Thursday, December 29, 2011

Failing My Own Expectations

My mother has this beautifully painted desk in our kitchen: it is red, bright blue, green, and yellow. Upon it has sat, for as long as I can remember, a now-yellowed newspaper clipping that reads:

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." Sincerely...
-Lawrence E. Wikander, Curator
Calvin Coolidge Memorial Room
Forbes Library
Northampton, Mass.

I read this, frequently, and sigh sadly. I have a modicum of talent, a bit of genius, and tons of education, but persistence is what I lack. Usually, I don't mind, but right now, I do mind. I mind more than a little bit. I started off the holiday season so well: I ordered my Christmas cards, made a Christmas card list, started writing and addressing them in earnest, baking, getting little boxes in which to put the baked goods and deliver to friends. And then the week before Christmas, everything changed. Saturday, December 17th! Everything from then on was a wash. I haven't done anything - I haven't even mailed the cards I wrote or presents I bought, I didn't deliver the packages or finish decorating the cookies. I barely managed to finish decorating and make the house look presentable for my poor exhausted (and now sick) husband. I didn't call any of my friends who are far away, I was not so good about keeping up with my in-laws, I did not reach out to the people I love and tell them how much I love them.

In that time, I grieved how I thought I should. I wrote and tried to pray. I visited a few friends close by. I did a great deal of gardening, and an even greater deal of crying in the quiet of my house, alone, while my husband was at work and the world bustled on. I forgot about cards and presents and calling or messaging. All the balls that I so enjoy juggling, juggling, I just let them drop, just turned away while they were all in midair and let them fall.

I try to put my post in perspective by adding pictures of my room after the devastation of the tornado in April. Surely this should make me feel better, right? ...right??

I didn't do it to hurt anyone; I didn't do it because I was being careless or forgetful, even. I just stopped working, as a person, for a while. But now as I'm coming out of the fog, I realize I might have hurt people because of my forgetfulness. Someone might have looked forward to a card, a call, or a gift that I had hinted or promised in my earlier productivity. And I'm so sorry. I try to figure out the words to tell people that I'm sorry, but I just get tongue-tied, trying to be genuine but not excusing myself, understanding but not a doormat. I feel all at once sorry and angry: I'm angry that anyone would ever take these omissions personally. I sit here boiling, wondering if anyone is thinking, "well at least she could have..." It infuriates me that someone would chalk this up to carelessness, or laziness or laxity, now, now of all times!

But the next instant, I am on the verge of tears, agreeing with this fictitious person. How right they are! I want to cry. How useless am I that I can't even address a few darn cards and get them to the post office? I feel ashamed to talk to people, calling them sheepishly, knowing they don't what to say to me and realizing that I don't have any words either. I keep wanting to apologize, I know some of these people are genuinely hurt, but I'm worried that if I did, they would say "oh no, please, don't worry about it at all - " and then I'd feel dumb for making the effort.

And then at the end of this utterly futile and energy-sapping thought exercise, I realize that I should not be so concerned what people think - that I should strive to do what is right by God and by neighbor, apologize if I think it is merited, and go on with my life. Realizing how much I fail my own expectations, I think I'll just crawl into bed and call it a day.

Vacation, Obsessions, Gardens

The hubs and I have been at my parents' place in Orlando since Monday. If you know my husband, you know that's a minor miracle. He does not take vacations. He says he does, he'll even come home early during the week, but really, if he can access a computer, he can work.

This is a picture from the first party where Tom and I hung out - this was the last time I ever saw him that far away from a computer (2009)

So I have taken the computer hostage for the week, which means I should be posting a lot, but instead, I have been on pinterest. In fact...I've been a little, well, obsessed with pinterest. What, you ask, is pinterest? It's a virtual cork board on which you can "pin" (via a button installed on your toolbar) things you find on the internet - craft ideas, recipes, sewing projects, cute fashion, books to read. You name your boards different things ("gift ideas," "recipes," "garden") and then while you're surfing the web, if you find something cool, you pin it; later, when you return to pinterest and click on a particular board, there is a picture of the thing you found and if you click on it, it takes you to the original website. Genius! (If you're curious, my page link is Currently, it's by invitation only, but if you want to join, let me know and I'll shoot you an invite.

This is a picture my sister tagged of me on fb. I'm not kidding. Apparently, she thinks I am an mythical aquatic maid, with an internet addiction and a secret wish to die by electrocution. 

Pinterest has helped fuel my longing for my garden. I have been on a gardening binge for the past month or so, ever since the weather became beautiful. As far south as I live, this is the time to do outside work! And now it's all I can think about: I dream in herb patches, raised beds, and vertical planters. I use google search phrases such as "tumbling compost bins", "root hormone", and "variegated ice plant." Today I bought something called "rooting hormone" and I actually know how to use it. 

From the Green Light website...rooting powder is what you use to help grow plants from cuttings - which is far cheaper than buying new plants whenever you need something.

So far nothing exciting has been happening in my yard, but I'm also trying to not over do it since we're getting a new roof and hopefully rebuilding the porches after the first of the year - I don't want to plant something close to the house just to have it die when it's crushed underneath roofing tiles. But even just the little I'm doing - weeding, removing dead trees, trimming palms, putting herbs in pots, preparing the ground, propagating cuttings in mason jars - it feels so very very good. To see my little house grow and change bit by bit, to clear away the neglect the years had done to our place, does my soul great good and gives me great inner peace. So much of today's modern work involves no final product, just a bunch of paper or computer files; I take such comfort in being able to survey a final work. There is such joy in planting to things and tending to them as they grow. 

