Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This Busy Season of Life

I was catching up on what Elizabeth Foss had to say. She linked to this,  and I came across this little blurb:

This is the busy season of life and how rich and privileged I am!
I have felt so deeply that I am not to wish away these mothering days ... looking for the next season of life. My call is to embrace the Here and Now ... today is the Gift I have been given. May I be content and live this stage to the widest and fullest and brightest!

This morning I am thinking about the everyday gifts I enjoy:

Making hot chocolate for the oldest. Telling him he might need to shave. (Shave!) Watching him peruse the Driver's Manual like it's the Gutenberg Bible. His humor. His hugs. 

Watching my eleven-year-old scheme and dream and invent. What doesn't go through that kid's mind? His unique brand of piano playing. The fact that he is steady-eddie, ever helpful, mostly cheerful, unfailing in his kindness to his sister. 

John. Everything about John. Okay, 97% of John. The remnants of his lisp. His missing tooth. His delight in reading Charlotte's Web.  The cache of treasure stored on his bedroom shelf. Can I freeze frame at age five?

Ainlsey's cheeks and button nose. The fact that she names her shoes -- the tap shoes, the party shoes, the dance shoes. The fact that she adores her brothers and runs to her dad when he comes through the door. Waking up every morning to find her sandwiched between her father and me. Hearing her say, "Something is not right!" in her best imitation of Miss Clavel.

This is a busy season of life.

I'm reminded of a comment my mother-in-law made three or four years ago: There's always something new. Both the busyness and the newness are aspects of my life I sometimes rail against. 

Today I'm grateful.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Three Hanky Night at Downton Abbey

Those of us who have carefully avoided Downton spoilers are still in a state of shock after last night's gripping episode. Those of us who (quite inadvertently) stumbled upon a spoiler or two are simply sad.

Last week's episode of Downton Abbey was sort of lackluster. My friend Rachel captured it nicely here. It all boiled down to a few simple admonitions: Man up, Branson! Blow your nose and and get on with it.

But this week!

A few months back, I Googled Downton trying to find out when the new season was starting here in the U.S.. Instead I found out that Sybil was to die in childbirth. So last night I knew the outcome, but it was still so sad to watch. Oh. My. Goodness.

And the fall out . . .

The Dowager Countess walking into the house with a heavy heart and an unsteady gate, looking every one of her eighty or so years . . .  her sigh as she leaned into a column to brace herself . . . her trembling chin.

Cora saying goodbye to her youngest child . . . and steeling her heart against the husband she views views as complicit in her daughter's death.

Thomas weeping in the hallway.

Mrs. Hughes when asked what everyone was to do about Branson: We will show him that we are kind people.

Where do you go from here? From the previews, I guess we'll see a battle over the child being baptized Catholic or Anglican, Mary and Robert teaming up against Mathew for control of the estate, and the steady erosion of Robert and Cora's once warm marriage.

Gloomy, gloomy times!

Seven Quick Takes


Me: Ainsley, your shoes are on the wrong feet.

Ainsley, crossing her legs: Now they're not.


Kolbe: Don't apply pressure to the wound; just fan it.


Me: Yes, Ainsley, I'll rock you,

John: Don't fall for it, Ainsley. She's just putting you to sleep!


Ainsley, singing at the top of her lungs: I love dinosaurs, but they're extinct!


Dave: We don't yell at the table.

Ainsley: I'm not yelling. I'm singing.


John, with all the certainty of an expert witness: Superheroes don't have middle names.

Continue to pray for Jen and head over to her place to add your Quick Takes.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

In Whose Image?

John is a cute kid.

Really. It's not just the insufferable mom in me. My younger sister tells me that his combination of golden hair, dark eyes, and dark skin could land him in a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. We haven't pursued this yet, but with the price of milk and bread, we just might.

Well, one morning I noticed his summer tan was starting to fade, and it was leaving his skin rather mottled. In that way I have of turning every little medical anomaly into a potential catastrophe, I immediately concluded that John has a rare skin condition, you know, the one that Michael Jackson had. For at least fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, I was just sure of it.

And I had this thought: What will I do if the cute kid is no longer cute?

Nearly everyone my age remembers The Breakfast Club, an 80's film featuring a popular group of actors known as "The Brat Pack." The Breakfast Club told the tale of a group of kids in all-day detention. Each character was a type -- the stoner, the princess, the brain, the freak, the jock. If memory serves, there were only two adults, typecasts as well -- the overbearing mother (God love her!) and the clueless coach. The touching message we were all supposed to walk away with was that we are all part princess and part jock, all a little bit freaky and all a little bit brainy.

Dab your eyes now.

Within a family, we have our own stock characters -- there's the Easy Kid and the Smart Kid, young Mr. Moody and little Miss Laid Back. But, as I've mentioned before, labels are dicey things. They change. Or maybe it's the kids who change? I label my kids and then -- surprise!, surprise! -- they no longer fit the label.

Some of these changes are for the better. I remember the day I took the Fussy Baby -- who was, by then, a two-year-old and had morphed into Mr. Mellow -- to the fabric store. He fell asleep on the way. I had forgotten the stroller, so I carried him into the store and laid him on an arm chair. He never stirred.

"Oh, are you a lucky mom," exclaimed a grandma who had witnessed the transfer.

I felt compelled to tell her that Tim was merely catching up for lost time. He barely slept for the first two years of his life.

High Needs Baby became the Mr. Mellow. So mellow was toddler Tim, he spent his second birthday jetting over the Atlantic Ocean en route to Frankfurt, Germany.  Dave, Tim, and I spent three weeks touring Europe -- a feat I would not have attempted for love or money with two-year-old Kolbe or John, no way, no how. We took Tim to a three hour Mass at Peter's Basilica  Three hours in church with any of his siblings? The Swiss guards would have had me sealed in the catacombs along with the martyrs and saints.

