Monday, December 15, 2014

Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Nativity

If you're in need of a little mid-Advent encouragement, read Keep It Simple, Sweetheart by Elizabeth Foss.

She writes:

The soul who is not simple is represented in the Gospel by Martha, who was restless, anxious, and concerned with many things. The simple soul is represented by Mary, tranquilly seated at the feet of the Master, drinking in each word and solely mindful of His pleasure. The simple soul has found "the better part," "the one thing necessary"; [Luke 10:42] he is wholly given to God.

This reminds me of a piece from a few years back, words I need to take to heart today . . .

I just gleaned some useful Christmas advice over at Faith and Family Live!. Commenter StephC was responding to a mother who is where most of us have been at one time or another: overwhelmed. Tired, out of steam, even a tad hopeless -- and riding the Polar Express full speed into That Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Steph's advice? Keep your eyes on your own nativity.

I have a dear neighbor right across the street who wakes up the morning after Thanksgiving, gathers a few capable sons, and proceeds to put up every last Christmas decoration. It's pretty; it's tasteful; most impressive of all, it's done -- all before I'm finished de-boning the turkey. Yes, I peer through my front window and see my friend moving with great purpose while I shuffle around in my slippers and nurse my second cup of coffee.

I could engage in a lot of comparisons, but I'd much rather take Steph's advice: Keep your eyes on your own nativity. Or lack thereof. Because that nativity of ours? The day after Thanksgiving, believe me, it was still sitting in the attic.

No matter what our spiritual disposition, it is an undeniable fact that Advent and Christmas bring a degree of busyness and stress. For the record, I had my first moment of pre-Christmas panic this very morning. You know, a moment of Oh My Goodness I've Barely Made a Dent in My Shopping, and I Just Bought Advent Candles Yesterday. This was quickly followed by a major reality check, a trip to confession on unrelated issues, and a lengthy venture into the attic. The nativity is now down!

Best Christmas picture ever!
This was just the first of many forays into that vast repository of stuff we call the attic. Our attic. Our attic is both a blessing and a curse.

Some years I take down Christmas with the same care that I put it up. I label boxes; I discard broken and unused decorations; I do a little organizing as I go. Other years, I pull down the attic stairs, do the heave ho, and slam.

Last year must have been just such a year. Why, you ask? I had no excuses whatsoever. Four of the last five Christmas seasons have found me early pregnant or nursing a newborn. Great excuses to pare back, keep it simple, even be a bit slovenly with the take down. The year I was expecting John, I crawled through the entire season  with one eye on the clock wondering when I could finagle my next nap and one eye on the bathroom door wondering how soon I'd be hurtling myself through it.


Worth every last ounce of suffering, but ugh!

Somehow we managed the trek to Michigan for the holidays that year. I think my logic went something like this: I can remain in the fetal position here in Georgia and do all the shopping and cooking by myself, or I can manage to haul our sorry selves to Detroit, assume the fetal position there, and let my mother-in-law and sisters wait on me hand and foot. No brainer!

I remember the trip home was heinous with a capital H. I was throwing up before we left my sister's house. I was throwing up as we crossed the border into Ohio. We had a portable DVD player that I was known for employing with great moderation and discernment. On that trip I said, "Have at it, boys! I'll see you in Augusta!"

It was the quietest fifteen hour drive we've ever had.

God willing we will all celebrate many, many Christmases. Some years find us in fine form, ready to enter the season of preparation, and excited to celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas day. Other years find us (okay, me) scrounging for Advent candles on December 23rd and happy to come up with three burgundies and a red when purple and pink prove to be somewhat elusive. True story. While three burgundies and a red might make fine choices when buying wine, they're just a touch out of the liturgical norm when preparing for Christmas.

Oh well. Keep your eyes on your own nativity!

My dear friend went to confession one Advent. She lamented to the priest how far short she felt she was falling in pulling together a holy season of preparation. This priest is a good man, a holy man, a man who loves liturgy and the church seasons. You know what he told her? Relax and enjoy your family.

