Mama, Want to Play Heaven?

Elizabeth comes to me in the kitchen: “Mama, want to play heaven?”

Dishes are done, husband is out of town for work. No other pressing concerns at 8:15 on a Tuesday night.

“Okay,” I say. 

I take her little hand and follow.

“Okay you need to lay on the sofa and pretend you’re dead,” commands Elizabeth. 

“But don’t stick your tongue out of your mouth or anything,” Thomas nuances. 

(Do you ever notice the immersiveness of children’s play? It is so detailed—no wonder they get swept up in another world.)

I lay down and close my eyes. Maybe this is one of those games I can fall asleep while playing.

No deal.

“It’s time,” Elizabeth says, “Open your eyes.”

For some reason, her words resound in my mind and heart for a few moments.

“Welcome to heaven. I’m Mama Mary,” Elizabeth proclaims in a slight British accent. “And I’m St. Joseph,” smiles Thomas, sidled up to his pretend wife.

Elizabeth stands with a muslin blanket cloaking her head and back. Thomas looks like a proper St. Joseph with another muslin blanket tied across his body, over one shoulder.

Mama Mary speaks: “I want to give you a tour of heaven, but first, I want to give you a hug.” Elizabeth wraps me in her arms. She holds me close and long. “I want to tell you that we love you very much—more than you could ever imagine,” she whispers into my ear.

Her words bring tears to my eyes. All of a sudden I feel quite loved by the Blessed Mother.

Time to get back to playing heaven, and Mama Mary is in charge: “Joseph, go upstairs and get Jesus, so she can meet him.” 

Thomas runs.

He comes downstairs with a baby doll in arms. “This is our son, Jesus,” he says proudly, and offers Jesus to me gently.

“Time for a picture!” Elizabeth yells with celebration in her voice.

The heavenly host, Lucy, bursts out of a play closet with a broken remote, our children’s pretend iPhone. 

I sit, holding baby Jesus, sandwiched between Mother Mary and St. Joseph. “Everyone under my mantle!” Elizabeth says as she spreads her muslin blanket over us.

Lucy yells, “Cheeeeese” and holds up the remote to take a picture. She clicks her tongue so we know she’s captured the image. 

I smile a real smile as I wonder at my current contentment, playing heaven.

So Close: From Tumor to Email

When I recently sat in prayer and was prompted to give myself a breast exam (it’s odd, but God’s ways are sometimes), I was surprised to find a pea size tumor in my left breast. Was I feeling what I thought I was feeling? I was—I could find it over and over again. 

I went on a walk a few days after finding the tumor. I looked up at the mountains and heard, “I’ve got this.”

You’ve got what God? What is this

As people of faith, we can sometimes be tempted to over spiritualize things—everything becomes a sign toward an end that we design. When I’m tempted toward this reason-making method, I remind myself, God’s ways are not my ways. He’s always working, and my job is not to figure him out, to make his work make sense. My job is to try to trust, to be faithful to the next step.

When I went to my doctor, she said, “The tumor is probably nothing, but I’d like you to get a mammogram and an ultrasound.” When I laid on the ultrasound table after getting my breasts smashed in the mammogram, the radiologist said, “It’s probably nothing, but I’d like to do a biopsy.”

I got into the car, and I cried. And for days I waited, thinking it was probably nothing, but also could be something. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew God already knew. 

In the days I waited to get a biopsy, my friend who has breast cancer left me an encouraging note and a bar of chocolate, because she knows what it feels like to wait. And friends prayed for me, offered their Masses for me, and sent sweet texts. More women than I realized knew what it was like to wait, not knowing if something in their breast was benign or not. Maybe you know this in between, too.

When I laid on the table, quiet, breast exposed, waiting for the biopsy to begin, I asked, “Jesus, would you just lay here with me?” And I heard him say, “I am here.”

I am here.

In the days of waiting between the biopsy and results, our Mother, Mary, invited me to stop in the midst of my children splashing in the water table, making paper airplanes, and playing pretend. To sit and pray a Rosary. To just be with her. And miracle of miracles, I prayed a whole Rosary in the midst of the chaos. Sore and swollen breast, children running around without a care, my own cares swirling—she was there with me, so close.

