Thoughts on Being Home

We all find ourselves at home, due to the need for social isolation right now. For me as a homeschooler, it’s not that different than usual, with the exception of no play dates and extra classes, but it’s still bizarre to not even be able to invite people into my home. Especially since I’m the kind of person who meets someone new almost every time I go out, and who loves to have potlucks. Even my wedding was a potluck, so everyone could come!

So I’ve been thinking about what it really means to be home. Here’s a few things to ponder as we all adjust:

Is our home merely a parking lot–a place we leave our car between activities, or is it a destination in itself?

Is our home merely a hotel, a place we rest before we go off to live during the day, or is it a place we are truly alive, and most able to be ourselves?

Each person is a universe unto themselves. How much we have to explore!

When you can’t go farther, go deeper. During this period of physical limitations, let yourself grow on the inside.

The plants lay hidden under the snow. And the farmer, the owner of the land, observed with satisfaction: ‘Now they are growing on the inside.’

I thought of you: of your forced inactivity…

Tell me: are you too growing ‘on the inside’? St Josemaria, The Way, 294

While it is strange to not be able to go out, do we realize how lucky we are to have homes to be in, unlike so many refugees around the world? Let’s all pray for each other in these difficult times.

If home is where the heart is…how healthy is your heart right now? What can you do to make it better? For a great and timely read, try Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home.

Home is where our children learn to love…can you learn to love being home with them, at least for now?

Children have such a beautiful way of seeing the world. Being home is a chance to re-enter the magic of childhood with them.

“Oh, look, here’s a big bee just tumbled out of an apple blossom. Just think what a lovely place to live–in an apple blossom! Fancy going to sleep in it when the wind was rocking it. If I wasn’t a human girl, I think I’d like to be a bee and live among the flowers.” Anne of Green Gables

How we can extend the warmth of our home to others when we can’t visit with them? A phone call just to check in, a text, meeting on FaceTime or Zoom, a little card or letter, a surprise parcel, a chat over the fence with a neighbour…these little acts of love make everyone happier. My generous eldest nephew really took the cake when he sent my kids a Nintendo Switch to brighten their days at home. Their old Wii had conked out, and this was, in this time of crisis, actually a solvable problem. Hurrah for those kinds!

Are we open to receiving help and love from others, and letting them be the hero for the day? The other day my younger kids made a surprise breakfast with Earl Grey Tea, my favourite.

Love to you all our there, and despite the struggles, may your homes be places of love and laughter.

Prayer: Quiet Discernment for Living Well

Lent is here, and as with most things, the reactions to it vary. Some people view it with excitement, rather like a mini New Years…a forty day challenge to free oneself from poor habits, gain more self-control and discipline so they can live better and be happier. Others respond to the challenge to increase prayer, fasting and almsgiving with a sense of dread…the ominous idea of dying to oneself overwhelming them, and making them want to seek refuge in a binge of Netflix’s and chocolate cookies. Maybe most of us are a mix of both…always struggling between the pull of instant gratification and the discipline required to grow and make long term gains.

But what are these three cornerstones of Lent, the season of preparation for the great feast of Easter, all about anyway? How do prayer, fasting and almsgiving lead to a better life?

In this post, I will share a few thoughts on the first one–prayer–since I went to a great talk in prayer at our parish mom’s group today. Normally, I’m busy homeschooling my kids in the morning, but today the brilliant sunshine pulled us outside, so we decided to go and have some gym time at the playground.

As we moms sat sipping coffee, nursing babies and feeding toddlers snacks, Father gave us a talk on prayer. He recommend reading something inspirational to turn our minds and hearts to God, and to help us ponder areas in which we could grow and improve. This reading can help us find God’s presence and start speaking to him from our hearts, as children to their loving father. We can then prayerfully discern how we can best live our daily lives, asking for God’s guidance and wisdom, and the grace and strength to do what is best.

This is where the will comes in: the follow through of the resolutions we have made in our prayer. Without this willingness to take action, all our inspirations would be just pretty thoughts. St. Josemaria said:

Love is deeds, not sweet words alone.

