Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Let Me Learn From My Daughter

It is 2 am and there is a cry in the dead of night.  One moment stillness, the next a piercing scream crackling over the monitor.  I leap up and am on my feet running before I even fully comprehend what is going on, my brain still asleep but my whole body fully alert, heart pumping, adrenaline racing.  This is how I respond to my baby's cries.  This is what I do when she wants me in the darkness, when the rest of the world slumbers and all else is quiet.  I do it every time.  Even after giving myself permission to be a bit less vigilant, a trifle more relaxed.  I just can't do it.  I hear my child's cry and my response is instantaneous.

We are go, go, go all day long.  There is not a moment in which I"m not saving her from something.  She, of course, interprets this as utter torment.  All I do is persecute her.  I imagine her with a Veruca Salt voice, a tiny, shrill baby version of her British accent, screaming, "But Mommy, I want the electrical cord now!"  As I struggle to focus on my work---work that requires serious attention, work that is my passion---I look up, and she is gnawing on the electrical cord, wedging herself under the armchair, pulling down the lamp, knocking over chairs onto herself.  She doesn't want me to stop her from doing any of these things, but she certainly wants me to help her out once she is in them.  I swoop in, save the day, avert the crisis, soothe and comfort, then start all over again.

Then there are the things she desperately wants to do but that would wreak havoc on the tiny little world that is our home.  She goes for the remote, our cell phones, my hair.  She rips my pearl necklace apart and leaves the glass apothecary jar in shards.  She must pull every diaper off her changing table.  She has to pick every flower in the yard.  She cannot abide not being allowed to climb into the dishwasher.  These are desperate needs!

We listen to the same music over and over again.  She demands it.  We read the same books over and over again.  We pace up and down, up and down, seeking an elusive nap.

These things are hard.  They challenge me.  I go to bed exhausted every day.  But I am not complaining.  This first year as a mother, I've learned more than I have in all others combined.  This past year with my daughter, she has taught me more than all my teachers, professors, and priests ever managed.  She has taught me far more than I have ever taught her.  My daughter has shown me God's love, and she has given me the best understanding of God my Father that I can ever have as a mere human being.

I cry out, and He is there for me.  Any time.  In the darkness, in the dead of night.  Especially then.  My baby can't stand to be alone, struggles with stillness and silence and the thoughts and fears that accompany those things.  I do, too.  And He is there for me, just as I am for her.

I am non-stop.  I don't give Him a break.  He is constantly saving me.  Countless moments every day, year after year, adding up to a whole lifetime.  And I am fairly certain that there were many, many times that He saved me and I knew absolutely nothing about it at all.  In fact, there were times He was busy saving me when I would have told Him that He was doing the exact opposite.  Jobs I was convinced I needed that would have been all wrong for me.  Men I desperately wanted to be with who would just have made my life miserable.  Hard lessons I didn't want to face but needed to learn.  Long roads that made me weary but that I had to walk.  Oh why did He torment me so?

I imagine His sadness as He sees me make another bad choice, turn in a wrong direction.  There she goes judging others again.  Here she is worrying and ingesting instead of just trusting in me.  Here she is asking again, another list of demands.

And it's repetitive and exhausting and disheartening.  But still He carries me, paces up and down, up and down, soothes and comforts and never stops loving me.  There is nothing specific I did to make Him love me.  I don't love baby girl because she is so adept at crawling or because she tried broccoli and liked it.  And there never was a time He didn't love me.  I can't remember when my love for baby girl started; it was just always there.  There is nothing she could do to make me stop loving her.   My love for her doesn't disappear because I wanted a good night's sleep or because carrying her makes my neck ache.  It doesn't work like that with her.  Or with Him.

Even in the midst of the crying, the defiance, and the frustration, she clings to me and looks up with eyes shining with trust and devotion.  Oh God, let me learn from my daughter.  Help me to always cling to You.  Let me always look to You with trust and devotion.  May I always be confident in your boundless love.  Even at 2 am when my body is longing for sleep but my baby girl is longing for me more.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Answer Me This. . .summer edition

Linking up with Kendra at Catholic All Year for her fun Answer Me This series.  Edited to add: was going to link up.  It is now closed.  Sigh.  

1. What's your favorite grocery store splurge?

We very rarely do this, as it really is a true splurge.  Occasionally after going to the vigil Mass on Saturday, I don't really feel like cooking.  It's after 5, I haven't had time to prep a meal, and we are all hungry.  So we stop by the grocery and pick up prosciutto, black pepper salami, crackers, and a good cheese, usually a brie or camembert.  If we are feeling really fancy, we will get a bottle of champagne, too.  It's sort of like a "date night," only we don't leave the house and have to wait until the baby is in bed before we can enjoy or antipasto and watch a movie.  It is a rare treat, and one we truly enjoy.