Now, Kolbe was Model Baby. Every night I would nurse him and rock him and put him wide awake in his bed. He would roll over and go to sleep. I was mystified, really incredulous. Night after night, I would think to myself, "Well, it won't work tonight."

By two Model Baby was a force to be reckoned with.

John, like Kolbe, was a good sleeper. By ten months, he, too, was a force to be reckoned with. He threw fits the likes of which I have rarely seen. I'm talking consult with the pediatrician type fits. Now five, John couldn't be sweeter. He has his moments -- please don't think we spend our afternoons polishing his halo -- but Fit Thrower is no more.

And now onto Ainsley, that oh-so-elusive girl, the princess, my little angel. She skipped the terrible twos, but, gosh, three has had some trying moments. A friend of mine likes to say different children wear different ages better. So true.

Most of us have expectations of our children, and certainly we all have dreams.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend years and years ago. One of our boys was just entering the world of organized sports, and, well, it wasn't going swimmingly. Dave was in a season of l-o-n-g hours at work, and sometimes I battled resentment. When I watched this boy struggle to bat the ball or a shoot a basket, a small part of me blamed Dave.  If he were home more, we wouldn't have this problem. If they practiced together, everything would be different.

My friend and I sat on a park bench watching our younger sons play, and she shared a bit of her husband's history with me. His dad, it seems, wanted an all-American athlete for a son; he ended up with a talented member of the marching band. The father envisioned a popular class president; his son grew up to be an introverted mathematician.

Unable to lay aside the imaginary son and embrace the actual one, this man went on to physically and emotionally abuse his son for years.

The story made me cry. I cried in sadness for the pain and rejection of a young boy, but also in gratitude for a husband who would never think one ounce less of a son who couldn't pitch a ball straight and fast or dribble a soccer ball down a field. I was grateful for a father who goes on endless Boy Scout camp outs, invests hours innumerable helping the boys carve Pinewood Derby cars, a father who one night spent ninety minutes discussing the Periodic Table with a boy who inhales science like oxygen.

How crucial it is that we lay down our imaginary kids and embrace the real ones God has given us.

We can encourage kids in their pursuits, help them dabble in new hobbies, haul them to violin or travel volleyball or ice skating.

We can require our children do something -- many things, in fact -- make a bed, do their algebra, practice the piano. But we can not force them to love something -- not basketball, not guitar, not God. In the end they are made in God's image, not in ours, and are imbued with passions and purposes wholly independent of us.

And therein lies both the beauty and the peril of parenting.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

They Make Me Smile; They Make Me Laugh

Fifteen-year-old Tim on his report card: When you see these grades, we are SO going right to the permit office!

Eleven-year-old Kolbe quoting Famous Last Words: The fire extinguisher's empty; grab the hairspray.  Leave some food out; the bears will think we're their friends. This is the deep end, right? I'm sure the power's off. These are the good kind of mushrooms.

Five-year-old John sounding out a word: Buh Uh Ttt.  BUT! Bah, hah, hah, hah, hah!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I Know His Love Language

My friend Amy wrote a sweet reflection of the love of a young son as he darts off to school:
I am absolutely relishing in the complete warmth of this moment. This boy who is eight and in the second grade will be a sophomore in high school in the blink of an eye and I'm guessing, even though I'm hoping beyond all hope for this to be untrue, that boys at that age don't shout out, "I love you Mama!" anywhere ... at any time.
Good news, Amy! Teenage boys still say "I love you, Mama." They don't shout it out, and sometimes they use different words. If I've learned anything in the twenty-four months I have been a mother of a teenager, it's that a little translation is required to keep the lines of communication humming.

One recent morning found me screening my calls. When Caller I.D. alerted me that the kids' school was on the other end of the line, I quickly picked up.

It was Tim.

"Mom," he told me in his urgent voice, "Could you bring (fill in the blank with forgotten item). And while you're coming anyway, could you pick me up a Baconator?"

Adolescent boys speak a unique love language and it's called Food. Tim is fluent in a dialect called Bacon. He also speaks Electronics and is conversant in Cold, Hard Cash.

John, a boy ahead of his time, speaks Meat. From the time he could first form a complete sentence, "I want ma meat!" was a line we regularly heard at the dinner hour. The other night, in an earnest attempt to compliment me on my cooking, John declared with great gusto, "The grease makes this meat really good, Mama!"

Translation: I know you love me best!

I went at it with a nameless one of my progeny this morning. This boy -- this child of my heart, this kid I love more than I can say, more than I can say  -- was in rare form and, sadly, so was his mother.

My idea of a good start to the day is full of simple prayers and hot coffee, cheerful Good Mornings and maybe an I Love You, Mama or two. And we have those mornings. And nearly every morning is like that for some kids. But really life being what it is and challenging personalities (my own included) being what they are and with late nights crammed with homework and early morning piano lessons and the list goes on, we have bad mornings, too. Mornings punctuated with tense words and stomping feet. Mornings short on kindness and long on frustration.

Today was one of those days.

My boy darted off into school (mostly to avoid the tardy bell which has ramifications for older students). He didn't yell, "I love you, Mama," but I know he does. And long about noon time today, I just might show up in the courtyard of the school with a Mocha Frappuccino or a Baconator in hand. Last time I did this, Tim threw his arms around me and yelled, "You're the best!" Loud enough for God and his friends to hear.

