Sliding into Contemplation

This afternoon after snack-time

as I take a moment

to put up my feet and read,

my toddler arrives–

attracted to the anomaly

of his mother being silent and still.

As I read about art and contemplation

and the creative necessity

of perceiving reality

without a mind cluttered by distractions,

he discovers the delightful idea

of using my legs as a slide.


So I stop to observe him

and weave him into my prayer–

his mischievous face crowned

by a golden mullet of impetuous curls

as he climbs up and down, up and down

to do it again and again–

seeking even in this interruption

to find “a deeper and more receptive vision […]

a more patient openness to all things […]

the abundant wealth of all visible reality.”*

 

 

*snippets from page 36 of philosopher Josef Pieper’s beautiful little book on art and contemplation, “Only the Lover Sings.”

 

 

 

“How do you do it?” An honest answer from a mom of 6. 


This is a question I get a lot as a mother of a large family. “Six kids! How do you do it?” And it’s hard to know exactly how to answer. People sometimes look at you like you’re some kind of rock star, or insane person…or both. It’s kind of embarrassing. Usually I just say something like: “Oh, you know…prayer,  chocolate, and great mom buddies.” 
You get answers like, “Well, better you than me. I couldn’t do it. I don’t have the patience.” 

As if I have a magic unending supply if it myself. 

So sometimes I feel like answering the “how you do it” question with something more like, “Terribly! My kids haven’t had matching socks in years… How about yourself?” But then…I’m already freaky enough…

So what is the real answer, and why? To get there let me tell you a story of a man who inspired me a lot. He was a Polish priest who was very humble, very gentle, and very brave. He was quiet, unassuming, and attentive to everyone he met. But above all, he loved to a heroic degree. He loved beyond the capacity of the human heart, because the love of God infused his life and broke it open. He loved, as my kids might say, “Up to the sky!” This man died when he offered his life in return for a stranger in the concentration camps, who was spared the torment of the starvation bunker. That young man he saved lived and was I believe reunited with his family, for whose sake he had pleaded to live. 

The man who saved him was St. Maximilian Kolbe, ands when I read his story I was so moved. “I want to love like that,” I thought, “but there’s no way I can on my own.” And that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. That’s where grace takes over and lifts our small efforts Heavenward. So every day, in the midst of all the small and large sacrifices of raising a family, I rely not on my own virtue, strength or talent, but on the ever present, merciful love of God. 

I can do all things in Him who strengthens me…

Each day I try, make mistakes, lose my cool, have moments of sweetness, little successes and big failures, but without giving up. Beginning again and again. Trying to pour out love from a heart cracked open…and from my open hands reaching out for grace. 

Family life is a beautiful crucible..a place to be purified and to grow in love. But then this is my goal, remember–to love to heroic degree. To love beyond my natural human capacity, because the love of God overflows from my imperfect, struggling heart–the heart of a mother who gives, and of a daughter who receives daily from God the strength to carry on.


PS Next time I’ll share a few of my practical survival tips to lighten the load, like ordering in groceries, hiring cleaners, having regular mommy dates and also the importance of smiling! 

Intoxicating Dance

Oh the passionate dance
of a mother in the evening
as you rock and sway
your feverish child
who clings to you with far away eyes
half-open and heavy

Classical music bursts through the darkness
with delicate yearning
and ebullient beauty

How beautiful and terrible
this ballet…
your hands caressing the little one’s back
as you rock and sway
–a living cradle–
an exhausted ark
carried upon the waves
of wakeful nights

And as you dance
you long
for the intoxicating embrace
of sleep
to carry you away like blossoms
floating down a rapid river

Think not of waterfalls
for they come soon enough
dance and dream only of sleep

Coffee and Anger: Is there a link?

