We Begin Again
A dear friend sent me a note in a Christmas card and I can’t get it out of my head.
May Christmas be extra special as we celebrate our nomad Savior who was always beginning again.
Maybe it’s just my little corner of the internet, but it seems like many of us are struggling. We’re weary, wounded, numbed, and needing. We’ve been through a hell of a lot in the last couple of years and the shreds of hope many have clung to have revealed themselves to be just that: shreds, not solutions.
Progress these days might feel like one step forward, two steps back. Many of us are lonely, lying in the leftovers of relationships that didn’t ride out challenges the way we expected them to. Or maybe we’re finding ourselves in new beginnings, drowning in imposter syndrome and wondering if everything we’ve done is a big mistake. If we’re a big mistake.
Christmas brings birth. It’s not the birth of the New Year with sequins and confetti and sparkling promises. It’s the birth of sacrifice. It’s the blood, the doubt, the sweaty brow, the smells of humanity and straw. Birth is not shiny and perfect. There are fluids and animal-like noises, effort, and pain. There is an immaculate form drawn open, widening to the point of breaking, through which newness enters, the fragile newness of a slippery baby sent here just to die.
The birth offered by Christmas is raw and ridiculous. After all, who ever heard of a king being born in a barn, much less God Himself? It’s so absurd that the Creator would want us so badly, desire us so deeply that He’d take the form of a wrinkly baby with a face (most likely) like that of Winston Churchill. And yet He did.
This refugee King, working with His hands, humbly knocked the world on its ear and continues to this day.
Guys, I know things seem dark. I know that we’re all exhausted from the arguing and the anxiety. We’re worried for our countries, for our families, for our freedoms, for our faiths. We feel so deeply and struggle to understand our neighbors and to even want to love them.
But I keep coming back to the Christmas card. We celebrate a nomad Savior who was always beginning again.
If, this Christmas, you feel homeless, so was He.
If you feel misunderstood by the people who are supposed to love you most, so was He.
If you’re navigating a road that requires bone deep sacrifice, so was He.
If you’re wandering in the desert, wrestling temptation, so was He.
If you are unsettled by the way things are and the systems of power, so was He.
If you are misjudged and misrepresented, so was He.
Our nomad Savior, the wandering healer who found belonging nowhere miraculously belongs to us all.
And so we begin again.
Our circumstances may be less than ideal this Christmas. Our world is broken now just as it was at the very moment of Our Lady’s final push which thrust Divinity into our wounded world. We cannot fix our situations. We cannot wish our worries away or secure an easier path for ourselves or our families.
But we can begin again.
Every misstep, every sin, every failing is an opportunity to return to him. Every sharp word or resentful sigh is an invitation to cradle the Baby to our chests, to breathe Him in and let the soft Newborn held against our broken hearts teach us how to submit ourselves to the Father.
We begin again and again and again as many times as it takes to get us to holiness, daily chipping away at the things that rebel against Him.
We begin again and take comfort in a nomad Savior who knows all about new beginnings.
We begin again taking comfort that we already know the ending.
Birth is Death is Birth
Today my oldest son turns 8. It is also the 25th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen, hands down my favorite spiritual writer of our time.
As I contemplate the birth of my son and the death of my hero, I circle back to a truth that rarely escapes me: birth and death are inextricably connected. There’s so much more death to birth than I think we realize.
Death is part of a much greater and much deeper event, the fullness of which we cannot comprehend, but of which we know that it is a life-bringing event….What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning; what seemed to be a cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage; what seemed to be defeat proved to be a victory; and what seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope. Suddenly a wall becomes a gate, and although we are not able to say with much clarity or precision what lies beyond the gate, the tone of all that we do and say on our way to the gate changes drastically.Henri Nouwen
Every birth I attend as a doula cements this truth in my mind. As I prepare my clients for their labors, they confide their worries, their fears, their anxieties to me.
“What if I can’t handle it?”
“What if the pain is too much?”
“What if I’m unpleasant/too loud/too demanding/not able to speak up?”
Each prenatal visit finds me steadying them, reminding them of what is true, reinforcing their purpose in this event, reminding them that this is sacred work that they do not have to do alone.
And every birth finds my clients face to face with those worries. Looking those anxieties straight in the eyes, nose to nose with the very things they fear will overcome them…and every time, they conquer.
What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning.
What seemed to be the cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage.
What seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope.
I have seen so many walls become gates, so many women die to themselves, their very identities cracking open to let in new life. I have experienced the despair of transition that signals the imminence of breakthrough, of birth.
Women and men do not walk away from their births unchanged. The person they were before that baby enters the world is not who they are when the midwives finish up and the lights go back down. Birth requires death. Death requires transformation. Transformation becomes a gate to higher levels of holiness and a new understanding of the human experience.
Today I’m pondering all this as I celebrate my newly minted 8 year old, my biggest baby and most peaceful birth. I’m pondering his birth as I think of all the ways we’ve cumulatively died over the last couple of years: so much suffering, so many disappointments, and looming monsters that have forced us all to face fears we never even verbalized.
Our labor is long and hard, fraught with complications, progress alternatively piercing us to the core and seemingly stalling out. If we only view our life experience as hardship and pain, it’s certainly tempting to medicate ourselves with whatever will numb us out. There’s plenty to try: shopping, porn, hidden stashes of cookies, crime dramas that drown out reality. endless hours of scrolling. Of course epidurals and medications aren’t inherently bad. In fact they’re a very effective tool. However, if our motivation in using them is total avoidance of the experience, they’re less of a help and ultimately disappoint. A good epidural takes the edge off while allowing the patient to actively participate in her labor. I fear that many of us would rather feel nothing at all than engage in the dirty work of living. I fear that of myself, most especially.