I know his love language, and it's important to speak it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Hundred Small Annoyances

From Heather King, who blogs over at Shirt of Flame, a useful quote for a Tuesday morning that feels too much like a Monday morning because yesterday was a holiday:

There is no one who does not experience a hundred small annoyances every day, caused either by our own carelessness or inattention, or by the inconsideration or spite of other people, or by pure accident. Our whole lives are made up on incidents of this kind, occurring ceaselessly from one minute to another, and producing a host of involuntary feelings of dislike and aversion, envy, fear, and impatience to trouble the serenity of our minds … If we were careful to offer all these petty annoyances to God and accept them as being ordered by his providence, we would soon be in a position to support the greatest misfortunes that can happen to us, besides at the same time insensibly drawing close to intimate union with God.

St. Claude de la Colombière, 17th-century priest and confessor.

Read the rest of her piece here.

I just finished Heather's first book -- Parched, a searing, graphic description of addiction and redemption, a book I am sending to a friend who is right now fighting his way out of the living Hell Heather depicts.

Parched is not a light read. 

I am left with a few thoughts:

I don't know from true suffering.

I can count my blessings.

I can offer up my "hundred small annoyances" to God.

I can go hold my feverish son and spend a few minutes reading Charlotte's Web.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Easy Costumes

Laura the Carrot
Long about ten years ago, Tim made his theatrical debut as the back end of a camel.

I'm not even making that up.

If there was a bright spot in this otherwise inauspicious entry into the world of drama, it was this: The costume was provided.

For many mothers costumes are hmmm, a challenge? No, more like a cross to bear, the near occasion of a panic attic or a bout of swearing, the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

And why is this?

Costumes almost always come hand in hand with some other Big Event. A costume and a diorama. A costume and a speech. A costume and a major holiday. You're putting together Thanksgiving dinner solo . . . and now scrounging together something a Pilgrim might have worn, maybe.

Insert primal groan reminiscent of Lurch the Butler.

A long, long time ago, I produced a few really cool costumes. I had a sewing machine, not a fancy one, but a steady Eddie kind of machine that offered a wide variety of decorative stitches.  For All Saints one year, Tim was decked out as Pope John Paul II, and his costume flat rocked.

He was an only child at the time.

We then entered a dry season. My old, rugged machine went belly up, and I had three more children. When Tim played Prospero in The Tempest, I might have stapled his cape together.

Last year Santa brought me an updated version of my old machine, and the little people progressed from babies/toddlers to little people. Once again, we are fashioning costumes.

For those challenged in the craft department, for those kindred spirits who get a note home from school, and the note just happens to mention the dreaded word Costume, and maybe your stomach begins to churn, well, sister, just relax. Let me share a cheap and easy way out.

1. Scrounge up a paint stick.

2. Buy craft foam at Walmart, Michael's, Hobby Lobby, Joanne's etc..

3. Google the animal, character, etc. and click Image to get a vision of what you might like.

4. Cut and glue the craft foam pieces together.

5. Fasten the mask to the stick with packing tape.

These masks on a stick are especially helpful for little kids who a) might not like the elastic on a real mask or b) are expected to sing while in costume.

As for the rest of the costume, estimate the child's height (shoulder to ankle) and buy double the fabric. Fold it in half long ways. Cut a hole for the head. Scrounge a belt or rope to cinch the waist.


P.S. Above all, do not even think about checking Pinterest. Your child wont; why should you?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Seven Quick Takes

1. It's hot here in Georgia. As in the lower 70's. As in I ran the air conditioner twice this week. As in I cooked dinner in a tank top and shorts.

I try to tell myself, "Hey, it's just 73. If this were September, this would be a veritable cold front." Trouble is, there's no convincing myself that this is anything other than what it is, which is January for the love of Pete, and it's supposed to be, I don't know, 56 and cloudy. Not 73.

I just checked the forecast, and next Tuesday will supposedly be 47 (that's the high, not the low). Bring it on!

2. So my friend Rachel is putting a renewed effort into producing dinner. You go, girl! Yesterday afternoon I thought I'd make Tim's day by grilling hamburgers and serving them with corn on the cob and Aunt Karen's beloved cheesy hash brown casserole. I went out in the rain to pick up the burgers and a few more items. I came home and began assembling the meal. Buns? Check. Ketchup and mustard? Check. Cheese? Check. Hamburgers? Still at the store! How in the world can I go the store for hamburgers and manage to come home with toilet paper, chardonnay, sunflower seeds, etc., etc., and no blasted hamburgers? Back to the store in the rain once more.

I love you, Tim. I really, really love you.

3. Note to self:  If the piano teacher apologizes for the music she's just given to your son, best you go back to that blasted store and lay in a fresh supply of ear plugs and chardonnay.

Kolbe is in the process of mastering Axle F, otherwise known as the theme to Forty-Eight Hours, otherwise known as the most repetitive and annoying musical score Ever! Written! And this is coming from a mother who loves to hear her kids play the piano even when they play badly. Tim is ready to move out, I can't say that I blame him, and Kolbe just asked when he'll be allowed to watch Forty-Eight Hours. Answer? Neva!

4. So Sunday night means early bedtimes for the little people while the old folks enjoy Downton Abbey. A friend just told me about a show she had caught on NPR. Seems Hugh Bonneville, our beloved Lord Grantham, was recently interviewed. The newscaster apparently said something along the lines of, "Well, Hugh, we have a show here in American that, like Downton Abbey, provides a peek into a unique home. It's called Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."

Oh, the pain!

I first saw a commercial for Honey Boo Boo last summer when I watched my first (and only) episode of Toddlers and Tiaras. It seems Honey Boo Boo got her start on Toddlers and Tiaras. No surprise there! I recently learned that Honey Boo Boo hails from none other than the fine state of Georgia.

Oh, the pain!