So while Christians are sometimes accused of “wasting” time in prayer, or only living for the next world, a true understanding of prayer reveals that the purpose of prayer is actually to help us live well and love well, here and now. To do God’s will in our lives means embracing our personal circumstances with gratitude and trying our best to always grow and improve in how we live, so that we can also help improve the lives of those around us.

Prayer is taking time to listen to the voice of our conscience, and asking for the strength to follow it, even when it’s hard. It’s not something for once or twice a year on a special day, but an integral part of being human, something for every day.

My sister sent me a great article called “If you’re too busy for these 5 things, your life is way more off course than you think. In it, the author emphasized the need for regular discernment about the important things in life. He described how a tiny initial error of two degrees ultimately led an airplane to crash into a snow covered volcano over Antarctica, killing all its passengers. In our lives, we can get off track in little ways that lead to huge problems later. Quietly pondering how things are going each day, and slightly adjusting out sails, can help prevent us from blundering into disasters we never intended to meet.

Prayer helps us live intentionally. It helps us to respond thoughtfully, instead of just reacting emotionally. In his excellent book, Perfectly Yourself: Discovering God’s Dream For You, Matthew Kelly describes how prayer can help “lengthen our fuses” and make us more patient and able to practice self-control. Prayer can help us find the good in difficult situations, and to endure more pain than we imagined possible. It can also help us savour the good, true and beautiful in life. For me, writing poetry is prayer, because it helps me ponder things in my heart, and to share them.

Chances are, if you’re spending some time unplugged from screens, thinking about your life and the people who matter to you, you are praying, whether or not you even realize it. It could be while you’re jogging the sea wall, looking out at the ocean. It could be while you’re folding your children’s clothes or doing dishes. It could be while you’re painting, writing, or listening to music. When we enter that temple within us, that timeless place where we connect with eternity, we are praying. The fruit of that prayer should be a renewed vigour for living well, for getting up and trying again after we fail, a humble desire to live and love better, and to pursue our dreams with courage.

May your time in prayer this Lent help you establish a deeper link with the still, small voice within you, so you can live a more fulfilling life, and daily strive to become the best version of yourself.

This Christmas Give Hope

Blanket_RF2154987.jpg

What does it mean to give a meaningful present? One that is a true expression of our love… can we truly take our hearts and wrap them in shiny paper, and give them in a way that affirms the worth of the recipient, the very value in their existence? This is a great challenge.

When I was shopping recently for my kids, seeing so many rows upon rows of plastic nonsense toys in the huge box stores left me feeling empty. All this abundance seemed a bit pointless, when so much of it was soon to be destined for the dump. It’s not that I hate toys. I still have stuffed animals and doll house furniture from when I was a kid, not to mention my stamp collection and books.

I think what bothered me was all these unnecessary things being consumed so voraciously, when so many other children in the world don’t even have a bed, or clean water, or a home to call their own. No one has given them gifts to affirm the very worth of their existence. Perhaps they don’t even have parents to kiss them goodnight and tell them how much they are loved. But instead of simply being grinchy and depressed by this, I wanted to do something, even if it was something tiny.

So I found a way to take some of these little broken pieces of my heart, wrap them with love, and send them overseas. The kids and I did it together, because it is so important that they learn to give, and not just to expect gifts from life. They will be happier this way; moreover, they will be more truly human. What did we do then? I usually hate spending money but this was my absolute favourite shopping of this year! We visited charity websites like Doctors Without Borders and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

We read about the impoverished and displaced people they help, and chose the gifts that spoke most to our hearts, like a sturdy tent to shelter a homeless family, blankets and mats to sleep on, and a water filter to provide clean water and help prevent disease. Another that tugged my heart strings was a Kangaroo Care Wrap that can double the chances of survival for a premie baby, by keeping her skin to skin and close to her mother’s heart. Having lost a full term baby girl five years ago, the idea of being able to help another baby survive was irresistible. For a mere $15, I could reach across the ocean and give a baby a chance at life, and a mother freedom from the tragedy of loss. My kids were really excited, too. They felt true joy at doing something so good for others.

KangarooCare3_22e486fe-2495-48b2-abeb-8bd52d6f1e14.jpg

Another wonderful charity is Chalice, which sponsors poor children, helps their parents learn to plan their finances carefully, and gives them support and tools with which to earn a more stable livelihood. So if you want to empower families in need to become more independent by giving gifts like livestock, seeds, farming tools, a sewing machine or bicycle, etc, this might be a great charity for you.

