The first bloom is the loveliest

Edited

I love my little prayer desk every time of year, but especially in spring.  It is so nice to take a pause in the company of these beauties.

My younger son, on the other hand, seemed to think that my prayer experience was missing something.  I came home from my brief weekend trip to find that my little sanctuary was now an airport.

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I’ll admire his aircraft if he’ll admire my roses. Win-win.

Review of “Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter” (which turns out to be a pretty good guide for Mom, too)

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Every year, about the midpoint of Lent, I realize that I’ve once again managed to get too busy to engage with it as fully as I’d like.  That’s when it’s good to have a little “Lenten reset,” to pause for bit to remember what this season is really all about.

This year, interestingly enough, a children’s book has helped me refocus.  Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter is a picture book that I have shared with my kids, but which has also nudged me to remember what the Lenten season is really all about.

This is a beautifully-written book.  Laura Alary packs a lot of important ideas into few words, written in a simple style that can easily reach kids (and their stressed-out moms).  “This is the season of Lent.  The church is dressed in purple,” it says on the first page.  I love how she starts with that; color matters, and kids notice it.  She returns to color elsewhere in the book (my kids loved tracking all the color references), talking about how “Colors are like a different language we can all speak even when we have no words.”  The closet artist in me goes, YES!  Exactly!  I love helping kids see that purple is the language of Lent, just as other colors correspond to other seasons.

The body of the book is divided into three parts: Making Time, Making Space, and Making Room.  Alary does a succinct but effective job of explaining why and how each one is a goal worth having in Lent.  She shares not only how Jesus made time, space, and room in his own life, but also offers kids some concrete ideas for doing the same (cleaning your room and giving away some of your possessions; going up to someone who is standing alone and starting a conversation).   The text is accompanied by beautiful pictures by illustrator Ann Boyajian; they are both vivid and soft at the same time, and very inviting.

Something else that is lovely about the book is also how it works in metaphor and parable.  Alary works in references to many of Jesus’ stories, and makes observations like “[Jesus] pours himself out like water from a pitcher.  He touches what is dirty and hurting and makes it clean and whole,” which is a powerful way for kids to understand the symbolism of so many Bible stories and church rituals.

As I look at my own busy life, with work and grocery shopping and Little League practice and staff meetings, I often think that I don’t have time or space or room for anything more.  But that’s not actually true.  If Lent does anything for me, it helps me be more intentional about where I do have time, and what I can cut to make more room and space for God.  I guess it’s a sign of my humanity that I am always hungry to be reminded of that.  I love how this year, the reminder came in the form of this gem of a picture book.

Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter is available through Paraclete Press and Amazon.com.  Many thanks to Paraclete for the review copy, which is one we’ll return to year after year.

Retreat on wheels: Why I need my commute

My fellow commuter (note coffee stains)

My fellow commuter (and source of coffee splashes)

For many, “commute” is a four-letter word.  The daily drive to and from work is a torturous ritual that taxes patience and frays nerves.

Call me crazy, but I am increasingly considering my commute a sort of gift.

First off, I’m lucky in that my commute is only half an hour.  (I should specify that that is only true if I leave the house by 7:06; if I leave at 7:20, I’m toast.  Such is the reality of traffic here in the SF Bay Area).  And I’m lucky that the road I take is — usually — one that keeps moving, without the stop-and-go traffic that makes drivers gnash their teeth.

My commute is also particularly pretty, on a road that takes me through gentle sloping hills.  It’s especially lovely this time of year, when the hills are bright green from the rain.  (In summer and fall, they’re ochre — pretty in its own way, but not as captiviating.)

There are cows grazing, and occasionally horses doing the same.  Every now and then I see deer, usually in a small group.  At times I see a long thin blindingly white heron standing on the slopes absurdly near the road, or I catch a glimpse of a hawk sitting on a low fence, managing to look both hunched and regal at the same time.

There are mornings where I find myself driving into a sunrise that is almost too glorious to be true.  Some mornings, the road is so socked in with fog that a road I know by heart suddenly becomes unknown, unfamiliar; I have to pay close attention to the signs that emerge out of the mist so I don’t miss my exit.  There are also mornings where the freeway itself is clear but mist moves, wraithlike and mysterious, along the wooded hills in the distance.

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Commute sky

 

It is a good thing to start one’s workday with a shot of natural beauty.  It’s like a caffeine boost for the soul.

And I’ve found that the half-hour in the car by myself is a necessary transition for me.  I’m an introvert who lives the life of an extrovert; I am a mom and a teacher, and both of these jobs demand a lot from me.  They require near-constant social interaction, relentless service and a focus on meeting others’ needs.  I love both roles, don’t get me wrong, but as someone who recharges her batteries through solitude, having that half-hour to myself twice a day is a necessary ritual.

