas Carols” is the book on my mother’s piano. Its paperback cover shows a 1960s-era drawing of Victorian carolers singing by lamplight. There are a few elongated circles scribbled on the cover, courtesy of my cousin Tim who, thirty years ago, spent several happy minutes alone with a pen and my mother’s sheet music. 

The pages are fragile with age, and are splitting from the binding. But within those covers are sturdy, beautiful memories of family Christmases, of singing carols around the piano with relatives and friends.

Simple line illustrations decorate each song. “O Come Little Children” shows a boy and girl on rocking horses, near a sign pointing the way to Bethlehem (“They won’t get very far on those horses,” my sister and I used to quip). “Go, Tell it On the Mountain” features a man standing on a jagged cliff, stretching to touch to a faraway star.

I know those images and lyrics by heart. I adore that book. Every year that I can remember, it has heralded the season of Christ’s birth, filling my mind with song.

Even today, I’m a Christmas music junkie. I delay my indulgence until after Thanksgiving (I believe in giving that beautiful holiday its due). But when Black Friday comes, I’m never at the malls. I’m at home, happily sorting through CDs of Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and the Harry Simeone Chorale.

Though I love “Rudolph” and “Marshmallow World,” I have a particular affinity for the religious songs that we sang around the piano. They ground me during a season that feels far too frenetic. Though I try not to be caught in the spin cycle of holiday stress, I always am. Trips to the mall and post office, December weekend traffic – the immediate needs of the season can creep like frost over the windshield of my vision, obscuring my view of the Incarnation.

But listening to a religious carol – “Silent Night,” John Rutter’s “The Angels’ Carol,” or my father’s favorite, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming “— can melt those distractions away. Those songs always help my harried holiday self settle on the beautiful mystery at the heart of the season. My favorite way to pray during December is to curl up on the couch and listen to those songs, staring at the fireplace or a lit candle, letting that wavering light and those waves of music seep into my bones and saturate me with the beauty of Christ’s coming. The songs restore and renew me, always.

And now that my son is three, I’m realizing that the carols are not just for me. As I wonder how to help Matthew find Jesus among all of the tinsel and gifts, I’m learning anew the power of music. In the car, at home, my son hears what I hear. Just as these carols sank into my bones years ago, so they are sinking into his: one little child learning about the birth of another little child, the sweetest story ever set to music. 

Yes, this is one from the archives, from 2009 (!).  But though my youngest son is now older than Matthew was when I wrote this, my love for carols hasn’t abated.  And my mom still has the book of Christmas songs on her piano each holiday season.  

Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Mary

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My kindergartener came home with what is perhaps one of the most adorable crafts ever: A paper “tilma” like the one in the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

I loved it not just for its cuteness, but for the fact that it reminds me of my dear friend Mary: one of Our Lady’s biggest fans.

Today is the feast day of Our Lady of G.  It is also the third anniversary of Mary’s death.  I miss her so much; at random moments a huge wave of Mary-nostalgia will wash over me, and the fact that she died so young feels so cruel and awful.

But thinking of the significance of December 12th always helps.   When you are forty-seven, no day is a good day to die, but there is such comfort in thinking about how it was on this very special feast day that Our Lady wrapped her starry cloak around our Mary and took her home.

So I smile at Luke’s little paper tilma, and I can feel Mary smiling at it too.   And I’m grateful for the chance to pause and remember two beautiful women on one sad, beautiful day.

A Christmas stick and old Saint Nick: Two new holiday books for kids

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Every mom knows the experience of having her child unwrap a birthday or Christmas toy, only to find that the child has more fun playing with the box it came in.   It’s a near-universal experience, one that points to a certain truth: Kids need fewer toys than they think they do (or than we think they do).

It’s a tough truth to live by, though, especially this time of year when ads and store windows try to convince our kids that they need more.  That’s why a book like The Christmas Stick (written by Tim J. Myers, illustrated by Necdet Yilmaz) is such a welcome one.

In this colorful new picture book, a spoiled young prince receives a stick for Christmas.  He’s not sure what to do with it at first — it gets ignored as he focuses on the other, flashier toys — but then as the novelty of those toys begins to fade, he turns to the stick and finds that it’s a lot more fun than the others.

A stick can be a sword!  It can be a lute!  It can be a giant’s club!  The book shows the prince letting his imagination rip as he explores all the possibilities of a simple stick.  In the end, he also learns about kindness and giving in a lovely little twist in the plot.  It’s  an utterly charming book, with a message that we can’t get enough of this time of year.   It just may inspire you to wrap up an old broom handle as a gift for your kids and see where their imagination goes.

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A while back, my son and I thoroughly enjoyed the book Saint Francis and Brother Duck by  Jay Stoeckl, OFS .  This year, together we’re reading his new book Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra.  Like its predecessor, Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra is a graphic novel about the spiritual journey of a saint.  Like its predecessor, it also features an adorably-drawn animal sidekick to help convey the story of the saint in question.  The mouse in this book is full of personality, cheeky and smart and frequently challenging Nicholas to explain his life choices  in a way that allows for the saint’s beliefs to unfold easily throughout the story.

The book moves along at a nice pace and is a very engaging and colorful introduction to the saint upon whom Santa Claus is based;  I particularly like its message about generous giving to the poor.  It’s a great read for kids eight and up (and for their parents, too — I’m learning a lot about Saint Nicholas that I didn’t know before).

Both The Christmas Stick and  Saint Nicholas and the Mouse of Myra were review copies courtesy of Paraclete Press, which publishes all sorts of great spiritual books for kids and adults.  Check them out — I promise you’ll find something you like.