If we neglect to view our labor through the lens of eternity, we hug up against the wall without ever allowing it to become a gate. The temptation is always there to focus on the hard stuff without letting it transform us. Yes it feels unrelenting, but each contraction brings change, each pain brings progress, each ache is an opportunity to allow ourselves to gradually open up and birth new life into the world.
I don’t know what God is calling you to bring into being. I’m not sure if you’re living in the expectancy of a growing baby, a growing dream, or a growing desire to commit yourself to hard work worth doing. Perhaps you’re living in the static of just honestly not knowing. I don’t know what your fears are, but I’d guess they have something to do with not being good enough for this thing you’re being asked to do. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll fail. I hope you do. I hope you fail and fail well. Maybe you’re afraid of change. Transition is definitely the hardest part of life and of labor. It’s that point of no return when we find ourselves just done with the job at hand, but too far in to turn back now. I’m sure there are nagging doubts and imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. There are for me. That’s why I write as infrequently as I do, even though I know this is the hard holy work I’ve been tasked to do.
There’s no way for me to know where the gate leads for any of us. I can’t predict what horizons lie on the other side. But in all the haziness, I can remind us of what I know is true. I can remind you of what I know without a doubt. You were chosen for this purpose. You are the only one who can birth this child, this idea, this dream, this product into the world. You are necessary to this specific labor. This will be incredibly hard, but it will not overcome you because it comes from you, from a place deep inside you that is fed by the Holy Spirit and sustained by the communion of Saints. If you approach this birth through the eyes of eternity, you’ll see that you will never labor in vain. If you allow yourself to be transformed, the Lord will use you as co-creator, you will be a channel through which newness enters the earth.
Birth is death is birth. One requires the other. One begets the next. Each is heartbreaking, good, and beautiful. Both will wreck and ruin us in all the best ways.
So my prayer today is one of humility and obedience.
Lord, let me do this work not for what I will gain from it, but because it is what you have called me to. Help me to be faithful when strength is failing and humble in my pursuit of holiness. Let me submit myself to suffering, use it all to transform me into the person you created me to be. Use me as an instrument of your grace and help me to truly desire all these things I pray for. Let each and every death bear forth a birth more spectacular than the last. Grant me eyes to see it and the courage to run tirelessly towards every dead end that leads to you. Amen.
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Time to dust of Ye Olde Blogue and clear away the cobwebs because I was given the most gloriously amazing gift ever of all time and I’d like to rub it in your faces. Or at least brag a little. Or really just invite you to join me as I continue to revel in the joy that this gift has been/continues to be to me.
Whatever, just look at what my husband got me for Valentine’s Day.
Y’all we do not really “do” Valentine’s Day. But my husband is both a gentleman and a scholar and he’s also one of those people with gift giving as a love language, so I am usually taken by surprise by him showering me with something awesome when I least expect it. I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, in the next 12 years of our marriage I’ll figure out that when we say we’re not exchanging gifts we don’t really mean it.
So aaaanyway, we’re still super social distancing over here for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is I’ve got to stay clean for the family and all my doula clients. (Shameless plug, I’ve got availability for late spring/early summer, so I am here for all your pandemic baby needs. Hit me up on my other neglected website.)
I’ve been real lonely is what I’m saying. Homeschooling has kept me busy and we’re all still loving it, but I pine for adult interaction and Mondays are so hard when my husband goes back to work and I’m left at home as the marshal of the Lord of the Flies parade.
Knowing all this, my husband gave me this thoughtfully designed pillow for Valentine’s Day:
There aren’t words.
Y’all, I pulled it out of the bag and couldn’t get past the eyes. I literally cackled so hard it scared the children and I had to sit down on the floor because I was so overcome.
I laughed so hard I cried…which then turned into a real cry, like a full on half-sobbing ugly cry, which is exactly what my nonemotional husband was going for, I’m sure. While this is maybe the most bizarre gift ever, I really needed it and he knew that, which is so sweet in a really weird way. Shoot, half of the beauty of this gift was the emotional pressure release I got from laughing/crying so hard. Apparently I was at Instantpot emotional pressure levels, so it felt good to let it all out, you know? (Also, yeah. I’m at the point in life where I’m comparing my feelings to my pressure cooker. We have a very complex and intimate relationship, okay?)
I cannot tell you the immense pleasure it brings me to walk past my bedroom and see that dumb face staring back at me. I mean, some women like jewelry, I guess, but as for me and my house we appreciate a giant face pillow to remind us we’re loved.
So, basically, this pillow is the greatest gift of all time and I cannot wait to grow old with it. I also cannot wait to use it to scare my children. That will offer years and years of fun. But I’m most excited to hang onto it forever and always so that when we’re old grandparents, we can casually leave it out on the couch as a throw pillow to make all of our progeny uncomfortable. I am giggling just thinking about it. Can you imagine going to visit your grandparents and on the sofa is a giant pillow of your grandfather’s face forever preserved in his mid-thirties?? “Don’t talk about the pillow, kids, you’ll just set your grandmother off again and her heart can’t take that much cackling.” I can’t wait. Oh gosh, or even having it out when the kids bring their boyfriends/girlfriends over to meet us for the first time?? Or when they bring anyone over ever??? I mean, regardless, I’ll be in my 80’s when any of this plays out, but I’m excited by the endless possibilities is what I’m saying.
I also feel like, if for some reason my horrible children don’t want it once we pass away, it’ll make a phenomenal estate sale find for a stranger. Either way it’s a win/win.
Now, for the curious among you, you can order your own such pillow here. Do note that my pillow is the medium size, so there are smaller and larger options depending on what kind of space you’re working with. The photo resolution is top notch, I must say, so don’t hesitate to order yours in the largest, creepiest size possible. Do note, that it’s double sided, so if for any reason one side of your face pillow is maimed, you can just flip it over and you’re good to go! Also, they’re made in the USA, so this is also a very patriotic gift that will stimulate our economy. You need one. You know you do.