Nearly every magazine in circulation is now featuring a story on dealing with stress this holiday season. They'll print to do lists and last minute buying guides and handy calendars you can post on the fridge.To be sure, celebrations -- all of them -- require work. But Father Brett had it right -- it's also about simply enjoying your family.

For us that means lots of egg nog -- Tim's favorite drink. It means multiple viewings of Elf and The Santa Clause -- liturgically bankrupt and really very funny. It means boiled peanuts and chocolate peanut butter cheesecake and potato soup.

It means pulling out the Advent candles, even if a few days late. It means writing out cards to people I look forward to hearing from once a year. It means fun and busyness and a gentle tug back to the true meaning behind all this hurly burly.

And this year -- to increase our joy and to minimize my stress -- it means taking Steph's wise counsel and keeping my eyes on my own nativity.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Santa Baby, Christmas Shoes, and The Little Drummer Boy

Since I am up to my eyeballs in The Move, no time to write.

The good news about The Move? (Aside from the obvious fact that We're Moving!) I am not in the least bit worried about Christmas except for an occasional fleeting thought that goes something like, "Gosh, you're not worried at all about Christmas. Maybe just give it a passing thought or two. Maybe? No?"

I plan to permanently adopt this No Stress Approach to the Holidays. It basically involves jotting down ideas as they come to me, making a few on-line purchases when I have time, avoiding nearly all brick and mortar shopping, trusting God, realizing that it all works out every.single.year.

And that's it.

So in lieu of anything more involved, I offer you a re-run of my thoughts on Christmas tunes -- those I love and those I love to hate.

I love Christmas music, except for the songs I loathe.

Among the worst:

1. Last Christmas I gave You My Heart - I am sad to report that at least two new versions of this tired and ultra-schmaltzy tune have hit the air waves this year. As if the over-played original weren't painful enough! My teenage son came home from school mocking this song. Gosh, I'm proud of that boy! Just one more heartening example of how his school passes on transcendent values.

2. Christmas Shoes - So I made it to the third Sunday of Lent without hearing this one that is, without question, right off the schmaltz-o-meter. Pretty sure this is the reason the schmaltz-o-meter was invented. Doink!

3. Santa Baby - No need to elaborate.

4. Elvis' Blue Christmas - Ditto.

5. Unnamed Song -- This ghastly number starts out "Where are you Christmas? Why can't I find you?"  I don't know the title because, in truth, I have never gone beyond the opening line. Where's that seek button? Or that left-over air sickness bag?

Tunes we like:

1. The Little Drummer Boy - Strictly speaking, this, too, musters some serious schmaltz, but I just like it. David Bowie and Bing? Love it. Bob Seeger? I like this one, too. An added plus? He's a Detroiter.

2. Carol of the Bells - From Transsiberian Orchestra to Kenny Rogers, this is a fav.

3. O Holy Night -  Love Celion Dion. Josh Groban? More than I can take.

4. Anything sung by The Carpenters, Frank Sinatra, or Andy Williams - Yes, some undeniable schmaltz.The Carpenters scream 1970s, but I came of age listening to their eight-track recordings. The others were childhood staples and bring back happy memories of sitting near our fireplace and watching the snow fall.

5. The Messiah - I never get tired of this.

6. Christmas Canon- Makes me want to take up piano or violin.

7. The Grinch - This one hearkens back to Christmas 1986 when I was attending my Officers' Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. What can I say about Arrrrmy training? Hour after hour of some of the most painfully boring lectures ever endured. My caffeine addiction dates back to afternoons attempting to avoid nodding off as field grade officers droned on about who knows what.

The little bit of levity was Captain Al Rommel (I'm not making this up. I trained with a Rommel and a Patton). If a lecture proved particularly heinous, Al would lean over and whisper, "stink, Stank, STUNK!"

