Smartphones and daydreams

William Wordsworth

I have to give William Wordsworth credit for writing some of my favorite poetry ever.  I also have to thank him for inspiring my latest column, which is about an all-too-common struggle.  Maybe you can relate?

I have very few stare-off-into-space moments these days. Nearly every minute is filled with something claiming my attention. I can’t blame this entirely on my two young kids, nor can I blame it on the teaching job that claims vast amounts of attention 10 months out of the year. These are factors in my busy-ness, yes, but there’s another, more insidious force that always seems to fill the empty spaces in my life.

That force is the Internet.

Earlier this year, my high school students and I were reading William Wordsworth’s famous poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” In the poem, the narrator recalls walking alone through the countryside and coming upon a lakeshore covered with thousands of daffodils. In the last stanza, he says that when he finds himself “in vacant or in pensive mood,” the memory of those daffodils comes back to him, filling his heart with pleasure.

I’ve read and taught this poem countless times, but this year, the words “in vacant and in pensive mood” struck me anew. Is there a better way to describe daydreaming? Wordsworth perfectly captures that state of not actively thinking of anything else, not actively doing anything else . . . just being open to wherever our thoughts lead us.

And it hit me: I am rarely in a vacant or pensive mood anymore, because there is always something to fill those empty moments. It’s a small rectangular something that I carry in my purse.

You can read the rest of the column at The Catholic Spirit.

Old photographs, new technology — the pluses and minuses of going digital


Photographs have been on my mind lately.  Earlier this summer, my husband and his sisters started the process of getting old negatives and slides transferred to digital files.  In the course of doing so, they’ve found all kinds of family pictures that haven’t seen the light of day for decades.

And in the course of making a memorial website for my mother-in-law Joan, we’ve been reviewing all sorts of photos from her life.  We’ve seen her as a young girl, as a beautiful bride, as a stylish traveler in the terrific photo above (PanAm Airlines!).

Photos mean a lot, no doubt about that.

Since getting a digital camera and a Smartphone, I never seem to develop actual prints anymore.  I used to order some periodically and send them to Joan, who I knew liked to have actual hard copies of snapshots of the grandsons to share around (I wish I had sent her a lot more than I did).  But most of the photos that I snap now end up on Google or on the computer.

And I have mixed feelings about all of this.

When you have young kids, a digital camera is a super thing.  You can instantly assess a family grouping and see whether everyone is smiling, whether anyone is looking down.  When the boys were first crawling and walking, they’d move so fast that sometimes they would be out of the shot before I knew it; with a digital camera, I knew to take another one.  And it’s certainly less expensive than developing a roll of film that may contain a bunch of duds.  You can also share digital photos so very easily (this blog post is proof of that).

And yet there’s something about holding old photographs that is romantic in the broadest sense.  Those black and white photos with the white scalloped edges, the Polaroids, the small square color photos from the 60s and 70s where the color seems slightly off — they are a past you can hold.   Somehow it is nice for these photos to take up actual space, to exist on their own independent of technology.  It’s almost a spiritual experience to leaf through an old album, or to turn over an old snapshot and see an inscription like Christmas 1944 written in old-fashioned cursive on the back.

Easter 1974

My family on Easter, 1974. A tie like that needs to be recorded for the ages.

And while on the one hand, technology helps us preserve photographs for the future, I am all too aware of my tendency to leave photos languishing by the hundreds on the computer, where they don’t see the light of day.  I always think,  “Oh, I’ll make an album with those someday,” and then I never do.  Will members of my family even find these photos in the future?  Will they even know of their existence if they are not sitting in a box or album somewhere?

I don’t want to turn the clock back to the time without digital cameras, for sure. But have we lost something in the process of making the shift from film to digital?   I think so, and I’d love to find a way to get it back.

What about you?  How do you handle family photos?  Any thoughts on the digital vs. film debate?