Have you ever noticed in the morning, after stumbling out of bed and hanging onto your steaming coffee cup as if it were a life saver, that this warm creature comfort has the undesired side effect of making you excessively irritable? I find this is especially the case if I get busy serving the kids breakfast and drink coffee before eating myself. What was meant to help me get going (a big adult soother really) can often make me much more wired and jangley than I would like, and about half hour after coffee, I find myself short-tempered and wound up, especially of we are trying to head out the door.

“Mom!” the kids complain, “Why are you being so grumpy? We are not even being bad!” It’s true…my reactions become disproportionate, and it’s hard to calm down and be cheerful. Why is this?

In his article Why does coffee make some people irritable and others not? Will Wister explains the stress-inducing effects of caffeine.

By stimulating your adrenal glands to produce adrenalin, caffeine puts your body in this “fight-or-flight” state, which is useless while you’re just sitting at your desk. When this adrenal high wears off later, you feel the drop in terms of fatigue, irritability, headache or confusion.

How many of us in our busy world push ourselves beyond our natural abilities by using stimulants like caffeine? “Oh, I’m exhausted but gotta keep truckin’. Guess I’ll have another coffee.” It’s a quick fix…but at what cost? Rather than trying to take a power nap, or eat a healthy meal to give us long-term energy, we grab a cuppa joe and keep racing around. We ignore exhaustion and mask fatigue, ramping up our adrenals as if to deal with constant emergencies.

If I fail to take little breaks to read, pray or put my feet up, I end up frazzled and impatient. Having another coffee to “make it until bedtime” is just a bandaide solution. Real self-care takes more work and more discipline. It is hard to stop and rest when your revolving to-do list is endless. You feel you can’t. The world might fall apart! Or at least the house!

I guess the important question is, do we really get more done by constantly multitasking– never stopping for a break? Or would we benefit from quiet moments of reflection, where we can calmly plan our day, reflect on our life, and redirect it when we are veering off course? I remember a famous doctor saying that his productivity trick was taking quick cat-naps between patients. He knew the magic of doing one thing at a time. There is such a peaceful feeling in focussing on just one thing…and as a mom this is rare unless you’re really intentional about it. Yet it is so necessary to slow down, and get out of panic mode.

Wister’s article describes the long-term effects of stress:

When you are exposed to long periods of stress, your body gives warning signs that something is wrong. These physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral signs of stress should not be ignored. They tell you that you need to slow down. If you continue to be stressed and you don’t give your body a break, you are likely to develop health problems. You could also worsen an existing illness. Below are some common warning signs of stress….Anger, anxiety, crying, depression, feeling powerless, frequent mood swings, irritability, loneliness, negative thinking, nervousness, sadness[7]

These are pretty serious!! We are talking crisis level emotions…constantly!

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If we don’t break down the stress chemicals (e.g. through physical activity) they stay in the blood, preventing us from relaxing. Eventually this results in a permanent state of stress. That initial buzz turns to worry, irritability or panic. Challenges become threats; we doubt our ability to do even simple things and problems appear insurmountable. [8]

My Dad, who is a master herbalist, reminded me that caffeine depletes B vitamins, which are essential for stress management, brain function and a hormone regulation. So we had better replace them! This morning I drank Oasis Green Smoothie (full of B vitamins) and ate my porridge before I had a cup of coffee. Perhaps for long-term depletion, a B vitamin supplement could help, or adding more B vitamin rich foods to your diet. I also like to take the omega-three Evening Primrose oil, which contains fatty acids helpful for mood regulation.

But my Irish temper still matches my red hair far too well! So I think–shocking as this may be for coffee lovers–that I should try to switch to tea for a bit, and see if it helps. My kids are worth it…I don’t want to snap at them so much. Someone said that having a house full of young kids is like living in a constant state of emergency, but I don’t need to make my body think its an even greater emergency than it is by pumping up my adrenals with too much coffee!4-up-on-2016-11-07-at-9-53-am-5-compiled

