• I was reading a post in an online Catholic mom’s group to which I belong. A young mother was extremely frustrated. Actually, “livid” was her exact word. She had put her seven year old in charge of the four year old, three year old and one year old, and was trying to cook dinner. The baby got into the dog’s water dish, and the children started out playing together, but ran into the back bedroom and began jumping on the bed.

    Mom pulled the children back near the baby and again instructed the seven year old to watch the one year old. In a few minutes, the baby had poured the dog’s water out and was splashing in it. The kids started running around. Then the baby got mama’s purse, had unzipped it and was playing with lipstick and hand sanitizer. Whew! This made me really feel for this mama. All she was trying to do was cook some dinner for her family!

    Mama was really, really frustrated, and I don’t blame her. A seven year old is absolutely capable of entertaining a one year old for 15 or so minutes under the watchful eye of mom. And four and three year olds can surely sit still for that amount of time and obey the instruction to play quietly. But upon pondering the situation for a few minutes, it seemed to me that mom had inadvertently set herself up for disaster.

    Several things could have made the circumstance easier for this mom: Before she started cooking, the dog and its dish could have been put away in another room; the purse could have been put up high, out of reach of little hands. The baby could have been contained safely, perhaps in a crib or playpen with special toys only allowed at that time, or strapped in a high chair with Cheerios or with a little background music and a spoon for pounding out the rhythm as no one year old can resist.

    I don’t know exactly how mom instructed the children because her post didn’t say, but the best case would have been for her to get down on their level and make eye contact as she told them specifically what she wanted them to do in a peaceful, soft voice. Most importantly, she would exude calm because a mother’s demeanor sets the tone of the entire household. You’ve heard “when Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy?”

    Lastly, mom could have ended with telling her little ones, “Thank you for helping me. I’m counting on you. Can I count on you?” or something like that. In short, while the children should have obeyed, mom could have made it easier for them to do so, and that would have helped everyone.

    Obedience, of course, is a very important virtue to learn as a child, but it is equally important to help a child achieve it. Our little children are like tiny boats and we need to send them coasting down the stream in the proper direction before we ask them to swim against the current. We need to set up our children for success in doing what’s right and make it easy to do so. The challenges and difficulties will come soon enough.

    As I thought about this, I realized that we can take a lesson from this mom’s situation and apply it to our lives in general and our prayer lives specifically. We can be organized and smart in helping ourselves reach goals.

    Here are a few questions to ponder: How many times do we set spiritual goals such as “pray the rosary more” or “read the Bible each day” but we don’t do the little things that set us up for success with these goals? Do we actually put the rosary at the side of the bed, where we can reach it and see it first thing in the morning? Do we consciously carve out time at midday, turning off the cell phone after lunch and closing the door of our office so that the atmosphere is really conducive to reading the Bible? If we want to attend a weekday Mass do we purposefully not schedule doctor’s appointments or meetings that day so we can actually meet that goal? Do we take a deep breath, slow down and concentrate? Do we eliminate distractions and put temptations out of reach?

    If we plan ahead and anticipate potential trouble spots, we set ourselves up for success. We give ourselves the best opportunity to grow in faith and goodness and to reach all goals, spiritual and otherwise. We also offer our children an example for which to strive. It has once been said, and I agree: Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate.

    A little foresight has a lot of power, the power to create the best possible scenario for us to get things done.

     

    Posted on December 2, 2014, to:

  • I woke up this morning to welcome the home security guy. He was traveling from headquarters in Ohio to meet me, and I was told by a dispatcher that he could arrive anywhere from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. I figured I better be out of my bathrobe and into real clothes by 8 just in case. Good thing I slipped my Pilates pants and stretch shirt on before I made coffee, and well before 8. He arrived early, just as I was loading last night’s dishes into the dishwasher, grabbing random shoes off the family room floor, and replacing a toilet paper roll in the back bathroom.

    Our teeny, three-pound, sweet Yorkie pup did not detect the security man sauntering up the walk, nor ringing the doorbell nor walking past her in the kitchen. She was too busy whining for scrambled eggs that she somehow knew were in the frying pan, left over from my older daughters who had left for the local Catholic high school.

    As the security man turned to speak to me, (and since I was not responding to the canine whines, I think), the dog suddenly started barking crazily. I excused myself and put her in her crate in the far end of the house. When she didn’t stop barking, I moved her upstairs.

