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.

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.

Christmas and the fragile gift of life

It’s easy at Christmas to feel as though you should write something joyful and sparkly…like a glimmering Christmas ball…round, perfect and whole. We yearn for such happiness, particularly at Christmas, when it seems possible to snatch down a little piece of a Heaven and bask in its glow in our very homes…but for how many is this image a real reflection of Christmas?

For many people, their Christmas balls have been cracked, chipped, or even shattered. Somehow the imperfections of this life, of our particular family or health situations, stand out more strongly when we compare them with the cosy images on Christmas cards. The innocence of a child, face glowing with anticipation of the ‘perfect’ happiness to be found in the toy shop window trimmed with sparkling snow, has been robbed from many of us as life’s tougher trials have set in.

For myself and many friends, one of these trials is the suffering of seeing aging parents struggling with their health. The ones who have meant our stability and safety in the world are now often clinging to life as to a very fragile gift, one we can’t guarantee won’t break. As we grow, we realize just how many things are out of our control. Like how major surgery will go for a beloved parent on Christmas Eve. And -thank goodness!-it went well, which was the best Christmas present by far this year.

In this age of instant gratification and micromanaging, Christmas is a powerful reminder that the things that matter most–life, love, family and friends–are beyond our control–in fact are complete and utter gifts. Ones we should give thanks for every day. Ones we should never take for granted. Life is vulnerable and precious, and it is made sweeter by those who are willing to experience it with us, suffering and all.

One of them is a baby, one who chose to leave the perfect safely and joy of Heaven to lay down on straw with us, to experience cold, hunger, loneliness and fear with us. The “I am Who am” became the “I am Who am with you.” Emmanuel. God with us, every step of the way.

Comforted by this divine tenderness, let’s stir up our hearts to look forward to the new year with trust and joy, because despite all our struggles, we are always loved, and never really alone. These are my thoughts as I anticipate meeting my new baby daughter next week, 3 weeks early because my pregnancy liver condition means that sooner is safer. Little one, you are a precious, fragile gift, and I can’t wait to hold you with great joy!

Merry Christmas, everyone, and peace be with you and yours in 2018.

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. 

Thanks, Mum

Perhaps motherhood is less about who we are
and more about who we let our children become.

Thanks, Mum, for letting me become me.

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Thanks for letting me play in the dirt,
build forts in the woods
and climb trees taller than our house.

Thank you for my brothers–
companions in the world of pretend,
where winter was always coming
and we had to stock our pantry with
meat and potatoes–
pine cones and red chunks of log.

Thanks for giving me my own tiny garden
to grow flowers and cucumbers
and look for fairies in the morning dewdrops.

Thanks for letting me stay up late reading
“The Hobbit” and “Anne of Green Gables,”
and for those quiet chats before bed,
when the hectic bustle of the day was over
and you lay in your long cosy nightgown,
listening to me.

Thanks for taking me travelling
to live overseas,
to speak a new language
and see so many places
beyond our small town in Canada.
(It was awesome, eh?)

Thanks for making those thousands of school lunches
and the unimaginable amounts of laundry,
for letting me play soccer and do drama
and especially for coming to my plays.

Thanks for encouraging me to write, take pictures and chase dreams.

And as I read stories to my own brood of elves and fairies,
build forts and make gardens with them,
I smile at getting to be a kid again,
your happy daughter, still.

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The four stages of happiness

“The Happiness Project” author Gretchen Rubin identifies four stages of happiness. According to her research, “the key to happiness is squeezing out as much happiness as possible from a happy event.” “To eke out the most happiness from an experience,” she explains, ” we must anticipate it, savor it as it unfolds, express happiness, and recall a happy memory.”

Anticipate, savour, express and recall. It is worth asking ourselves how much we do these things. Do we really enjoy our blessings, or do we allow happy moments or pleasant events to slip by without acknowledging them? Rubin feels that the awareness of being happy contributes greatly to our overall level of happiness. This is a good reminder to practice gratitude and to express it. It’s a good way to be happy and to share our joy.

The other night the younger kids fell asleep a little bit early (hallelujah!), so I got to snuggle my 8-year-old while my eldest read us Harry Potter. It was a cosy, relaxing moment and I made sure to really savour it. And then to tell people about it, and write about it…and so to make that simple happiness stretch from moments to days.

One of the beautiful things about childhood is making happy memories, and storing them up in our souls the way a dragon hoards gold…to bring us warmth and glimmer on rainy days. What is your favourite childhood memory? Have you told anyone about it recently? What is your favourite new memory? Recall and express it, and watch your happiness grow.

K.I.S.S…keep it simple, sweetheart!

Sometimes as a mom it can be easy to get drawn in a million directions, until you find yourself stretched thin, as Bilbo Baggins says, like butter spread over too much toast. It could be million good things…family, friends, hobbies, writing, work, reaching out to those in need…all things you’re passionate about, but–when added up–require more than you can reasonably give.

When this happens my mother-in-law, who happily is a great friend, reminds me to K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Sweetheart (or stupid…whatever works!). Time to step back, re-evaluate priorities, and see how things can be simplified so the most important things don’t suffer. What really matters most? Which things are too important to mess up? As my friend Monique told her teenage son when he was feeling overwhelmed: “You can’t do everything well. You can do a few things well or everything badly.”

It’s hard to step back from the frenzy of constant multitasking to quietly reflect. But it is also essential. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Can we really say that we are living intentionally, that is with passion and purpose, if we don’t periodically stop to reflect on life?