By all accounts, Hugh was a good sport about the whole thing. But isn't it bad enough that we have this drivel on our airwaves? Must we parade it in front of visitors from abroad?

As a professor of mine once said, "Europe gives us Upstairs, Downstairs. We give them Dumb and Dumber."

Oh, the pain!

Honey Boo Boo. Carson's right on. We are staring into the chaos of Gomorrah.

5. Speaking of pain . . . If you see an exhausted Saint Anthony leaving my house wiping his brow on a weekday morning around, oh, 8:13 a.m., let me tell you, he's already put in a hard day's work. We are losing everything including my mind. John is down two shoes -- one each of two pairs. Argh!

6. Christmas is mostly put away. I cranked up Andy Williams and, as Ainsley put it, chopped down the Christmas tree. Oh, she made me feel like the Grinch. I waited until the Baptism of the Lord. We even had a  little gift exchange with friends Sunday night. Can't say we didn't embrace the whole season.

Among our favorite gifts was this little gem on the right.

Back in November I became determined to turn Ainsley's bed into something girly and John's bed into something boyish. I perused website after website in search of sheets or pillows in primary colors that would be cute and colorful and just the right degree of girlish or boyish. And you know what? Save for ladybug fabrics, no one really does primary colors. It's all brown and celery green, pink and raspberry.

I headed for Etsy and discovered Snuggles of Love and bought this. True confessions: It was crazy expensive. But it is soft and beautiful and Ainsley absolutely loves it.

Now all three boys want their names on a  pillow. I am ruminating on how I might pull this off (not gonna pay that price times four).

7. Continue to pray for Jen, the host of Quick Takes. She recently posted this:

I’ll never forget the powerful, soul-cleansing relief that poured over me when I learned that there really had been something wrong with me for all those weeks. Even though I had not begun to receive treatment and felt no better than before, I was suddenly inspired to do my best despite my circumstances. Almost immediately, I began to approach my situation with joy. Once I stopped lamenting sins I wasn’t really committing, I could take a clear look at the sins I was committing, and made a better confession than I had in months. Even sitting there in a hospital room, I felt closer to God and happier with my life than I had in a long, long time.
I feel like I’ve been given a divine permission slip to stop defaulting to self-blame for all of my little daily difficulties (not just as it related to my lungs, but in every area of life) and I want to share it with you. If you’re a mom and you’re struggling, let me just tell you that the problem is not you. Well, I suppose I can’t know that for sure; if you find that you’re regularly too drunk to put the Cheez Whiz on your kids’ cookies for dinner, then maybe the problem is you. But, short of that, my guess is that your suffering is due to your difficult circumstances far more than it is due to laziness or lack of holiness or ungratefulness on your part. What you’re doing is hard, harder in certain ways than what your grandmothers experienced, and don’t let the voices in your head tell you otherwise.
A beautiful pearl of wisdom we should all take to heart.

So pray for Jen and head on over to her place to add your Quick Takes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Self-Mastery . . . For Them and For Us

I wrote this a long time ago, but never hit Publish. If you substitute Ainsley's name for John's, the situation is nearly identical. The good news is that John is in a far, far different (and better!) place today.

A friend of mine shared with her class a basic life truth: If you can't control yourself, someone else will control you.

- If you can't control your spending, there's a friendly repo man willing to abscond with your car or a bank willing to foreclose on your house.

- If you can't show up for work, there's likely a string of applicants ready to take your place.

- If you can't control your sexual appetites, a host of woes -- marital, legal, medical -- just may come your way.

- If you can't control your greed, your temper, your demand to get what you want when you want it, the United States has a vast penal system all too ready to apply the ultimate Time Out.

What is self-control? How do we exercise it as adults? How do we grow this fruit of the spirit in our children?

I look at my young children -- one of them in particular -- and wonder how we can best help him down the road to self-mastery. He is an imp, a total delight, a spontaneously affectionate boy, the child who once put his hands on my face, looked deep into my eyes and said, "I love your fullness!" When I asked what he meant, he added, "Of your heart." A priceless moment I will always, always remember.

He loves with intensity.

When he's tired, hungry, or simply doesn't get his way, he applies this same intensity to bad behavior. It tests a parent's mettle, let me tell you.  I'll spare you the particulars, but, believe me, his fits are nothing short of spectacular.

What's a mother to do? By this point, I'm sure we've tried it all.

With many children the best defense begins with a good offense, and for John this begins with food and rest. John is rail thin, and when he begins to dissemble, blood sugar is frequently the culprit. I'm all about protein, protein, protein. He has long since left napping behind him, but an early to bed, late to rise rhythm evens out his emotions.

Boredom is bad, very bad; constructive activity is good.

Begin discussing children and discipline and inevitably you meander onto the topic of spanking, and parents on both sides of the issue instantly become apoplectic. Let me just acknowledge the elephant in the room: We believe spanking can be a useful tool in raising children.

I enjoy reading Like Mother, Like Daughter. This is a blog chock-full of practical, real-life solutions to the challenges of marriage and family. I had to laugh at what she wrote about spanking:

If you can say that your child is well behaved without spanking, then all the best to you. You are doing a great job and why fix something that isn’t broken? But be honest. The people who advocate the soft, gentle, “Christ-centered”, or otherwise spank-free approach very often have children who are brats, have no children, or have extremely compliant children, few in number and female in sex.
My children are not few in number or extremely compliant, and only one is female in gender. We spank.

When John was just shy of two, he was in a pool and grew tired of his floaties. He pulled one off. I was standing a few feet away holding Ainsley who was an infant at the time. I said, "John, don't take your other floatie off." His brown eyes bore straight into mine. He ripped off his floatie, jumped back into deeper water, and sank like a stone.

