Hammock prayer: What holds me up


There is something perilous about a hammock.  Getting in requires dexterity, balance, and good sense of timing.  Staying in requires the same; one false move and you could end up tush over head, as I have learned on more than one occasion.  (Last month, my husband did a dramatic, unintentional flip of his own, but somehow managed to right himself without spilling any of his beer.  I aspire to such greatness.)

When I was in New York a few weeks ago, I spent some time in the hammock by the lake.  Once I got safely settled, it was enormously relaxing.  I put my hands behind my head and looked up at the canopy of trees above me and enjoyed the gentle swaying movement, side to side.  I could hear boats on the lake and my kids playing and the little gentle rustle of the leaves above me.  It was a good place to pray.

And I thought about how strange a sensation a hammock is. You are suspended, but you are not holding yourself up.  Something else is.  Something else is keeping you there, mid-air, with open space between you and the ground.  All you have to do is relax.

I’m used to holding myself up, keeping myself going.  Like many moms, I’m used to keeping a few other people going,  too:  I balance schedules, pick up and drop off, plan the week’s meals, fold laundry,  remember to buy birthday gifts for the kids to take to parties, fill out the obligatory forms for fieldtrips, soothe after nightmares, plan doctor’s appointments.   I am the primary support for a few other people, not just myself.  And though that is a richly rewarding vocation, it often makes me very tired.

Lying in the hammock, looking up at the blue sky, I thought about what a treat it was to have something other than myself hold me up.   And then I thought about how God actually does that, all the time.  It may not be a physical support in the way the hammock is, but God’s divine love sustains me and supports me every day, in ways both obvious and subtle.

Sometimes I recognize that support in real time, as it’s happening.   I often recognize it in the people God sends into my path when I’m in a vulnerable place, or when I come away consciously sustained by weekly Mass.

Sometimes that support takes a less visible, less obvious form. The air I breathe and the water I drink, the sunlight that makes my garden grow and brings me such joy: I don’t always think of these things, but they are ways that I am supported day after day.  They are all evidence of God’s goodness, the goodness  that brought this world and every one of us into being.

Because even though there are days when I feel like I’m only able to stay upright through my own strenuous efforts, the truth is that I have a support system all around me, a system of people and nature and love and no small amount of grace.  Those things hold me,  and don’t let me fall.

Sometimes I just need to pause, put my hands behind my head, look up at the sky, and remember that.

What I want my sons to know about periods


Not a paid endorsement, by the way.

I blame Michael Keaton for this particular awkward family conversation.  It was the evening of the Oscars,and Scott and I were reminiscing about past movie roles.  We were laughing about his role in Mr. Mom, and that great scene where he goes to the grocery store to buy tampons for his wife, when my son — whom I did not know was listening — broke into the conversation.

“What’s a tampon?”

You take this one, Scott’s eyes seemed to say.

“Well,” I said cautiously, “it’s something ladies use.”

“But what is it for?”

“They use it once a month.:

“But why do they need it?”

“Well, once a month, ladies bleed.”  He looked disturbed.  “They bleed from their private areas.  It’s part of the reproductive cycle.”  I waited for his response.

“That’s really creepy,” he said.

Yes.  Yes, in a way, I guess it is.


As the mother of two boys and no girls, I have realized that there are some kinds of conversations I will have in my parenting life, and some I will not have.  I am not at all looking forward to shepherding boys through puberty ; I actually intend to divert many of the accompanying questions to my husband, just as I do with all queries about computers and space travel.

And, without a daughter in my life, I will not be faced with explaining the practical  aspects of periods, and how to insert a tampon, and what to do when your period comes for the first time ever in the middle of the school day (I have some personal insight into that one).

But I am realizing that, even though my boy will never know the experience of “the monthlies,” odds are good that at some point in their life, they will be living closely with a woman who does (someone other than myself, I mean).  And at some point — not now, but when they are older – I feel that I need to give them a little bit of insight into what this all means to a woman.

Which means, first of all, that I need to figure it out myself.

I guess I can say this: Having a period is a study in wild extremes.  Nothing is worse than being the first girl in your group of friends to get it, unless it’s being the last girl in your group of friends to get it.  It comes a few days early and you curse; it comes a few days late and you are in agony.  There are months when its arrival is met with profound disappointment, and then there are the months where its arrival is met with weak-kneed relief.   And, in my early forties, I’m getting to that stage where I’ve spent three decades complaining about the pain and mess and expense of it all, but when that day comes where Aunt Flo says goodbye for good, I kind of think I just might miss her.