2. How's your penmanship?

My penmanship used to be lovely.  In middle school, my friends said I had a "mom signature" and would try to get me to sign the field trip permission slips they forgot to give to their mothers.  I took pages and pages of notes in college, all very legible and organized.  During my years as an elementary school teacher, my handwriting was ideal; I taught handwriting, for goodness's sake!  I used to have to write in large letters on the white board and put a lot of effort into this.  Now, however, after a year of mommyhood, my handwriting is just not the same.  I live in a constant hustle, and that is reflected in my handwriting.  It's rushed, unsteady, and certainly in no way matches the nice, neat models you see running along the border of the classroom wall.  For the longest time, I couldn't understand why peoples' signatures always looked so messy.  Now I understand that it's a gradual evolution as you move through life.

3. Do you have a "Summer Bucket List?"

I just finished throwing not one but TWO first birthday parties for baby girl.  Now that they are over, I feel like a burden has lifted.  I also resolved to have her weaned by 12 months and only went over that target by two weeks.  Though I did experience an emotional reaction, it was the right thing to do, and ultimately I feel so much less stressed.  We finished the front garden, painted the front door a beautiful blue, and put on new hardware.  These things would not have been my "summer bucket list" 10 years ago.  In fact, I might have felt sorry for someone whose life was so seemingly boring!  But now I feel very satisfied.  
4. What's the best thing on the radio right now?

I don't listen to popular music stations.  Now that my mother is keeping baby girl a couple days a week, I am able to meet with my boss and do quality work.  This means that I have a 45 minute commute.  I love listening to WWOZ, the local jazz music station.  They play all kinds of jazz, blues, and old school R&B.  I always hear something amazing and vow to look up the song or artist when I get home.  Hoping to one day actually do it!

5. Ice cream or frozen yogurt?

This is a funny question, as my boss just treated me to frozen yogurt on Friday.  I enjoyed it, but not as much as ice cream.  Nothing can replace ice cream.  Well. . .maybe gelato.

6. Have you had that baby NOW? (Again, you can skip this one if you want.)

If all goes according to plan (do you hear God laughing right now?), I'm thinking this question probably won't apply to me for two years.  We shall see.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

When You Need to Create

A few months back, my best friend confided with me over cocktails at the Columns that she had been having some crazy dreams.  Almost every night over the course of a few weeks, she dreamt that she was pregnant.  I did not find this to be disturbing or abnormal, as I myself have had this dream before.  Plus she has been married for five years, so I figured that the subject of babies was naturally on her brain by this point.  But there was more to it.  There was an elaborate plot line I do not fully recall anymore, but the gist of it was this: She dreamed she forgot the baby every place she went.  That she forgot it in the car.  That she was feeding it soup straight from a can.  She had absolutely no idea what to do with it.  Everyone flew straight to the oh so obvious conclusion: the dream clearly indicated that she longed to have a baby but lacked confidence in her parenting skills.  She wasn't sure they were ready for a baby, they weren't at the right place yet, she still had other things she wanted to do before a baby, etc.  I reassured her that she would make an incredible mother, but even as I said it, I felt there might be more to the dream than the obvious.

I am not one to embark on a lengthy analysis of my (or heaven help us, others') dreams.  Nor am I accustomed to enure them with elaborate meaning.  But then a few weeks passed and Best Friend came back to me with some interesting information.

She had begun to crochet an afghan.  This on its own does not seem like much.  But when she began organizing the project, picking out the yarn, deciding on the pattern, and then putting it all into action, the dreams stopped.

Suddenly it all made sense.  She didn't need a baby.  She needed to CREATE.  Carrying a baby for nine months, giving it life, and then caring for it is the most profound act of creation of which we human beings are capable.  Her mind and heart found what it was seeking in the creative process of planning and crocheting a project.  It was also true when she forced herself to find the time to create in the kitchen.  We both share a passion for cooking.

Every year Trinity Episcopal Church on Jackson Ave. celebrates Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday with "Bach Around the Clock," a 27 hour ongoing concert featuring performances from school groups to some of the city's greatest musicians, like Delfeayo Marsalis.  While Bach does dominate, other classical composers as well as jazz and some out of the box selections (can we say "Harry Potter" theme) all resonate throughout the church.  You come and go as you please, and no admission is charged.  If you get the urge to hear a really stellar violin solo at 3 a.m., you know where to go.