The other day I got my favorite ever penance in confession. I was mentioning how I get too busy running after the kids sometimes to eat enough, and I know it makes me more prone to grumpiness. So Father advised me to make a point of eating a good lunch, and offering up the sacrifice of taking time to do so. Hurrah! what a great resolution, and one that will benefit everyone. When my step-dad visits and we have a nice early afternoon coffee with real cream, after a solid lunch, I am so much more calm than after a morning coffee with watery almond milk on an empty stomach. Yuck! Eating well makes a difference, and we have to be humble enough to acknowledge our basic needs, and to take care of them. Nobody else can–nobody else can eat, rest, take a nice bath or relax for us. All you moms out there, are you with me? No more surviving on coffee and peanut butter sandwich crusts the kids left behind!

Post-Partum and Embracing Imperfection

Today at our parish we had a guest speaker, Georgie, from the  Pacific Postpartum Society. She came to spread awareness about postpartum depression and to give some insights on helping families cope with it. During the presentation, we did an exercise where we compared what “the perfect mother” would do, as opposed to what the real mother would do. “Always be patient and smiling” vs “losing her temper sometimes,” “always making gourmet meals” vs. “ordering pizza or making Kraft dinner sometimes,”keeping the house gorgeous all the time” vs “coping with mess.” You get the idea.

We did this exercise to emphasize the pressures we put on ourselves to be “perfect”– to be “leave it to Beaver moms” who always have a clean apron, a bright smile and freshly baked cookies in our hands. Georgie talked about how our happiness is greatly effected by our expectations, and how far we fall short of them. This is compounded by all the images of seeming perfection we see online, where we only glimpse into people’s lives after they have been edited and airbrushed. Someone joked we need more realistic magazines, like “Mediocre Homes and Gardens.” Recently I saw a funny meme that had a cartoon woman and read “World’s Okayest Mom.”

Why do we keep going after perfection like rats after poison, when we know how miserable it makes us to compare ourselves to others? There are many sayings to help us: “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” “best is good, better is best,” etc. Being gentle with ourselves and humbly accepting where we are at is much more likely to bring peace to our families than striving for unattainable perfection and then beating ourselves up for falling short. As the cleaning guru the Flylady says, “You’re not behind, you’re where you are: now jump in!”

My buddy Monique and I have a “one awesome thing” check-in. We call each other and share the one awesome thing we did that day. It could be anything…that we sent an important email, that we cleaned out the fridge, that we did a cool art or baking project with the kids, that we had tea with a friend who really needed a heart to heart chat, whatever. The point is to focus on the little successes, rather than the long list of “not yet done’s.” As a bonus, the joy of celebrating those little accomplishments is energizing and helps us feel brave enough to try a little more.

Embracing our imperfection allows us to appreciate real life and to accept it, mess and all. And it gives other moms permission to do the same. Rather than wasting time wishing we were like someone else, we can pour our energy into becoming more ourselves, and fulfilling the unique missions we all have. Now that’s beautiful. So next time you wish you were a perfect robot, like Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” remember that for all his intellect and calm demeanor, what made him really special was when he developed the ability to feel emotions. We feel pain, we are weak, we struggle, we laugh, we love–because we are real. And teaching our kids to deal with their real life emotions and direct them towards love is likely the most important thing we will do as parents.

Taking care of ourselves and learning to love ourselves as we are, while always trying to grow better, bit by bit, will be the first step on this journey. Fellow moms, let’s walk it together!

 

 

 

 

The Power of Positive Speech

Do you remember the childhood rhyme, “I’m rubber and you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you”? Well, apparently there is some truth to this. Happiness author Gretchen Rubin describes this phenomenon, called “spontaneous trait transference.”

Studies show that because of this psychological phenomenon, people unintentionally transfer to me the traits I ascribe to other people. So if I tell Jean that Pat is arrogant, unconsciously Jean associates that quality with me. On the other hand, if I say that Pat is brilliant or hilarious, I’m linked to those qualities. What I say about other people sticks to me–even when I talk to someone who already knows me. So I do well to say only good things.” (The Happiness Project, pg 156)

No wonder we don’t like spending time with people who complain about others a lot! To solidify this image in your mind, think of it this way: every adjective that comes out of your mouth sticks to your face like ketchup (so hard to get off!). So saying: “My boss is so annoying, demanding, and thoughtless etc”…means all those characteristics are stuck on your face. Yuck. Really gonna need some baby wipes.