7. Anything my kids play - Tim and Kolbe (and now John!) have brought the gift of music into our home, and I love it.

Googling Worst Christmas Songs Ever will produce a list far more colorful than mine. Did John Denver really sing, "Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas"? That even tops "Christmas Shoes."

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Things That Make Me Laugh

An e-card making the Facebook rounds: Good luck this Thanksgiving explaining why you're still single and Charles Manson is not.

My teenage son's take on a holiday classic: Santa got Ebola from a reindeer . . . 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Seven Year Old Boys Run the World

Some years back Disney found itself in hot water over a movie aimed at children, a movie that contained a brief snippet of animation that, let's just say, contained adult themes. Very adult themes. Disney denied, denied, denied, and many viewers thought it was some sort of plot like back-masking everyone used to talk about when I was a teenager.

I don't accept Disney's defense for a minute, but not because I sense there's some nefarious plot afoot. No, I look at these things more pragmatically and operate under two basic theories:

First, having supervised the yearbook more times than I care to recall,  I know that creative people put in long hours and get punchy and crazy and just may succumb to the temptation to insert all manner of barely detectable humor into copy they edit, into photos they crop.

Second, I am now firmly convinced that seven-year-old boys secretly run the world.

Let me spend some time expounding on my second theory.

Dave chaperoned the Scouts on a weekend trip to an airshow in Jacksonville. I perused the website and noted the Blue Angels, a variety of aerial acrobats  . . .  and the Port-o-Jet.

Yes, the Port-o-Jet

Because air shows are organized by seven-year-old boys.

The trip was for older boys, but Dave wanted John to come along if he was willing to forego a class field trip scheduled for the same day. I heard Dave talking to John, reviewing his options. And then I heard John guffawing. Big belly laughs reverberating through the house.

Clearly, they had hit upon the Port-o-Jet, and John was sold.

He's a seven-year old boy.

Yesterday was a veritable monsoon in Augusta. I can enjoy a rainy Sunday. It truly becomes a day of rest. We whiled away the hours playing Shoots and Ladders and then moved on to Pictionary. It was all great fun until Kolbe's turn came up and his word was Colon. Yes, Colon.

Because the makers of Pictionary are seven-year-old boys. And late at night -- punchy and crazy and facing a deadline -- someone added the word Colon. The men proceeded to giggle while the women rolled their eyes.

Kobe's word was colon, and hilarity ensued.


And this all hit a little close to home because someone around here may or may not have celebrated her fiftieth birthday recently. And do you know what the medical community offers patrons for their fiftieth birthday? That's right! A colonoscopy.

Spelling practice.
I was loathe to mention it here, and mostly I've taken the high ground on the whole issue and said things like Isn't it a blessing that we have such great preventive medicine? when what I'm really thinking is something along the lines of We can manage to land a camera on Comet 67P, 317 million miles away, travelling at 317,000 kilometers per hour, but we can't concoct a more palatable solution than Movi-prep?

Movi-prep. Yes, the wretched stuff you down by the liter! before a colonoscopy is called Movi-prep.

Seven-year-old boys run the pharmaceutical industry as well.

And I can tell you without naming names that men and women approach post-colonoscopy recovery rather differently. Judging from the conversations taking place behind the curtains -- and clearly audible to every other soul in the room -- men are fairly excited to get free license to deal with their, ahem, gas issues without restraint. Women, for the record, are aghast.

Seven-year-old boys eventually grow up.

But not really.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Do You Believe in the Devil? Because He Believes in You.

Keep Telling Yourself It's Just a Game

So reads the billboard for a movie coming soon to a theater near you. The movie is ouija. Yes, ouija, as in the board, as in the game that many of us remember from seventh grade slumber parties.

So it's a great time to talk about the devil.

The devil has pulled quite a fast one on all of us sophisticated, rational, modern thinkers. Maybe he hired an image consultant. These days he's the portly, comical, pitchfork-wielding fella in the red tights sitting on your left shoulder sparring with an angel on your right. Or he doesn't exist at all.

So almost no one takes the thought of the devil or demonic activity seriously. I'm pretty sure the devil likes flying under the radar.