Then the day came. I was folding laundry and thought I might as well check my email. There it was: “Good news, the tumor is benign.” I walked into the garage, out of my children’s sight, and fell to my knees and wept. “Thank you, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.” My whole self flushed with gratitude and relief. I cried off and on for hours that day.

As I journey as a disciple, I sometimes feel I don’t know as much about God as I thought I did. But, every once in a while he helps me understand something more deeply about him. In the weeks between finding the tumor and getting the email, he showed me: I am so close. God is so close to us in the vulnerable and tender moments of our lives. When we sit or stand or lay, feeling naked, he is so close. He wants nothing from us, just permission to be beside us, and whisper lovingly, “I am here.”

Book Review: For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself

When I began reading For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself, I didn’t expect a Benedictine Nun of Perpetual Adoration to inspire me as a mother who desires to lead her young children to Jesus. However, the Holy Spirit is always at work, bringing God’s children together. 

As a child, Sister Bernadette, known as Rozmarynka, was not the picture of docility. She was choleric in temperament—strong-willed, independent, and sometimes prone to anger. Her household was grounded in goodness, but not alive with strong religious culture. Rather, Rozmarynka’s home and family were steeped in practicing beauty—poetry, writing, painting, time in nature. Young Rozmarynka was first drawn to the heart of God through the beauty found around her and through a book of the Gospels that lay open in her home.

The reader walks with Rozmarynka as she grows into Roza and finally Sister Bernadette. As one reads, one apprehends how the Holy Spirit moved with Sister Bernadette, step-by-step. Her story reminds us how the Holy Spirit meets us and moves with us. We are never coerced, but always invited into a loving relationship with God. When we say “yes” and “yes” again, God does beautiful, one of a kind work with, through, and in our lives.

The robust sampling of Sister Bernadette’s letters and artwork help the reader feel as though they know Sister Bernadette. In fact, early on in reading For Their Sake, I lay in bed and found myself asking Sister Bernadette to pray for me, as I would ask a friend. 

As Sister Bernadette knew and lived, we are all part of Christ’s Mystical Body. This mystery allowed her sacrifice for the infidelities of priests to be fruitful. This same mystery allows her life to inspire me as a lover of beauty and mother of sometimes choleric children. Our belonging to the same Mystical Body allows me to ask for her prayers and know that she brings them to Jesus, our Head.

Thank you to the monks of Silverstream Priory in Ireland for introducing me to Sister Bernadette and their lovely community!

Book Review: God is Calling: Seeing His Signs in Your Life

Can it feel hard at times to see God in your life, the direction God wants you to go, or the next step God wants you to take? Sometimes we overcomplicate things and cloud our vision, making it challenging for us to see God’s loving signs. In God is Calling: Seeing His Signs in Your Life, Brother François Fontanié, C.F.R. shares his story of discovering the signs God placed in his life and how those signs ultimately led him to become a Franciscan friar in the Bronx.

Brother François invites us into his journey of becoming a friar through seven ways God left signs in his life’s path. These signs are concrete—the reader can easily connect with them and then start to reflect on how God has possibly been present in their own life in the same way.

God is Calling is ideal for ages 7 and up, as suggested. When I read the book with my almost 7-year-old, he was drawn in by Brother François’ story and by the illustrations. My son asked questions and mused over the colorful and engaging  illustrations throughout our reading time. The signs are tangible enough for anyone to relate to, but made interesting because of the uniqueness of Brother François’ story. One particularly enjoyable element of the illustrations is depiction of Brother Francois’ childhood self journeying with his friar self. This detail attests to God’s faithfulness in our lives—God was with us in the past, is with us in the present, and will continue to be with us. 

God is Calling ends with a lovely epilogue that invites us into a simple prayer to see God’s signs in our own lives: “My God, if you are there, let me recognize your presence.” 

I recommend God is Calling especially in the context of a read aloud by an adult and child (or children). The book naturally and inconspicuously acts as a guide for spiritual reflection and invites simple but meaningful conversation with the precious young ones in our lives.