I started thinking about all this recently after noticing my older kids picking at the younger ones at the table. Like little parent parrots they repeated things like, “Chew with your mouth closed! Are you finishing that pickle? Eat your food and stop being fussy!”

Hmmm, if that’s the kind of parenting talk they hear a lot, that’s what they’ll imitate. Since it takes three positive comments to combat one negative one, I better up my ratios of positive comments dramatically! So as they griped at each other about fussy eating habits, I started talking about all sorts of things I liked. “This is good. I love pickles. It’s nice we’re having lunch together. I am so glad you got the groceries delivered; now we’re all set for the weekend. It will be fun to read stories after lunch,” etc. It felt a little silly but you’ve got to start somewhere!

I want my kids to be people who speak well of others, so I need to be a good example, even at home. Actually especially there, even though the long 24/7 shift makes it the hardest place to do so consistently.  Possibly my mother-in-law is now running to the store to buy me a year’s worth of duct tape…oh, well, perhaps there’s a back to school sale? 😉

 

 

It’s all about attitude!

The more I think and read about happiness, the more apparent it seems that it’s all about attitude. The way we look at things affects the way we feel about things and therefore how we respond to different situations. For example, the other day I was chatting with my close friend Monique on the phone and mildly complaining about a few of my kids being particularly contrary lately. It was disobeying in silly little things like being told not to playing in the new pop up laundry baskets lest they break (instead she put them on her head) or not going out down the icy back steps (she went out the front but came in up the back…grinning!). Instead of commiserating, Monique looked beyond the behavior and simply pointed out a different view. “Well, she is just asserting her independence in little things. She listens about the big stuff, right?” True enough.

That got me thinking about finding some more legitimate ways for the kids to assert independence, make positive choices and take responsibility. After all, these are skills we want our kids to develop for their future. One of the things I want to work on this year is learning some new recipes, so I thought I would let the kids flip through cookbooks and choose a new recipe before we ordered groceries from Save-On (which is such a life saver!). Perhaps helping choose a recipe will help them take more ownership for the new food instead of being so suspicious of it. A girl can dream, right? 😉

Another thing I did was make sure to spend a few minutes consciously playing with them…lego with the big girls, listening to a story read slowly by my 6-year-old, snuggling with the little ones…because a little undivided attention goes a long way to strengthening bonds. I am certainly more prone to cheerfully listen to someone who is affectionate with me, rather than dismissive and bossy. “Catch more flies with honey,” as they say!

Trying to be calm and positive certainly helps my day go better. Crazy Land is still chaotic and loud with 6 kids, but focussing on being happy within it helps me cope better and be a little more peaceful. I saw the fruits of that today. Last night my accountant hubby got home late from his epic year-end workload and wanted to visit a little after a long day crunching numbers and making tough decisions. Sometimes love means saying yes to that goofy zombie romance movie at midnight (Yes, there is actually such a film!). So of course in the morning was a pretty convincing zombie myself. But I had a choice…walk like one all morning and speak in growls, or tell myself it was a brand new day and not think about the  (lack of) night before. I put some cheerful morning music on You Tube, brewed the coffee and sang happy songs while I cleaned up from breakfast. I manged to fool myself into feeling energetic (so gullible!) and had a good day.

If I hadn’t made the conscious choice to embrace the day and be happy, I would’ve wasted it being tired and miserable. But focussing only on the negative blurs our perceptions and limits our vision. Reality is both light and shadows, and the contrast can enhance its beauty, if we just take a deep breath, pray and choose to see it that way. Look for the good and you will find it. It’s all about attitude!