I hope you all are well, and enjoying your weather, be it frost and chill or heat and humidity!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Top 5 Things NOT to Say to Someone Who's Miscarried

I have had less than a weeks' worth of experience in dealing with other people's reactions to my miscarriage, but I already feel I could write a book about reclaiming tact in dealing with this subject. I must preface this by saying, I realize that most people just don't know what to say to someone who has suffered a miscarriage and their comments aren't meant to harm. Despite these good intentions, thoughtless comments DO harm, so there's still good reason to stop them from coming out of other's (and maybe our own) mouths.

As I reflect on these unintentional barbs that have been thrown my way, I recall that marvelous quote by Albus Dumbledore: "sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often." If you or someone you know could benefit from this article, please share, so that accidental rudeness might spare a few more victims...

1) These things happen/ the body has ways of riding itself of not good pregnancies / it was probably because of a chromosomal abnormality: I appreciate that the medical reason for a lot of spontaneous abortions (i.e. miscarriages) is something medical, though possibly unknowable, especially at very early stages, like I was. Despite this, God is the author of life, so no, I don't think my body just sloughed off some dead cells and oh well, life goes on. No. Life begins at conception, that was my child, and he died; please don't talk about him like he is medical waste and we are in a Planned Parenthood clinic, where you're trying to make me feel better about my abortion. Would you ever say to the mother of a child who died of leukemia, "Sometimes this just happens, natural selection takes it's course and the weak must die..."? No, because that would be thoughtless and rude. The same applies here.

2) Well, look on the bright side - you CAN get pregnant! : I have heard this a lot, especially since Tom and I were so concerned we couldn't get pregnant or wouldn't be able to for years. Now, yes, this sentiment is another one that has a grain of truth - we are of course happy to know that our reproductive organs seem to be working properly enough that we can actually get pregnant. But this look-on-the-bright-side mantra tends to gloss over our grief, and the reason for it: we lost a child. Losing a child means that we should be able to mourn the loss. Religious people especially seem quick to hurry us on to joy, as if grief isn't a holy enough emotion, as if Jesus did not weep over the death of Lazarus (even though Jesus knew he was about to bloody resurrect him!). Yes, I can get pregnant, and in fact I did and my child died - if that makes you feel uncomfortable, just murmur a polite "I'm so sorry" and walk away; I promise I won't mind.

3) I'm sure you'll get pregnant again: Yes, and I'm sure that you DO know the future and that you would really like if it I told you after your grandfather died, "well, thank goodness, you've got another one!" You are not omniscient and children are not interchangeable. My fertility is not up to you, and if I should happen to never get pregnant again I'm sure you'd feel rather silly about your rose-colored promise. Likewise, and we're coming back to this point a lot!, when a miscarriage occurs a child has died. That child will never be replaced; they are gone, forever. Try to think of the unborn child as if they were born, or maybe even 8 years old or a grown person, and then try to say the same phrases to the parent: if it sounds stupid then, it still sounds stupid here.

4) Just try to put this out of your mind / forget about it: I know you're shocked when you read this one - nobody would actually argue for outright repression of grief would they? Well, yes actually, it happened to me before Christmas Mass. It came from a person I love dearly, but upon hearing our news she said, "just try to put this straight out of your mind - just forget about it!" And then went on to say some of the other horrible things listed above. I think some people are afraid of grief, of sorrow, of the horror of losing a child - and so they tell you to have reactions that would make them feel more comfortable. But again, if this person's grief makes you uncomfortable, then just say something polite and walk away - we really will understand.

5) Don't get too stressed - it'll prevent you from getting pregnant again! : This is part II of No. 4 above. The woman told me to forget about the miscarriage because the stress of it would prevent me from getting pregnant again. Marilyn Shannon in her excellent book "Fertility, Cycles, and Nutrition" addresses this misconception quite adequately, but I will summarize: my daily stress, unless it rises to the level of PTSD or medical shock, will not be adequate enough to make me stop ovulating, thankyouverymuch. Telling me to relax and not to think about the fact that I just lost a child will actually stress me out more, and maybe cause me to go into real shock from how many cotton headed ninny-muggins give out conceiving advice just because their wombs are hyperactive and they get pregnant when their spouse sneezes on them. I already got pregnant, I'm hopeful I can do it again, and even if I can't, pseudo-doctors with poor bedside manner are the last group of people I will seek out for reproductive help.

In summation, if you know someone who has suffered a miscarriage, the best thing to say is "I'm sorry for your loss." The parents know there are no words - they likely have none themselves - in the face of such a mountain of sorrow. To recognize that they are truly grieving a real loss, their child, and that you are sorry for them, is the greatest comfort. If you happen to be Christian, offering prayers is very kind, and if you are Catholic, offering up Masses and rosaries means very much. Otherwise, just offer your humanity, for when grief robs us of all our well meaning words, that is the only thing we have left.

Christmas Peace

It has been a great comfort to realize that each day truly is new: just because I am miserable one moment, does not mean the next will be the same. I find that this is a great mercy from God, that my feelings are transient and do not stay for long. It is perhaps the mark of the most virtuous (wo)man that (s)he does not make decisions or even consider too greatly his/her own feelings: reason rules affectation.

I received a great deal of peace on Christmas Eve, before Midnight Mass. I came early for lessons and carols, but I decided to slip out to the Adoration chapel during the songs. As I knelt in prayer, I told Jesus honestly that I just didn't know what to pray for - I didn't know what I needed and I couldn't even begin to think of how to ask. But all I wanted was to do God's will, and I knew that even in my grief, I had to remain focused on doing the will of God. 

The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas by Francisco Zurbaran; he is the champion of reason, even if he knew crap about women! 