I didn't ring my hands, consult a parenting manual, or poll the others mothers at the pool. I spanked him. Well, first I pulled him off the bottom of the pool. In my view, there is a time and a place for spanking.

But here we are two years later dealing with issues that (usually and thankfully) are not life and death or matters of direct defiance. What is my goal as a mother? Am I looking for mere external conformity? On our bad days, believe me, I would settle for it in skinny minute. External conformity? Ummm . . .  yeah.! I'll take it!

Lately, though, in dealing with some trying moments with my little brown-eyed wonder, I have come to the conclusion that a more effective tool to help someone who lacks self-control is to initiate action that demands self-control. Getting a swat on the rear end requires nothing of John. Sitting still does require something of him. When John has thrown fits, I've put him in time out -- no distractions, just a chair in the middle of the room. It's helping.

I've also thought back to Tim at this age. Tim was an only child until he was four. We painted, we read, we worked puzzles, we played board games all the time -- we invested in fun and engaging activities that also require sitting still, taking turns, waiting, i.e. self-control. Sadly, I do less of this with John and Ainsley than I did with Tim and Kolbe. Life with four kids is far busier.

The other individual who needs self-mastery would be me. Lazy, knee-jerk parenting doesn't require self-control, but it isn't effective parenting either. As we sat down to dinner the other night, Ainsley -- tired and hungry -- began to pitch a fit that was only matched by the fit her mother threw. I, too, was tired and cranky --  and weary of the single parent routine and sick of picking up after everyone and done, done, done with all the squabbling. I showed about as much self-control as two-year-old Ainsley.

What message does this send to my children?

The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. Like all fruit, producing these virtues requires time -- time to cultivate, time to fertilize, time to harvest. And the time to start is now.

As I read this long after writing it, I was encouraged by how far John has come. Oh, how I would like to give all the credit to my fine parenting skills. Calm and consistent parenting is certainly helpful, particularly when we focus on a single behavior or two (cleaning up after yourself, good behavior at the dinner table, etc.). But I truly believe most of John's transformation has come from time --  he's just grown up a little. 

Sometimes we simply have to endure. Correct and tweak and address issues as we endure, but mostly just stay the course.   

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Downton Abbey Is Back

Poor Edith, poor, poor Edith!

Downton Abbey is back, and Episode Two was heart-breaking.

I chewed on Episode One and thought about writing something, but I felt like a Monday morning quarterback with nothing but a collection of petty criticisms to share. Julian Fellowes is an Emmy-winning author, and I'm a blogger with fifteen followers. Really, that speaks volumes.

Truth is, I enjoyed Episode Two much better than Episode One, so I'll share my thoughts now.

So back to poor, poor Edith.

Sir Anthony Strallen did the right thing. At the wrong time. But it was the right thing. Not because he's older and slightly infirm, but because, to quote Robert way back in Season 1, "He's dull as paint."
The Edith-Anthony thing reminded me of the Sybil-Tom thing last season -- they're falling in love, we guess, but for no discernible reason whatsoever.

But it was wrenching nevertheless-- the falling veil, the sobbing mother and daughter, the uneaten canapes.

No matter that this will be best in the long run, Robert had a paternal duty to deck that louse, Sir Anthony. Instead Robert had a wistful and solitary stroll along the grounds until Mathew broke in with the news that all would be well once more with the Crawley finances.

As for Mathew's change of heart on his unexpected windfall -- predictable, but believable. You can't have Downton Abbey without the Abbey, can you? They could have renamed it Downton Place, but, come on, . . . no.

I loved how the episode closed -- a very relieved Carson singing as he polished silver. All is right with his part of the world. This is Julian Fellowes at his best -- showing the humanity of all the characters. I felt the same during the brief scene between Cora and Mrs. Hughes. These people lived together for decades; between classes or within classes, genuine love and devotion would grow.

Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Pattmore, and -- my favorite -- Mr. Carson are at the top of their game. Oh, if I could glare like Mr. Carson, think of the bad behavior I could stem in my children.

The best line of this season? When the elegant dinner party descends to the level of a glorified Pot Luck, Carson states, with no sense of hyperbole whatsoever, "If you ask me, we are staring into the chaos of Gomorrah."

The chaos of Gomorrah.

Carson, my friend, I felt the same way when I found out that three-year-old Ainsley had broken into the hidden stash of chocolate milk.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Enjoy It

The post-Christmas re-entry . . . all I can say is Whew!

Last week made the first days of school feel like a trip to the beach. We were flat worn out, one and all. One morning as the sun was peeking through the pecan orchard out back, John and Ainsley stumbled out to the couch where I was enjoying coffee and morning prayer. John snuggled up on my left side and Ainsley sidled up to my right. Totally bushed, they attempted to catch a few more ZZZ'z on my lap.

A sweet, sweet moment rubbing John's caramel haired head and Ainsey's baby fine, blonde one.

I revel in these times perhaps more than I used to. Is this because I have a teenager with a gravelly voice and massive feet who's talking of drivers' permits and cars and college?

As babies grow and develop, we tend to mark all the firsts -- talking, crawling, walking. Lately I've been thinking about the lasts. Do we mark the lasts?

When, a mommy columnist once wrote, did my living room see its last fort? 

When was the last time I carried Kolbe or read aloud to Tim? When did Thomas the Train become passe and Winnie the Pooh worthy of nothing but a groan and an eye roll?

Last week Ainsley appeared in my room in the middle of the night, looking adorable in her striped blanket sleeper, carrying her magic wand. We had gone to Tim's basketball game the evening before. Can I bring my wand? she had asked. Sure, I had said. Then she wanted the pink gloves and the princess shoes and the purse and Oh, why not? I had thought.