Addressing this issue a while back, Simcha Fisher wrote a clear and sensible piece over at Patheos. She begins:
Satan is real, and he is not fussy. He doesn't care if you are kidding or not when you call him by name. This is why I tell my kids to stay far, far away from participating in anything occult — ouija boards, tarot cards, etc. — even if it’s just a game.  An invitation is an invitation, and Satan doesn't stand on manners. You may not see Exorcist-style special effects when the Father of Lies creeps into your life. You may not realize anything has happened to you at all, as the rift between you and God slowly gets deeper and wider.
As we drove to school today, we sang Holy, Holy, Holy. Verse two begins:
Holy, holy, holy
Though the darkness hide thee
I pondered for a moment the darkness that hides God.

We live in a brick and mortar world, and I, for one, certainly struggle to see what we actually can't see, both the good and the bad. Yes, the darkness hides quite a lot -- God's goodness, the devil's snares -- both are obscured by noise and busyness, by piles of laundry and daunting to do lists, by flesh and blood, here and now, clearly discernible realities like a scratchy throat and an aching hip, but by the good things, too, the soft feel of my daughter's cheek, John's enthusiastic eyes, Tim's piano playing.

It's hard to see what we can't see.

We live in a world, my friend Father Brett always reminds us, in which our understanding is darkened, and our will is weakened.

Dabbling in the world of the occult, at the very least, serves only to make these already problematic realities a shade worse. Why make the darkness darker?

I played with a ouija board as a teenager. Seances were standard fare at slumber parties. In neither instance did I experience anything supernatural or dramatic. Lots of giggling, but nothing weird. But, boy, do I know people whose experiences were quite different. No one reports what Simcha calls "Exorcist-style special effects," but they do share a sense of gloom descending, a growing distaste for prayer and more generally for the things of God, a feeling of oppression.

I watched The Exorcist as a teenager. Creepy, creepy, creepy. Bed rattling, head spinning, green vomit flying. Since many of us dabbled with the occult and experienced no technicolor drama, we do exactly what the movie poster tells us to do: We keep telling ourselves it's just a game and write it all off as a lark, as so much childhood nonsense.

And yet I've heard and read too much to accept that brushing up with the occult is cost free.

Over the summer I found myself in the odd position of defending people who don't read Harry Potter. It was odd because I've read and enjoyed Harry Potter. Here's my stand on Harry: I have read and liked (to varying degrees) all the books. I have seen several of the movies and not particularly enjoyed any of them. Tim has read about half the books and was neither enthralled nor dismissive. Kolbe, very picky about what he reads, finished about half the first book and said no thanks to the rest.

That being said, I fully understand why parents would pass on Harry Potter. To wit:
1. Harry attends a school of witchcraft and wizardry.
2. Witchcraft is real.
3. Many of the subjects Harry, Ron, Hermione et al study -- arithmancy, charms, divination --  all exist in real life and are used for the purpose of communing with the dead or gaining supernatural control over people or things.
4. All of these are big time no no's for Christians in general and Catholics in particular.

To me it is significant that the characters in Harry Potter are born witches and wizards, much as Gandalf is a wizard, and Legolas is an elf in Lord of the Rings. Harry doesn't adopt witchcraft as someone could do in real life. Like the Narnia series, there is good magic and dark magic in Harry Potter. The books chronicle a battle between good and evil and highlight the virtues of self-sacrifice and courage, among others.

But they do depict heroic characters engaged in practices that Catholics deem objectively wrong. Parents do well to point these out.

I am a big fan of Michael O'Brien. His book A Cry of Stone has one of the loveliest examples of being poor in spirit I have uncovered in contemporary literature. O'Brien published a piece of non-fiction, Dragons in the Landscape, analyzing images in modern literature, particularity a troubling trend he sees in young adult and children's literature. The trend, he shares, is that good used to be good and bad used to be bad. Literature is full of "types," and these "types" were consistent over centuries, but suddenly and especially in the literature we feed our young, they are evolving. Black and white are no more; the world is increasingly gray.