And it occurred to me that although there is a proper time and place to grieve, self-pity is never acceptable. I know that within my heart, some of my genuine grief over the loss of my darling Frances had turned to self-pitying indulgences. No longer were my eyes stinging because I so dearly wanted to hold my child, but just because I wanted to be miserable - and I was glad to have a reason to do it. Tasks I knew I had the strength and energy to do, I was excusing myself from simply so I could be idle and depressed. And as I knelt and prayed, I felt Jesus quietly admonish me: the most virtuous woman would not allow her feelings cloud the reality and truth of the situation, tragic though it may be. She would continue to love God, despite her pain and sorrow. My favorite theology professor always said, the most virtuous man does the best good the most promptly. And I have always been comforted by facts, for they help me reason and draw me closer to Jesus who is Truth itself. 

Me, praying in front of the altar in the Basilica of St. Paul in Daytona Beach, FL

It occurred to me then that the entire goal of parenting is to get one's child to Heaven, and that with our first child, Tom and I have already succeeded. What a blessing! Indeed, before Frances was given to us, I fear that Tom and I had begun to doubt God in a very subtle way. We knew that children might be a long time in coming, so although we prayed for them, we doubted that God would give them to us; we figured that when we were tired of waiting, we'd take the fertility drugs recommended by my doctor and have a baby then. We had begun to think of ourselves as the authors of life, not as participators in creation with Almighty God; it was almost a contraceptive mentality in part. Although we thought we were trusting God with our fertility, we originally expected many children; we were not ready to receive no children, or just a few children, or perhaps four children very far spaced out. Once it was apparent that we would not get pregnant right away, we thought we controlled the process; we thought we would force God's hand, when we were ready. Never did we say at each stage, "this is where you want us to be, Lord, for you are the author of life; thank you God for giving us what you know we need, even if we don't know why we need it." 

Eucharistic Adoration at a parish in St. Louis; photo taken by Jeff Geerling

This is one of the many gifts my darling Frances has given us: a realization that we have to have faith in God - both hopeful faith that He will grant our prayers in due season, and grateful faith that what He is giving us is for our best good. Trusting God with our fertility means taking whatever He gives us: many children in Heaven, or on Earth, maybe no children, maybe many adopted children. I am not sure how else we would have awoken to our turning from God in our hearts if not for Frances, if not for realizing how precious life is and how much we desire to welcome a new one into our home and hearts. 

With these sweet thoughts and reflections, given so generously to me in prayer, I went back to the church with a quiet peace. It is not to say that I am not still sad, but I feel a great deal more hope and joy at the will of God. I dwelt so much upon the loss of Francis, but I feel so much closer to my child now - knowing that he must pray for us, cheering us on to reach Heaven too, to be rejoined as a family.

Some of my family, a few years ago...that's my dad on the far left, my mom in the middle, and me on the end. 

With this peace in my heart, Christmas Day was pleasant and peaceful - and I didn't cry (at this point, a milestone). We had our big meal when Tom got home from the last Mass (he walked in the door around 12:40) and then opened our presents in a leisurely. We were blessed with many wonderful things, but I was most grateful to lay in my husband's arms, talk about our dreams for the future, and be grateful for the life we got to witness, right before Christmas, our darling Francis child.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas

Just a quick mobile update to say yes, my lab work came back and yes,  I really was pregnant. It's been a relief to know for sure.

This is the saddest Christmas I can recall. I have a hard time not crying, and I feel so lonely - a deep, aching loneliness that no amount of company can soothe. I miss my child, my Frances. Oddly, I now adore that name, though before I wasn't crazy about it. I am feeling a heartbreak I never knew possible: I love more than I ever thought I could. God give me the strength to bear the weight of so great a love!

I pray you all have the merriest of Christmases and ask you not to be too hard on the grouchy people - maybe they're just sad, maybe it is hard for them to feel Christ's love right now. Christmas is always a blessing but this year, does not feel a joy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Long Goodbye

Yesterday was a typical beautiful Naples day: a good breeze, strong sun, temperatures struggling to get above 75. My house is beautifully clean, which only happened because my mom and niece visited on Tuesday, and my garden is starting to take shape. There's food in my fridge, gas in the car, more than plenty Christmas presents under the tree. 

Here's our pretty church...where I cried my eyes out last night.

But the whole day felt like I was in a horrible haze, and from where I stand now, yesterday looks like just a bad dream. I have had to work very hard to convince myself that I was really pregnant: he was alive. Today I woke up and just wanted to believe, no, it never happened - I'm not grieving because no one died, we're still the carefree newlyweds, no great sorrow has touched our hearts. It's unfortunately only too easy to do - this is the busy season for my husband's work, since he works for our parish. He's immersed in work, bless him, and I'm just trying to figure out where to go from here. 

Tom's darling nephew, last Christmas. I thought this would be the gift we were receiving this year, just a bit smaller of course...

My doctor was so kind, so compassionate and apologetic. I could tell he kept expecting me to cry, to break down - but I just nodded and asked a few questions. I am not willing to share my grief; when I told my mom, I was still steeling myself. My dear Denise started to cry, especially because today is the one year anniversary of her father's death, but I couldn't. I possess a wickedly strong desire to protect my grief from any other eyes: it feels so private and small, just like his life was. It has been hard for me to share my grief with Tom: this part of myself is so new to me I don't even know how to offer it to him. 

I'm disappointed in myself. We spent three days not celebrating my pregnancy, but questioning whether I really was pregnant - too nervous to believe the three pregnancy tests that all said I was. We could have spent those sacred hours rejoicing, dreaming - but we didn't. We held our breath, we held back our joy, we were cautious. Why? Why was I so cautious to love my child, and rejoice at the blessing that I had begged for? Even now my fingers are itching to hit the backspace button - I don't want to type "my child," I feel that's lying, I don't want to believe I was pregnant. 