How do you explain all this to a man, though?  I am not sure any guy can really grasp it, just as there are things about being a guy that I will never ever be able to understand.  That said, I think maybe we can teach our sons to have a certain kind of awe in the face of this phenomenon that was in part responsible for their very existence.  At the very least, we can tell them not to make dismissive comments about Woman X being crabby because it’s her time of the month.  (As any woman will tell you, only one person in the room actually knows whether her moods are due to PMS or some other reason.  She gets to be the one to say whether or not there’s a connection.)

I am fearfully and wonderfully made says the psalm.  I will be honest that, when it comes to periods, I tend to lean more towards “fearful” as being the appropriate adjective.    If I were in charge, I sure as heck would not design the female reproductive cycle this way, if for no other reason than that I don’t like carnage in my bathroom (or anywhere else).

But maybe I’m getting a little older and wiser,  or at least a bit more philosophical.  Having had a few rounds of the conception/pregnancy game, I can’t deny that I have a respect for the reality of female menstruation.   Two pregnancy losses and two births have led to an appreciation that, like it or not, I did depend upon that system to bring my two little boys into the world … boys who enrich my life in so many ways, including asking me questions that get me thinking about the role that my periods play in my life, in all their messy mystery.  I may not like the experience of a monthly period, but I am grateful for what it has brought to my life.  In that way, I guess it’s like most good things in this world: some sort of pain or sacrifice inevitably goes into the creation.

So in the end, I’d say that my son is right — menstruation is somewhat creepy.  It is fearful and, I guess, also wonderful, at least  in some sense of the word.  But whatever else my boys learn about this phenomenon that is so intimately a part of most women’s lives, I hope they at least learn this: It’s part of what got them here, so it’s something that they — and all of us, really —  should treat with a certain amount of respect.


“Poldark” finale: Do I really have to wait a whole year for Season Two????

Say it ain't so, Ross.

Say it ain’t so, Ross.

Scott and I just watched the finale of “Poldark.”   I was on the edge of my seat the entire two hours and when the credits began to roll I was reduced to the  inarticulate sounds I always make when I have just seen something absolutely gripping on TV and realize I have to wait an entire year for the next season.  It’s the same sound I make at the end of “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock,” and I can best describe it as somewhere  between a growl and a cry of pain. (Tell me I’m not the only one who does this?)

Because even though I have read the  books and knew how the season would end, the screenwriter did a fabulous job of pulling me into the story.  I was lost in the episode and those final credits felt like an abrupt forcible ejection out of Cornwall and into a world where I don’t get to see what happens next.  And oh, what a finale it was.  Don’t read ahead if you haven’t seen the show yet — spoilers await.

*First of all, I was somewhat dreading this episode because I knew from the books (seriously, SPOILER AHEAD) that Julia was going to die.  And I wasn’t sure I could handle it, especially being a mom, because it is all too awful.  The sight of Ross carrying her tiny coffin across the cliffs and into the churchyard — oh, it was gut-wrenching.  There’s nothing else to say; it was just too painful.


*Demelza was already such a lovable character, and she just rockets off the charts in this finale.  To go and take care of Francis after his utter awfulness to her … well, it’s forgiveness at its finest.  Who says this is not a spiritual show?  I think she’s a model of Christian charity and selfless love.  And oh, alas, she pays a dear price for it.

*If she is the paragon of goodness, George is the polar opposite.   You could just see him playing Francis like a fiddle, feeding the flames of his suspicion about Ross and cagily getting Francis to reveal the names of Ross’s business associates.  As bad as Francis is — and he does call Demelza some awful things in this episode, including “trull” (sp?) which is a new one to me– at least his awfulness is not as premeditated as George’s is.  There is something about coldly-calculated evil that is so much worse than crime-of-passion evil.

*Speaking of crimes of passion, the Mark/Keren subplot ended about as well as one would expect.  You knew that was disastrous from the start.  Any woman who can make Ruth Teague’s eye daggers look like foam darts is surely headed for trouble.

Making Ruth look like an amateur.

Making Ruth look like an amateur.

I didn’t like Keren — I guess we’re not supposed to — but I sure would not wish her fate on anyone.  And it was interesting that the TV show makes her death a little more ambiguous, like Mark was just hugging her a little too hard and whoops!  Her neck ends up broken (kind of like Lennie in Of Mice and Men).  The book is much more clear that it was  a CRIME of passion, and I am not surprised that the screenwriter went with the “accidental” scenario.  We do want to feel sympathy for Ross, after all, and can we have much sympathy for a man who loans his oars to a cold-blooded murderer?

By the way, let’s all remember what Mark said about how he was hiding out in the old abandoned mine and saw what looked like copper there. My spidey-sense tells me that this may be important in future seasons.

*Is there any more disgusting name for an illness than “putrid throat”?