 

Review copy received from publisher.

Love in the Kitchen (I’ll be a speaker!)

I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to learn about Chalice this year when they contacted me to be a speaker for Love in the Kitchen. Chalice is an international nonprofit organization that works with families who struggle with poverty. They sponsor children to receive education as a first step in breaking the cycle of poverty, and also support families in their efforts to provide nutritious foods for their families. 

Love in the Kitchen is a virtual event that will take place over Corpus Christi weekend (June 18-19). Over 20 speakers will work to connect food and faith. I’ll be speaking on sourdough bread and the Kingdom of God and the garden as a place of healing through holy work and holy waste. Registration is free, so please sign up if you are interested and pass along to your parish, friends, or family who may be interested.

Sourdough Bread and the Kingdom of God

When I baked my first loaf of bread, I was convinced I’d never bake another. As a cook, but not a baker, I thought estimations would be just fine as I scooped about the right amount of flour and added approximately the directed amount of yeast. Any semi-experienced baker would not have been surprised that my dough didn’t rise and felt dense as a brick. My husband sweetly spread butter on this not-bread and ate a slice with dinner. Disappointed, I tossed it into the trash can with a loud thump. 

Years later, in the midst of a pandemic, children running around, and a desire for something life-giving, I thought I’d give bread a try again—this time with sourdough. In my motherhood, I’ve grown to love working with living things (including the little people I call my children) and providing my family with nutritionally rich foods. Both my mother-in-law and grandfather are incredible sourdough bakers and with their encouragement, I made my first starter.

I mixed flour and water together in a large mason jar and set it on the counter. I fed it each day and in not too long, bubbles appeared on the surface. My mind was blown—how could wild yeast and bacteria, both of which I could not see, help this flour and water come to life?! I’ve continued to feed this starter—water, flour, fresh air—to keep it alive. (My husband jokes that this starter, now over two years old, is our fourth child.) It has produced many loaves of bread, English muffins, pancakes, cookies, and more. And in the experience of sourdough, I see something of the kingdom of God.

Sourdough reminds me of the kingdom—of life with God—because it is true food. It nourishes our bodies at a deep level. The wild yeast and bacteria in the starter break down the flour in such a way that the bread is easier for our bodies to digest. The nutrition in the bread becomes more available for our bodies to absorb. Plus, the bacteria in the starter is great for our guts, which is a big deal since 70% of our immune system is housed in our guts.

Because of the fermented quality of sourdough, even those who have sensitivity to gluten (excluding Celiac disease) can often enjoy it. It has been a gift to make sourdough for my friends and family with gluten sensitivity and see them enjoy bread without negative side effects. The goodness of a crusty, fluffy, chewy piece of sourdough bread with a smear of butter is without words.

Sourdough also summons the kingdom of God because of its virtue making qualities. Creating a loaf of sourdough is not a quick process. It requires feeding the starter, waiting for the starter to rise, crafting dough with the fed starter, waiting for the dough to rise, shaping the dough, waiting for the dough to rise, baking the dough, and waiting to slice until it has cooled. This process cultivates patience and self-control. It is a slow food in a world that loves to be immediately gratified. 

Finally, sourdough bread cultivates the kingdom of God because of the community it creates. When friends have shown interest in baking sourdough, I’ve given some of my starter to them and they in turn have given some of their starter to others. There’s joy in sharing starter, making a loaf of bread for another person, and sharing bread around the table. The bread nourishes not only our bodies, but also the primal desire for community written into our beings. 

If you are a baker of sourdough products, perhaps you’ve glimpsed God in them as I have. If you are someone who thinks they could never be a baker (like I did when I tossed my brick of bread into the bin), perhaps you’ll reconsider. The kingdom of God is here with us—as close as the starter bubbling away on the counter.

Re-creation on the Trail

When I hike, I see the world differently. Glimpses of Jesus’ resurrection emerge around and within me. And even glimpses of the resurrection are sufficient for a bubbling up and welling over of hope and joy in the soul.