After reading the chapter on miscarriage in the Kimberly Hahn book, "Life Giving Love," Tom thinks we should name the baby. I reluctantly agreed. Isn't it horrible? Isn't it so horrible that I thought, 'I don't want to give the baby one of my favorite names - I want to use those for my children that will be here, so I'll get to say it over and over again.' In his desire to give me enough latitude to grieve, my darling husband has given me the responsibility to name the baby. I chose Frances, because that could work for a boy or a girl. I wish we could have name him together, though; he wasn't just my baby, was he? It wasn't just in my head?

Really great book, by the by. I got it at Good Will for 99 cents! Thank you, Jesus.

I pray that I will come to the point of believing we had a child. Right now I feel like a crazy person in a hologram sanatorium: I am wandering around looking for help, but everything I touch is an illusion. I thought this would ground me in reality, but instead, reality has changed so much I cannot even recognize it. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Good, the True, the Beautiful

Some news is so beautiful, it must be kept in ones heart to ponder, as Mary did with the mystery of Christ her child. I kept my little news in my heart, revealing it to a few, gently coaxing my feeble hope out of its cautious shell, willing it all to be true.

Yet as some dreams blossom, others fade quietly into memories. This week, we lost the baby. Yes, there was a baby - I don't know how long he or she (lets just go with he) lived, we only knew for a few days that we were pregnant, but he has gone home now. We have a saint in Heaven! I feel that's an honor our family doesn't deserve - our own little saint, who surely remembers our intentions at the throne of God. I wish I could have met him, but he must be so happy where he is, that I can't be too sad: my first child will never feel want, fear, sadness or cold. He will never see the ugliness of sin, or feel great pain. He will always be in joyful communion with God, and surely Our Lady will look after him - surely she will make sure my baby is well cared for, she who cared so well for the Christ Child and cares still for all of us.

I wish I knew how to feel: I wasn't even used to his presence yet, I didn't even know how I felt about being pregnant, and then he had gone. I miss him as a person misses an opportunity they didn't know they had until it was taken away: all the joy I could have had, just knowing it was possible for a little bit longer.

I don't know why this happened now, right after I mused about my desire for a child at Christmastime. But since my greatest fear was that somehow, that miracle would never touch my womb, I cannot be too distraught. This little one has left, but he was a sign of hope: not this Christmas, but maybe one in the future, I will have joyful news and joyful waiting. In a way I cannot grasp at this point in time, I am a mother and that has always been my dearest wish. Blighted though my motherhood at this point is, I have gotten to marvel at a miracle smaller than a grain of rice.

I'm sure I will have more thoughts, happier thoughts, more Christmaslike thoughts, at a later time. But for now, I want to think about my child: he who is good and true and beautiful.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kale Shakes!

That sentence could be read several ways, so lets go with this: shakes, as in the relative of smoothies, make with the leafy green vegetable kale!

Gosh, that sounds gross. But it wasn't! My awesome friend Kristin told me that she makes these and her kids like them, and since I'm always trying to pack more veggies into my life, I thought - hey! Great idea! So this morning for breakfast, we tried kale shakes (God bless my poor husband).

First, we started out with what all my shakes start out with: Almond milk! I prefer almond milk to regular milk because it's a bit less on the calories, way less on the fat, but it's not as much sugar as skim milk. As a person with PCOS, I try to limit my dairy intake and restrict it only to full-fat dairy (the fat makes my body process the sugar more slowly, thereby keeping my glucose levels more steady).

Some complain it has a grainy quality, but I haven't found that... 

I poured whatever was left, but it was probably about 1.5 cups. Then I went to my fruit base: blueberries and strawberries, frozen. I started with a half cup of each, dumped it in my awesome blender (courtesy of Tom's wonderful Aunt Ann and Uncle Jim) and added a ton of kale. 

Organic kale from the local co-op. I love me some greens!

If you can't tell, that's my blender packed to the brim with kale, plus the almond milk + fruit mix on the bottom.

Blended on "ice" for about two minutes, just to make sure to get all the kale-ey-ness out. That did not work; when I tasted it, it was like fruity kale-ly gazpacho. So I added another cup of blueberries. Still was not working. Then a tablespoon of peanut butter. Whoa, definitely not working!! But I had to save this dern shake: I was not going to throw out this hideous mixture, but neither could I ingest it. So I resorted to the ingredient that makes everything delicious: agave. 

Available at Wal-Mart at a very budget friendly price!  

Presto-chango, delicioso! Just a quick squeeze and swirl of this stuff, plus 15 seconds on low blend. It was ready to be consumed and would not cause me to mutter subversive anti-health things under my breath. However, since I still believe it's not a meal without meat!, I had to add a side dish to our smoothie: 

PETA: People for the Eating of Tasty Animals! 

I hear you gasp. "Bacon, Martha? Really? Doesn't that negate the entire health vibe you were going for?" No, no it does not, and if my choices are live to be 100 and not eat bacon or live till I'm 70 without it, I say: Jesus got it all done at 33, so a long life is not required for Heavenly entrance. I believe in bacon! Besides, it has zero transfat and serves as a good dose of fat (along with the peanut butter) to balance out the sugar in the smoothie, and make me feel fuller longer thanks to the protein. 

Good thing our teams are in different conferences, otherwise this marriage thing might not work

Hope you all enjoyed your breakfast as much as we enjoyed ours! Now go make kale shakes if you want to explore the world of vegetables in liquid forms!

Fasts, Fads, and Friends

We are lucky here in Naples to have a big, awesome community of young married Catholics. We must have at least 30 couples, most of whom have at least one child and many of whom have three plus - it makes for a very large and varied community, for which I am eternally grateful. If you're in the southwest Florida area, join us!