We’ve also had the thought that the face is only the beginning. Vinnie mentioned to me that he’s considering making this a collectible situation where I’ll receive a new body part every year. You know, like those collectible Christmas villages or Precious Moments figurines where there’s only one new piece released every year and you have to get ’em while they’re hot or your set will be incomplete. So, if I don’t get the kneecap in ’25, I’ll be out of luck forever, doomed to check Ebay for an overpriced auction, constantly worried that I’m getting a fake and not a true original. What a life that would be. Obviously some parts will be super limited edition, if you know what I mean. (I had to go there in order to beat you cretins to the punch since I am well aware of the maturity level of my audience.)
Alright, I’m signing off before this devolves any further. Y’all go sit in your pit of jealousy while I go cuddle my giant husband face. Love you wonderful fools who keep reading this stuff. You’re all magnificent and I’m so grateful to have you in my corner. Happy Valentine’s Weekend…You are loved!
On Giving, On Receiving
We’re almost there, gang. It’s Christmas Eve Eve (historically noted as the longest day ever in the history of long days, especially if you are a child or the parent of small children). We’re *this* close to the culmination of all of our Advent waiting and there’s much hustle and bustle to finish up last-minute preparations.
All of that looks different this year, of course. Added to the anticipation of the holiday is some extra heartache and anxiety…you know, just to keep things spicy. It’s always easy to get caught up and swept away by this time of year and to lose focus of the bigger picture but this year has added stress in places most of us haven’t previously navigated. The shadow of the pandemic has created an environment of panicked searching of tracking numbers and shipping notifications. Many of us won’t be seeing our family and friends this holiday, so more emphasis is placed on exchanging gifts in a different way, more stress is put on the fear that things won’t make it in time, or there are too many gifts for one kid and not enough for the other one so now we have to take our lives into our hands and go back to Target, and why are we even doing a secret Santa this year anyway, and what’s even the point, and on and on and on.
To which I say, “Woah Nelly.”
Be still. Take a breath.
Let’s take a minute to break it down together and consider our relationship to giving and receiving in general.
Here’s what my pal, Henri, has to say.
A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other’s capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other’s capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is given to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love.Henri Nouwen
Okay, so why are we giving gifts? The obvious answer is that gift giving is a way to communicate love to one another. Taking the time to curate and research a lovely gift for someone is tangible proof of our thoughtfulness and consideration for them. Gosh that’s beautiful. It is such a good and valuable thing.
As with many good and valuable things in our world, giving and receiving can so easily be twisted. Somehow what was initially a physical act of love toward our father-in-law becomes a competition with our spouse’s siblings. What was a way to show our boss how much we appreciate her becomes an opportunity to advance our career. What was meant to be a helpful gift becomes a physical manifestation of the way we think someone ought to be living their life. Worse, we often give out of obligation not real generosity, a motive that is easily communicated to the recipient.
The same goes with receiving. What was meant as a helpful gift from our parents is received as commentary on our lifestyle. That gift that is not equivalent to the one we offered is a physical manifestation of our value in the eyes of the giver. Perhaps we receive an extravagant gift and feel somehow less than, unworthy, or worse exploited. Did they really want to give me that huge present or are they using me to show off?
What was meant to be a good and beautiful thing for the other becomes about us: If he likes this gift enough, I’ll know that he’s really into me. If their gift is better than mine, my gift was not enough. I am not enough. If I give them this cleaning system, maybe they’ll actually take care of their home the right way. If the kids love these toys, they’ll love me. If they gave me this huge gift it means I will owe them something. I can’t accept that expensive thing because I don’t deserve it.
Remember what’s true.
No amount of gifts or any signs of generosity can define us the way Christ does. Gifts do not serve to be trophies or monuments that prove our belovedness. They are, rather, tools to communicate that we see and love others right where they are.
Receiving an extravagant gift has nothing to do with our inherent value. It is not a commentary on our financial or social status. It shouldn’t challenge our view of our own worthiness. It is, perhaps, an opportunity to receive and by receiving, bless the giver. Allowing others to love us in the way that they are able is a gift in and of itself.
When we don’t feel worthy to receive a gift or don’t feel deserving of extravagance from loved ones, we must consider what “deserving” even means. None of us is getting what we deserve…at least I pray that we aren’t! We are all sinners, all fall short of the glory of God. Christ never gives us what we actually deserve, praise God. The entire point of Christmas is that we are given exactly what we do not deserve, the ultimate extravagant gift: salvation. So “deserving” shouldn’t really play into receiving gifts. It can be a humbling thing to receive a gift that we don’t feel worthy of. Let’s use it as an opportunity to embrace humility, remembering our Savior who offers us His precious body and blood specifically because we are not deserving.
The reaction of the recipient to our gift is not about us. We should give, not out of an expectation of approval from the person to whom we are giving, but purely to bless them and love them no strings attached. It sounds silly, but we need to give to one another with open hands. We need to give without expectation. Generosity doesn’t follow up two months later to see if they’re using that new Roomba properly or scan their social media posts to see if they’re sporting that new scarf. Generosity is giving with open hands, trusting that our identity and value does not rest in whether or not someone appreciates what we have to offer.
Whatever the next few days look like for you, I pray that you will take Truth deep into your core and settle into it. Giving and receiving are not about you. No pile of presents, no number of lost packages, late arrivals, or any offering that doesn’t quite hit the mark can touch the truth of who you are in the eyes of the Creator. You are good. Full stop. You are lovely and loved. Period. You are valuable and worthy just as you are, just where you are. So are the people you’re giving to this Christmas. The gift of yourself in all your imperfect humanity is the most beautiful offering you can give. Receiving the ugly, imperfect, confusing, frustrating humans in your life and loving them despite all that is receiving Christ’s call to us all.