It’s not that resurrection doesn’t exist in changing diapers, saying “I’m sorry,” and cooking dinner for my family. Thanks be to God, it does! If God’s love couldn’t be found in the hidden moments of our lives, what hope would we have?

In nature, though, resurrection breaks though in a different kind of raw and wonder-full way. 

On a recent family hike in Northern Arizona, a dead cactus on the side of the trail caught my eye. Gray in color, it shriveled back toward the earth. Out of the decay shot bright wildflowers—violet, white, yellow. I pointed it out to my dad, and he said, “Rebirth.” 

Though I can steal a glance at a mountain from a window in our home, I’m surrounded by much more concrete than I’d prefer. Neighbors line up close to one another. I hear conversations I wish I didn’t, usher my children inside when neighbors’ smoke fills our backyard air, and try to make light when our “fun neighbor” blasts techno midday while we homeschool. Nothing like a little background music, I suppose. Sometimes, though, my humanity and the humanity of others feels uncomfortably close. I become cranky, judgmental, and ungrateful. 

I need to be reminded of the ways God restores. The natural world does this for me. Does it do the same for you?

Phone away, chores out of sight, man made landscape left at the trailhead, the present moment is the one that matters on a trail. Open landscape shocks my eyes. God is so good to create such vast expanse. His power is evident. The air fills my nose and lungs, and I can breathe in a different way. When was the last time you inhaled and exhaled, and felt like you really filled up and let go? My ears are pleased by quiet, sounds of nature, and conversation with hiking companions. And even though my children complain of tired legs or cry out for piggy back rides, it somehow feels easier being outside. 

When I’m out in God’s creation, he does work on me, his creature. He re-creates me.

If you are not and do not desire to be a hiker, I invite you to consider where God re-creates you. Where can you be yourself with the Lord? Where does God inspire you with his creativity, abundance, and goodness? Where do moments of lightness and joy come more easily? Where do the words “Thank you, God” spontaneously spill from your heart and lips? Wherever that is, perhaps you can find time to meet the Lord there this week. He lives so we might be re-created in him, again and again.

The Garden: Holy Work & Holy Waste

I grew up eating tomatoes off the vine, warm juice flowing down my hands and arms. From a young age, I had my hands in the dirt, participating in our family’s weekly “Pride of Ownership Hour” in the yard—my siblings and I called this time “POOH.” I giggle at “POOH” even more now that I have children who relish in any opportunity for innocent potty humor.

As I traversed my teenage and young adult years, I disconnected from food’s origins. Food became bad or good and would make me fat or skinny. A meal could come as a packaged protein bar, or other “approved” foods, and only in specific portions. I recall once walking into a dining hall with my exact meal planned. When the dining hall didn’t have a certain element of the meal, I was so overcome by anxiety I had to leave.

When I became a mother for the first time, I knew my relationship with food needed to change. I needed to nourish the life within my womb. I needed to keep another human being alive and try to help him thrive. Through motherhood, I came back to the garden.

Though the process has taken years, creating and maintaining a garden has been one of God’s greatest agents of healing in my life. Of course God brings healing through the actual food we grow—his creation is so beautiful and designed to nourish our bodies. But God doesn’t stop at healing one part of us, he wants our wholeness. God has used our garden to heal many of my wounds. God has healed and continues to heal by sanctifying our garden as a place of holy work and holy waste.

It is true, good, and beautiful to work soil through your hands. I’ve learned what soil should look and smell like. I’ve prepared soil, rejoiced in the worms that do such good for it, and put down seeds. My children help me water, watch for pests, and sprinkle coffee grounds. Together, our family watches life emerge and we care for it. We’ve also watched crops die, which imparts a lesson of its own. When the time comes, we harvest. Sometimes the food makes it to the kitchen. Other times, the broccoli or carrots I had hoped to use for dinner are consumed in the garden by my children before they come near the plate.

While the garden is a place of holy work, it is also a place of holy waste. When I was in college, my spiritual director told me to make a “holy waste of time” each week. “Sit on a bench and do nothing,” she said. Watch the trees, listen to the birds, close your eyes. Just be. 