My darling Tom loves having guy friends to hang out with. He was in fraternity in college, joined seminary, keeps in touch with every guy friend he's ever made - he's a guy that likes having a group of guys he can rely on. Tom is a very enthusiastic friend: he likes being exposed to new things, so if his friends are into something, he'll get into it too. This has worked out in our relationship, but causes no end of eye-narrowing from me in his other friendships. The recent juice fast fad that has streaked through the group is a good example.

Have you seen this movie? Neither have I.

The group down here is very health-conscious, which I think is great, and very into homeopathic remedies, which I clearly support - it goes great with my suspicion of authority figures, like doctors. On the "what-kind-of-Catholic" are you quiz (if there were such a thing...hmm...), I'm pretty sure I'd be rated "ultra granola with tinges of self-righteous zealotry." Sidebar: I googled that phrase and came up with a link to the book Crunchy Cons, which is apparently about me and my family. Anyway, so I want to be as health conscious, down to earth as the next Catholic aspiring-homeschooling-mom, but I am a big moderation fan too. Actually, I had never dieted in my life until first year of law school - and even then, I didn't eliminate anything, I just controlled ratios of what I ate. Yet everybody down here does something different: all organic, gluten free, vegetarian (not too many of those), paleolithic (I couldn't make this stuff up). Which is fine; although I have always suspected specialty diets of masking eating disorders, most of our friends are normally sized and relatively sane people. But now everybody is doing this juice fast. 

I don't know who started it, but they watched the above movie and decided to try a juice fast. The man in the film was facing serious health problems and did a documentary on his doctor-regulated sixty day juice fast. That's right, nothing but juice for two months. This doesn't really faze me; I'm Catholic, I know about fasting for long periods of time. So now most of our friends are juice fasting for anywhere between 7-14 days. Fine. But now Tom wants to do this thing because his bffs are talking about it, and suddenly what I was totally cool with I am resisting with all my might and mane. Why all this effort? 

I will not conform! 

The only way I could explain it is: I don't want to do everything the group does. I am automatically suspicious of fads that streak through groups of friends -  I want friends to be unified around a shared love of ideas or devotion to ideals, not personal life choices. Now, these two things are not mutually exclusive, and if a friend of mine tried some diet changes that really improved their quality of life, I would expect them to tell me about them! Nevertheless, I am still narrowing my eyes at Tom every time he brings it up. I just like nonconformity on non-moral issues. Our friends make different choices about the sizes of their families, the music they listen to, clothes they wear, language they like to pray in - and I like it that way! I like that just because I love wearing head coverings full time, doesn't mean that I am expected to go to Latin Mass and it doesn't mean I can't wear jeans occasionally. We are free to make personal choices about who we are and, how we express our Catholic faith. 

This film makes me want to be orthodox Jewish: love the head coverings! 

So maybe this juice fasting thing has me spooked because it smacks of conformity for conformity's sake. The guys quickly pointed out that just because a lot of people are doing it doesn't make it bad, but I parry with, that doesn't mean it's good either. And just because something is a good, doesn't mean it's the Greatest Good. Juice fasting is helpful for many people who are facing illness that would benefit from a quick infusion of the greatest amounts of vitamins and minerals, without expending energy on digestion of a great deal of fibrous material. It's also good to get oneself weaned off of sugar, refined simple carbohydrates, or other tastes that affect a person's glucose stability. Obviously, it's not a long-term diet choice, but more of a "reset" button for a person's body that can help a person get started on the path to greater health. Which is all very great! 

But my struggle isn't sticking to something, my struggle is moderation. You best believe I could do any kind of extreme diet -I could do it forever! Run every day? Sure! fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, with a moderate amount of healthy desserts, and exercise 4 times a week? It's like you asked me to walk out the door with wet hair: I just can't do it. It's a parallel to my prayer life: I could live my life as a Poor Clare, I could be martyred with joy, but tolerate my Catholic brethren for saying foolish things or just pray 30 minutes in the morning, afternoon, and evening? Laws, this ain't working! 

Dolly knows: the bigger the hair, the closer to God! 

So while juice fasts are well and good, and might be something I try if I discern I need a healthy kick-in the pants, I think for now I'll stick to trying to be healthy with moderation and somehow get my prayer time in there too.  Y'all pray for me, please? 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Perfect Every Day

Happy dating Catholics, circa 2009 - Indiana Dunes

I want to share with you all a great secret: the reason that I have started to write. Luckily I saved myself the trouble and wrote it down earlier; so here is the excerpt from the letter I wrote my husband when we were dating:

"I have never wanted to really publish because I never thought that I had much to say but pretty things, nonsense things. I have things to say now. I want to write about this, what's right here, between two people, who never thought they could really love another person like this--and I want to write this because it's really true, it's so real, and I am not afraid to want to write this because I'm not worried that it's going to disappear. It won't. Not ever. I believe in this with an unshakable belief, comparable only to my faith in God and in His Holy Church--and I have since I first began praying. Since Day 1, when I fell on my knees and asked God if you could be in my life and received more peace than I thought possible on any one thing, I have known. Unmovable not as any earthly thing like mountains or the ocean itself, but like God, eternal and True and Good, felt somewhere deep in the heart where only Beauty lives in complete secrecy and yet unbearable light. 
You draw things out of my soul that I thought life had beat out of me, forever."

Life is always difficult, it must carry its share of sorrows for all persons, but for the nonbeliever they are so much heavier. Without Christ to make the yoke easy and the burden light, life is so often incredibly lonely and frightening. I am not a very good person even now with all the help of the great company of Heaven, but before, I was far worse - and I hurt myself far worse. 