Grace and kindness personified


My very kind and beautiful  mother-in-law passed away on Monday following a brief illness.  It is hard to believe; we saw her just four weeks ago when we went back for a visit, and all of this is so unexpected and awful.  I want to pay tribute to her here, though I write this knowing that anything I write pales in comparison to the lovely soul she was.  But I am going to try.

If you spent even five minutes in Joan’s company, you could tell that she was a class act.  Even better, Joan was class plus kindness.  Even though she was beautiful and gracious and stylish and well-read and intelligent, she did not have a snobbish bone in her body.  She was warm and loving and humble and real.  I’ve known her for thirteen years, and I don’t think I have ever heard her say a bad word about anyone.

From the first time I met her, she welcomed me and made me feel so at home.  I’ve never been able to relate to mother-in-law jokes, not even in the slightest, because she was the polar opposite of the stereotypical overbearing force.  She was comforting, thoughtful, quietly encouraging.

Joan also wrote cards rather than emails, something that is increasingly rare these days.  It is hard to think that there will not be anymore of those, written in her neat cursive, in our mailbox.  They were always very newsy, full of information about what she and Bob were up to, which was usually a lot; she was very active in volunteer organizations of different kinds in the community, and her absence will be felt by more than just her family and close friends.  She was the epitome of a civic-minded person whose involvement was driven not by a need for personal accolades, but purely by a love of the community of Oneonta, New York, where she lived.

She was such a terrific grandmother, too, whether she was sending cards for the boys for holidays or playing endless rounds of tic-tac-toe with Matthew  (she lost with much better grace than her young grandson did).  When we visited them in New York he loved to play badminton with her, and it’s not every woman in her late seventies who can keep up with a kid’s boundless energy.  She loved the boys so much, and I am grateful for the memories we have:  for the photos of them sitting on either side of Grandma as she reads a bedtime story, for the times we rented boats and spent an afternoon enjoying the rocky wooded beauty of Otsego Lake, for the joy in her faces when she saw each of her young grandsons for the first time.


I was looking around the house the other day and thinking about all of the gifts Joan has given me over the years.  There is the small pewter angel, the plaque saying “How Does Your Garden Grow?” (she knew I loved gardening), the Hummel figurine she gave us when Matthew was born, so many sweet and thoughtful things.

Then I thought about the best gift she gave me.  That gift is Scott.    So much of the person he is comes from his mom.  It’s a gift not just to me, but to everyone who knows him, who encounters the gentle strength that he learned in large part from her.  A great mother is a beautiful, powerful thing.

These past few days, the idea of the communion of saints has been such a comfort. When my friend Mary died, I got such solace from picturing her up in heaven, still her wonderful self, only healed from the illness that she suffered.  I feel the same way about Joan.  I have no doubt that she continues to care for and love us, only this time from a perch in heaven, where there is no such thing as illness and where her body and strength are restored to badminton-playing levels.

The other day, when I told the boys that Grandma Joan had died, Matthew wanted to know what she was doing now.  I told her she was arriving in heaven, and that people she loved were probably running out to greet her.  I like to picture her being welcomed by her parents and her brother Jerry, and other friends and family who went before her, so overjoyed to be with her again.

Those of us here will miss her terribly.  But somehow it helps to think of her still surrounded by love, by people who love her, and to know that her love reaches out to us still as we navigate this new world without her.

And these words help me, too:

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone.”

“Gone where?”

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says “There, she is gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout “Here she comes!” 

  — Henry Van Dyke


I love you, Joan.  Thank you for everything.

Mary in the hall, with flowers

Everything in the vase came from our own yard.  That’s a very nice feeling, somehow.

Where are you finding beauty today?


Q and A with Deacon Jim Knipper of Homilists for the Homeless

If you’ve ever attended church, you know the power of a really good sermon.  Well-chosen words can change lives, in ways both subtle and profound.

Someone who knows this firsthand is Deacon Jim Knipper.  A deacon in the diocese of Trenton, NJ, he decided to harness the power of good preaching and use it as a vehicle for helping the homeless.  This vision has resulted in two terrific books: Hungry, And You Fed Me and  Naked, and You Clothed Me, both compilations of sermons for the liturgical year (Cycles C and A respectively).

It’s a pleasure to welcome Deacon Jim back to this blog (you can see my interview about his first book here) and to get his take on spiritual writing, encouraging social justice, and taking kids to church (as a deacon and the father of four, he knows a thing or two about that!).

Knipper Head Shot (1)

For those who arent familiar with Homilists for the Homeless, whats the soundbite description?

Homilists for the Homeless is a moniker used by a group of Christians who are dedicated to spreading the Good News through their ministries, especially in their preaching.  Each Contributor has donated their works to be published in a compilation of homilies that cover the Liturgical Years.  Proceeds from each book go to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick.  So far we have published the books for Cycle C and A and will release this October  Sick, And You Visited Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle B.

Who is the intended audience for this book? 

These books speak to a wide audience – not only those who preach each weekend  but also to the faithful who wish to enrich their understanding of the Sunday readings.  We are hearing of many who use our books for their weekly meditation as well as those who are using it for their prayer groups.


What is one unexpected gift youve received from this project?

There have been many gifts that I have received with this project that have been unexpected – but one of those at the top has to be the outpouring of appreciation and love from the contributors as well as the readers.

Homilists for the Homeless combines two important things: social justice, and writing about spirituality.  Who are some of your own personal heroes in these two areas?

Wow – hard to limit this to identifying just a few, but when it comes to social justice both Fr. Michael Doyle in Camden and Fr. Greg Boyle in Los Angles have to be two people who have truly lived lives that show all of us what it means to be there for our sisters and brothers.

When it comes to writing about spirituality…the best?  This one is easy: Fr. Richard Rohr.  Over the past 40 years his books, his talks, his conferences have opened the eyes of so many.  He reminds us that we are not humans learning to be spiritual…rather, we are all spiritual trying to learn to be human.  If one listens to Pope Francis it would be hard to believe that he has not read the books of Richard Rohr, as should you!

What can parents do to encourage their kids to care about social justice?

When parents are present at the baptism of their children, they may be distracted with all that is going on and may miss the prayer that is said over them at the end of the liturgy….when they are reminded that they are the first and best teachers of their children by what they say and do.  You want your children to care about social justice?  Pick a cause and be passionate about it and bring your children into early on in their lives.

Do you have any advice for how to make Mass meaningful for kids?  (the $64,000 question!)

Better asked – how do we make mass meaningful for everyone?!  But to your question in particular, the answer varies from region to region, diocese to diocese, parish to parish, and within each individual.  When I was growing up in the 60′s and 70′s, Mass or Church was a place where people gathered as a community.  There was no internet, social media, email, etc.  While technology is great,  we need to see what is taking place in the building up or the decay of ‘community’.  There is no doubt that many kids do not see benefit in going to mass.  Why?  Mass is longer that 140 characters and requires 60 minutes of attention…..many times the priest/deacon have not given enough time or lack the talent to provide an enriching homily…in some places liturgy is weak….some parishes do not serve the youth well…and so on.

So what to do?  As we heard in Matthew’s gospel on July 13th (15th Sunday in Ordinary Time) the seed falls on the different types of ground but only yields harvest in fertile ground.  So see what you can do to enrich the ‘ground,’ i.e. the liturgies  for kids in your own parish.  If impossible, then go looking for a parish/church that nourishes your child, yourself, and allows the feeding of your body and soul and empowers you to do the same to others.  That is where you will find Christ.

Whats one thing that your own kids have taught you about faith? 

Faith comes in all different shapes, sizes and colors. And in the words of our beloved Pope, “Whom am I to judge?”  Amen!

Naked, And You Clothed Me and Hungry, And You Fed Me are both available at Clear Faith Publishing.  These books are a marvelous way to support the homeless, with the added benefit of providing rich spiritual food for thought.  Thanks to Deacon Jim for being my guest today!