After margaritas and Mexican, our two best friends (conveniently married to each other) accompanied us to "Bach Around the Clock."  And something amazing happened there.  I was reminded of Best Friend's dream.  In this amazing church, listening to brilliant works of art coming from the fingers, lips, and throats of talented individuals, my soul, so anxious and wound with worry, settled down, breathed, and sighed so loud I thought it echoed across the pews.  They weren't playing hymns, but that didn't matter.  What came from them was a gift from God.  God gave them the gift to be able to produce music of this caliber, and they in turn gave it back to us, sending our spirits soaring to the rafters.

My husband and I aren't exactly opera people.  But listening to one soprano perform an aria caused us both to clutch each others' hands.  I had tears in my eyes by the end.  How can a person's voice do that?  I was--and am---convinced that nothing short of God's intervention could bring a sound so ethereal from any of our very human and inherently flawed throats.

We were so awed by the performances that we returned the next day.  The New Orleans Youth Orchestra was playing.  I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.  These were just a bunch of kids, after all.  Quite the contrary.  They played the way I imagine heaven will sound.  Those little tiny children who can't drive or vote or do long division---heck, I'm pretty sure some of them are probably still struggling to keep their shoes tied---produced a sound beyond the scope of ordinary existence.  As if I was hearing music for the first time, I realized the skill and dedication these children were exhibiting, and how we all have a contribution to make, no matter our size, education, or economic status.  Live music will do that to you, will remind you of the truly amazing side of humanity.

All this to say---God made us in His image.  So often that part of us in which God resides is not visible to our neighbors.  So often we see only the destructive side of people.  God was and is the great Creator, and he made each of us with a need to create.  Not all of us are going to have the ability to play like those children in the orchestra, but we each have something to create and to contribute.  My husband is a writer.  My mother can look at a room and in two minutes rearrange it in a way that brings out beauty formerly unknown.  My father has an amazing garden.  My grandmother, self-trained and with no experience save that of her own kitchen, proves that food can truly be art.  My dancing sister moves her body in ways I never could.

When we lose our ability to create, our self-made demons emerge.  At first we might just be grumpy or confused.  But soon that God-given energy to create---that blocked up, denied, repressed gift---has to go somewhere, and it can so easily lend itself to destruction.

Which is why it is time for me to go cook.  And crochet.  And sing in all my off key glory.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

When You Have the Music in You

"For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing about/to/for."
---St. Augustine of Hippo

Sometimes I catch my husband glancing at me with a smile on his face.  I will pause for a moment and wonder why.  Then I realize I've been singing all along, entirely unaware of the song in my heart pouring out of my lips.  I blush and say, "I've got the music in me."  And it's as if it overpowers me, takes over me, and spontaneously soars from my mouth.

But it's more than music that is in me.  Clearly, obviously, without question, it is God.  How else can you explain that something coming from nothing, the quiet one moment and the exuberant rising and falling of voice the next?  And how can you explain the feeling I get when I let my mind go, my thoughts fall away, and the magnificent fervor of song rise up through my whole body?

I truly believe that singing is a kind of prayer.  And it is certainly a form of praise.  So often in prayer we seek things, bring petitions, ask things of God.  This is perfectly acceptable.  In fact, he tells us to do this, encourages us to come to him.  But wouldn't it be wonderful to send him praise as well?  Can you imagine how God must feel when, after listening to so many pleas and woes and recitations of complaints and fears, He hears someone glorifying Him, singing out the joy that God inspires within?

Sometimes when I don't know what to say, when words have fled, when my thoughts are all a jumble, all I have is song.  They are the songs I learned long before I could actually read the words and follow along in the hymnal, some of the earliest sounds of my memory, songs that have remained ingrained in my mind long after the Periodic Table of the Elements and sine, cosine, and tangent formulas have faded away.  I reach for these songs, and they never fail me.  They always deliver me from the immediate situation, from my worry, from my fear and bring me to a place far beyond those things.  I actually feel lifted up when I lift up my voice.

I do it in the shower.  A lot.  I do it when I wash dishes or fold clothes.  I whisper those wonderful words as I fall asleep at night.  Recently, when pacing back and forth watching my second graders pick apart their lunches, I found myself singing under my breath.

Not until adulthood, when I really began to seriously read the Bible, did I discover how closely those good old church songs adhere to the words of Jesus, to the poetry of the Psalms, the messages of the Gospels.  I never thought I knew many Bible verses word for word, but then I realized when singing out that I knew far more of them through song than I ever realized.

St. Therese of Lisieux said that "prayer is a surge of the heart."  I can think of no greater example of that than letting your voice ring out in praise of Him.

Monday, April 8, 2013

What's Cooking?: Beef Lo Mein

In an attempt to save money, I have been scouring the grocery for deals on meat.  I found some "stir fry beef" marked down to a ridiculously low price, probably because it was nearing its expiration date.  So I had to figure out something to do with it.

I have attempted stir fry on many occasions but am always disappointed.  I wanted to make something that tasted similar to lo mein, sort of a cross between a stir fry and a lo mein.  All previous attempts of this had registered somewhere between disastrous and just blah.  So I scoured the internet, comparing different takes, and ultimately decided to take a little bit from each recipe to create my own.  As I told my husband, it would either be amazing or absolutely horrific.

This is what I came up with.  I do not claim that it is authentic Chinese.  Let's just say it's my take on things.  And it was by no means horrific.  In fact, I loved it.

Beef Lo Mein

1/2 pack of linguine or spaghetti (I'm a linguine fan)
1 lb stir fry beef
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (I love ginger, but you could add less if you'd like)
1/2 of a red onion
1/2 a bag of shredded carrots
2 cups chopped up broccoli
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons dry cooking sherry
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/3 cup soy sauce plus extra for meat

Salt and pepper the beef and pour some soy sauce over it as a marinade.  Let sit for as long as you can (mine sat for a mere hour).  Cook noodles according to directions.  Put vegetable oil in skillet and get skillet very hot.  Cook the beef on one side, then flip and cook on the other.  Grate the ginger over the beef.  Add onions, carrots, and broccoli and stir fry for about 8 minutes.  In a separate bowl, mix together the corn starch, rice wine vinegar, cooking sherry, fish sauce, and hoisin sauce.  Pour mixture over the meat and vegetables and stir together to combine.  Take the pasta and fold it into the meat, vegetable, and sauce mixture until it is incorporated.        

Thursday, April 4, 2013

When We Listen

I am a teacher.  I have taught for five years now.  Consequently, I have encountered a large number of children, many of whom are now actively evolving from children into adults.  I am constantly reminded that, while there are some differences between children and adults, in most ways we are the same, with just some minor height differentials.  This does not surprise me now, though it did seem like a revolutionary idea when it first dawned on me.  Children are like microcosms of us.  Every single day I see reflected in "my" children behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, and dreams that I, too, possess.

One of the things I value most about my experience as a teacher is the way I have come to appreciate different personalities.  The way I now tolerate, accept, and understand differences in others that would never have made sense to me before.  The bottom line is: they don't have to make sense.  Other peoples' differences are theirs, not mine.  Just because it is something I wouldn't choose or do or say doesn't mean it isn't absolutely right for another person.

As I grew in this realization, I came to fully appreciate all "my" children.  And with the knowledge that children are just tiny adults, I then transferred this appreciation to those bigger people in my life.  As time passed, I realized I love that through teaching I get to know so many people, watch them grow and change and develop, and foster interests and desires different than my own.  Everyone has a story.  I love stories (can't tear me away from a good book!).  And children love to share their stories with you!  Listening to those stories could very well be one of the most important things we can do for them.

Children can tell when you don't really want to listen.  When you hear them, but don't truly take in what they are saying.  All the "uh huhs" and "ehmms" and "yeses" and "oh reallys" and "wows" that you absently mouth while you are trying to get the pencils sharpened, the papers stacked, the books out---they see through those things!  Truth be told, adults see through them, too, but they are just too polite to call you on them.  We are all guilty of it.  Life gets in the way, responsibilities pile up, and the powers that be bear down hard.

Especially as a teacher at this time, with the state of education being what it is, we are weighed down with testing testing testing and rubrics and evaluations and the implementation of such pie in the sky concepts as differentiation, grouping, assessment, and Bloom's Taxonomy (don't even get me started on the acronyms).  I find that elementary school teachers in particular become obsessed with things like interactive bulletin boards, color coded file folders, and elaborately designed word walls.  But nothing I have ever done as a teacher---no strategy implemented, no lesson planned, no organized filing system---has made as much of a difference in the lives of "my" children as listening to them.  Seemingly the simplest technique in the book, actually taking in their stories and responding in a meaningful way has far more of an impact on children than any other research based practice.  You want to talk about high quality instruction?  Nothing has aided me more in this endeavor than the stories the children tell about themselves and their world.