For such a long time after, I believed that my life would be beautifully given to some great, noble cause: likely very poor people in a far away land, or becoming a civil servant closer to home. I wanted to be a religious, to walk around wearing no shoes and ministering to the weary and downtrodden; I have always been just a leedle idealistic. Yet in all my wildest imaginings, I never imagined marriage. Men, I thought I had learned, were not a kind to be depended upon. I was not very good with them myself and  seemed to have some horrid affect of making very bad animals out of them. 

Like Circe with all those Greek chaps

When Tom and I became friends, I had a new dream: I wanted us to be like St. Francis and St. Claire, great saints of the Church that would set the world on fire with love for Christ! I was sure that our letters would be preserved forever, a record of our growing journey to holiness. But then they took a turn towards something entirely unexpected, and unsought. Tom felt the stirrings in his heart first and I had no idea the tremors it would send through my soul. 

True love for another person, without design, falsehood or pretense, or selfishness, must have that affect on a soul so tarnished, like mine. It acts as a polish, shining away all the ugly, cruel and small pieces of myself, until ego is gone. His love refines me, constantly, into the woman I want to be: it is not painless, but it is beautiful, and baffling: 

"I wanted to say "I have still yet to conceive a reason why you love me" but that is not true. I know I am cheerful, and at least a decent cook. I know I can make some people laugh. 
But I suppose what I mean truly is that I am not sure what of these disparate pieces of me inspire such love and devotion in you."

See my crazy eyes? This was after a very intense rosary walk at the National Shrine, somewhere around 1am I'm pretty sure - ain't he just hotter than fish grease?

What I am fumbling towards here is giving credit where credit is due: if anyone stumbles upon this little corner of the world, where a zealous loud-mouth is rambling on about various topics holy and heartfelt, you should know that any good in her should be attributed to her husband's softening influence and love (and the good God's grace). Without him, I would still be a little lost idealist, doing God's will where I could, but as rudderless as the boat in my Papa's front yard. 

The day before he moved to Alabama to begin our courtship in earnest, I wrote this: 

it's 17 hours. 
17 hours till you're here, finally in my arms like you've been in my heart for so long, 
after months of waiting 
and praying
and crying
and begging
and more waiting
and desperately clinging 
to hope
it comes down 
to 17 hours. 

you're sleeping, peacefully i hope, softly, i pray, dearly....
my dear. 

if i had all of the words to express my feelings right now, then i would be
an angel 
or dead--
the truest expressions of the holiest emotions can only be 
somewhere beyond
or within
but not --   here ---
in this space that we assign it

i can't help but cry. i just can't but marvel. i  never thought my life would be this beautiful. i never imagined you.
never in my whole life did i think someone as good as you existed. 
i feel i am about to burst and so i will do all that i can do...

so i will clean
and i will sing
and i will 
among these trappings of my
independent life
and cry.

then clean some more 
because it's the only way i have 
of saying, 
praise be to God, 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Happiness

Like any sane person, "Christmas" (really, Advent through Christmas Day) has been my favorite time of year since my life began. In my family, just like Thanksgiving, it's celebrated with food, but also decorating and shopping and decorating and getting more time with my huge, messy, constantly feuding family. I love that unlike a lot of other holidays, Christmas has maintained its traditions, even if those who celebrate it don't know the meaning behind them: it's hard to buy trees to display in your house with colored lights at any other time; at no other time in the year do we give gifts to everyone we know (thank Goodness); and people go to church.

Midnight Mass at St. VdP Church in Kansas City, MO; can my church look like this, please?

In years past, Christmas was the happiest time of the year. I looked forward to every single bit of it: the baking and eating of Christmas cookies, fudge, and rice krispy treats, buying the Christmas tree with my Daddy, clandestinely wrapping presents with the door closed in my parent's room, the big parties we would go to or host ourselves, and seeing the Nutcracker at the Bob Carr Theater in Orlando. 

Ok, so this is the Nutcrakcer as done in St. Petersburg, but it's the same concept, right?

But this year, this year it's different. At moments when I feel the greatest joy, I start to spontaneously well up with tears. It happened a lot at the in-laws during Thanksgiving: while browsing through a Christmas store where there were lovely decorations or while setting the table with my MIL's beautiful china. I thought I was just homesick, but it happened this week while we were at Christmas party doing a sing-a-long to "Joseph's Song" and last night while I was arranging fresh greens on our bench that serves as a mantle. Something plucked my heart strings and there I was, fighting back the blurring of the lights while my husband blithely watched "A Muppet Christmas Carol." 

I really loved Bettina and Belinda this year more than usual - probably because I am only now realizing how much daughters really do parrot their mothers!

Maybe it's because, as much as I hate to admit it, I have been hoping, ever since we got married, for a big announcement at Christmastime. I have wanted to identify with the Blessed Virgin's anticipation more than ever before, and every month that I realized it wasn't yet to be, I kept thinking "that's ok, because maybe this way I'll get to tell my parents on Christmas and that'll be so exciting!" And as Christmas draws nearer, I realize: I might not be telling my parents this year. My time to be a mother may not be here yet; it may still be a long way off. And although I can go through my day without ever thinking about it, all these Christmas traditions make my longing a bit sharper. My family, though for most of my life fairly non-religious, has always been (in practice if not in preaching) pro-life. I have nine nieces and nephews and each one was hailed with excitement and anticipation. I know that my family is longing to celebrate with me too, that they are eagerly awaiting my news as much as I am - and I want a child as much for my family, my husband, his family, as for myself. 

Isn't this what everyone wants? 

Yet this is the life of the Christian: we are not guaranteed happiness. Happiness, as other emotions, may come and go, often independent of our desires or conscious thoughts. And though I may not feel quite as happy this Christmas season as I would had my desires of the moment been granted, it does not diminish my much more deep-seated joy at the Incarnation. Thank God, my salvation does not depend on my feelings or upon me getting my way: I can be holy and do God's will whether I ever become a mother or not. This Christmas season more than any other, I am grateful for Mary's sacrifice - maybe she wanted a different life for herself, maybe she wanted to marry Joseph and have many (non-Son-of-God) children - but she chose to say yes to God's will, to be theotokos. It reminds me that although my life may not be what I always thought it would, that doesn't meant it will be devoid of the joy of service and love. 