I pray that we’ll all be able to give and receive with open hands this Christmas. My prayer as we round out this year is that we’ll find Him. In the absences at the table and the disappointments and the anxious fears about being good enough or making the right choice to travel or anger over how that uncle voted or worry that these people we’re related to don’t actually really know us, I pray that we will feel His presence.
He’s there. He really is. In the piles of wrapping paper and the beat up boxes that arrive three days late. In the sibling arguments and the absolutely awful presents, He’s there. He’s waiting for us. The baby will be born and laid in a manger and He’s waiting. He will grow up to be beaten, bruised, mangled, and murdered for us. He’s here in the midst of the hurt and the mess, in the giving and receiving of gifts, deeply present in these presents we’ve chosen that try to hijack our worthiness. He’s there quietly repeating the foundational truth of our belovedness: He came specifically for us. He chose this. He chose us.
Merriest Christmas, my beautiful friends. You are so, incredibly loved.
Advent Round Up
Hey, gang! It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when we get to dig into the excitement and anticipation, slap some glitter on the world, and snuggle close to twinkly lights while we watch movies with impossible plots that get tied up too neatly with bows. Gracious, we need this time now more than ever, am I right?
DISCLAIMER: If you’re not boobs deep in garland right now, you can just excuse yourself. As for me and my blog, we holiday hard, mmmkay? Kthanxbyeeee.
I recently posted about our Kindness Elves on Instagram and have gotten some questions about our Advent traditions, so I figured I’d do a quick round up of what we’ve got going on around here this season in case you’d like some ideas to make the season special!
Did I sound like a real life influencer there? I hope so because that’s the vibe I’m going for. The truth is I posted *a* post about our elves and exactly *one* person mentioned it to me, sooooo now I’mma do a whole post about it like Buddy the Elf and no one can stop me! The real real truth is that I’m getting lonely in this one room locked down schoolhouse and I thrive on words of affirmation, which I strangely do not receive from the pupils here at the Delagrange School of Witchcraft and Other Crafts But Please Don’t Make Us Do Math.
What I’m saying is, I’ve had two good days of homeschooling in a row and I need to brag about it.
Also our traditions make me happy and I’m very opinionated about Advent and Christmas and that’s what the internet is for: sharing unsolicited advice and opinions.
Read on if you enjoy casually looking at the goings on in other people’s homes but don’t plan to execute any of their plans in your own abode.
Read on if you’re looking for some ideas that make you look like you’ve got your shit together, when in reality your laundry mountain is less and mountain now and more of a clean clothes version of a gelatinous cube that’s taking over your living room. It’s legit kind of cube shaped over here because it’s been in the baskets for so long…rectangular prism shaped I guess if you want to get picky, but like I said, I don’t do math.
Please do not read on if you’re already feeling vulnerable or less than and watching me blather on about my stuff will make you feel like you’re not doing enough. I swear to you, you’re doing more than enough and also you’re a majestic man or woman beast with great legs and gorgeous hair, some of which is maybe on your legs. We are here to celebrate that and not compare ourselves because I guarantee you that you’re nailing a bunch of stuff I’m not. Like math. (Though this seems like the right moment to humble brag that Facebook alerted me the other day that thirteen years ago I scored a 97 on a math test, so booyah!)
General Advent/Christmas Manifesto:
In this house we believe in Santa and magic and Santa Magic. I have a firm belief that if you stop believing in magic, then magical things stop happening to you. I will stand by that until my dying day. So, yes, we believe in Santa Claus, fairies, elves, Mickey Mouse, Dolly Parton, and all glorious magical beings. The end.
In this house we believe even more deeply in Jesus. So, while Santa brings us gifts, we do not subscribe to any belief or threat (however tempting it may be) that children who misbehave will not receive gifts. That’s bullslaw and we all know it.
Any time it comes up I remind my kids that we exchange gifts as a way to celebrate the gift of Christ…you know, the innocent baby who was God actively choosing to be born into poverty and who eventually grew up and died a horrible death for our sins because he wanted to be with us in eternity even though we most decidedly do not deserve that grace? Yeah, that’s the one. So yes children, you’ll still get a gift if you’re a punk, but please for the love of Baby Jesus stop being a punk.
We reinforce this by focusing on scripture, advent readings, celebrating St. Nicholas, San Juan Diego, Our Lady of Guadalupe and all of the other awesome feast days in December, etc. Read below for specific activities we do during Advent.
(No comparison, though, you cotton headed ninny muggins!)
Kindness Elves: Because of my stance on Santa, I obv have a great snobbery against Ye Olde Elf on the Shelf. He’s a nark and snitches get stitches. I do, however, love elves who are not tattletales, so we have Kindness Elves who engage in general tomfoolery and also leave us little kindness challenges. They might bring us fun new holiday scented soaps and ask us to pray for those fighting Covid every time we wash our hands. Or the elves might ask us to memorize a scripture or read a particular book about the nativity story. They challenge us to offer a rosary, bake for our neighbors, and all sorts of other good things. Sometimes they call us out for not speaking respectfully to one another (I’m not above using magic to further my own agenda, duh) but other times they just do silly things because silly things are good and necessary.
Preparing a Place for the Christ Child: We have an empty manger (basket) that we prepare for the coming Baby with straw (yarn). You get to put in a piece of straw every time you make a sacrifice, do a good deed or an act of service. It’s a really great visual for kids to see us preparing a space for Christ…and it’s oddly motivating to kids of all ages. And also their mothers. It also gives parents a good reason to call out good behavior and praise kids. I don’t know about you guys, but I praise and encourage a lot less than I correct and criticize. I’m working on it and the manger helps.