While I reject some of O'Brien's conclusions (i.e. I read Harry Potter), I agree with his basic premise.

When The Hunger Games trilogy was all the rage, I wrote a long post analyzing the good and the disconcerting in the series. Among the more troubling ideas in the later books are the notions that suicide can be heroic, that killing -- not in self-defense or in time of war -- is justifiable, that assassination is okay .

The world is gray.

I don't think my sons will read Harry Potter and and try to jump on a broomstick and fly, but they may read The Hunger Games and absorb messages that are much more worrisome and much more likely to arise in real life.

Simcha sensibly points out that we have to use discernment with individual children in making decisions about books, movies, video games, what to allow, how much, at what ages, etc. She clearly points out that some kids may be more swayed by disturbing plot lines or images.

My kids vary wildly in their personalities and sensitivities. I had a kid freak! out! during 101 Dalmatians. For that matter, I think Dave's still mildly traumatized by the death of Bambi's mother circa 1967. What parent wants to instill fear in a child?

John has been trudging through Magic Treehouse books. We started Mummies in the Morning, and it's all about an Egyptian ghost trying to get her body back or some such rot, and it was all creepy and off, just plain off, and you know what I did? I threw it away.

Yes, I threw it away.

Kelly, the English teacher, threw it away.

And English teachers aren't supposed to do such things -- banning and burning and pitching books.

We have a zillion other Magic Treehouse books, but I didn't like that one. And we don't have to read everything set before us. Crap is crap, and let's not be afraid to label it as such.

Parents can evaluate Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and any other young adult lit and trust that they have the discernment to sift through the good and the dubious and make informed decisions for their children. And here's the startling news: People of goodwill come to different conclusions about these issues, and that's okay.

After All Saints Day/Halloween, Tim came to me and said that a few of his friends had gone to something I believe was called "Blood Plantation." Would I have let him go, he wondered.  I think it was a bad idea, I told him, but I probably wouldn't have told you no. 

Tim's seventeen years old.

I firmly believe in sheltering very young children. I regret that the little people around here are growing up much faster than their older brothers did. But I also believe that there's a time to let kids begin making decisions -- bad and good -- on their own so that they learn to discern these things on their own.

As for ouija?


We'll pass.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Things That Have Value, Things That Don't

The purge to end all purges continues. If it's not nailed down or registering a steady pulse, out it goes.

When I'm in robo-purge mode, I can be nothing short of dangerous. The kids are nervous though I've assured them again and gain that I'm doing nothing with the things we actually use. Even Dave is walking around with an alarmed look on his face.  But here's my take: Why box up and move things you did not need in the old house, will not need in the new house, did not, in point of fact, even know that you owned?

Once again, I am amazed, confused, perplexed, etc. that there is any stuff left to deal with. Forget the Forty Bags in Forty Days deal -- we've been hauling it away by the truckload. I'm guessing 8-10 truckloads so far.

Dare I say it? We are near the end.

I have tackled every room. I have tackled every closet save two. I have some stuff on hooks behind a door to peruse. There may be a stray box or two in the dusty recesses of the attic (which, for the record, are no longer dusty, really. I've been spending some quality time with ye olde shop vac).

We are near the end.

I could write an epic post covering nothing but the books. Oh, the books! As I excavated one closet, I hit the mother-lode. Here is a rough tally:

 -- Books that I owned multiple copies of: 1984 - five copies, War of the Worlds - four copies, Hamlet - three copies, For Whom the Bell Tolls - three copies. And the list goes on.

-- Books I have recently purchased, but in fact already owned: Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls. And the list goes on.

-- Books I've recently checked out of the library, but already own -- The Great Gatsby. Actually, there were so many of these, I've lost track.

-- Book I do not need to purchase next year: Tess of the D'urbervilles.

The good news is that I found a whole stash I'm ready to hand over to Tim: Mere Christianity, Exodus, Lord of the Flies, Utopia.