    I had hoped I might quickly show the security guy around the house, and then get to the business of educating my two youngest girls, ages 9 and 12, who are homeschooled. But showing the security technician around took longer than anticipated. One thing led to another and he shot a few questions my way: Why did he bring the wireless box and equipment when our home was hardwired? Didn’t they tell me I’d need different equipment if there was something already in place? Did I, after all, want to install the wireless kit he brought or go with the hardwired equipment, which would take a little more work to update, have a less fancy keypad and no two-way speaking system, but was overall a better idea in his opinion? Where should the glass break detectors go? How many did I say I wanted? Did I want to add this or that? That or this? A “thingamabob” or a “whatchamacallit”?

    I better call my husband, I told him, who might have an opinion on the matter. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Dog was alternating whining with barking now, from a distance.

    Dial. Dial.

    Ring. Ring.

    My husband wasn’t at his desk at work to take my call. And he didn’t answer his cell phone either. I was going to have to decide these things alone.

    Before settling on the security decisions, I tried to imagine all the possible break in scenarios: Bad guys bursting through the front door with machetes; burglars sneaking in from the back with revolvers, no … rifles, no … machine guns; someone climbing a ladder, swinging up the tree, jumping on the roof and jimmying open the window in the corner of the second floor. Okay, there were lots of possibilities. I was thinking I might say I’ll take 15 glass break detectors and 32 window-break detectors, when I realized that might sound a bit excessive. And really, how much would that cost? Eventually, I simply agreed to the security tech’s recommendations.

    The girls came down for breakfast and were dismayed to see that their older sisters had taken the choice doughnuts for breakfast after eating their healthy fruit and eggs, and they wanted to know why their sisters hadn’t saved at least one of their favorite doughnuts for them. The chocolate covered donuts still left in the box looked pretty good to me. “I don’t know why they chose what they chose,” I whispered to them, “What’s wrong with these?”

    The security man began explaining the intricacies of the system he was about to install, when suddenly one of the girls screeched. There was a young coyote in the yard. And, it was just about time, my youngest was surmising, for the dog to go out and do her business. At that moment I made an executive decision to put out newspapers for the dog in the garage.

    The phone rang right at that moment, but when I answered I couldn’t tell who it was because there was a loud buzzing tone on the line. I made a mental note to call AT&T later that afternoon.

    Life is so crazy sometimes. It’s full of ironies and monotonies and busyness. It is hectic and mundane and sometimes chaotic. And it is ours.

    St. Teresa of Avila is said to have claimed that life is like a stay in an uncomfortable inn. And so, sometimes it is. But it is our life, the life God ordained for us to live, in its intricacies, little joys and challenges, as well as the big ones. We can work out our salvation in these small moments, more so I think than even in the larger ones. How do we do it? With steadfastness, patience, endurance, joy and humor, yes lots of humor.

    The home security guy left my house today with me thinking about our ultimate home, our heavenly one. And a thought occurred to me: If we trust in God and move forward in faith, every moment can be a path to sanctity. We can have the ultimate home security by living each moment with acceptance and peace, and simply embrace it for the love of God.

    Posted on October 28, 2014, to:

  • A  Gallup poll some years ago indicated some common complaints of husbands about their wives. The list looked something like this:

    The wives tend to …

    • nag

    • infrequently have words of encouragement or praise for their husbands

    • spend too much money

    • neglect the care of the home and/or children, busying themselves outside the home

    • meddle in or gossip about others’ affairs

    • tend towards being late

    Likewise, the wives had complaints of their own:

    Their husbands …

    • go out too often without their wives

    • stay out late at meetings and engagements, resulting in their wives feeling lonely and left out

    • show less and less interest in their wives as the wives grow older, yet still seem to be super courteous and attentive to younger women

    • are domineering

    • spend too much money on themselves and their personal interests but account for every penny with everyone else in the family

    Javier Abad and Eugenio Fenoy, in “Marriage, A Path to Sanctity,” write, “Wives would do well to take a close look at these complaints because, many times, they explain why husbands grow indifferent and even negative about them for apparently no reason at all. … (Likewise), husbands should go over (the common complaints of wives) … and see if there might not be some area in them for (their own) improvement.” These complaints are not true with all spouses in all marriages, but since they were discovered to be common ones, it’s not a bad idea to review them and consider their relevance in our own lives.

    “… A husband should always be warm and considerate. He should also know how to show appreciation for the small tokens of his wife’s affection — the shoes she has just shined for him, the favorite dish she has prepared as a surprise, some improvement in the decoration of the house, etc. He should also keep physically fit and conserve his manly appearance. Such a husband will be easily loved by his wife.”

    Is this advice outdated? I think not.