This rhythm of action, rest, and reflection can help bring more harmony to our lives and help us to be more present to the around us who matter most. This is why we need a special day each week to rest, pray and play (and not just soccer tournaments!). But we also need these moments every day. Tiny moments to gather ourselves and be recollected, so we can better face the chaos. I’m primarily writing this for myself. The other day I was texting two separate people at the same time while looking up something online and feeding my baby. Crazy…

In a recent talk I watched (in an online conference for moms) by a psychologist specializing in eating disorders, the speaker said that one of the things that drains our willpower and saps our strength (besides lack of sleep) is making many decisions.. . This could be in tricky meetings, in navigating traffic, making dinner while juggling kids, or even the many tiny decisions of how and when to respond to the beeps and bells on our phone. So I’m pretty sure that constant multitasking, and all the decision-making it involves, is something that drains our will power and makes us susceptible to impatience and exhaustion. This does not help us be the best mom, spouse, friend etc, we can be.

Dr. Susan Pierce Thompson said there are a few things studies have found will restore our will power, and recharge it like a battery pack getting plugged in. These things make us more able to calmly cope with life’s challenges. These were:

1. Sleep (I’ve heard of it…😉) Without sufficient sleep our will power is seriously compromised. Rather than trying to ruthlessly carry on, Dr. Susan recommends becoming a “sleep-seeking missile.” Get a nap in or get to bed ASAP. So many emotional struggles are simply signs of sleep deprivation. 
2.Temporal, sensory contact with friends…that is social time that is face to face or at least on the phone to hear a friendly voice and get an immediate response to our words. Online interaction doesn’t have this restorative function. 
3. Meditation. Even 3-5 minutes of quiet, deep breathing. In your office…or even bathroom (till the hoards of toddlers find you!) or on a walk outside.
4. Prayer. Brain scans show our bio-rhythms become more calm and we are better able to cope.
5. Gratitude. Make a little list of things you’re grateful for. Take a moment to reflect and give thanks.
6. Acts of service. Doing things for others out of love. Freely making efforts to help another person be happy, instead of feeling sorry for yourself. Trying to do your duties cheerfully. 

If we find ourselves too busy for these things…for taking care of our own need for sleep, prayer and friendship, we should realize we are too busy and that something has to go, for our sake and that of those we love most, who may be getting the short end of the stick. We need to take care of ourselves, or we will run out of fuel to take care of others. This means even finding moments for our passions and hobbies. Things that take us outside of time and make us forget everything else…dance, writing, skating, playing music or whatever makes you really happy. Dr. Susan referred to these kinds of activities as “flow:” things that make you feel like a kid again for a moment, and let everything else fade away, even just for a short time.


So stop, reflect, be grateful, and see what you can let go of so you have more time to play. And with a joyful heart you’ll also be better able to serve and to love.

It’s you, Dad

If there’s a reason 

I can understand

unconditional love,

it’s you, Dad.

If there’s a reason I feel 

that anything is possible

it’s you, Dad.

If there’s a reason I know

that understanding and compassion

matter far more than 

position or wealth,

it’s you, Dad.

If there’s a reason I know 

that gentleness and self-sacrifice

are the signs of true strength

it’s you, Dad.

If there’s a reason I can understand

that God is our merciful Father

who delights in being with us

it’s you, Dad.

Thank you for a life of tenderness.

Thank you for always cheering me on

and protecting my heart.

You will always be my father,

and I’m so glad it’s you, Dad.
  

5 Simple ways to grow in the virtue of poverty this Lent

  
One of the things my family is trying to do this Lent is to grow in the virtue of poverty, in order to better appreciate our many blessings, and to be able to share them more with others. We were inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si to be more aware of what we consume and to not waste food when so many go hungry. 
Here are some simple ideas you could try as well.

1. Unless you plan to freeze it right away, make just enough food for your meal. Often leftovers get left for too long and end up in the compost! Or if you do have leftovers, take them for lunch instead of eating out at work. 

2. Try to use up what’s in your cupboards, instead of always buying more food. Sometimes this is a good creative challenge! This week I made French Onion soup with my many onions, Chocolate Pumpkin Loaf with a can of pumpkin in the cupboard, Lentil Dahl and rice with my cans of tomatoes and coconut milk, gnocchi with frozen peas and rosé sauce, and some good old beans and toast! Instead of a fancy salad, we had slices of apples or fresh veggies on the side. 

3. Eat more vegetarian. Things like beans, rice and veggies are cheap and nutritious, and can be cooked in tons of different delicious ways. Go on Pinterest for inspiring yummy photos.

4. Make use of the last drop…After my morning coffee I’ve been pouring that little extra bit of coffee from my French press into a glass Starbucks bottle, then adding a little milk and sugar and putting it in the fridge. Voilá! Now my afternoon coffee is ready! 

5. Don’t buy anything unnecessary. Shop from your closet. Find those things you forgot about in the back of your wardrobe and combine them in new ways. Enjoy the liberty of choosing to be happy without those new shoes or that new gadget. You are bigger than that. Our hearts weren’t meant do be filled with mere stuff. 

Perhaps it does not appeal to give up things or be frugal, but we have to ask ourselves, if we can’t give up even little things for a short time, are we truly free? Also, the less we “need” the more we can give, and the richer we truly are. 

What do you like to do to live more simply?