The boy is a bookworm just like his Mama.

Of course I get all philosophical about stuff and its true cost,  a cost far beyond the retail price. Stuff, stuff, stuff. We buy it, we haul it, we store it, we move it , we rearrange it, we re-store it, we loan it, we recover it, sometimes we even have to insure it.

As I sort, I consider what has value to me. I recently opened two boxes of crystal and china I inherited from my grandmother. I have such fond memories of meals we shared with Nana. Let me tell you, that woman could rock a pot roast. But never in the more than thirty years I knew my beloved Nana did I ever see fine china or crystal on her table. So I look at these items, and I know they are old, and I know that they belonged to a person I loved with all my heart . . . and they mean nothing to me.

Nine months out of the year, I get out of bed and put on a robe that belonged to my grandmother. That means something to me. I remember her wearing it. In the disorganized pile of papers I call a recipe box, I have two priceless treasures -- Nan's recipe for cream of broccoli soup and her recipe for that rockin' pot roast. The recipes are written in her looping, distinctive script and if the house caught fire they'd be high on the list of things I'd grab once my husband and children were safe. I have a picture taken of Nan and me at Christmas 1994, a mere four weeks before she died. It may be the only photo I have of the two of us. Nan looks fabulous, just amazing. The picture matters.

Scattered throughout the house I have Nan's dining room chairs. I recovered them years ago. I thought I'd begin by removing the worn fabric. And under it I found another chair cover. And then another.. And then another,. And then another. The final fabric was a traditional, rather formal stripe in maroons and golds and every chair looked great except for the armchair that I'm guessing was my grandfather's. His chair was frayed. And somehow looking through those fabric swatches and seeing the tears and stains gave me such a connection with this dear woman who lived at a very different era (the depression, World War II), yet toiled at the very things I found myself doing -- working to bring order and beauty to a dining room.

Nana was a writer, so that, of course, makes her "snooper duper" (in Ainsley's words). Like the robe and the recipes, when I write I like to think of Nana. I picture myself as one of a line of Regans who have found joy and solace in putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. In each branch of the Regan family, there's a cousin especially drawn to the written word -- my cousin Gary, my cousin Anne Marie, and myself -- all three of us writers and teachers of writing, in some form or fashion.

Nan had an agent in New York, wrote an advice column under the pen name Pat Lane, and authored quite a few published love stories. My dad has shared that she would regularly gather with other writers in her Detroit neighborhood to share and critique their work. They called themselves The Inkslingers.

I love it and just may consider renaming my blog.

When we were teenagers, Nan pulled out some of her romance magazines and showed my sisters and me some of her work.

"He said he loved Susan, so why was he seen kissing Martha?"

So -- roughly -- read the cover of one of the magazines. We howled with laughter and scratched our heads that our Grandmother wrote romance stories! 

As we packed up Nan's condominium after she died, I found pieces of half-finished stories in a notebook here, on a scrap of paper there. I found a list written in that same looping, distinctive script that read "Things I'd do if age didn't matter." The first item on the list was "Become a published author."

She was a published author, but more than that she was funny and smart, beautiful and kind. She always smelled great. If I don't fully value the china and the crystal, I fully recognize the real treasures she brought into my life.

I am not against things, Lord knows. In fact when you're moving into a new house, you invest an inordinate amount of time thinking about a host of things -- blinds and trash cans, linens and bathroom vanities, ceiling fans and dining room tables. Ultimately, though, things matter because of the people they serve, because of the memories forged around them.

As the purge goes on, here's hoping I can keep this in mind.

Monday, November 10, 2014

For Grandma and the Aunts

I present the boy who draws arrows through Jesus' head and the girl who spends Mass asking how many songs until it's over . . .

But don't they look saintly? Mary as a young girl and Saint Tarcisius.

Grandma may remember all the lace she shipped me many moons ago. So fun to embellish Ainsley's costume.

Love my little people. Oh, yes I do.