    Considering one major purpose of marriage is unitive — intimate companionship in helping the other get to heaven — (the other purpose being procreative) a smart couple will ignore popular cultural trends to seek self gratification and personal enjoyment only in their marital relationship and seek to serve the other whole heartedly. In marriage, both the husband and the wife give themselves definitively and totally to one another. They are no longer two but one flesh. (CCC 2364). Marriages that have stood the test of time exemplify sensitivity to the others’ needs and participate in self-giving and willingness to sacrifice. It’s that simple, and that concept is never outdated.

    According to an article in Scientific American, numerous studies show that fulfilling intimate relationships such as marriages are the single most important source of life satisfaction. So, nurturing our spouses actually leads to our own happiness. What a win-win! Of course this exemplifies that God’s own plan of harmony is always to our benefit.

    Have you ever watched a couple of children bickering? Who really knows how a particular argument starts, but often both children have valid complaints. “She looked at me with a mean face,” one might say. And the other may retort, “Only because he wouldn’t listen and is trying to boss me around. …” As parents we counsel our children, “The bigger person makes the first move to forgive. Let’s not worry how this started. Just let it go.” We need to listen to our own advice and apply it to our spousal relationships. A short memory and a heart of love provide fertile ground for a marriage to flourish.

    St. John Chrysostom wrote: “… When a wife is at odds with her husband, nothing will be healthy in the household, even if all other affairs are flowing with the current; so when the wife is in harmony and peace with her husband, nothing will be unpleasant, even if innumerable storms arise every day.”

    Wow! That’s fourth century wisdom still applicable today!

    The secret to making our marriages better, then, is as simple as a nightly marital examination of conscience. Pondering the list of successes and failures of the day is a discipline that will reap all of us great rewards. In honestly evaluating our actions, we can take personal responsibility for them, and work to improve. This is a pleasure-filled duty to be sure. Overlooking the faults of our spouses while focusing on fixing our own always leads to greater marital happiness.

    Posted on September 30, 2014, to:

  • “What have you got for me today?”

    The woman on the telephone had a voice that was soft. Her tiny, floral print, navy blue dress seemed to swallow her petite frame. Bony fingers with short, unpolished nails held a No. 2 pencil, which hovered over a yellow legal pad. She held the phone in the crook of her neck. “Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Okay, then, what else? “Ok, thanks, Hal.” Then she put the receiver down and dialed the next number.

    I was shadowing this woman in my first real writing job, working for a city newspaper. She was on the telephone with funeral directors. Her job was to train me in writing obituaries.

    I was uncomfortable.

    My father had drilled into all of his children the importance of being grateful for work, the dignity of work itself, and the necessity of not being too big for our britches to prevent us from thinking we were so important we were above menial work. So I expected really, to be writing obituaries as my first assignment at this job at the city newspaper. That didn’t bother me.

    What did bother me, however, was that the process of writing obituaries seemed so cold and impersonal for something so significant. It seemed harsh to ask bluntly, “What have you got for me today?” in regards to a death. It amazed me that this woman came in each morning and simply dialed up the undertaker to find personal details of the life of someone who was no more, asking, “What have you got for me today?”

    With each call reality hit me: some family was grieving deeply. Some husband had lost a wife, or a family a father, or saddest of all, parents a child. It didn’t faze the newspaper obituary writer, and I think that’s what astonished me. She performed her task in a perfunctory manner, neither relishing the process nor despising it. It was simply something she had to do. “What have you got for me today?” was her saying, “Please give me the information I need to complete my task.” Then she carried on to do her job as best she could.

    Matter-of-factly, this woman wrote down the necessary information on the legal pad, took it to an electric typewriter — and showed me the format she wanted me to use.

    “We vary the wording somewhat,” she explained to me the very first time, “Sometimes this way. …” And she showed me wording with the deceased’s name up front. “And sometimes this way.” Then she showed me a slightly different version. Several others followed.

    “Okay,” I replied.

    “We really try to make sure there are no spelling errors,” she continued. “You have to check everything. If there is information missing, you need to call back to get it. Make sure you include this, and this and this.” And she filled in the precise details.

    So I learned to follow her directions, calling the funeral homes each morning, one by one, to glean information. And I wrote up the obituaries, carefully, precisely, painstakingly sometimes, making sure the form was just right, that this Cecelia had an “e” not an “i” in her name, and that that Mr. Tom Jenkins wanted his father’s initials not full names used, and that in another case, although it was usually not done, the deceased woman’s cat had to be mentioned in the write-up or the family would be very upset.