*Dr. Enys messed up by getting mixed up with Keren, but to his credit, he makes amends by staying in the community and caring for the sick miners.  In fact, so much of this episode seems to be about people wanting to make amends, like Demelza wanting to undo the disastrous chain reaction she unwittingly set into place by getting Verity and Andrew back together.  And we have Elizabeth at the end, caring for Demelza as she recovers, because Demelza saved her child.

*By the way, when Ross tells Elizabeth to pray “that I don’t lose the love of  my life,” it was so emotional and romantic that I started getting teary-eyed (again).  I just love the Ross and Demelza love story.  It is not a love story that ends with marriage, as so many of them are; theirs begins with marriage and gets more interesting as the series goes on.


All in all, I loved “Poldark.”  Aidan Turner played the part beautifully — edgy, restless, brooding, good at heart, sensitive, loyal.  Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza is the perfect foil to him, and captured all the fineness and goodness of the character in the book without making her saccharine.   The scenery was as beautiful as could be, and the scripts honored the novels while still making the story feel suspenseful.

Most of all, the series incorporates so many big themes, themes that I may dare to call spiritual.  Loyalty, social justice, forgiveness, choosing one’s own path in spite of social expectation, seeing people for who they are inside, resilience, love — it was all there, and more.

What a great way to spend my summer Sunday nights.  I miss it already.


Thin places


A while back, I learned about the idea of “thin places.” In Celtic spirituality, thin places are places where the border between heaven and earth seems particularly thin.  Think of them as places where you feel God’s presence more acutely than you do elsewhere.

Like St. Ignatius, I believe  that you can find God everywhere and in all things.  And yet I don’t see this reality as being in conflict with the idea of thin places.  Perhaps thin places are places where we don’t need to work quite as hard to see the divine.  They’re the places where there are fewer barriers to our ability to recognize God, whatever those barriers may be.

I can think of a few thin places I’ve encountered:

*My kids’ room at night, when I look at them lying asleep in their bunkbeds

*Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York

*The open space near my grandmother’s home in Santa Barbara, where I used to walk as a kid and look down at the ocean

*My own humble backyard on a summer evening

*Any labyrinth

*A chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is present (I guess that one’s obvious!)

What about you?  What are your thin places?

Remembering what I have: A poem from my great-grandmother

My great-grandmother (left), her husband, and her children, 1932.

My great-grandmother (left), her husband, and her children, 1932.

A thought popped into my mind yesterday morning: What if I go throughout the day focusing on what I have instead of what I don’t have?

I’m not sure where this thought came from, exactly;   I guess “the Holy Spirit” is as good an answer as any.  I’m glad it appeared,  though, because although I strive for an attitude of gratitude, dissatisfaction can creep in, in rather insidious ways.

But with this new attitude in the forefront of my mind, yesterday was better than it would have been.  Instead of wishing for more time to work on my next writing project, I was grateful for the hour I did have while my kids were playing with their cousins.  Instead of wishing for a bigger house, I was grateful for a cozy one that fits our family’s needs.  And on, and on.

I wrote a week or so ago about my great-grandmother Helen Cary Keyt Wolf, and the “Button Box” of poems that she wrote from the 1930s to the 1960s.  She was certainly someone who lacked much of what we would consider essential for happiness.  Raising five children during the Depression years, with a husband who would leave and come back at various times without warning, she lived  with no small amount of financial and relational uncertainty.  I am sure she had plenty of moments where despair and envy were close to the surface.

And yet even then, there are things to be grateful for.   Her writings show that she knew this, and tried to live by it.  I am sure that there were times when her resolve wavered and such optimism was hard to maintain.  But we have evidence, written in her own hand, that she knew the value of focusing on the positive, and that she made the choice to recognize the blessings in her life – her children above all.

Here is one of her poems, written sometime in the thirties.  It captures this philosophy well.  .

My Shopping List
by Helen Cary Keyt Wolf

What would I do if I had
A dollar or two today?
For son number one,
I’d buy a new shirt.
For son number two, new shoes.
For son number three, a pair of pants
And a bonnet for baby.
For my young miss
I’d get some cloth
For her to make a new dress.
Then perhaps some curtains I’d buy
For windows in our sunroom.
Some new pots and pans
Some tea glasses, too -
Oh, I have lots of plans.
But since I haven’t that dollar
I’ll put a patch on a shirt,
About shoes, well, I can’t do much
But give them an extra shine.
I’ll lengthen and press a pair of pants
And make a bonnet for baby
And look through the chest
Perhaps I can find
Something to make a “new dress”.
The windows? Well, I’ll just leave plain
For it would be a pity to
Shut out the view
Of roses and bushes and vines.
The pans will have to do for now.
We can use cups for glasses.
Oh, it’s not hard to substitute
If one goes singing about it.

What are the blessings YOU can focus on today?