For that I am supremely grateful. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Advent Suppers

We had a great talk at my women's group the other night about how to prepare for Advent, and after reading Jennifer Fulwiler's article about 8 Super Simple Ways to Celebrate Advent, I decided I really wanted Tom and I to start having great dinners on the Sundays of Advent. This is rendered very difficult by his job first of all (he plays all the Masses on Sunday except for the 1:15pm), and by my commitments as well (I help with youth group, which happens directly after the 5pm and includes a meal). What to do? Well we decided to use Saturday nights instead: celebrate it on the Vigil. Growing up, my mother used to set the table and light candles every night for dinner. Every night. Every night it was like we were eating at a romantic fancy restaurant: we had a centerpiece, usually made of flowers and fruit from the garden, used good dishes, and we all sat down together - no tv, phone, or books allowed. Tom and I started off this way, but as our dining room table increasingly became a place for me to organize coupons and Christmas presents, this has deteriorated.

We often eat while watching DVR'd football games: Roll Tide! 

So last week, I decided we would start this tradition. Well...sort of. Since I was going to be at my sister's on Saturday night and Friday night was a work dinner, we would have our Sunday Advent dinner on Thursday. First, I had to decide on a recipe but I wanted it to be really good. So I fished around on Cooking Light's website, and then discovered one that sounded delicious: Lamb Tagine (i.e., Moroccan lamb stew with apricots). Whoo-ee, did that sound good! So I decided to make it. 

Gratuitous picture of my adorable husband painting our master bedroom

I will save you all the story of shopping for what I needed (although I personally think my odyssey for boneless leg of lamb and complementary sides deserves it's own epic poem), and instead show you the process. The recipe ingredients are pretty simple: 

  • (1-pound) boneless leg of lamb roast, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped onion 
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • garlic cloves, coarsely chopped 
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste 
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, quartered 
  • (14-ounce) can fat-free, lower-sodium beef broth 

Nothing too crazy. I already had all of the spices, so I just had to get tomato paste, lamb and an onion. However! When I went to buy the lamb, at the butcher counter in Whole Foods, they did not have a 1lb leg of lamb...the smallest they had was a FIVE POUND leg of lamb. I wish I was kidding. So I had to multiply the recipe by five and hope that we really really liked it. But I had a lot of fun buying some of the other ingredients anyway: 

Awesome local honey, courtesy of Whole Foods - buy local if at all possible! Support local farmers!

Probably not kosher, but I find the idea of spending $9 on salt morally abhorrent 

I should have taken a picture of the bloody leg of lamb and the process of trimming the fat off it, cause that was a lot of fun and proves to me that I have no problem being a borderline carnivore, but my hands were kinda yucky. I already had the apricots (they're a yummy snack to have around) so I just quartered them: 

Yummo! This is not half as much as I needed since I multiplied the recipe, but I wasn't going to go out to the store again

I premeasured all my ingredients so I could just cook like those ladies on the cooking shows where they make everything look so easy and fun. 

Tomato paste and honey, plus leftover fall pie dough cutters that haven't been put away yet...

The process is pretty straight-forward too: 

Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
Coat pan with cooking spray. 
Sprinkle lamb evenly with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add lamb to pan; sauté 4 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. 
Remove from pan. 
Add onion; sauté for 4 minutes, stirring frequently. 
Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, cumin, and next 3 ingredients (through garlic); sauté for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir in honey and tomato paste; cook 30 seconds, stirring frequently. 
Return lamb to pan, and add apricots and broth; bring to a boil. 
Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 1 hour or until lamb is tender, stirring occasionally.

I finally got to break in my beautiful Le Creusett dutch oven, courtesy of Tom's best friend Rick and his wife Erin

Mmm, onions 

While all of this was going on, Blackacre was very excited. I think he was hoping he would get some of the lamb fat I had trimmed off. 

Please? I'm trying so hard to look despondent and starving! 

However, when he realized today was not his day, he gave up and laid down right where I was working.

Although not complicated, it's a little quick for a while. My dutch oven is very sensitive to temperature, so once things got going, they really got going! Thus not a lot of "in the works" pictures, but a very nice picture of it as it simmered: 

Despite a commenter's assurance that the soupiness would go away after an hour, mine stayed pretty soupy. I'm fairly certain this is for several reasons: I don't really worry about measuring very much; I did not have 5 x the onion or apricots that I needed; I don't really worry about measuring at all. I didn't mind it though. Also, the difficult thing about adding honey to a recipe is that it sticks to whatever you've used to measure it and whatever you use to get it out of the measuring cup. so in the future, I'll probably add extra honey after I've scraped out whatever I could from the measuring cup; most commenters said it was a sweet broth, but mine was much spicier (which I didn't mind, but had Tom gasping a little bit). 

Simmering away! 

To make our dinner really nice, I also got some specialty cheese and olives (also at WF). Whole Foods cheese counter has over 300 types of cheeses, which basically means they have over 300 ways to make me happy. I talked to the man at the cheese counter and chose the following: 

This is a hard goat's milk cheese with a bit of a bite to it; it's encased in a balsamic crust and it was absolutely wonderful! I liked that it had a strong flavor, but that meant that we couldn't eat a lot of it (probably a good thing). It went really well with the mixture of Greek olives I got from the olive bar, and the Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet that we got for Christmas last year. Classy! 