During the game my friend -- now a mother of two teenage girls -- leaned over and said, "Enjoy it! I miss this so much!"

We have a bit of a split family -- the big boys and the little people. One of the benefits that comes with a split family is that some of those lasts are coming 'round once again. At the library last week, John came running up to me with a book. Let's read this, he told me excitedly.

The book was Charlotte's Web. One summer, probably ten years back, Tim and I read through nearly all of E.B. White. While I love Charlotte's Web, nothing beats Trumpet of the Swan. If you've watched the movie, but not read the book, go check it out. There's a wit you can't catch watching it. The father is just flat hilarious. And Stuart Little? The movies simply don't do him justice.

So now we get to do this all again -- Play Doh and Matchbox cars, Curious George and Frog and Toad. We have capes and cowboy hats. We make forts. And now we have Angelina Ballerina, Madeline, and Olivia the Pig.

Ainsley ran a fever a few months back. Huddled in a pathetic lump, she called to me and said, "Rock me, Mama."

Believe me, I was thrilled to rock her. For some reason, she's wanted to be rocked off and on ever since then.

In the atrium, we teach our smallest children pouring and spooning works, simple manual tasks that occupy little bodies so that minds are free to think about a scripture we've presented, a single, essential Gospel message.

Rocking is like spooning beans for me -- it's a meditative act. I rub Ainsley's head. I pat her back. I think. I sing. I pray. In the midst of a day that's hectic and loud, fast-paced and full -- and right now they're all like that -- I take a few minutes to be still, to be quiet, to focus on a single, essential person.

One day I'll do this for the last time.

For now I plan to enjoy it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Seven Quick Takes

1. First and foremost, please offer a prayer for Jen, the host of Quick Takes, who is seven months pregnant and experiencing serious health issues. As I've encountered this or that problem during the week, I've tried to lift up a prayer for healing, grace, and peace to come her way.

2. In the realm of much less serious prayers answered, I have to report that our fifteen hour drive home from Michigan was closer to fourteen and a half hours. If you don't think that's significant, you haven't driven cross country with a van load of kids. More remarkable than the time was the fact that everyone got along nearly the entire time. The roads were bone dry. Except for an exceptionally bad cup of coffee at Burger King, I'd call the trip an amazing success.

2. That mostly makes up for the trip there.

If you're going to pray for this:

Look out because you might end up with this:

And maybe it's been twenty-five years or so since you've had the thrill of trying to keep a van in the two small ruts in the right hand lane of a congested interstate all while enormous salt trucks come barreling past you and raging winds threaten to send your vehicle careening out of control. No exaggeration -- we're talking white out.

Sometimes it's glaringly obvious why God called me South.

3. One of the items that kept us sane: Etch-a-sketch. If you have a road trip with littles on the horizon, I can't say enough for this classic toy -- no mess, no batteries, no noise, just hours of silent entertainment.

4. Although tough to drive in, the snow was so much fun to play in. We walked out of Christmas Eve Mass into a winter wonderland. Joy to the world, indeed! We popped into a grocery store for a gallon of milk, and Dave, unable to contain himself, started pulling donuts in the parking lot. (To the uninitiated: This involves making quick, sharp turns on an icy surface so that the car spins 'round and 'round.) Let me tell you, my kids just love to meet Dave's alter-ego.

Anyways, skiing, sledding, snowmobiling -- we did it all, and it was so very much fun.

5. Top Christmas gifts  of 2012: Ainsley (via Grandma and my friend Amy) now has a Madeline and a Raggedy Ann. Too sweet for words. John's favorite gift? A Spiderman T-shirt. He's still a cheap date. Kolbe loved his Tardis notebook. Also a cheap date. As for Tim, well, Santa smiled on my oldest this year. He is now the owner of his very own laptop. I hope we don't live to regret this, but with the amount of homework the boy does, we needed a second computer.

I received exercise clothes for Christmas. The tags are still one them, but there's always next week, isn't there?

6. I don't exaggerate when I say that Christmas would not have happened if not for the speedy, reliable services of our friends at Amazon. You can't beat Amazon, that is, until you have to return something. I have three somethings to return, so I clicked on their website to locate a helpful 1-800 number in hopes of finding a guy named Joe in Bhopal, India, who could tell me how to fit these three little items into a box and get them back to Amazon.

Apparently it can't be done.

After a l-o-n-g conversation with a guy named Joe in Bhopal, India, I finally said, "Uncle!" and gave up on the outlandish idea that these three small items could be shipped back in one box.

One order = one box. Thus saith a very worried Joe in Bhopal. Try shipping them back in one box and poor Joe, from the sound of it, would have ended with an ulcer and probably irritable bowel syndrome to boot. I ended up just plain irritable and thinking about a comment someone once wrote about returns to L.L. Bean: You could show up in Freeport, Maine, in a canoe on fire, and they'd issue a store credit no sweat.

Amazon is not L.L. Bean, but it is both speedy and reliable. Come Monday, I will pack my three small items in three separate boxes, ship them back, and hope that Joe in Bhopal can once again sleep at night.

7. In addition to Jen, please pray for another friend, one near and dear. The holidays are jammed packed with joy, but for those who suffer from depression, this season can be hard indeed. Grace, grace, grace.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A Few Pics

I have concluded that I have an extremely limited ability to multi-task.
I can live our two week vacation up North, or I can photograph it. I can revel in Christmas morning, or I can capture great footage of the whole affair. Blogging from afar? Sorry, I've splinched yet again. Cerebral cortex has gone AWOL.
We arrived home in the wee hours on Saturday. Over the next two days, I filed my nails and plucked my eyebrows. Both these jobs require:
a) Glasses
b) Tools
c) Time
d) A powerful magnifying mirror (at least for the eyebrows)
All this is to say I went through the holidays resembling a Woolley Mammoth with jagged claws.
Note to my sisters: If my eyebrows ever again look that bad, you have a familial obligation to bring this fact to my attention.
All this is a long-winded way of saying I snapped about ten good pictures the whole time we were gone. And here are three of them:

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

2012 in Review

Best Captures Age three: I'm a grumpy old troll, and you can't get across my bridge!