I hope you’ve found inspiration in the great work that many people are doing around the world. If there’s anyone left on your list this Christmas Eve, consider giving them a gift that truly affirms their humanity and your own. The charities will send a nice e-card describing the important gift that was given in your loved one’s name.

Remember, we are not mere consumers! We are not robots who can run on money and possessions alone. We are all, each and everyone of every race and background, children of God who are strengthened by loving each other more deeply. This is what the Incarnation is about. The God who loves us all so tenderly that he wanted to affirm our intrinsic worth and erase all fear or doubt of our worthiness of being loved from our minds. He wrapped his divine heart in the frail paper of humanity and came to live among us, as a shepherd smelling of his sheep. He brought all the light and glory and splendour and magic of Heaven down to earth, to share it with us through his creation, if we would only reach out our hands to touch his and embrace this precious gift of life.

I hope you can find him this Christmas. In all the organizational Olympics of preparing your home for Christmas, may you see God at each turn…in the smiling face of your children and guests, in the beautiful colours of your Christmas meal, in the sparkling colours of lights on your tree…but also in moments of loneliness, sadness or rejection, and in the poor faces of humanity across the world, who need affirmation that they, too, are truly beautiful and loved.

Jug_RF240907.jpg

God bless you all this Christmas, and as my favourite radio man Archishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “God love you!”

The Unnecessary Burden of Manufacturing Our Own Worth

We feel, in our society, a very strong pressure to prove ourselves. To show we are successful. Worth knowing. Accomplished. We define ourselves by our external achievements, and are in turn crushed by our external failures. Is this necessary?

Does our value indeed come solely from what we do? I don’t think so!

But before I explain, let’s consider what kind of world we create when we do think this way. When we determine human worth based on externals, we claim the right to judge others. What’s in their soul doesn’t matter, because it’s all about results. Did they succeed in this job interview? Did they obtain this degree? How much is their salary? Is it more than mine….because if so they must be better than me. 

See the trap we set for ourselves? Not only do we judge others harshly, which is a terrible thing, but we also do the same to ourselves, and risk falling into depression and despair. We feel we are not good enough–that we are failures. Well, you can’t be a failure, you can only be a person, a human being…perhaps one in challenging circumstances, but a human all the same. No one is a failure.

We are not defined by what we do, but who we are

So who are we anyway? We are children of God, called out of all eternity to love and be loved. Each one of us is precious and utterly irreplaceable. We all have unique talents we are called to generously share with the world…and this despite all our weaknesses and mistakes. God made us as we are, fragile and beautiful, so that when we are humble enough to acknowledge the cracks in our hearts, His light can shine through us. 

So when the sirens of the world lure you to the rocky reefs of self-doubt, remember He who made you is perfect, and has a plan for your life more beautiful that you can imagine. It is cooperating with this plan, with all its challenges and opportunities for interior growth, that makes everything worthwhile. 

At the end of our lives, we will be judged on love. St. John of the Cross

Resolve to embrace your now!

It’s New Year’s and the internet is awash with posts about New Year’s Resolutions. People are eager to change and improve their lives. They’re keen to eat better, sleep better, work better, and improve their relationships. This year, it’ll be different!

But…what if it won’t? What if this year is basically the same as the last, and we struggle with all the same defects and weaknesses as we did last year? What if we don’t change jobs, gain or lose weight or get more productive? Will it be a big waste?

What if by the end of the year, our kids still fight, the dishes still pile up, we lose our patience and get snappy? What if, Heaven forbid, we’re still human?! Should we abandon hope?

Instead…what if, instead of focusing exclusively on our failures, we choose to see things in their true light, both the good and the bad? What if we give thanks and celebrate every little success? What if we choose to find God in the mess and smile more? If the kingdom of Heaven is within us, then we better find God where we are.

Perhaps the best resolution would be to find joy right here where we are today–in our life as it is now–while still being open to dreams of making it even better.