    Over time I came to realize what a kindness, even an act of mercy, writing obituaries is. An obituary is usually the last public write-up that a person will ever have. A small mistake can cause suffering to the family. Mistakes can be painful to survivors. No son or daughter of the deceased wants to wake up three days before the funeral of their beloved parent and see that his or her name has been left out or misspelled in the obituary. Emotions run high when people die and a nicely written obituary is reassurance that this life mattered. I came to realize the importance of doing this small thing with precision — or as Mother Teresa would say, with great love.

    Lastly, I learned something else from this experience: that it’s good to ask God the question that the newspaper obituary writer asked every day of the funeral directors:

    What do you have for me today?”

    Once I know that, I can act purposefully, with precision and meaning and care, show kindness and make a difference.

    Posted on August 5, 2014, to:

  • Three of my teen daughters are currently ballet dancers, studying that art form in a pre-professional classical ballet school. Most days at the studio, the girls are required to wear black leotards (with or without ballet skirts), pink ballet tights and pink canvas shoes. On Wednesdays the girls are allowed to wear colored leotards, and they fully enjoy expressing themselves then by wearing pretty floral or solid colored leotards and coordinating filmy ballet skirts.

    A couple months ago the girls and I were in the fabric store, purchasing some material for my 16 year old, who is taking a sewing class at school. My younger daughter asked for a yard of a couple different kinds of stretch fabric to try to make a ballet skirt. Soon, the 12 year old found the clearance rack, and shyly asked for some material too. Not knowing anything about making ballet skirts, but figuring the older sister could help them all figure it out, I purchased several yards of material in beautiful colors and textures.

    At home, the girls went straight to You Tube on the Internet to research how to make the ballet skirts they desired —ABT (American Ballet Theater) style — shorter on the sides and longer in back. My 14 year old worked particularly diligently. She made a few mistakes, had to start over, but before long she had several pretty new skirts to wear to ballet class, and did so as her classmates oohed and ahhed over the new creations. Of course this response motivated her to go home and make more. Some of the girls even asked her to help them make their own, or make some for them with their own material.

    As I watched this process unfold right before my eyes, I realized I was watching a pattern that I had seen many times before in my family. Perhaps you have seen it in yours too.

    An interest is sparked. You feed the interest by supplying the environment, the materials and enthusiasm. You stand back. They fly.

    My 19-year-old daughter is currently a computer animation college student studying art and cartoon animation. While she has taken a few traditional 2-D and 3-D art classes while in high school, she was primarily self-taught in cartooning. When she was a little girl, we simply made materials available to her. I think she filled enough sketchbooks to line our 1,000 foot driveway if put end to end. This daughter didn’t ask for new Polly Pocket toys for her birthdays. She wanted Prisma color markers and pens and “how to” books from the art store. So, we purchased what we could, surrounded her with material, encouraged her and then let her be. She flourished.

    This daughter spent hours honing her craft, reading books on her own about illustration from the library or bookstore and then just applying what she learned. She drew and sketched and doodled and sketched some more. She would bring her notebook to baseball games, to the movie theater, to Grandma’s house… Wherever she went, that sketchpad and those pencils came too. To date, she has contributed art for a comic book, had some artwork published in a book, and is now really taking off with her college classes in an excellent program. This all started with the interest, the environment, materials and encouragement.

    Something similar occurred when my son was in the fifth grade. We had been reading about electricity in our homeschool and studying electrical current. Out of the blue one afternoon my son gave me a list of parts he wanted: a nine-volt battery, some wiring, some metal and other things I can’t remember. Apparently he had started independently reading an electric circuitry book I had on our shelves and he wanted to make a burglar alarm. Instead of trying to control the project, I gave him the materials, some encouraging words and let him at it. In a day he had made, completely by himself, a working burglar alarm. I doubt he would have done so well had I tried to micromanage him.

    It occurred to me recently that this formula, which I’ve seen time and time again at work in our family, can be applied to helping our children develop a relationship with God too.

    As parents we can spark an interest in our children to communicate with God. Beginning when they are very young we read them Bible stories, saint stories and talk about God frequently, daily. As they grow older, we feed the interest by supplying the right environment. This is accomplished by making a truly Catholic home, teaching them knowledge of the faith and frequenting the sacraments with them. Next, we provide the materials, (prayer books, saint books, statues and artwork in their rooms and our homes to uplift and inspire). We offer genuine enthusiasm (including our own example.) Then, geared with the necessary tools, they figure out themselves how they are going to make their own personal relationship with God. Like a plant in rich soil nourished by the sun and watered, they grow, amazingly.

    Posted on May 27, 2014, to: