It’s the Fall of my son’s senior year in high school. The seeds we planted in the blind enthusiasm of grade school, protected from the ambivalence of middle school, and fertilized with a hearty mix of encouragement and extracurriculars through the high school years have culminated into a small crop of college applications, deadlines, and gut-wrenching decisions. Our mailbox is jammed with colorful college brochures, inviting postcards, and glossy magazines that clearly explain the absurd-cost of college. For months, we’ve binged on the propaganda. We’ve made our list. We’ve pared down our list. We’ve reevaluated and we’ve changed it – sometimes all in one day. At times, motivations and decisions seemed logical, and, just as often, the experience has felt more like a diagnosis of insanity than a direction to begin anew.
It’s been exciting, exhausting, and frustrating. There have been hard talks and heartfelt moments of hope. It has brought us closer in ways that feel like a cherished parting gift which right now we have the joy of opening, but will ultimately close this chapter in our lives. Undoubtedly, the best chapter I could hope to write. It is not lost on me that all our efforts, not just to send him off to college, but to prepare him for adulthood, inevitably mean a parting of ways. Every act that brings him closer to his goals is taking me farther from the child I want to hold onto. Yet I know I can’t keep him. He needs to go and I need to let go. It makes me think a lot about what love means. So often, love is more of a surrender than a holding on. Love is another’s heart that we don’t get to keep no matter how much it has imprinted our own. It’s helping someone meet their goals knowing that getting them there will cost a piece of you. It’s explicably worth the sacrifice, the heartache, and the cavernous emptiness that makes you wonder if your heart is imploding. Love is the illogical dying on the cross for unworthy sinners that Jesus endured. It’s letting go of what you want to give someone else a chance at what they want. It’s beautiful and boundless. Despite breaking us into a million pieces, it inevitably makes us more whole.
I was talking to Jesus one night before bed and told him that his will for my life appears fairly willy-nilly. What are we really doing here, God? This? That? Does it even matter? It’s as if he thinks I can read the signs he sends. I can’t even read a map much less fold one, so why he thinks I can discern his will is a mystery to me. Still, I come back to that longing to know. It’s like a kid the night before their birthday trying to figure out what their gifts will be. It’s a sleepless mix of exhilaration and anticipation and longing for the relief of just knowing. What a gift the knowing would be.
The next morning, my son had an appointment to have his high school senior pictures taken. I had reminded him the night before that mama doesn’t iron and he needed to have his clothes ready. When I saw him half-dressed in a half-ironed shirt, I was wholly annoyed. He explained that he had ironed his shirt and the wrinkles weren’t coming out. He said he was going to wear it a bit and that would make the wrinkles come out. Lord Jesus, I am supposed to send this child to college in a year? I told him to give me the shirt and I would iron it.
It’s not that I am unwilling to iron, it’s just that most things that have to do with domesticity fail me. The day before I texted a friend to ask how long to boil corn (10 minutes). It’s frustrating to do things that we aren’t good at. When I was a little girl, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a stay-at-home mom. I know in today’s world that is terribly lame but that was my wish, my will. While I’ve been able to do that and mostly love it, I can’t say I am particularly good at it. So, there I was ironing the already-ironed shirt wondering why the heat and the pressing and the willing weren’t working. Since we were running short on time, I called a friend for advice. She reminded me she was in a different time zone and still asleep. I explained my domestic emergency and necessary disregard for her slumber. She suggested that I spray the shirt with water. It turns out the spray bottle under my sink is a mix of soap and water so when I sprayed the shirt it bubbled up like a wound doused in peroxide. I just can’t imagine things like this happening to June Cleaver.
Summer feels thick right now – the heat, the ebb and flow of vacationers, and the realization that its end is looming like the swarm of mosquitos that emerge at dusk. I am kind of in a funk about it. Thinking there are only a few short weeks of summer left, I feel panic rise like the scorching mid-day heat. For three straight weeks, my family will be scattered in different places. The final weeks of summer stained with talk of orientation, school schedules, and college applications. Family time is back to being carved out like the mocking triangle eyes and jagged mouth of a pumpkin. I might as well get the Halloween decorations down from the attic.
When my husband asked me to go on the boat with him one weekday evening, I reluctantly agreed. I figured it would remind me that summer is still here, in the now. He likes to fish and I like to read. Off we went, him with his poles, and me with reading glasses, a stack of old newspapers, a half-read magazine, and book. (I figured if we were stranded the reading material would be a good diversion.) Within fifteen minutes, he caught three speckled trout. Each time, I put my newspaper down and took a picture of him with his scaly trophy. After comparing all three pictures I couldn’t tell a difference – same man, same fish.
The third fish he caught was the largest. He kept the other two so I was surprised when he threw this last one back. He said we had enough and then immediately cast his line again. Baffled, I didn’t understand why he bothered casting when he didn’t intend to keep any more fish. Putting down my paper, I looked up at the ease of the summer sky which was oblivious to my end-of-summer angst. I thought that maybe my husband is onto something. Maybe life isn’t about what we keep but moments that we catch — or even better moments that catch our breath. Read more
I am in the “letting go” years of motherhood. I know Alzheimer’s disease is considered the long-goodbye, but having teenagers feels as much so. Except instead of forgetting precious memories, I am flooded with them: story times at the library, field trips to the zoo, class parties, countless baseball games, first dances, and ordinary moments that have aged into extraordinary memories.
It is often said of parenting that the days are long but the years are short. I would only add that the years get successively faster like a racing heart sprinting toward the finish line. The teenage years are propelled with a momentum that has little to do with parenting but is filled with our children’s pursuits. We no longer set the pace of their days. Instead, we race to keep up or merely watch their projection as they shoot off like a ball in a pinball machine: hither and yonder, to and fro, until they finally land in their beds at night. Still. Safe. Ours.
But the truth is they were never ours to keep. They were trusted to us by an ever-generous God for what suddenly feels like too little time. Somehow, he put us together knowing that we will each learn from the other. We are shown we could love more than seemed physically possible and that we can stretch beyond what we once considered strong to a surprisingly soft place of resilience. I can’t think of anything else that compares to the ways it has broken me, built me anew, and taught lessons that only love could teach.
I know songs have been written about the ease of Sunday morning, but I wish someone would write one about the angst of a Sunday evening. That’s the twitchiest night of the week for me as I transition from the charms of the weekend to the schisms of the work week. I feel like the amiable comic book character, Pig Pen, created by Charles Shultz, traveling in my own dust storm with all the to-do’s swirling around me making a filthy mess of what was once a peaceful mind. The more I do, the more I realize how far behind I really am and the dirt cakes on — further muddying my panic.
I sort through emails. I make piles. I do laundry. I boss children — an echo of repetition. I try to remember what I needed to talk to my husband about. I usually can’t. I make lists. I pick up abandoned glasses and clip close half-eaten bags of chips laying carelessly on the counter. In all my busying, I only seem to find more to do. Each task leads to another – a maze in the making. I scatter about in the dusty swirl of tedium past bedtime – past reason. My son asks me to review his cover letter for an internship he is applying for and I stop. In that instant, where I was given one more thing to do– when I was already so done, I would have envisioned being buried under the muck of a mudslide. Instead, I felt the clarity of grace. I felt its calm and its cleanse, as I realized I belong in the middle of the mess. It’s there that my independent, almost adult child asked for my input. It’s there that the mess suddenly stopped choking me and I breathed into the precious moment of mothering.
Our to-do’s will never be done and life will always be messy no matter how much tidying we do. Serving others in the midst of it is the grace that makes life meaningful. It gives order to chaos. It realigns priorities and it reinvigorates efforts. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Hebrews 4:16).
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust” seems like such a dark way to portray death. Anyone who has ever lost a beloved knows that death is both cruelly final and endlessly enduring. The love, influence, and lessons the deceased impart doesn’t stop with their heartbeat.
Sprouting from the death of winter into the hope of spring is the fragile bloom of memories that remain in our hearts. It’s a beautiful gift that dulls the thorny sting of loss.
Recently, I attended the rosary of a friend who lost her mother. Comforting the sorrowful and burying the dead are important works of mercy. When my stepfather passed away, I remember well the people who attended the funeral or who stopped by with a meal. It was such a comfort to have our loss acknowledged. It reminds us that even though we lost a loved one, we had not lost love. It envelops us in our cocoon of grief promising life’s joy will reemerge like a butterfly. That’s a beautiful thing to be reminded of when you are grieving. Read more
It’s odd that we wear such fine attire on our wedding day when marriage is so messy. It seems like it would be smarter to wear body armor or at least a sturdy raincoat to better prepare us. Yet, the bride and groom don lace and bow ties, veils and patent leather, pearls and cuff links, willingly pledging themselves until death to the life of the other.
It’s all so genteel, it’s hard to imagine the years that follow are anything other than champagne and roses. But champagne causes headaches, roses come with thorns, and marriage is messy. It makes sense though because we humans are messy. We come with pasts, preferences, and a penchant to think we are right.
Often there is no right, only two people who see things from different viewpoints. It can be ever so complicated. I know marriages are not invincible. I never approached the sacrament with body armor. Like so many others, I began the journey in white lace, a full skirt, and optimism that outshined any intricate beading or sparkling tiara.
We start out thinking marriage is going to be a gentle dance like the carefully choreographed one we perform on our wedding day. Inevitably, in marriage, there are missteps, clumsy moves, and moments when we or our partners let go instead of hold tight. Or sometimes, you just pick the wrong partner and no matter how many times you try to twist, they tango. Read more
Sometimes I look at my life, and I don’t know whether hypocrisy or irony is screaming louder. I write about mercy, because I believe whole-heartedly in its power to change lives and, in a broader sense, the world. That is not hyperbole. It is a truth that exists regardless of whether we acknowledge or believe it.
Despite my enthusiasm, doing works of mercy sometimes feels like a struggle. You would think in my zeal, I would embrace them with a “Woo-hoo! Here’s another opportunity for me to serve!” But often my “woo-hoo” sounds more like, “woe is me.”
Frequently the service we are called to do is organic, and, like the produce in the grocery store, organic always costs more. It has always felt easier to serve when I plan for it, choose the capacity, and have had a shower. When someone else’s misfortune interrupts my plans or to-do list, it can be frustrating.
Recently, I took my mom to the doctor, because she was sick. I tried to be peppy about it despite my manic Monday mentality. My mom was pleasant and chatty on the way to her appointment, and, instead of gratitude for her attitude, I begrudged it for being better than mine. After all, I was the healthy one. Why wasn’t I bubbly and bright? Maybe she should have been driving me around! Read more
In grade school, at the beginning of the school year, students are often asked to write about their summer vacation. However, as the sun begins to set on the season, I am contemplating how to live like its summer all year long.
After all, some of the most important lessons in life are learned in the summer, away from the routine and rigor that may be necessary, but is nothing like a day at the beach.
Here are my top five ways to live like its summer – no writing required:
Be a tourist: You don’t have to wear a camera around your neck to capture the best of life. You just need the perspective of a curious tourist excited to learn, explore, discover, and indulge. Be open to new experiences, people, points of view, and cultures. There’s a whole world out there, so be willing to get outside of yours and pursue new opportunities, meet new people, and share new adventures. Read more
The work of mercy that most embodies parenting is to instruct the uninformed. Only it took me a while to figure out that maybe it was me, the mama, who needed the most instruction.
From the earliest days of motherhood, when I frantically thumbed through pages of parenting books in the dark of the night in a desperate attempt to find a way to coax my son to sleep, I felt more clueless than confident.
No matter how many books I read, I could never get my son on a nursing schedule, sleep schedule, or a mama-really-needs-a-shower schedule. I had friends who were more successful with following the instructions, and, of course, I resented their efficiency and ease.