We all know this assignment can be exceedingly difficult. But, if you begin a garden, I think you will be one step closer to making a holy waste of time. The garden holds more than meets the untrained eye. It reintroduces awe with discoveries of caterpillars that will become butterflies, ladybugs helpfully eating aphids, seedlings poking their heads through the surface, gorgeous broccoli and beetroot opening their leaves to the sky. The garden, especially with the help of children, is a place of wonder. It invites us not only to work, but to rest, marvel, and enjoy.

I sometimes wonder about the gardens where Jesus wandered and prayed. I find myself thinking of this more often during this season of Lent, as I pray the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary a bit more often. I look out at my own garden, and picture Jesus there, deep in prayer. 

Jesus, help us come close to the earth as you did. Knees on the dirt, hands working in stewardship of your Father’s gifts, hearts grateful for the moments of holy work and waste you provide.

Farmers Market Face

My four-year-old daughter’s face was covered in dark chocolate sea salt ice cream bar. A vendor at the farmers market said, “That’s farmers market face!” He grabbed a towel for her, and when he handed it to me, he said, “There’s a story there.” He was right.

For years, I wanted to be somewhere other than where I am. 

In vulnerability, I open my interior narrative to you: If we lived in another state, we could afford a single family home with a yard. If we lived in another state, we could afford to send our children to Catholic school. If we lived in another state, we could be closer to nature. If we lived in another state, we could build community more easily.

What was the true longing behind the narrative? If I was somewhere else, I’d be happier. 

If I could add up the time of my thoughts, I’m sure I would find that I’ve spent weeks of my life coveting a life that is not mine.

We have tried to make a move—more than once. More than once the job opportunity was there, within reach. And then—the door would slam shut. 

God was being abundantly and mercifully clear with us. For years, though, we didn’t want to listen. 

Why can it be so difficult for us humans to accept God’s will? Personally, I think I suffer from a type of spiritual amnesia wherein I forget that God is good and loving. Or, I am fooled into believing the lie that he isn’t who he says he is. 

I accepted our unfulfilled desires and waiting as part of God’s plan, perhaps a way that he wanted me to grow in patience. I was hopeful, however, that the waiting would be no longer than minimally necessary. I never laid roots, because I kept expecting to leave.

Something happened, though. My husband and I sat in our garage one day as we paused from housework. We started talking about our week, and like a bolt out of the blue, God’s goodness broke in. It actually made me laugh. I saw with clarity: God is at work in our lives. God is at work right here in this place.

For years, I was blinded by my desires. They were good desires—a yard for my children, access to nature, authentic community. But, they were mine because I believed that these desires could only be met in a certain way. I was living out of scarcity, but our God is a God of abundance.  

In the garage, I laughed. And after I laughed, I cried. I wept over my ingratitude. Over desiring other than what God had generously given.

In the months that have followed, I have wept again, but this time over seeing God’s goodness so clearly in my daily life. I look upon the mountains so close to our home, and God fills my heart with awe. A friend drops off pedialyte popsicles and supplies when a stomach bug runs amuck in our home, and I know we have community. Our doctor moves around his schedule so he can see my children rather than have them see a doctor they don’t know, and I know God’s care. A stranger offers me her child’s spare clothes when an accident left me walking around with a toddler in a pull-up, and I know God is merciful. A vendor at the farmers market gives me a towel and a kind word for my sticky daughter with farmers market face, and I trust that it’s all part of God’s story. Isn’t he a beautiful author?

Homeschooling with Joy?

I had only been homeschooling for one month, and I was desperate. Why did I think I could do this? Why did we think this was the best fit for our family?

I wanted the day to paint this picture: I gather our children to begin school. They listen and move to our “classroom” area. The children sit at my feet and we pray together and read a story. Then, I commence one-on-one work time with our son while our girls play peaceably together. 

As the mother of my three small humans, what was I thinking?!

Instead, our children would gather, sometimes half-clothed. We would pray, some of us sitting, others standing, others on the ground playing with their sibling’s hair or toes. At the mention of schoolwork, our son would moan, and at the start of schoolwork, he would melt down his chair, defeated by some invisible thing I could not understand. Instead of play together, our two-year-old would either take off running in her diaper or displease her sister by playing incorrectly with a certain toy, and our four-year-old would protest that the schoolwork I gave her to do was not schoolworky enough!

One day, as I cried and looked into brick-and-mortar schools for our son, I decided to look for a podcast that could speak words of wisdom to my weary soul. I typed in “Homeschool struggle.” 

What popped up: homeschooling with joy and Bonnie Landry

As an aside, I have since typed in “homeschool struggle” (though not for the same reasons), and many other options populate, homeschooling with joy not included. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for having my back that day.

I listened to an interview with Bonnie Landry, and then tracked down her four-part workshop on homeschooling with joy. I took in her wisdom, humor, and encouragement. I picked up tools and put them in my homeschooling tool belt. Most of all, I gathered up hope. It’s going to be okay. We can do this.

Every family is different, so home education in our home will be different than in the Mackenzie, Foss, or Landry homes. I also don’t know if we would still be homeschooling were it not for the tools and support these women provide to so many. Through their books and other media, they have helped our family find joy in home education.

So, what have I learned and how has it fostered joy? 

Reading Aloud is Never a Waste

A friend introduced me to Sarah Mackenzie’s Read Aloud Revival and her book, Teaching from Rest. What I’ve learned both from Mackenzie’s words and my own experience is that reading aloud to my children is never a waste. Picture books can be beautifully written and illustrated. Adults do not need to and should not settle for cheap made-to-sell picture books based on television shows. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally—and often far more—worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” Reading aloud together brings us physically close and connects us—even if only for a moment—in a common task. 

On the difficult days reading aloud seems to be the only thing I know how to do well. Or, rather, that we, my children and I, know how to do well. Because even when we are sick, tired, or on edge, we can still cuddle close and enter a story together. 

There is joy in this presence.

Education is Everywhere

In home education, our children (and we) do not learn in blocks of 30 minutes, move mechanically from subject to subject, and then neatly close the school day to commence our not-learning part of the day. Rather, education is an environment and disposition. (Elizabeth Foss’s Real Learning Revisited is an excellent resource on this.) My children learn during math and reading work and while we sit outside to notice and wonder at nature. They learn when they help put away laundry and the clean dishes. They learn when they play, fight and then forgive. They learn when we pray together, read Scripture together, and talk about the saints. They learn from me—from my habits and virtues (or lack thereof). Learning is a way of life. 

There is joy in this curiosity and wonder.

Pleasing, Not Perfect

How am I supposed to keep a home clean, educate my children, get meals on the table, and steward my own self-care? Given that being frantic or discouraged all the time is not a good option, we are called to find a more life-giving way. 

Bonnie Landry offers a wonderful phrase to guide us: pleasing, not perfect. Our homes do not need to be perfectly clean or organized, but it helps tremendously if they are pleasing. Sufficient order in our space helps us think clearly, allows for creativity, and fosters peace. 

Upon transitioning from one thing to another, we tidy up. We clear our dishes from the table and push in our chairs. Even toddlers can assist in these simple tasks. The beginnings of responsibility, respect, and good habit building. There are moments in the day that our home does indeed look as if the toy closet has vomited all over the house. But, we try our best to tidy as we go. 

There is joy in the discipline of pleasing, not perfect. 

What’s Your Why

When we started to consider home education, some of our motives were based in fear. But, those motives were only partial truths.

Our true why comes from a love of what is good, beautiful, and true. It is good, beautiful, and true to see our children teaching and helping each other. To discover what our children find joy in and struggle with as unique persons. To pray together, visit Jesus together, and talk about the deeper questions of our minds and hearts. To keep “Papa time” on Wednesdays and to “read with Omi” on FaceTime. To learn together what it means to know, love, and serve God, and become the people he wants us to be.

While education looks different in each family, I’m grateful that God has placed home education in the heart of ours. Though I would not have believed it in the first month of school, and it can be challenging to believe on the tough days, it is possible to homeschool with deep joy.