Listening is for the birds

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So much of spirituality is about paying attention.  It’s about mindfulness and not ignoring the things that are right in front of us.

And yet here’s something I’m realizing about myself: when it comes to paying attention, I use my eyes far more than I use my ears.  As a result, I tend to miss a lot.

This hit me two  weeks ago when I was out on a Sunday morning walk around the neighborhood.  I love taking solo walks at this time of the day; not a lot of people are out yet and the light is gentle and lovely.  As I walk around our little postwar neighborhood, I look at the new leaves on the trees, the yellow daffodils, the lavender wisteria, the rosebushes that are unfolding in sunset colors.  It’s a feast for my gardening-loving eyes.   I get a lot of ideas on these walks.

But on that morning a few weeks ago, I suddenly realized that there was birdsong in the trees above me.  Unseen birds were conversing, saying whatever it is that birds say, and it was arresting and beautiful.  There were no traffic sounds or voices around me; all I heard were the trills and chirps and melodies filling the morning silence.

It was a happy sound, a sound that made me think instinctively of springtime and Easter.  I started to think about how birdsong is a sign of life, of an entire world and community operating within our own.  It’s a community that we (or at least I) take for granted and rarely acknowledge in my thoughts.  And yet how beautiful those sounds are, and how impoverished the world would be without them.

Then — English teacher nerd that I am — the John Keats poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” sprang to mind as I continued along the sidewalk.  I thought of how the haunted and betrayed knight keeps wandering through the countryside, even though the sedge (grass) has withered from the lake, “and no birds sing.”  Keats repeats that line twice, and it’s the final line of this poem.  It’s as if he recognizes that a world without birdsong is the only fit setting for the knight, who has been seduced and abandoned by the beautiful woman without mercy.  The silent, birdless countryside is a dead world for a dead soul.

But a world where many birds sing: that’s the world we live in.   There is life all around us, in the trees and on the telephone wires and nesting in the eaves.  We don’t always see this graceful and beautiful life, but it’s there, making springtime even more glorious than it already is.

And if we train our ears to be as alert as our eyes, we can’t miss it.

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What we talk about when we talk about prayer


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I’m always on a quest to understand my own spiritual life more fully.  Lately, I’ve been trying to understand my kids’ spiritual lives, too.

This came up in a big way last Wednesday, as I drove my preschooler to meet Grandma, who was going to watch him for the day.  As we sat in the inevitable line of cars snaking off of the freeway, I looked at him in the rearview mirror. He seemed in a reflective mood, and we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry,  so I suddenly had the idea to engage him in a conversation about prayer.

“Sweetie, do you ever pray?” I asked.  “Do you ever just talk to God?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you ever say, Thank you, God, for the good things in life?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

English teacher that I am,  I felt a specific illustration might enhance the discussion.  “You know how we pray before dinner,  and we thank God for the food, or the fun weekend, or our family ?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Well,  you can do that any time of day.”   Warming to the theme, I looked at the green hillside next to the highway, which was full of yellow wildflowers in bloom.  “For example, I can say, Thank you, God, for the green grass and the yellow flowers, for all the things I love.  I can do that anytime I want,” I told him.

“I just farted,” he said.

And so it goes.

But you know what?  I’m going to take my own advice here.  Thank you, God, for  the gift of this  irrepressible, sweet, hilarious little boy.

And if he ever becomes a priest, I’ll make sure this post goes viral.

Why this mom loves “Let it Go”

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The song “Let it Go” has grown on me.

When I first saw “Frozen” in the theatre, I thought “Let it Go”  was a visually impressive number.  I loved the images of Elsa gliding through  the bluish snow and the ice palace rising around her.   But for some reason the song itself didn’t grab me, though I did mentally applaud the singer for her impressive range. (I also thought, “Wow, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard the word ‘fractals’ in a song lyric.”)

But since then, I’ve heard it many times.  I’ve had an increasingly hard time getting it out of my head.  Just a few days ago I heard it playing in the pediatrician’s office, and I started singing along, which caused my seven-year-old to say politely, “Mom, could you stop singing?”

Because while he enjoyed the movie, he is sick of the song.  ”The girls ALWAYS sing it at recess,” he complained.  I’m sure he’s right, because from what I hear from my friends who have girls, they love this movie with a passion that goes beyond the popularity of most Disney films

I’m a forty-one-year-old girl, and I can relate.  This song gets me; it really does.  And here’s my theory: Females understand this song in a way that guys don’t.