Those dreams, however, should be our dreams; no one else can really know the key to our happiness. We must prayerfully reflect and find it ourselves. Happiness and holiness will be found in being the best version of ourselves, so don’t steal someone else’s list of New Year’s resolutions! Comparing ourselves to others is such a happiness thief, so resolving to stop doing that would be a good idea, at least for me, and possibly a few other million women.

Don’t be unfaithful to the dream God has of you in His heart…trust He knows how to make a masterpiece!

Don’t reject it by harshly rejecting yourself. Trusting and being gentle with ourselves as we try to grow and improve will help us extend that kindness to others as well.

And if anyone is looking for a fun way to make it a happier year, with the support and encouragement of others, I highly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s new online happiness project course!

The Happiness Project Experience

Build a happy life in 2019! Having spent so much time thinking about happiness, I really do believe that for most of us, there are many simple things we can do to boost our happiness. We just need to take the time to reflect on what those efforts would be, and figure out how to make them part of our lives. That’s what “The Happiness Project Experience” is designed to do! You can have the life you want; you can change your life without changing your life.

Little changes to our actions and attitude can make a big difference. May our hearts be happier in 2019!

Thanksgiving: on gratitude and perfectionism

Perfectionism is a happiness trap. It blocks happiness because it prevents us from accepting things as they are.

I can’t be happy because I’m not good enough yet. Once I’m better at everything I’ll let myself be happy. Until then I don’t deserve to be.

This is such a dangerous lie. We can’t be grateful for our lives if we don’t believe we should be happy. If we don’t accept ourselves, we can’t accept our reality either. We will be like drops of water trying to strain against the river’s flow–always frustrated.

A huge part of gratitude is acceptance: I accept my life, all that is good and bad, all that is challenging and beautiful, and I am grateful for it. I receive it and give thanks. I am comfortable in my own skin.

Yes, Mum, I tried to eat a Christmas decoration I found under the bookshelf. Don’t I look lovely?

My friend Monique reminded me of all this. I was fussing a bit about my lack of Thanksgiving plans, as my husband and daughter are on a special father-daughter trip out of town. I told her I’d probably just come home from church and put on my pjs, make a dinner the kids actually like (butter chicken, rice and naan bread), have homemade pumpkin pie and watch a bedtime movie together. I worried it maybe wasn’t good enough. Not the big family dinner of the movies…and then she reminded me of what Thanksgiving is all about: gratitude.

Maybe you should just be grateful you don’t have to cook a huge meal the kids don’t really like. Maybe you can be grateful for getting to just have a relaxing holiday instead of doing tons of work.

And it’s true…it was fine. We had a busy day on Saturday with ballet, then having friends for pizza and a movie. Then Sunday was packed with Mass, socializing over lunch, First Communion and Confirmation classes until mid afternoon. By then I was ready for down-time and so were the kids. So the worry was for nothing. I’m grateful for how the day went.

So my Thanksgiving take-home is this: let go a little of your ideas about how things should be in the perfect world. Embrace your imperfect life. Accept your imperfect self. Be grateful for all the people who love you anyway. Love them back. Focus on the good. Don’t wait to be happy. Happiness is accepting your now.

Courage to Grow

Little Chestnut: I will not put out roots and shoots. It might not be safe. I’ll remain locked in wood–pure polished potential.

God: Will you not open yourself up and grow into a tree?

Little Chestnut: How can I become a huge towering tree? How do I know there will always be enough sunshine and rain? I am far too little to grow so big. It’s too scary to try. I prefer to keep the doors closed.

God: Little Chestnut, you are filled with treasure. I have made you for growth. I will provide the sun and the rain. But you must reach out with your shoots and roots to receive them. To sun and rain you must add risk. You must add the courage to try—to hope—to believe that it will take someone bigger than yourself to help you grow, but that together we can!

Little Chestnut: But it is painful to open myself up…to split open and expose myself to your gaze.

God: One thing I can promise–to always look on you with love. Will you allow yourself to be loved unconditionally? This is the beginning of growth.

Little Chestnut: So, fully aware of my weakness, I am supposed to hope for greatness?

