Upstairs, Downstairs

This poem was written for my former downstairs neighbour and dear friend who has now returned home to Egypt with her husband and children. It was an honour and a joy to share our lives with them, and to find a warm connection that overcame any differences.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms everywhere!! Peace be with you. May you always be supported, embraced and encouraged by your fellow moms all over the world! Go team! 🙂

 

Upstairs: a crazy crew of kids

six littles bouncing, dancing, singing, banging.

Downstairs: two small sweeties,

running, shouting, playing, laughing.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the mothers scold, cook, cuddle and caress.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the mothers mother

day and night.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women sing

in Arabic and English,

songs of faith and lullabies

unique yet universal,

of one heart.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women weep,

mourn lost babies–

precious ones snatched away too soon–

in each other’s arms

these mothers find warm comfort.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women pray,

observe Lent and Ramadan,

break their fasts and rejoice together

over homemade sweets.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women hope,

cherishing the new lives

nestled in their wombs…

little tiny babies

due at the same time.

May they be best friends!!

 

In the world there is hatred

but not in our house.

Upstairs, downstairs

there is love.

 

Moments of Glory

So many times

life in a large family

is like swimming in the ocean

tossed about by salty waves,

trying to catch your breath between tantrums.

Then there are those moments of glory

when your kids are all getting along

and the baby is sleeping while your eldest girls

do a duet on their ukuleles.

That moment is one of perfect rest,

like you’ve climbed upon a wooden raft,

the waveworn wood smooth against your skin,

the sun’s warm weight on your back.

At that moment you question nothing.

Self-doubt sinks below the waves

and you float there

–happy–

trusting for that moment

that everything is grace.

Twilight

That lonely hour

between the day and night

between the dark and light

that lonely hour is here

The darkness–not yet complete–

the day–bittersweet–flying away

What could have been or should have been

is over now

My heart’s afloat in this no man’s land

between hanging on, letting go and giving in

accepting that the day was enough

Evening falls on sleepy-eyed dreams of tomorrow

Solitude surrounds me

this lonely hour

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.

The snow lies still

The snow lies still upon the rooftops.

From a few houses

smoke rises in a misty haze

and the streetlights blaze

like midnight suns.

All is silent

except the steady breathing of my toddler

whom I’m rocking back to sleep.

In the upper bedroom

across the street

insomnia reigns

and the blue lights of the television

flash out a noiseless dance.

But the snow lies still upon the rooftops

and silence greets my sleepy glance outside.

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.”

 

 

 

Confidence Comes From a Place of Quiet


We live in a society filled with experts. There are specialists who are eager and willing to tell you how to do just about everything. Want to clean out your closet? Feed your kids well? Wear the right colour for your hair? Thrive in the workplace? There are likely dozens of e-courses, books and podcasts to teach you how. Let’s just hope they all agree…lest the conflicting “experts” cause more confusion and give you even less clarity. 

While the abundance of information is potentially enriching, I wonder what it does to our confidence to feel we need to consult an expert or extensively research every decision. Who are we, after all, to decide for ourselves? And are we actually doing anything right??

This kind of insecurity can rob us of peace. It’s impossible to follow everyone’s advice, in the same way it’s impossible to wash your hair with every kind of shampoo that claims to be best. It would make you crazy to try. So we have to calmly make choices and stand by them.  Nobody else knows how to be you. Remember this, and don’t go against your gut because something is currently trendy or thought to be essential. These things change all the time anyway. 

But to shut out these clamouring voices, we need to seek a place of quiet. To turn off all our many devices and remember what it’s like to hang out with ourselves. With no add breaks. No interruptions. Just our own thoughts, and if we listen carefully enough, that still, small voice that guides our heart. The company of the one true Expert, the One who made us and knows every fibre of our being…who knows what challenges, graces, and gifts we need to be truly happy. In this place, we can remember who we are and what’s really important. 


So as the busy fall season approaches with all its potential activities, try to ask yourself quietly: “Which of these will actually contribute to the well-being of my family?” “What do we actually feel called to do?” “Which of these would maybe look good on a resumé, but lead us to being overbooked, overstressed, and short on time to enjoy being together with those we love?” 

If you ask such things quietly, peacefully, and in an attitude of listening, chances are your heart will guide you. And acting from a place of quiet, you’ll have the confidence to stand by your decisions, despite the storm of “expert” opinions ever swirling around you. In that inner quiet, you’ll find the freedom to be you.