What’s the song about?  It’s about a girl with a unique power she’s been told not to use.  She’s different and her power can cause problems, so she learns to hide it.  Then her gift accidentally comes out, and it’s scary and upsetting, but then she finally says the Disney equivalent of “Screw it. I’m tired of holding back.  I’m going to let it rip.”

It’s a far cry from the Little Mermaid who, as a college friend of mine  once memorably explained, gives up her voice to have the perfect body so she can get a man. “Let it Go”  is about female empowerment.  You actually hear a Disney princess singing, “That perfect girl is gone,” and it’s a good thing.

I love that.

We women have come a long way, but it’s still so easy to get into a “don’t rock the boat, don’t be a troublemaker”mode.    I’m not saying women should stop  being sensitive and compassionate, because sensitivity and compassion are qualities that I wish more people (men included) possessed.  I’m saying that you can be sensitive and compassionate and cause trouble.  (In fact,  compassion for others is probably the catalyst for most social justice work.)  

A lot of the positive change in this world has come about through women who did cause trouble, who grew tired of being someone else’s  idea of what it means to be perfect.  You see this in the suffragettes, in the women of the Civil Rights movement, in so many places in history.   These women probably each had to have their own “Let it Go” moment where they realized that they could no longer live the careful, fearful life they’d had before.  I’m grateful they had the courage to smash through the expectations that held themselves and others back.

Now that I think about it, maybe boys can relate to this song more than I thought at first.  My kids are so young that they haven’t yet started expressing pressure to be “the perfect male,” but I’m know that pressure does exist, especially as they reach the teenage years.   But as a former girl,  I know why this song is so popular with Matthew’s female peers.  Even at a young age, girls can sense the need to fit into a narrow definition of “perfect,” be it in their behavior or their weight or their dress.  I think there’s something in Elsa’s liberation from that that touches a chord, and powerfully.

Just recently, Matthew and I attended a birthday party for one of his female classmates.  An hour or so in, two costumed and bewigged young women arrived, one dressed as Elsa and the other Anna.  They gathered all the kids together and played the soundtrack and invited them to sing along to “Let it Go.”  (they also supervised a fake snowball fight and painted faces.)  I sang along too, and loved it, and  I noticed several other moms doing the same.

It’s a message we can’t hear enough: When the perfect girl is gone, the real woman can come out.

Wordsworth isn’t the only poet who wrote about daffodils

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I came across this lovely poem on the blog Everything to Someone a few days ago.   I simply had to borrow it for today’s post.  Happy first day of spring!

By the way, the photo above is a picture of the little phone nook in my hallway. (Why use it as a phone nook when it can be a shrine to beauty?)

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She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
“Winter is dead.”

-- A. A. Milne

 

My exhausting, exhilarating weekend at L.A. Congress


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From Thursday to Saturday, I — along with approximately 40,000 other Catholics — was at the Anaheim Convention Center for L.A. Congress.  It was, to put it simply, a blast.

L.A. Congress (official name: Los Angeles Religious Education Congress) is a yearly conference that pulls together speakers on all kinds of topics of interest to Catholics.  Are you curious about social justice issues, education, religious music, multicultural ministry, or tips to deepen your prayer life? You’ll find all of it and more in palm-lined, sun-drenched Anaheim.

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If you want to get a feel for the crowds, check out this view of the convention center:

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In addition to over 300 workshops, L.A. Congress offers an exhibit hall selling everything from  books to T-shirts to rosaries to magazine subscriptions.  It also has  liturgies like you’ve never seen before.  Want to attend a Jazz Mass, a Mayan Mass, a Celtic Mass?   You can find them all under the roof of the Anaheim Convention Center.

Have I sold you?  I hope so.  If I haven’t, let me share a few more specifics about why this past weekend was, as a friend of mine would say, awesome with awesome sauce.

1.  The speakers.  That was only a cardboard cutout of the Pope, much to my seven-year-old’s disappointment.  But L.A. Congress routinely pulls together lots of terrific speakers.  James Martin was there  (if you’ve never read any of his bestselling books, you’ve probably seen him in his role as “Official Chaplain” of The Colbert Report.   Fr. Robert Barron, who did the gorgeous “Catholicism” series a few years ago, gave the Saturday keynote to a packed arena.

And I got to attend a workshop led by two of my favorite Catholic mom bloggers: Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMom.com, and Sarah Reinhard of SnoringScholar.com.