I used to listen to the news in the car.  I rarely do now, as I’ve found it just increases my stress level before the day has even started.  Instead, I listen to my own music or to the local classical radio station, which has beautiful music and a morning DJ with one of the most calming voices I’ve ever had the good fortune to hear.

And I let my thoughts go.  They lead me in places that are sometimes predictable and sometimes surprising, and I find myself with new ideas for writing or lesson plans or how to address a problem on my mind.  Sometimes I consciously pray.  Sometimes I  just gather impressions from what I see around me, letting the green hills and oak trees and cows and morning fog sink into my memory, from which — in the way of the writing life — they may emerge again in future.

And I am, in those moments, ever-so-grateful that in my overfull and very social life, I am guaranteed two daily episodes of contemplation and silence, two daily chances to be alone with God and my thoughts.  I always wish for more, but what I have already is a gift.

Maybe that’s the secret to contentment: Looking at our lives and recognizing that God is already giving us what we need, even if it’s disguised as the morning commute.

Coloring books and parenting and prayer

Balletcover

At my local Barnes and Noble the other day, I noticed that an entire display by the door is nothing but adult coloring books.   There were easily fifteen different ones on the shelf, each one offering intricate designs for frazzled adults to sit and color in hopes of restoring their sanity.

Apparently 2015 was the Year of the Adult Coloring Book, a publishing success story that very few saw coming.

But frankly, I — like a lot of moms, probably — figured this one out long ago.  I’ve known for years that sitting at a table with my kids and coloring in outlines, be they of Sesame Street characters or Hot Wheels cars, is a very renewing and positive thing.

A few weeks ago, in fact, the boys and I sat down on a rainy Sunday to color.  We had kids’ coloring books of the robot and cars variety; we had an old Ballet coloring book of mine from days long past (you find all kinds of things when you clean out your desk).  I colored in the picture of the ballet “La Sylphide” as the raindrops fell and the boys and I took turns sharing a box of color pencils.  A good time was had by all.

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From a parenting perspective, there is something about coloring with your kids that leads to conversation.  I’ve found that when we are sitting at a table, each with our head bent over a coloring book, conversation seems to go in directions I wouldn’t have expected and could never orchestrate myself.  It’s akin to what parents of teenagers often say about driving; when you are sitting in the car with your kids, they tend to open up, maybe because you’re not looking right at them and that little bit of space makes it easier for them to venture into more difficult topics.  I like that my boys will bring up random subjects over coloring books.  I learn a lot about them when they do.

And for my own self, I find it enjoyable to do something that focuses more on the visual than the verbal.  I adore writing and love playing around with words, but I find it renewing to branch out every now and then.  There’s a school of thought that says that any creative pursuit, even if it’s not the one in which you specialize, helps you as an artist, and I have to agree.  Doing things with pictures makes the words come more easily.

Some might argue that coloring in coloring books is  a watered-down sort of creativity.  I get that argument; coloring someone else’s picture is not as creative as drawing my own.  But I’ve found that isn’t really the point, and that coloring books still shake something loose inside me. There’s actually a prayer analogy here; I like to pray with my own words, and I often do.  But there are times when putting my own feelings (which may be a mystery even to myself)  into words simply makes it harder for me to pray.  Those are times when I turn to the Our Father or the rosary, glad that I can use someone else’s words and free myself from the self-imposed pressure of having to do it all myself.  I let someone else draw the prayer lines and I move within them, some part of me freer for doing so.

So I can’t say I’m surprised by the success of coloring books among the over-twenty set.  It’s a simple pastime that really isn’t simple at all.

Sneak peek inside “Dear Pope Francis”

There is a new book coming out next month that I’m really excited to see.

It’s Dear Pope Francis.

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In this book, you will find the letters and artwork of thirty kids around the world, who wrote to Pope Francis to ask their most pressing questions about life and faith.  The book also includes the pope’s personal responses to each letter.

I love everything about this concept: kids asking questions, faith, handwritten letters, children’s artwork, and the Pope.  (I’m a bit of a Francis fan.)  And I can’t wait to see and hold the book myself when it comes out.

But until then, I’m honored to offer a little preview. Thanks to my good friends at Loyola Press, I’ve been able to get a sneak peek at a few of the letters and responses.  Even better, I get to share them with you!

Here’s one from a girl from Poland:
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And here’s what the Pope said in response:

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Here’s another question, this one on a more serious note:

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And leave it to the pope to write a great response to a tough question:

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It looks like a fabulous book.  I’m thrilled to get this preview and I can’t wait to read the whole thing.  I have a feeling I’m going to learn a few things from these questions and answers. (And what a great gift for a First Communion!).

You can find out more about Dear Pope Francis here (there’s even a book trailer).  And who knows?  Maybe there will be a sequel, built around letters from adults.  I’ll start getting my list of questions ready….