Letters to Jesus: We got this tradition from Bobbi Rol and I just love it. You can use Bobbi’s form letter or tweak your own, but the basic premise is that the kids are writing to Jesus and taking time to thoughtfully consider how they’ll prepare their hearts for him during Advent. There’s space to specifically lay out what they’re taking on or abstaining from (remember, Advent is technically a mini-lent but don’t shoot the messenger), who they’re praying for, and what gifts they hope to receive Christmas morning. It’s a really fun activity that hits the sweet spot between emphasizing faith and embracing the fun of presents.
Jesse Tree: This is our first year to do a Jesse Tree and I can’t decide if it’ll be great or stressful. I’m totally fine dropping it if it doesn’t work out. I snagged the Ann Voskamp book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas from the library. So far I really like it. But, I mean…it’s Ann, so prepare ye the way for lots of words. (I said it. She’s verbose. Wordy. Long-winded. I know, I know, I am the epitome of the pot calling the kettle black. It cannot be denied. How many more words will I write before I’ve sufficiently beat this horse? Three more words. Exactly three.)
Recent Homeschool Fun: Here’s the section of this post where I tell you all about how much fun we’ve been having at our homeschool…please read that as: how much fun we’ve been having in the last two days because the days before that were decidedly un-fun. Because things had been so un-fun and because it’s Advent, I wanted to shake things up a bit and try something different. For the next few weeks, we’re stepping back from individual lessons in our textbooks and mainly doing group work with a few individual things thrown in. This has already changed my life and it’s only been two days. Praise the Lord and bless His Holy Name is what I say.
For example, today we read aloud two books (The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L’Engle and The Snowman by Raymond Briggs). One is chapter book length and the other is a wordless book. The kids took turns narrating the wordless book, trying to use the most descriptive words they could think of. We covered parts of speech, figurative language, critical thinking, and then took a foray into art because they noticed that a painting within the book looked an awful lot like Van Gogh’s sunflowers.
Then we took a foray into crying under the table because someone got interrupted by someone else who allegedly gave up interrupting people for Advent.
After that, we created our own wordless story, practiced some poems we’re memorizing, and worked on some spelling words. Over tacos for dinner, we discussed which type of book we preferred and why (wordless picture book, or chapter book with few pictures). Throw in lots of playing in the snow, math games on the computer, prayers, Jesse Tree readings, and a viewing of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats on Amazon Prime (and a discussion of his art and influence) and I think it was a pretty stellar day in the ‘ole homeschool.
Also there were lots of video games played and we watched Frozen after dinner and I’m not sorry. Holla atcha mother.
Anyway, here’s the fun Advent-y homeschool-y activity that I think everyone should do regardless of whether or not you formally celebrate Advent or homeschool. It’s just real fun.
Stuffed Animal Census: Okay, gang. Buckle up because I am about to blow your minds. We did a math activity that took the entire day and I, the person who hates math, got so into it I was manipulating data like my life depended on it and then ended my night trying to learn Boolean algebra. I genuinely don’t know who I am any more, but I kind of love it and now I want everyone to do this project because it was such a joy!
We started by learning about what a census is since that’s the main reason Mary and Joseph were traveling at Christmas, you know? It was such a fun conversation about taxation and the Romans and tax collectors and then also about equal representation in government…I’m sure they soaked it all up like the little sponges they are.
Then we rounded up every single stuffed animal in the house and counted them. They were also sorted according to species, original owner, and current owner. Yes, some were classified as “disputed ownership.” It was so much fun to play with the data and make graphs to see how many of which type of toy we have most of and which kid has
stolen inherited more toys than anyone else (spoiler: it’s the youngest). The kids all loved this activity and it was such a fun real-life connection to the nativity story.
So, that’s the Advent Round Up. I’m sure I’ll have hundreds of other thrilling ideas for you, but this is already longer than Ann Voskamp’s daily emails, so I must be stopped. If you’re one of the two people who made it this far then I say to you, “Hi, Mom and Dad! Yes, it’s still snowy, but we’re safe. At time of publication, we still have power despite the snow storm. Talk to you soon!”
To Be Useless, To Be Used
Next week we begin Advent, which is almost impossible to believe. This has been the longest shortest year I think I’ve ever lived. With so much lost and gained this year and Advent upon us, I’ve felt very introspective.
…if you come in touch with the experience of being used or the experience of being useless, you might in fact be close to a true Christian experience, or closer than you sought.Henri Nouwen
I read this Henri Nouwen quote the other day and began to ponder being used.
As a mother, it’s easy to feel used. Used for sustenance from the moment of conception all the way up to the current demand for another snack. Used for entertainment and education. Used as a bandaid, comforter, referee, and umpire. Used as personal assistant, personal chef, personal trainer, laundry service, life coach, and living jungle gym. Much of motherhood and parenthood is thankless. I’m told that I’ll get my thanks later, when their own children give them a taste of their own medicine, but that’s certainly not guaranteed. I know I have plenty to thank my own parents for that I haven’t ever mentioned to them.
Regardless of promised future gratitude, parenthood is thankless and selfless in a way that I had never experienced before my first baby was placed at my breast to tear my nipple to shreds, to make me blister and bleed, all the while demanding more and more and more of me until I almost broke.
You don’t have to be a parent to understand this deep feeling of being used. I have a dear friend who has no children of her own due to infertility and life being stupidly unfair. She may not be a parent, but she knows the profound experience of being used in equally deep and nuanced ways. A recent employment experience in education has left her stripped the same way I’ve been stripped by mothering. Used by students, taken advantage of by faculty, abused by administration, dismissed and disrespected, she’s poured herself out over and over and over again for a mission she deeply loves, only to have her work labeled unnecessary or expendable by the higher ups who clearly have a different set of priorities. I cannot speak for my friend, but I think it’s safe to say her soul feels as raw and ripped as my breastfeeding nipples. I realize how weird a metaphor that is, but I stand by it.
I read that Henri Nouwen quote and began to ponder what it means to be useless.
Which of us has not deeply felt smallness this year? Who among us has not felt useless to some extent? Unable to affect change, weak, powerless, unable to understand or regulate our own emotions let alone those of others, we’ve all floundered a bit with uselessness. Perhaps we’ve lost jobs, lost elections, lost followers, lost hope that our little lives are able to make much difference in this big world of hunger, hurt, and hate.
I believe deeply in the power of the human soul, that each of us does truly matter, that little actions have huge repercussions…but these feelings of uselessness are real and valid. Part of the human experience, the feelings of uselessness are side effects of living in a society that values productivity over people. If we are not of some use to others, what good are we? If we have nothing of value to offer, do we even matter? This explains our willingness to ignore the unborn, the alien, the elderly, the ill. They cannot contribute in the world’s valuable currency of usefulness, so we turn away and leave them to fend for themselves.
But what does Jesus tell us of being used? Of being useless?
Surely Christ was used by many. How many people were healed in scripture who never returned to offer their thanks? I can imagine that there were many more healings besides those mentioned in the gospels that went unnoticed by anyone other than the Lord and the one he healed.
And on the subject of uselessness, there’s nothing more “useless” in the view of the world than a baby. Babies have nothing to offer, no contributions to make. They just take what they need and scream when they’re uncomfortable. (Could it be that we are more like babies than we’d care to admit?)
Perhaps the only thing more quantifiably useless than a baby is having claimed to be God and then being unwilling to remove oneself from a cross. What use is being the Son of God if you refuse to use that power when it counts?
For Jesus, this uselessness is everything. For us, it should be everything.
Being useless in the presence of the Lord strips us of everything we think we bring to the table: all the skills, talents, gifts, all the accolades and lessons we’ve collected from the School of Hard Knocks that we think make us valuable, all empty. Being useless in our relationship with Jesus requires us to acknowledge that everything we’ve placed our hope and personhood in is nothing compared to the man clinging uselessly to the cross that costs him everything and grants us eternity.
Allowing ourselves to be emptied out, to become useless and used is the crux of the Christian experience. We must learn to accept that there is nothing we can do or bring forward, nothing we can lean on of our own creation that will make us more valuable. There is nothing we can make, do, or offer that will make us more lovable. Just like a baby who does nothing to earn the love offered it, we are cradled against the eternal breast of a God who willingly breaks himself open for us again, and again, and again.
When we recognize this inherent value in ourselves, we are better able to empty ourselves for the other. When we pour out from the truth of our identity, we are free to be used by others, not expecting anything in return, not requiring thanks, praise, affirmation, or acceptance to confirm our worthiness.
Let me be clear. I’m not advocating for us to stay in situations and relationships that are abusive or that don’t honor our innate dignity. Knowing our identity in Christ allows us to recognize those times when others don’t. Accepting our identity in Christ grants us the ability to set boundaries and walk away when necessary. The distinction I want to make is that so often we cling to the thanks, we cling to the affirmation, and the comments, and the likes holding them up to the light and admiring them as jewels that define our goodness, but they don’t define a thing. They turn to dust in our hands and leave us feeling emptier than before. We’ve twisted our identity so that we think we are useless without these jewels the world offers us, but in reality it is our uselessness that makes us worth loving.
My friend and I both recently gained a new nephew and niece within days of each other. We’ve been sharing news of our sisters, showing off the new babies to one another. They are two of the most beautiful babies that have ever been born and we are not biased at all, thankyouverymuch.
As I’ve walked through days of heaviness and worry, these strings of baby texts have been a joy. Sharing pictures of new little humans smirking in their bassinets, speculating on their long term hair color, and which parent they favor most has been such a precious way for me to escape my own glum days and be overjoyed with new life.
As conversations usually go with this particular friend, our texts rambled through the agreement that gosh we’ve needed these babies: “babies are exactly what this world needs,” wandered through sharing our current struggles and worries about upcoming holidays, and ultimately circled back to Jesus.
At the end of our conversation about holiday worries and postponed family plans my friend said, “Jesus is born no matter what. What this world needs is babies, and one specific baby most of all.”
Babies are exactly what this world needs.
We need the weight of them against our chests to remind us of the heaviness of Love that leans into us, just longing to be close not because of what we can do but because of who we are.
We need babies screaming in the night, reminding us to cry out for our Father, reminding us to keep calling on him with persistence, screaming into the darkness until we are held in the strength of his embrace.
We need babies in our lives to remind us that we can love someone simply because they exist.
We need babies to remind us of our own uselessness, of our own dependence, our own frailty. We’re all just one diaper change away from sitting in our own mess again, aren’t we?
We need babies to remind us that time is irrelevant and, in the big scheme of things, schedules are unimportant. Degrees, trophies, books sold, career goals met, cakes baked, toilets cleaned, spreadsheets balanced…none of it impacts a baby.
You know what impacts a baby? Being held skin to skin against the heart of the one who protects them. That’s what impacts a baby. Babies gain security from being swaddled up and held tight by the ones who broke themselves open, body and soul, to deliver them into the world.
As we enter into Advent, we need babies.
We especially need one baby.
We need the baby to remind us of our uselessness, of what it means to be used. We need him to point us back to dependence and humility, to sacrifice and surrender. And in the great paradox of our faith, we need this baby to save us from ourselves.
We must become like the baby Savior in order to love and be loved in this wild and wicked world. We must find ourselves worthy in our uselessness, offering ourselves to be completely used up, wasted, and poured out for love of a King who comes to us as an impractical infant in a no-name town, born to an unassuming family that became little and lonely, unremarkable and undistinguished in order to change the world through far-reaching, radically humble love.
Used and useless is the space where we must dwell this Advent, swaddled in the paradoxical love of a weak and useless baby in a manger, resting there until he is completely used up for us all.
Deck the Halls
Welp. ‘Tis the season to haul out some seasonal decor and succumb to the power of twinkle lights. I think this year those in the “Don’t Decorate Before Thanksgiving” camp are finally allowing the rest of us the grace to just follow our little elfin hearts without judgement. Perhaps this is a silver lining of *all of this* going on?
For those of you in the “Decorate for Christmas Yesterday” camp, this post is for you. You know who you are. The moment the calendar rolled over into November and you immediately heard the siren song of Bing Crosby jing-jing-a-ling-ing in your ears. You’ve already planned where the tree will go, plotted the arrangement of lights and tinsel, and are just filled to the brim with holiday giddiness. Some of you may have already decorated the shiz out of your house, no looking back, you’re in love, you’re in love, and you don’t care who knows it!
But if you’re someone who has been feeling the nostalgia of the season swell but haven’t yet pulled the tinsel trigger, I need you to listen unto me.
This weekend may be the weekend and you’re making great plans to deck the halls and twirl and frolic through your living room while you blare holiday tunes like Kevin McCalister. That is good and lovely and completely allowed. Go forth and garland, girls and boys! Lord knows we need some tinsel up in here to lighten the mood.
Hang on there just a minute, you cotton-headed ninny muggins.
I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer because clearly we don’t need any more of those. What I do want to be is Rhonda Realistic and remind you that decorating your house will probably not be fun. Or at least it won’t be as fun as you think and wish and hope it will be in your sweet little heart of Hallmark hearts.
Here’s the deal, y’all. Decorating for Christmas usually involves some rearranging of furniture and therefore deep cleaning. Or at minimum some sweeping up of cobwebs. If you’re like me and you don’t want your house to look like you slapped Christmas on the crypt from the Mummy you’re gonna have to do some light dusting and/or run the leaf blower through the house.
Also, you’ll be forced to relocate Mount Laundry to a different room to be dealt with later. (And yes, I plan to just use Mount Laundry as a decoration and put a star on top, thank you to all my sweet readers for giving me that idea. God bless you, every one.)
So anyway, none of that is necessarily fun.
Around here, decorating for Christmas feels like one of those stupid plastic tile puzzles you get from the cardboard treasure chest at the dentist’s office that’s supposed to make a picture. You can get, like, two or three tiles in place but you have to move them all again to get the next one and before you know it it’s a complete cluster that’s best left jammed between some couch cushions.
If you’ve got kids, decorating seems like it will be a fun family activity. I mean, it ought to be. However, much like mini golf, what seems a guaranteed joyful afternoon with the fam inevitability morphs into a cornucopia of complaining, quarreling, damaged property, and possibly assault. (Yes, a cornucopia because Thanksgiving.)
What I’m saying is decorating for the holidays is awesome and twinkle lights make everything better and I am 100% for it all. But also, don’t be surprised if the lights don’t work in just the middle of the tree, and the kids bicker, and the dog is underfoot, and you start your period, and someone “helpfully” sprays festive spruce Febreeze on the trees until they’re literally dripping with the scent of chemical conifers.
You may have to fight and get scrappy and forgive each other seventy times seven times. I just want you to know that these things are probably coming. Plan for chaos, broken ornaments, and broken hearts.
Also, you may be wise to plan for a six hour long power outage. Because that’s a thing that happened over here. Day two of decorating dawned sunny and windy, I went out and purchased a new TV (merry early Christmas to the grown ups in our house…but really the kids…and they’ll still get whatever rainbow unicorn baby glitter surprise pet it is they asked for, let’s be honest). The husband and I got the new TV in, arranged, and fired up. It was finishing it’s reboot process and we were jazzed to try it out, which is when the wind knocked out the power for six plus hours. Because 2020.
The good/bad news is that I was forced to tackle Mount Laundry. I’m happy/sad to report that I’ll have to revisit the decorating plans on that one because I folded it all in my dimly lit bedroom where it had been relocated due to Christmas. Don’t worry, though, I’ve already started another Mountain. It’s more of a molehill at this point, but I have great faith in my ability to ignore it until it either takes over the house or is lovely enough to place a star upon.
So, guys, when the power goes out and everything is unfinished, and all the batteries have died, and all of your candles have melted into one giant mass of hot wax on a plate in the middle of your table, take my advice: breathe deeply, look around, and take it all in. Look deeply at all of souls that have been left to your care. Gaze at the little hearts who spent the afternoon loudly playing with the Little People Nativity set (the one that inexplicably has 3 baby Jesuses) whilst listening to their father play his harmonica, something he doesn’t usually have time to do. Take it all in, in the candle light and the mixed up smells of sickly spruce combined with at least three other candle scents. Maybe pray a Rosary together since you’ve got the time. Take it in and appreciate it in all its imperfection and grubby goodness. Because that’s where the real holiday magic is, isn’t it? The twinkle lights will come back on. The ornaments will be hung in due time (and swept up when they’re broken). The holiday joy will happen in spite of all of the irritation, the ugliness, the inconvenience, and disappointment.
Somehow that’s just the kind of nostalgia you’ll need to warm the cockles of your heart while you secretly eat chips in the pantry.
PS. The way we got the lights on the tree to work was that my husband literally punched the tree. He batted it around like a tabby cat, swatted it, and then buffeted it some more and the lights came on. So, you know…when in doubt, just punch things is what I’m saying. Hang in there, team. We’re gonna make it even if we have to punch our way to holiday cheer!
The Blind Will See
Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me. Have pity on me, a sinner.
The cry of the blind man in the Gospel of Luke is ringing in my ears today. Ringing in my heart, too.
Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.