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I’ve gotten to know Lisa well over the years and she always inspires me with her generosity and vision.  She has two sons currently in college, which proves that one actually can raise two boys and keep one’s sanity intact (sometimes I wonder).  I got to know Sarah shortly after I started blogging in 2008, one of the very first bloggers I connected with online.  This was actually my very first time meeting her in person, which was super-fun because she is both super-energetic and hilarious.  Love those ladies!

2.  Re-connecting with the good folks of Loyola Press.   I met a bunch of them last year, and hanging out with them again was a highlight of the weekend.  It’s hard to imagine a more talented and just plain terrific  group of people.

And — this shows you how awesome Loyola is — they had  a photo booth. Take a photo and you get a free Pope Francis poster! (or “popester.”)   Here I am with Becca from marketing (with whom I’ve exchanged about a zillion emails) and Vinita Hampton Wright, who edited Random MOMents of Grace and who wrote the “Fall” section of Daily Inspirations for Women (along with lots of other terrific books that you really should check out sometime).

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Later that day, at dinner with Becca, Vinita, and the social media manager Rosemary, I laughed so hard I cried.  Twice. It was that kind of good time.

Oh, and it was a thrill to see my books in their display.  Sometimes I still have this “pinch me” feeling about the whole writing thing.  I guess this picture will help with that.  (Random MOMents is middle of the middle aisle, Daily Inspiration is far left of second-to-last aisle.  Shameless product plug!)

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3. Celebrating how global this Church really is.  ”Diversity” is the name of the game at L.A. Congress, and it’s beautiful. Every year, the different cultural and ethnic groups of the Archdiocese of L.A. do displays.  Here is the Vietnamese community’s table:

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And the table from the Lithuanian community:

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A few tables down, I was drawn to this beautiful statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.

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I started talking to one of the two Native American women behind the table. She invited me to the Native American liturgy on Saturday night (we left Saturday afternoon, alas).   I was captivated by their gorgeous crucifix.

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I was taking a photo of it when the woman told me it was actually a first-class relic of Saint Kateri (there’s a tiny piece of her bone in the little square window you see at the bottom of the photo).  The relic tradition of Catholicism is something I’ve always found sort of odd and medieval, but standing face-to-face with it (or face-to-bone, I guess), I was suddenly extremely moved.  The woman’s obvious love for the saint touched me.

“I sort of want to touch it, but I shouldn’t,” I told her.  ”But then again, I guess that’s the whole point of a relic?”

“Go ahead!” she said.  ”Touch it.  Say a prayer.”

I did.  It was uncanny: me, this forty-one-year-old woman in a glass-paned convention center with a Smartphone in one hand, making a tangible connection to a Mohawk woman who lived in the seventeenth century.   It was meaningful in ways I didn’t expect.  I’m still processing it.

4.  The liturgies.  Scott and I attended the Urban Fusion Mass, which featured liturgical dancers in jeans and T-shirts (it totally worked) and a tinge of hip-hop in the music and a great homily.  It was in the arena, and there were probably about ten thousand people there.  The music was wildly different from what you usually hear on Sundays, and the whole experience was energizing and profoundly moving. This was the view from our perch:

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“I could so do this every week,” said Scott.

5.  Some alone time with my guy.  I say “alone time” with a certain irony, because we were with 40,000 of our closest Catholic friends.  But  it was great to know that all the fabulous things I was seeing, he was seeing too.

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6.  Lunch on Saturday.   Lunch on Friday was a hastily-grabbed bite among the hordes at the convention center café.  They actually ran out of clam chowder  (don’t they know their audience?).

But on Saturday, I got to meet up with my sister Amy, who lives not far from Anaheim.  We had a great time at P.F. Chang’s before catching the plane home.  My visits with her are simply never long enough.  (Why did we waste all that time arguing over the bathroom when we were teenagers?  I’d love to have that time back just to hang out.)

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7.  Getting inspired.  It’s exhausting, this weekend, because there are crowds everywhere and so much to do and see and hear and process.  But it’s exhilarating, too, because it’s a celebration of the thousand faces of Catholicism.  Everywhere you see people who are full of  joy, energy, a desire to learn more and share more.  And that’s what faith is really all about, when you get right down to it.

I think L.A. Congress is going to have to be a yearly thing for me.  It’s just too dang much fun not to do as often as I can.

 

Tulips = too beautiful

No time to blog at the moment — my next post will explain why — but I wanted to share this gorgeous ode to spring.

Enjoy!