Why?  Because suddenly I know them!  Better than any score on a test or anecdotal observation or peer evaluation (see what we go through as teachers?!).  I know what they love, what they are passionate about, what moves them, what makes them laugh.  And then I know how to reach them!    

There are times when it is so tempting to say, "I don't want to hear about what happened at soccer practice yesterday.  Could we please just work on addition facts."  Or, "Really your drive to the beach is over and done with, and can't we get back to pronouns?"  Or possibly even more accurate, "I understand that your cat must be the only cat in the world who climbs trees, kills birds, and scratches people, but can I just have a moment of peace and quiet, please?"

The best part of all of this?  It isn't even about the student-teacher relationship?  It's about all our relationships.  Period.  How do we really come to know our friends, spouses, sisters, brothers, neighbors without listening to their stories?  Hearing how they perceive themselves and their place in the world has a direct impact on the relationships we are able to build with them.  If you take the time to listen, you may even find the littlest details fascinating.  And you might discover that the stories of those around you give you far more than you ever believed, that the joy, hilarity, and wonder gained exponentially exceeds the little bit of time sacrificed or energy expended by you.  I know that's the way I felt when I stumbled upon this one afternoon.

Sometimes the magic is in the tiniest of stories.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

St. Joseph

We say it every night.  The Prayer to St. Joseph.  I suppose it's one of those things that makes us Creole, uniquely New Orleans.

New Orleans has a deep sense of tradition surrounding St. Joseph's Day.  On March 19th, the feast day of St. Joseph, Catholic churches across the city have elaborate altars in his honor.  These altars are covered with enormous quantities of food.  Often the different food is symbolic, and the ubiquitous Italian cookie is always present.  Every year my great aunt rolls out pound after pound of dough and shapes them into cookies to cover the altar.  New Orleans was (and is) a port city, and consequently, quite a few people of Italian descent came to us and remained here.  They brought with them the tradition of honoring St. Joseph, and the native Creole population embraced it as well.  The tradition hearkens back to Sicily, where prayers to St. Joseph were thought to provide relief during a time of famine.  During the famine, a diet of fava beans brought them through, and today they are still placed on the altar.  Now we call them "lucky beans."

Here in New Orleans we have another special tradition surrounding St. Joseph.  When trying to sell a home, we bury a statue of St. Joseph in the yard and pray to him every night.  After your home sells, you dig up St. Joseph and display his statue in your home out of gratitude and love.  St. Joseph was a carpenter and also a hard worker, so associating with the home seems natural.  Of course, my husband and I speak to God and Jesus very regularly about our concerns, blessings, and petitions.  But praying for St. Joseph's intercession for the sale of our home seems like one more step in growing closer to God and those great people who were closest to Him across time.

For a while, I felt guilty praying to God about something as trivial as selling a home.  But then I realized that things like home and family are close to His heart.  He loves us.  Plain and simple.

Why all this urgency to sell our home?  What is motivating us to move?  More than anything in the world, we want to start a family.  And having a family in our 650 square foot, third story walk up, yardless apartment in the middle of the city just doesn't seem right.  Couple that with the fact that our dog Henry, truly a member of our family and so very dear to us, endured a serious operation and medical issues that render it impossible for him to go up the stairs to our apartment.  No longer will visits to the park do the trick; it is overstimulating and too much for him.  He needs a quiet yard and a one story home.  Right now, he is with my parents, and I miss him terribly.  I feel like our family is divided right now.

Which brings me to why I believe prayer to St. Joseph is so very important in all of this.  The Holy Family.  For two people who want to begin a family, looking to Joseph is so crucial.  Husband of Mary, foster father of Jesus, who better to exemplify all that it means to value family and home?  Joseph had some great struggles; how could someone from his time and place comprehend something as extraordinary as the Annunciation, as his betrothed bearing the son of God?  How easy it would have been to condemn Mary, to turn his back on her, and to want nothing to do with Jesus.  And yet he had such tremendous faith!  He trusted in God, grew in love with Mary and Jesus, and made a home for them.

I hold up the prayer card every night when we lie down in bed, and we say the prayer with our whole hearts.  My husband joked one night that we no longer needed the card; we know it by heart.  What a bittersweet moment!  On the one hand, I was saddened that we were still saying the prayer because it meant we were still trying to sell our home.  Yet I also felt moved that my husband and I have faithfully stuck to this practice, that each night we come together and share this, that we are growing in faith.  St. Joseph will always have a special place in our marriage, our hearts, and our home.