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.

Four Years but Love is Forever

I have footprints on my heart. Don’t think that because they were left there four years ago they have faded. The impact of those tiny feet on my heart is irrevocable. I will be forever changed by losing a baby at birth. Besides a tiny curl of dark hair, all I physically have of her is a little plaster cast of her feet. Of course it is unspeakably precious to me. I have it nestled in a piece of the same fleecy soft blanket she is buried in. This is much more than many poor women who lose babies through miscarriage get.

Those of you who are close to me or have been following my blog for some time will know that I lost my baby Josephine just before she was born, due to a cord accident. She was my sixth and I was so ready for her to come…the bassinet set up, newborn diapers on the shelf, the house stocked with groceries…I even had her Christmas present already: a wind-up musical swan with her baby on her back.

She was fine at our last checkup, and then, that night in the hospital…no heartbeat. Just silence. Of course it broke my heart. My family and friends, sweet husband and kids helped hold it together.

She would have been four years old this Sunday, September 30th.

Four years and two healthy babies later, I am much more ok than I was at her first anniversary, or even her second, but sometimes things catch me off guard. I was trying to plan her birthday…maybe lots of us could go to the graveyard and bring tons of flowers…and then I thought, four year olds don’t want flowers! They want toys, and cake and balloons…music and mess and the chaos of 20 kids running through the house dressed as fairies and princesses. It hurts that I can’t give her those things, even though she doesn’t need them. Even though she’s up with the stars and her heart is brimming with love, utterly safe, totally loved, in the peaceful presence of God. I still want to do these simple, silly things for her.

So, we do what we can. The kids and I have made it a birthday week. The other day when we ordered groceries from Save-On, we got chocolate cake. We put on candles and sang. We celebrate her because we love her. We are proud she’s part of our family.

We ordered ice-cream, too and had it the next day. Ben and Jerry’s “If I had a Million Flavours.” We made blueberry crisp, too. We will have mini-cereal boxes on her birthday, as we do for the other kids on their birthdays, because they need her to be just another one of them. She’s in Heaven, but she’s still their sister.

On Sunday after Mass and pancakes we will go to the graveyard and bring flowers. We will spend a little time near her praying, and the little ones will likely run about on the grass and read the names of the people who’ve gone before us: young soldiers from the bicycle squad, grandmas and grandpas from the old country, mothers, fathers, babies who never took a breath outside the womb. All the people who await us in Heaven.

Then, because it’s nice to not be alone on this bittersweet day, we will pick up some of our favourite Indian take-out and go to have dinner at a friend’s place. Surrounded by love, just like our daughter Josephine.

Next week we will plant fall flower bulbs to bloom next spring, just like we did last year: Josephine’s flowers. Hiding under the earth and snow, but secretly full of life. Like the promise of eternal life…always making this life more beautiful.

We want her to be remembered. We are proud to be her family. Sharing her story helps us to honour her and to heal, and to know we are not alone.

Do you have footprints on your heart?

Share your story with #IHaveFootprintsOnMyHeart.

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.

Bittersweet Because

Little darling

how my heart is bursting

with the beauteous warmth of you,

your cuddly down-softness

snuggling in my arms,

fluffy dark hair caressing my cheek as I cradle you.

And yet in all this glory

a bittersweet strain of music

tugs at my heart,

because you are so much like her,

your big sister who was born asleep,

eyes closed forever,

motionless,

and here you are

—thank God!—

alive.

I want to cry grateful tears of sorrow

when you squeak and grumble like a little bear

because your sister was so silent.

And when I smell the milky scent on your neck

because your sister never tasted milk.

I was left bursting but alone…

my arms like edges of an empty cradle

with only myself to rock.

I get choked up by your little hands

which look exactly like hers–

long slim fingers and grandma’s double jointed thumbs.

They’re curled up in tiny fists above your head

in the abandon of sleep,

yet warm and ever ready to grasp my finger

instead is still, pale, and cold.

In this bittersweet place

I love you both

and want to give you everything:

all the affection and tenderness

I wished to give her

but also want to give you for yourself.

I drink deeply both of sorrow and of joy.

How life and death are woven together

–intertwined–

in this strange tapestry where all the shadows

make the colours brighter.

What is painful

and what is precious

have become inseparable

and love runs through it all.

Selfishness, Responsibilty and a Blue Couch 


Selfishness is so easy. It’s so easy to focus on yourself and blame all your troubles on others. Doing so allows us to stay in a state of inaction: there is “nothing” we can do about our problems because they are “not our fault.” Someone else is to blame. But this attitude dooms us to shadow-boxing all our lives–flailing out our arms uselessly to hit the imaginary causers of our own difficulties. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we discover that the source of our brokenness is within. Even if we were isolated from all others in a tiny hermitage, we would still struggle. This is a sobering thought. It means we have to rise from our stupor and take responsibility for our lives. Only we can change them for the better. 

But while we can take positive steps towards small changes for the better, healing our brokenness is not something we can do alone. We can’t make ourselves never grumpy, annoyed, snappy, imprudent, lazy or selfish etc by our willpower alone. We are like broken light bulbs whose wires are not connected, so the electricity can’t flow through them. We need to reconnect those wires by joining our hands in prayer, so the grace of God can flow through us and help us to shine. 

In the bustle of daily life, it can be easy to forget this. We get wrapped up in our troubles and forget to ask for help. We forget to pray for our needs, and for the grace to bear hardships cheerfully. But God is just waiting to show us signs of His affection, if we open our hearts to receive it. Sometimes His generosity is very concrete. Recently my Dad and I went on a wild goose chase search for a second-hand dresser for my eldest daughter. We drove all over, even out of town, and checked three stores with no luck.  We saw a couch I liked which could replace our old beat-up red one, but I couldn’t get a-hold of my husband at work to ask his opinion. It was a hot, tiring day and nothing seemed to be quite working. 

But the next day, the reason for our fruitless search was made clear: there was something  better waiting for us. A block from our house, my Dad spotted an estate sale with gorgeous furniture. There was a beautiful maple dressed in perfect condition for $45. And even more lovely, an antique Coombs couch and matching armchair, with wooden finish and lovely blue upholstery for $250 together. I don’t know what their original price would have been, but the reupholstering alone would have cost $2000 in the ’80’s! Talk about score. Furthermore, they were willing to deliver the furniture to our house, which was another godsend, because some things are just too darn big for my double stroller (we don’t have a car). 


So this is just a little reminder, to myself as much as to anyone else, to take time to join my hands in prayer, reconnect with God and let His love flow through me. If we could all shine our little lights, instead of staying in the darkness of anger and blame, how gorgeous the world would be. Like a glowing Christmas tree, every little light sharing its warmth with the others. In a time of uncertainty and violence, I think the peacefulness of this image is one worth focusing on, hoping and praying for. God bless you all. 

Shining Eyes

At the back of the church

a woman rocks a smiling disabled boy.

Her delight in him–not even her own child–is obvious.

 

“Look at your smile,” she coos,

wiping his face with a soft rag

in a gesture that is more a caress

than anything else.

 

All this is not distraction

but divine work.

As the choir sings of the incarnation

and the boy’s eyes shine,

the woman knows she is touching

a piece of Heaven.

 

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!