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A look into their souls

 

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My kids’ spiritual lives feel somewhat mysterious to me.   Unlike most things, it’s a part of  their development that I can’t measure or quantify.  I can easily find out how much they weigh or how tall they are; I can gauge their understanding of letters and numbers when we read books together or do worksheets at the table.

But what is happening inside them on a spiritual level?  That’s harder to see.

I suppose I could grill them about their religious knowledge, 1950s Baltimore-Catechism style.  But that wouldn’t give me the answers I really want, like how much they think about God or Jesus, or whether they see them as beautiful positive attractive forces in their lives.  That’s what matters to me, when all is said and done.

To find out, I can only really create the opportunity for conversation and see what happens.  Or I can take them somewhere that invites contemplation and sharing, like  the labyrinth.

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I wrote about this labyrinth back in January.  It’s at a beautiful retreat center, and we spent an afternoon there as a family right before Christmas.  It took the boys a while to realize that it was not a racetrack, but once they did, we had a lovely experience together.

So for my birthday a few weeks ago, I felt a desire to return to the retreat center.  This time, it was a warm day with signs of spring all around in the flowering daffodils, in the little snowdrops lining the paths.

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And this time, with a little bit of experience under their belts, the boys moved slowly through the labyrinth.  We all walked it together, in a line, moving toward the rock in the center.  There was blue sky and the scent of damp earth and all the things I associate with springtime.

As we got near the rock in the center, Scott asked the boys, “So who is your rock?”

“Jesus,” said Matthew promptly.  “And God.”

“Mary,” said little brother Luke.

And once we reached the rock, Matthew did something I hadn’t expected.  He took a small stick and began to write in the sand.

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As we watched, he added more names.  (Luke, inspired by his brother, started writing his own name on the other side of the circle and decorating it with smiley faces.)

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I stood there watching my little boys kneeling in the sand, earnestly writing with their sticks.  It was a moment of grace for me because I was witnessing their prayer, even if they themselves wouldn’t have called it that.  I was glimpsing the spiritual lives of my kids, seeing their mindfulness and gratitude, even though they themselves wouldn’t use those terms.  And in those minutes that they scratched the names of their rocks into the sand, the labyrinth felt like holy ground.

It was a birthday present I didn’t expect, this sudden peek into their little souls.  And it’s one I’ll cherish for a very long time.

Summer of the Socks

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So in five and a half years of blogging, I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m guest-blogging on a fashion blog.   It’s called Do I Look Typical?, and it’s a blast.

Here’s the start of my post, called “Ginny’s Summer of the Socks”:

Fashion trendsetting is not my thing.  I’m basically your wear-black-pants-at-least-three-days-a-week kind of gal, occasionally rummaging in my closet for a scarf when I want to get really edgy.

But there was a summer in my life when I was on the cutting edge of fashion.  I was ten, and I can safely say that no one else was wearing what I was wearing.  At least, that’s what my older sister Amy used to tell me, but she didn’t say it like it was a good thing.

You can read the rest over at  Do I Look Typical?    Have a happy weekend!

“Hamlet” could have been a MUCH better play


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Recently, Scott and I were talking about Hamlet at the dinner table (I’m teaching it this year) when my first-grader suddenly  entered the conversation.

“What’s Hamlet?”  he asked.

“It’s a play,” I said.  “A play by William Shakespeare.”

“Is it about a  hammer that gets totally out-of-control and smashes everything in sight and nothing will stop it?”  he asked.

I love seven-year-olds.

How to ditch the grading and take a French vacation

Maybe it’s because of the Oscars, or  because our local classical station has been playing listeners’ favorite soundtracks, but movie music has been on my mind a lot lately.

Grading has been on my mind too, alas.  This past weekend, I was like the Wonder Woman of essay-grading, and the sad fact is that I’m still not done.  Piles  of papers await my attention, and more will be added to those piles this week.  It’s enough to make one count the days until summer vacation.

And since it’s only March, darnit, I’m going to channel the spirit of vacation with a gorgeous two-and-a-half-minutes of movie music.  This is “Les Vacances,” one of the themes from the 1962 movie “Jules and Jim.”  Georges Delerue wrote the score, and it’s wonderfully evocative of carefree summer days.  I was playing it on my computer just yesterday, in fact, when the boys suddenly trotted into the room, drawn by the tune.  “It sounds like an ice cream truck!” said my five-year-old.

So if you want a two-minute escape into a vacation frame of mind, take a listen above. Guaranteed to do you good.