God: Change is founded on hope. I have great hopes for you…for everyone! Will you take risk of cracking your polished exterior for the chance to grow into a great tree, one who will make the world a more beautiful place? Or will you slowly fade into the dirt, become wrinkled and rotten, and never look outside yourself for nourishment? I am offering you everything you need…but it is up to you to reach out and receive.

Little Chestnut, do you have the courage to trust?

Mothers aren’t victims—they are warriors!

I get a lot of comments walking about with 7 kids. They’re usually not very original. “Oh, you’ve got your hands full!” “You must be busy!” “How do you do it, aren’t you tired?” “Do you have help?” etc. But one comment that stood out as a pleasant surprise was by a fellow mom who got on the bus after us one day. She had black spiky hair and tattoos and one young toddler in her stroller. I wasn’t sure what she’d think of me, taking up a quarter of the bus with my crew.

All yours?

Yeah.

You’re a warrior!

I have to say this really made my day. Yeah! A warrior is someone strong and brave, who is willing to make sacrifices for what they believe in. A warrior is to be admired, not pitied. Instead of thinking I was either crazy or some kind of poor victim, she honoured my decision to have children as an intentional life choice, and gave me a verbal thumbs up.

Moms are soldiers for love, fighting the battle against selfishness, affirming that life is worth living, that love is more precious that personal comfort, that heroes exist, that love is unconditional, that life is beautiful.

To pity a mother is disempowering and belittling. It acknowledges only the difficulty of her task while failing to see its sublime importance for society. Motherhood is the make or break place for people’s futures. The world 20 years from now depends on the mothers of today. This isn’t to put more pressure on mom’s who already always worry about doing enough. It’s to cheer them on, and say, “Hey, all these sacrifices are worth it! You truly make the world a better place!” A world without mothers would be cold and empty, literally and figuratively.

But we forget this. Sometimes at the end of a long day of caring for kids, worn out from all the giving, a mom can feel inadequate, and only focus on the things that went wrong, the things that didn’t get done, or how incredibly hard it was to do what was done. But finding a challenging job hard doesn’t mean you’re bad at it. Think of a soldier in the trenches, fighting all day to keep his ground, surrounded by chaotic noise, inching forward through the mud. If at the end of the day he is messy and exhausted, it’s because he has done his duty…and fought bravely without giving up. He should be, if he had the energy, happy and proud. It’s the same with a mom. If at night you’re tired from caring and feeding and cleaning your troops and your shirt is covered in milk the baby spat up, know you’re doing it right.

Perhaps the only medals you’ll receive are stickers the toddler decorated you with but you’re not in it for the glory. You arrive at the end of the day empty, but not because you’re poor or worthless, but because you’ve spent yourself so generously, and have given so much. Someone once said that the only things you truly keep are the ones you give away…so also in this irony of self-giving you find yourself, stronger and braver and more generous than you were before this adventure began.

But hopefully by having a better appreciation for the dignity of your task, you will also realize the importance of taking care of yourself as well. No one would think of telling a firefighter or a police officer to wear a dirty uniform and skip breakfast in order to focus more on saving people, for they need to be alert and properly equipped for their jobs. So do we! So hop in the shower, make your favourite meals, go for sanity dates with your mom buddies, and keep doing an awesome job bringing up the future citizens of the world.

On fighting discouragement

The other day I was reading a little book of Lenten meditations by Pope emeritus Benedict about the true meaning of fasting. He describes how Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fighting the temptations he was offered…to the world’s power, to enslavement to the physical world (bread), and to spiritual pride. It made me think…what temptations do I need to fight to be more free? And I don’t just mean the temptations to scarf boxes of chocolates…but deeper things.

Are we tempted by discouragement? By anger? By sulking and blame? These are the kinds of demons we can fight off during Lent, so as to become more happy and free. So how about instead of giving up something we like, or maybe as well as that, taking up arms to fight harder against what we don’t like…what drags us down and brings misery and isolation.

It is amazing how these demons of discouragement prey on our weakness. We recently watched the excellent movie “A Man For All Seasons” as a family. What struck me most this time, because I have seen it before, was what great destruction came through a weak man. Richie Rich, poor and soft man, is corrupted by bribery and the lure of wealth and power. He becomes a powerful man externally, but inside is still incredibly weak and can no longer follow his conscience when tempted, and ends up perjuring himself. St. Thomas Moore is killed because of Rich’s lies in court. It is very sad to see how Rich destroys himself and others…perhaps after certain point he no longer believed it would be possible to reform. It is so important to be both humble enough to receive mercy and forgiveness and strong enough to persevere in the truth when times are tough.