Best captures a ten-year-old boy:

Best captures a fourteen-year-old:  Tim, throwing a plastic Little People figure across the room and then saying, "Just my luck, I hit the picture. I was aiming for the lamp."

Best captures a four-year-old boy:

Favorite TV show, according to Ainsley: Reruns of John and Kate Plus Eight. Favorite Episode: Potty training sextuplets.

Favorite TV show, according to Mom: Call the Midwife. Loved it.

Favorite TV show, according to the boys: Doctor Who.

Remembering those we lost: Bob V. and Dennis McBride and Patrick McBride.

My favorite post: Kill the Cow and You Kill the Calf.

Your favorite post: Why Not Take All of Me?

A great milestone: Everyone out of diapers.

A funny one: John, on seeing the pendant on the left: Is that the note that follows sew?

Favorite adolescent fiction: The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Favorite spiritual read: The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin.

Low point: Going six for six with the stomach flu while out of town.

High point: John's last report card. Given that I've shared about our struggles, I would be remiss (and ungrateful) if I didn't report that he earned an "E" for "Excellent" in reading. (And an "E" for "Excellent" in "Respects Authority". Will wonders never cease?)

Times Flies: Thinking about the Thomas the Train birthday parties, the Star Wars birthday parties, and looking across the table at five teenage boys enjoying Tim's 15th birthday at a Japanese steakhouse.

Favorite Picture: John after he swam for the first time.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Back By a Different Way

From the archives:

As Epiphany Meets Ordinary Time

In the Atrium we are getting ready to transition from the Christmas season back into Ordinary Time.

We just celebrated Epiphany. We pondered the long
 journey of the wise men; we talked about the fact that they fell prostrate in the presence of their savior; we read about how they returned to their country by a different way.
They returned to their country by a different way.

They had had an epiphany. We said the word. We defined it - "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something," according to

As I looked at the faces of these six sweet children who come week after week, I thought about epiphany. As we move out of Christmas and move into Ordinary Time, I thought it was time we revisited the essential meaning of our faith. I looked over to our sheepfold and thought we would go back to The Good Shepherd and The Found Sheep. I began to pray that as we ponder these foundational parables, the children would experience their own epiphany.

Sofia Cavalletti, the founder of The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd,  took the educational methods of Maria Montessori and applied them to religious formation in children. Through decades of observation, she found that the very youngest children are drawn to the parables of Jesus, most especially to the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd cares for His sheep, knows them, calls them by name. They, in turn, stay close to Him. They won't follow a stranger, but the Good Shepherd alone because they know His voice. The Found Sheep is especially near to a child's heart, as it touches on that universal experience of being lost and then found.

I remember so well my first day of first grade. I stood by the parking lot of Saint Bede's School watching the big, yellow buses pull up. Out of my left eye, I could see my third grade sister Kathy in her brown striped coat. My right eye was trained on Keith, my fifth grade brother, in his blue jacket standing with the "big" kids. Throngs of girls in plaid jumpers and boys in navy pants milled about. I kept my eyes on my brother and sister. Left, right, Kathy, Keith.

Suddenly they were gone. I panicked, eyes darting through the crowd, searching for a brown striped coat or a blue jacket. Kids began pouring onto the buses. I hadn't a clue which one to board. The crowd thinned. No Kathy, no Keith!

I walked to a bus and got on.

The next few moments are a blur, but I eventually started bawling my little eyes out. I was lost! The next thing I remember is sitting on the lap of a long-suffering and very kind bus driver who drove the streets of Southfield, Michigan, asking, "Is this your street, honey?"

Somehow one of the kids (yes, the bus was completely full) told the bus driver that my mother was in the car behind the bus. How exactly this transpired, I will never know. I hopped off the bus and jumped in our red sedan so happy to be with my family once again.

As a mother now, I can well imagine my mother's reaction when her two oldest arrived home from school minus one brand new first grader. I have lost kids, and there are few more frightening experiences. John has proven particularly adept at disappearing as I found out late in my pregnancy with Ainsley.

I was up in Michigan enjoying a little R and R at my sister's house. It's a treat to have so many helpers late in pregnancy, but it's especially easy to lose a toddler because you think someone else has him.  John was outside playing with everyone. And then he wasn't.

We called. We searched. We panicked. We prayed. The search expanded to the next street. I incoherently begged the help of some construction workers. I told my sister to call 911.

And then my niece's voice yelling, "I found him!"

Oh, the relief! Oh, the agonizing "What if? What if?" Parenting is not for the weak-kneed. Toddlers are not for the distracted.

I have been the found sheep, and I have searched for the lost one. How well I can understand the joy of the Shepherd when the stray sheep is recovered. How I can appreciate the celebration that ensues. His desire is that not one be lost. What parent can fail to understand that? Which one of our children would we deem expendable?

In The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, we use the word "essential" a lot. We try to focus on the essential. The Christian faith is about essential relationships; it's about the deep, abiding love we have for God and He for us. We can know the whats of our faith, but it's so much more essential to know the who.

The Good Shepherd and The Found Sheep focus on the infinite value God sees in us. Our Good Shepherd is a source of sustenance, of security, of love. These can remain stories we've heard over and over in church, about as meaningful as a coloring sheet we remember from Sunday school.
Or they can become an essential reality, an abiding love, an epiphany.