It was a great meal, made even more special because we got to use our wedding crystal for the first time, and my grandmother's china for the second time. I adore my grandamother's china, not because the pattern is what I would have chosen, but because it was a gift to her from my grandfather after World War II. He got it while he was stationed in Japan after the Japanese were defeated, and so it is Noritake china from Occupied Japan: 

A similar stamp to the one on the back of my china

It's historical significance is incredible and it makes me wonder about my grandfather during that time of his life. I wish I could have heard the story of how he bought it, to say nothing of how he shipped it back!, and if he got a great price because of the deep depression of the Japanese economy or if he had to pay every cent he had for it. Unfortunately, he died before I was born and my grandmother passed away four years ago and I never thought to ask her until it was far too late. 

I didn't get any pictures of my lovely table or the presentation of the food, all of which was very nice, because at that point, I was pretty tired (I had taken a couple of breaks to do other things) and it was pretty late (I am horrible at timing - I think we ate at 8:30pm and I started this process at 4pm). However, it was great to have a quiet candlelit dinner with my husband, just like the ones I remember having with my parents growing up. 

Happy Advent!! 

Our Willowtree nativity that my mom got us, including former Valparaiso head basketball coach Homer Drew, who Tom insists be allowed to worship the Christ-child 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Desire to Grow

Last night, amidst the revelry of baking and laughing, I told my sister I wanted my house to have a name. Kim's house is known as the Briarpatch because of the blackberries she has been cultivating on the side of her home since time immemorial. Ali's house is known as the Lilypad, because it is next to a pond with many lilypads. They write notes, referring to their houses by name, as if they were grand enough to live on great estates, when the reality is far richer: they are humble places bursting at the seams with love.

Livvy and Kim

My family (and Tom's too, come to think of it) is big on themes. Kim's theme is Christmas - all Christmas, all the time. If Kim could live in Christmasland, she'd be happy all year. The lights, food, movies, music - she loves it all. Ali's theme is probably the beach: sand, surfboards, old woodies, mermaids, etc. Tom's mom's theme is grapes, as a nod to her heritage as a Welch. Tom's sister loves penguins. And yet amongst all these themes, I am themeless. Once we got engaged and people wanted to get us house-things, they kept asking "what is your theme?" I didn't know what to say! "Well, I like the color blue..." was about the best I could come up with - not very helpful!

Katie and Ali

Yet last night, talking with Kim, she asked me not about what my house was but what I wanted it to be. I said I really want to plant orange trees in the back, because if we can grow things here, we ought to. So I suggested calling it The Grove, but she suggested we try it in French. So we found, L'Orangerie: the orange grove. Yet L'Orangerie is also the name of the museum in Paris that houses Monet's Waterlillies as well conservatory buildings that were commonly used from the 17th to 19th centuries in northern Europe to winter citrus trees. Citrus trees are a curious emblem of Florida that, combined with a French name, evoke for me all the joy of my summertime spent touring around some of the greatest holy sites in the world.

The Basilica of St. Therese when I visited on pilgrimmage in 2007

Ally, Jen, and I on a Eucharistic procession in Paray-Le-Monial, France where St. Margaret Mary Alacoque received the vision of the Sacred Heart.

So as we chatted about it more, Kim and I thought that the marriage of French wording and a Florida staple expressed the atmosphere of our new little home perfectly. A mixture of old world Europe with the French and the old Florida feel with the citrus. Many people might not know what  I'm talking about when I say "old Florida," but as a native cracker, let me promise you - we are more than Universal Studios and retirement homes.

Citrus label, circa 1938

Although Florida has always been popular for her tourism, Florida has a rich and beautiful history that is intimately agrarian. Our wonderful weather gives us a prolonged growing season while the rest of the country hibernates, yet our soil is nothing but sand - meaning that farmers have always had to work very, very hard to make a living. Central and north Florida were actually ideal places to raise cattle and horses for years, which is why we are called Florida crackers - because of the crack of the whips we used to drive the cattle. My father was born in the Panhandle of Florida on Eglin Airforce Base, my Papa lives on the Suwanee River and I was born in Orlando. This state is in my blood from coast to coast, and the idea of decorating our house so that it reflects this rich heritage is exciting.

Even more exciting is the idea of growing things. I have a great desire to turn my home and land into an Eden-esque garden: growing children mingled with growing fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs. A rhythm of life that is not indifferent nor ignorant to the rhythm of nature and her seasons (scant though they are in Florida) - a life where I know a good deal about the earth that I walk on, and find my own ways to cultivate it. I have often thought, as I worked in the ground, that the agrarian analogies used to frequently in the Bible were incredibly apropos: the work done in man's soul is so very similar to the cultivation of a garden. The work  is often slow and painstaking, with sudden bursts of growth followed by possible long periods of dormancy; sometimes, the blights we guard against come despite our precautions. The fruit that plants bear can surprise - some raggedy shrubs burst forth into glorious bloom of unparalleled sweetness, while beautiful bushy plants give out measly, sour fruit or none at all.

To transform my life into what my heart desires, I know it will take a great deal of work - and a good deal more of God's kind hand. But I still hope: I hope to transform our house into more of a home, where every thing has their place and pieces of furniture have good stories to go with them about how we acquired them. I hope we paint the rest of the house with colors that make us think how wonderful it is to be able to see colors, and that I get good enough at time management so that I stay somewhat on top of the chores. I hope it's a home my darling loves to come home to, filled with warmth and delicious food, sanctified by our prayers, our laughter, our deep and abiding love.

Most of all, dearest Reader, my greatest hope is for the blossom of our love to flower out in great abundancy. Like the Blessed Virgin, I ponder all of God's promises in my heart, and hope for the fulfillment of my not-so-secret longing.

Photo courtesy of Heidi Mitchell Photography