So why do we fail, make mistakes, commit sins? Many times out of weakness. Why do we yell when tired? Weakness. Why do we slam drawers when too hungry? Weakness. Why do we fall into discouragement when the house is exploding with mess and the floor seems a distant memory? Weakness. But if there is one thing we must always hang onto despite our weakness, it is hope, and the knowledge that we are loved. Discouragement comes when we look only at ourselves and all our failures, all at once. Then the amount we need to change and then improve becomes utterly overwhelming.

Can you imagine a baby looking ahead and envisioning all the things they would have to do and learn as one giant, looming to do list? Learn to walk, run, jump, speak thousands of words, dress themselves, read, write, learn sports, to cook, get a job, change careers, etc. It’s exhausting to think about all at once. But why aren’t babies stressed like the rest of us? Because they live in the moment and in trust: “Mommy and Daddy are here and they will teach me.”

What we adults have to do is spend less time looking at ourselves and more time looking at God, who is perfect love, who is infinite mercy, who is glorious king and wise and loving Father. It is he who will give us the strength and grace to improve. It is he who will teach us. Of course it won’t be all at once, but a little bit at a time, each day hanging on to hope despite our failures. Babies are so delighted with life…it would serve us well as adults to spend more time marvelling at the beauty of life as well, practising gratitude and making a point of savouring the good little memories each day provides.

Ultimately, Lent is about learning to love better, and we have opportunities to do so every moment of each day. St Josemaria said to be a true friend is to honour the image of God in others…”as you do to the least one of my brothers so you do unto me.” No matter how long our to-do list, we can always afford time for a smile. May God give us all the strength to love well, and the hope to grow each day, seeing self-knowledge as an opportunity to improve, rather than a cause for discouragement.

Lent: on taking it one step at a time

Lent is here. It’s a time when many people choose to spend more time in reflection and prayer. It’s a time to come to grow on the inside. Like a bulb planted underground in the winter struggling through the cold dirt, we can struggle through the reality of our mistakes and imperfections, without losing hope. We can persevere like that little green shoot peeking out through the snow into the frosty air to find the sun. But all this requires patience, something our immediate-gratification-loving world is sorely lacking.

I got to thinking about patience this evening when I was trying to teach my daughter to draw a cube. She was trying again and again to make it look right, but it kept looking lopsided, like a tent.

“It’s all about getting the lines parallel,” I said. “You can’t draw it too fast, you have to go one line at a time focussing only on making it parallel to the one across from it. Then it looks straight.”

So she kept trying and filled pages with these 3-D boxes.

“Why can’t I get it right?” she asked. “I’ve done so many and they’re still not perfect!”

“It’s not about getting it perfect; it’s about practicing–building your drawing muscles so you can get better and better. And that’s why we do it with a pencil, so we can erase our mistakes, and readjust things to make it better.”

Isn’t it the same with our spiritual lives? We get easily frustrated with the time it takes to get things looking straight. We don’t want to be lopsided boxes, we just want to be that perfect cube right now! But that’s not how it works. We need to have the patience to make little strokes with our pencils, realizing we can erase our mistakes and readjust things every day. We can say sorry and begin again with new hope, that’s what Lent is all about.

Our lives are not written in stone, or even permanent ink, so we only need to humbly keep trying, while paying attention to the little things. Ultimately our lives are a picture made up of many tiny images. Every little line adds to this picture. So the only way to improve ourselves is by paying attention to the little things, readjusting day by day to try to make the picture that we want. Shaping our lives a little bit at a time, and trying to do so with patience, humour and love.

Of course, it helps if we know ahead of time what we want that picture to look like. This is where life goals come in, and knowing what kind of person we want to be helps us to take steps to get there. So having an ideal image to strive for—that perfect box, that amazing hero, that inspiring saint—can help us to break down that image into concrete pieces, and discover little positive habits that we can acquire to become not them, but the best version of ourselves.