The blind man was healed:
…”Lord, please let me see.” Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.” He immediately received his sight and followed him, giving glory to God.”Luke 18:41-43 (excerpts)
Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me, a sinner. Lord, open my eyes. Relieve me of my blindness.
I realize now that when Jesus made the blind see, they weren’t just healed to see goodness and beauty, to be dazzled by sunsets and to see the faces of their mothers and to view the intricacies of the world around them, but that their new eyes would also see pain, witness injustice, view in an undeniable way the hurting of others. Their new eyes would see the blindness of others in an entirely new and nuanced way. The blind would see.
To whom much is given, much is required.
Today my prayer is that Jesus would break down all of my blind spots so that I might see and be converted by the suffering of others.
I pray that I would be granted the grace of vision, that I might see injustice and be moved to push back against it.
I pray that my faith would save me and grant me eyes to see poverty and to look at it with the gentle eyes of my Savior, gazing not with judgement, but with love.
I pray that I might be granted the grace to view these troubling times, this weight of history, the things that worry me, people who hold views that scare me, that I would be able to see it all through eyes that seek first the Kingdom of God and not my own comfort or my own understanding.
I pray that my heart would be transformed by the Son of David and from that transformation, that I would see, not only through my own lens of defensiveness and dismissal, but through eyes made clear by the One who sees us all purely and clearly in the light of eternal love.
Jesus, meek and humble of heart make my heart like unto Thine. Make my eyes like unto Thine.
Personal Litany of Truth
I stumbled upon an Instagram post the other day that was especially great, greater even than the posts of cats being scared by cucumbers or those people I watched doing a frantic mini trampoline workout, believe it or not.
The writer, Lauren De Witt, introduced the idea of writing your own litany of truths. Apparently she learned about it from a Moms in Peace workshop, which I know nothing about, but I’m determined to give credit where credit is due because girl power is a thing and I am here for it.
The basic premise is something that I preach to my doula clients all the time, but oooobviously neglect to practice in my own life. I’m real good at offering sage advice to others, but real sucky at taking it myself. C’est la vie.
Any time my clients are feeling worried, doubtful, or afraid I always tell them to remember what’s true. It’s so easy to let our worry and anxiety snowball until it gets bigger and bigger and buries us completely. But we can stop that shiz right in its tracks just by naming what’s true. Once you start naming what’s true, it’s amazing to see how many falsehoods you were starting to believe.
What reminded me of the idea of making a personal litany of truth is that yesterday I ill-advisedly watched an Insta-stories post by someone detailing their homeschool work load. Y’all, is there anything that’ll make you feel like crap more than accidentally stumbling upon someone who’s doing “life” better than you? (Clearly I need to take a break from Instagram, that’s what.)
Here’s the thing: the homeschooling mom I saw is doing an incredible job with her kids. She wasn’t even pretentious or ass-holey about her homeschooling success. She was really lovely and genuinely proud of herself for homeschooling for the first time ever during the time of Covid and ain’t nobody going to fault her for that!
But for some reason her post just hit me right in the most sensitive spot in my jealous gut, the place where I’m already predisposed to feeling like a failure or at least a fraud. Y’all, this woman could’ve chronicled her own clean laundry mountain and I’d have felt like mine wasn’t good enough (and we all know my mountain of clean laundry is the best, duh).
So, as I felt myself spiraling into a pit of comparison and negative self talk, I remembered the litany of truths! For once in my life, I genuinely took my own advice and that of wonderful Lauren from the internet and wrote down a list of solid truth.
I ended up breaking it down into sections because I can’t not be verbose. Here’s what it looks like:
- My children and my husband are not my report card.
- I am not responsible for making everyone happy, but rather I am responsible for loving well the souls left to my care.
- My parenting and homeschooling are mine alone. I am not competing or comparing, not better or less than, just walking my own path.
- I am not solely responsible for how my children turn out. I am a guardian and a guide on their way, but I am not ultimately in control of who they become.
- My children are not a product I am turning out. They are people with their own free will.
- I am not responsible for other people’s emotions. I can see their emotions and try to help them, but I am not responsible for the speed at which they process or whether or not they accept my offer of help.
- Most things are not about me anyway.
- I am one person. I cannot do it all. But I can ask for help and accept it.
- My body is the dwelling place of the eternal God. When I abuse it, I abuse His temple. When I protect and care for it, I am worshipping Him.
- My anger cannot overcome or overpower me because it comes from me. Like a labor contraction, I can see it coming and ride it until it ebbs. It will subside just as quickly as it rises.
- I do not have to give space to frantic, worried thoughts. When I feel them I can stop, be still, and know that He is God. I can do this through Christ who gives me strength.
- Being a good steward of my gifts means I am allowed to devote time to my talents without feeling guilty.
- Discipline is an act of faith.
Fundamental Faith Truths:
- I need Jesus in the Sacraments to be whole.
- When I am weak, He is strong. My growth is found in humility.
- I am beloved, created by love, for love, with the mission to love while on this earth. Nothing I can do or accomplish can change that truth.
- The forces of Resistance cannot overpower the One who is in me.
- Every moment is an opportunity to choose love, to die to myself and my will, to step out in faith believing that while I am not in control, He is.
So, that’s my personal litany of truths. I’m going to keep it and maybe put it on my white board and probably sleep with it and tattoo it to my face. If you see me looking like Post Malone, you’ll know I just really need to remember what’s true, mkay?
I’ll probably add to and take stuff away, but I’m pretty jazzed about how good it made me feel to just write all that out. I highly recommend it as a simple, concrete way to feel better about life. This has been my PSA, please go write true things down and be good to yourself.
You can find Lauren De Witt’s original post on Instagram @thecontemplativehomemaker…she’s a real good follow and her own litany is just beautiful.
As always, I hope you know how wonderful you are, my friends. You’re really important and even more loved. So go put that on your own list of truth. That’s an order!