We will soon begin taking down Christmas decorations, boxing up the glitter that has brightened our world these past weeks. We will embrace Ordinary Time - the largest chunk of our church year - with its cycle of minor feasts and continuous growth in the Lord. But in my heart, in my home, and in my atrium, I hope to hold onto the spirit of Epiphany. I’ll return to Ordinary Time by a different way.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Leave No Trace Behind

For an inspiring tour across the American West, I recommend Undaunted Courage. Chronicling the explorations of Lewis and Clark, this book left me hankering for a long canoe trip through Minnesota or the Dakota Territories.

My starry-eyed dream of a leisurely paddle though pine forests has somewhat dimmed since my nephew Jacob spent ten days canoeing at a Boy Scout facility called Northern Tier.

The Boy Scout's embrace many a pithy slogan. First and foremost is, of course, Be Prepared. Another is Leave No Trace Behind. National Parks and other scenic areas post a flowery version of this Scout principle: Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints.

Northern Tier takes this very seriously indeed. Jacob tells me they ate their meals, poured a small amount of water into their mess kits, scraped the kits, and then proceeded to consume what they had scraped.


This, friends, captures why it is Sacajawea, not Kelly, engraved on a dollar coin to memorialize her role in the Lewis and Clark expeditions. I love the great outdoors . . . just not that much.

We are now at the tail end of our Christmas sojourn to the great white North. I am happy to report that it has been mostly great and altogether white.

For many years I was the maiden aunt of the family. I required little space, little food, and was actually quite a big help. I hunted down missing socks, styled hair, wiped faces, generally corralled and assisted with the little people. Like a good Scout, I left no trace behind. Then along came Dave and then Tim and eventually Kolbe. We were still a small family, easily squished into a single room, leaving little trace behind.

Now we are a family of six. We don't travel light, not even close to light. I'm all about everyone fitting their belongings into one small, carry-on style suitcase. Then Tim hands me his shoes. Sneakers and a pair of dress shoes and the bag is pretty much full. This year, for the first time, we used a car top carrier. The van was packed to the gills even with additional square feet of storage on the roof.

We make quite an entrance, whether we want to or not.

On leaving, I always hold on to the Boy Scout adage Leave No Trace Behind. It's a challenge, really it is, to bring twelve suitcases, assorted back packs, cold weather gear, and acquired Christmas gifts, stay in three different homes, and leave the state with all your belongings intact. Around February 1st or so, we usually receive a package with a tiny sock or two, a few books, a single glove, a collection of all we've left behind.

Two summers back, we endured that ill-fated and lengthy visit to Canada  when Leave No Trace Behind failed us miserably. Ainsey and John were then one and three, Trouble and More Trouble, Mess and Bigger Mess. We left lipstick on the walls and permanent marker on a table. A nameless someone wet a bed that, sadly, had no mattress pad.

We added Febreeze to the packing list.

Since that trip, I have been hyper-aware of the noise, the complications, and the mess that, despite our best intentions, are inevitable when you add six people to any household.

This year it wasn't an an ill-behaved two-year-old or a newly potty-trained three-year-old that was our undoing. No, on Christmas night Santa Claus wasn't all that came to town. So did the stomach bug. Around 1:00 a.m. Ainsley climbed into our bed, gave a little cough which morphed into an enormous earp and sent cousin Megan's Chocolate Yule log spraying all over Auntie Karen's bed spread that, I am unhappy to report, was labelled Dry Clean Only. Thirty-six hours and seventeen loads of wash later we departed Auntie Karen's house leaving, I'm sure, a few traces behind. Hopefully, norovirus was not among them.

And that was just the warm-up.

We moved into Dave's parents' house Saturday night, and woke up to the sound of John sick in the bathroom. And then Tim. And then Kolbe. And Kolbe was nearly comatose and sleeping  -- drum roll, please -- on a sofa bed. Yes, a sofa bed. Most parents are only too well acquainted with the challenge of de-toxing a car seat after a G.I. upset. Trust me, a car seat is mere child's play compared to a sofa bed. Another seventeen loads of laundry, two scrub brushes, and one steam cleaner later, I think we're close to finished.

As I've written before, the great trek North costs us something. On trips like this one, I'm all too aware that it costs our hosts something as well.

So I focus on the positives:

- Asking Ainsley to sled down the hill with me and hearing, "No! I ride with Megan!", her sweet cousin who was always careful to keep Ainsley from face-planting in a pile of snow.

- Hearing Papa read, "I think the most likely reason of all was that his heart was two sizes too small" to the sole granddaughter of the clan who appears at Papa's side with a stack of books in hand.
- Hanging out with the oldest grandson of the Dolin clan who was once one of the gang of blond-haired boys riding Big Wheels and is now a witty and intelligent twenty-one-year-old interested in science and politics and language.
- Witnessing Ainsley's delight as cousin Lissi, fashion maven, painted her fingers and toes bright pink.

- Watching all the boy cousins whipping around Auntie Karen's farm on snowmobiles.

Not all the traces we leave behind require Lysol and an anti-emetic.

I would end on that uplifting, saccharine sweet note, but the plague has now hit Dave. So instead I'll leave you with a quote from Simcha Fisher on dealing with sick husbands:

The worst part was that he only had me to take care of him. I can be nurturing for as long as ten or eleven minutes at a time, but beyond that, I find sick people irritating. As you can imagine, I then feel horribly guilty about that, and take it out on the sick people. So, the moral of this story is, get the hell away from me, with your pain and suffering. I mean, would you like some orange juice? Or tea? No? Well, then I guess I’ll go shovel the driveway ALL BY MYSELF, with no one to help me.

To quote another deep thinker, "If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane."