Sunday, December 27, 2015

When Life Doesn't Look Like a Hallmark Movie - For the Hurting Heart This Holiday Season

Christmas day has come and gone, ornamented trees are coming down, lights and decorations put away, store shelves stocked with goods for the next holiday.

For many people, Christmas is over, for our family, it has just begun.

But maybe, for you, the one with the hurting heart, the one who is grieving a loss, the one who has lost their job, is suffering the pain of divorce, is aching from loneliness, maybe you're ready for Christmas to be over, too.

Because, sometimes when we're hurting, the holidays just make the hurt worse.

Why is that?

Is it because with the holidays comes a hopeful expectation for something better, something more in life? And when things don't get better, don't become more, we just become more deeply aware of all of the things that aren't right in our own lives?

It's supposed to be the "most wonderful time of the year." But it isn't, is it?

I know that feeling.

This is the third Christmas that I've watched my husband suffer from Lyme disease.  The third Christmas where my prayers for his healing have not yet been answered.  The third Christmas where I have shopped alone for gifts. The third Christmas where I have sat across from him at a beautifully set table covered in Christmas dishes, candles, and steaming plates prepared with love, and watched him struggle to be present to any of it.

I see his eyes drift in and out of conversation, one minute he notices the six beaming faces delight as they snarf down chocolate cake with peppermint ice cream.  The next minute he is far away, and I know it is my turn to bring the conversation to a happy place....until he can find us again.

And yet I'm keenly aware, at the dinner table and at all times, that my efforts must match his supreme efforts to really be with the family, heart and soul, when really all he wants to do is curl up in bed and try to forget how this awful disease has taken a hold of his body and turned it into something he can't stand to live within.

If you're still with me, if you, too, are one with a hurting heart this Christmas, I want to tell you one thing: Christmas is not over.

Maybe you want it to be.  I feel you.  That was me last year and the year before.  Frustrated, cynical. Tempted to leave the Merry out of Christmas.

But, something broke through all of that this year. 

That something, call it the Holy Spirit, the fruit of prayer, or mercy, pierced through my doubting mind and my hardened heart, and reminded me that Christmas is not made of sentiment.  

It is not a Hallmark movie, our favorite tunes and a cozy fire, the hoped-for gift tucked under the tree, or even a perfectly polished life placed upon that tree like an ornament for all of our family and friends to admire.

Don't get me wrong, those lovelies are all nice, but the truth is,

Christmas isn't any of those things.

Christmas is HIM, just HIM.

It's the truth that He came for you and for me. Whether we feel it or not.  And, if for a moment you think that He doesn't love you, or doesn't understand the weight of your burdens, or can't possibly feel just how raw and real your pain is, try to remember, and then hold on to the truth that...

He came into the world in utter poverty,
in filth, it piercing cold, and he had no home.
Within moments of his birth, already His very life was in danger.

For 30 years, no one knew Him.  
He hadn't wealth or fame, or accolades - 
And He. Was. GOD!

He wept over the loss of friends, was rejected, spat on,
falsely accused, assaulted with temptations.  He was hungry,
tired, angry, poor. And He, too, desired for things to be
different, but embraced the hardships anyway.

And He held on to that cross in total freedom, in perfect Love,
not only to redeem us, but to show us how to hold on too.

So what is it that we, you and I, are enduring that He cannot possibly understand, cannot possibly love us through?  Nothing.  Not one thing.

Yes.  That is Christmas.

And I'm slowly learning, through my husband's suffering, that God will never force us to receive Him. Not as the infant lying in the manger, nor the man crucified on the cross, nor the resurrected Savior. It is up to us, through grace-filled acts of faith, to love Him in return through our trust - trust in the very purpose that God has written within our lives - even within our hardships and sufferings.

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  (Romans 5:3-5)

As much as we long to be freed of our crosses, let's us not be afraid to embrace the reality that they can have a mighty transformative power, if we let them!

The lack of this or that in my life over these past three years has served to show me not what is missing from life, but what is truly present.  
(Photo credit, unknown)
Suffering has a way of adjusting our focus and our priorities.

Some days, when I feel as though an ounce more struggle will surely break me in two, there stands beside me two chubby bare feet, two little hands clinging to my legs, two little eyes gazing up at mine, and a giggle that is so utterly sweet, I can't think of anything better.  

Joseph is the butter on my daily bread. Without the pain he would not serve as such a healing balm to my heart. Before the pain, I would not have noticed him so completely, because I would not have needed him so deeply. 

Man, am I thankful for him, for all of our children, and for every good thing in my life that I am seeing with a fresh set of eyes - and loving with greater appreciation than I ever did before.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. 
I do not give to you as the world gives. 
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  (John 14:27)

The heart that trusts is a heart that is able to experience joy, even in the midst of suffering.  Our smiles become not a mask of our pain, fears and frustration, but a sign of our confidence in the infant Jesus, in Emmanuel, God with us, in this truth: He has come for ALL OF US.

The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you;
He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged."
(Deuteronomy 31:8)

And He knows us - better than we know ourselves.  And he will never leave us. Not for a second

So, as the world around us tucks away the trappings of Christmas, let us not, you and me, say farewell to to the gift of this beautiful season.  Let us hold on to it today and in the days to come, trusting, hoping and clinging to its promises (He has come for US!), and let us hold on ever tighter in the moments when life hurts the most. 


Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Blessing Bags Project - Helping Kids Help the Homeless

"Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and 
sisters of mine, you did for me."
(Matthew 25:40)

Whether we're heading to doctor appointments, or simply wanting to check out the latest museum exhibits, there are a few streets in our neighboring city where we are certain to encounter homeless individuals.

My heart always sinks when I see the needy.  Most often, our family really tries to go out of our way to meet those people, to ask them if we can buy them a meal or anything else they may be in need of. But, when we are running late to our destination, I can't help but think to myself, I wish I had something (other than money) to give them as we're passing by.

This past fall as I was running out of Wal-Mart, late getting home to relieve the babysitter, I spotted a homeless woman wondering through the parking lot.  I had no cash, and no time to run and get her a hot meal.  As I dug through my bag of groceries trying to collect as few things to offer her, I wished I could just put my life on pause and take her across the street for a hot meal.

When I arrived home, I shared with the boys my encounter with the woman, and asked them straight up, "What do you think we can we do as a family to be more helpful?" After a little bit of brain-storming, George suggested that we make bags of small necessities that can be kept in the van and offered to the homeless whenever we are out and about.
I loved his idea.

While Steve and I are thankful that Benedict and Andrew are old enough to volunteer at a local soup kitchen, it's more of a challenge to find ways that our younger children can serve the needy, too.  This was an answer to that challenge!
George and Henry hard at work.  I love it when they don't know they're learning!

We decided to pitch the idea of creating the "Blessing Bags" to our CC community, and they graciously agreed to help out.  George, Henry and I spent just a few hours over a week's time gathering supplies, collecting donations, and boxing up all of the goods for our assembly line.
With many helping hands, our little homeschool community was able to assemble fifty blessing bags in just minutes.  All of the kids were so enthusiastic and did such a great job completing the project!

These are the items we included in the bags:

- one pair of black socks
- hand warmers
- small package of Kleenex
- toothbrush and small toothpaste
- sugar-free gum
- trail mix
- chap stick
- hot chocolate packets
- $10 Wal-Mart gift card

The bags themselves were purchased from Oriental Trading, and most other items were either donated or purchased at Sam's Club.  I also purchased some inexpensive tags at a craft store and stamped on each side of them the saying: May the comfort of God's love fill you with hope and peace. 
Thinking about making the bags with your own family, church, or school community?

Many businesses, especially big-box stores, will be happy to donate items if you request them far enough in advance. Share your story with friends and family, and more than likely someone will want to pitch in! One request that is pretty simple is for the toothbrushes and toothpaste.  Don't be afraid to ask your dentist for these items.

Just a few days after assembling the bags, I came across a very helpful article which included details on how to make care packages for the homeless.  After reading it which items are appreciated, and which ones are best left out, I felt like we did a pretty good job choosing the items for our bags, but maybe we'll consider including a few different items next year.

I hope the blessing bags can become an annual tradition for our community.  Perhaps you, too, can initiate the project in your own family, homeschool community, church, or neighborhood! 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent - It's Never Too Late To Celebrate

Yesterday was, according to my little guys, Pink Candle Sunday.  Not having any sisters, the boys have declared pink, and every shade of it, to be a girls only color.  That is why, every year at this time, in total humiliation, I must offer our priest the "forgive us our trespasses" look during Holy Mass as my boys try to contain their giggles over father's rose pink vestments.

Oy vey, and pass the eggnog.

Really, Pink Sunday, better known as Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of joy, is ever a sweet reminder for us to remain hopeful and joyful in the very meaning of Advent - adventus - coming.

He is coming!

Perhaps, if you are reading this, you might feel as though it is too late to even consider celebrating Advent with your family.  I say, it's never too late! Why? Because Advent is not about the external decorating for yet another holiday, but rather it is first and foremost about the interior disposition of the heart.

Sure, the external reminders that we place about the home, or traditions often practiced, such as the hanging of the Jesse Tree ornaments or lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath, are all wonderful, but truly not necessary for one to live fully the beauty of Advent.  Why? Because one of the primary goals of living Advent as a season of preparation (usually through sacrifice and prayer), is to foster a longing for Christ.  We await His coming.  We long for Him as the Israelites longed for their Savior.  We take the time to reflect upon our lives, to look deep inside our hearts seeking to find those very things that we may have placed there in priority above Jesus, those temporary comforts and distractions that we may have accepted as an artificial substitute for the only One that can truly satisfy.

So, here we are, just two weeks before the end of Advent and the beginning of Christmas, and I say, it's not too late to lay aside the pre-Christmas party that our culture has declared to be the norm, and begin living the true meaning of Advent!

If you are ready today to focus your mind and heart on Advent through prayer or spiritual reading, but have also resolved to make a better attempt at experiencing the Advent journey in your home next year (I do this every year!), here are just a few things to consider as we approach this holy season in 2016:

1. Silence It - Those voices in your head that you hear after reading every blog post and Pinterest page about the very best way Advent happen in your home? The ones that leave you feeling like it should be doing something more, or different, or better than the way you're currently doing it? Yeah, go ahead and shush those babies. {Struggling? You gotta read this!} 

Silence the distractions - the voices that tell you you're inadequate, the overkill of television and social media reminders of what we really need this Christmas, whatever it may be that keeps you from finding that moment of quiet where you can really hear God speak to your heart.

3. Sanctify It - Ora et Labora! Yes, this can be such a crazy busy time of year.  Maybe you're just longing to sit like a monk during vespers, completely recollected three times a day in perfect silence to pray, but if you're not wearing a habit, that's not going to happen, right?  So, we pray while we work - while we fold laundry, bake cookies, clean our homes and run the carpool.

And, if there is a moment somewhere in between all of the activity, hopefully the graces we so desperately need to help us devote those precious moments to prayer will be lavished upon us. I started praying this novena prayer a couple of years ago, and finally memorized it.  Since it is said fifteen times a day, I can meditate upon it's words while doing any of my chores throughout the day.

2.  See It - If you like, place a few reminders around your home, those special things that are meant to help keep our hearts and minds focused on the meaning of the season. But, don't feel like you have to do everything or do everything everyone else is doing! Do what is meaningful to you, and make the most of it!

I've been trying for years to be that "great" mom that make the homemade Jesse Tree Ornaments for her children, and have never even come close.  Finally, one of my brilliant offspring suggested I just buy some instead.  Genius!

In addition to the Advent wreath, our read-aloud book basket, and Jesse Tree, we're trying out two new traditions. First, the Advent Tree.  
This is a simple way to make your traditional Christmas tree pull double duty.  We strung up lights on what will soon become the Christmas tree, and then adorned it with a beautiful ribbon (thank you Hobby Lobby) that has every name of Jesus inscribed upon it. Simple! We will add our family ornaments and the angel on Christmas Eve.
Second, instead of setting out the nativity (we will wait until Christmas!), this year I created a special place on our buffet for the beautiful hand carved statue that my family gave me for my birthday. Meditating upon Mary's serenity as she cradles her son, is a reminder to me that Jesus is everything. Only in Him will I find true peace and joy.

4.  Savor It - Instead of just getting through Advent, why not to savor it?  For me this means putting the phone down, setting the camera aside (I know, it can be second nature to capture every cuteness, but sometimes it's wonderful just to let the picture leave its mark on your heart!), minimizing shopping and decorating, and saying no to unnecessary activities and obligations if I can.

Breathe in God's peace, breathe out the stress. Maybe there are only two weeks left of Advent, a time that can truly inspire a deeper longing and greater anticipation for the Christ Child in our souls, but it's never too late to make the most of it!

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

We're Two of a Kind Workin' On a Full House - Garth Brooks, Gratitude, and Lovin' Your Man

Last week, when Steve received a text from a good friend asking if we'd like to go with him and his wife to see Garth Brooks in concert, he couldn't respond "yes" fast enough!  Garth's music sat at the top of our cd stacks through high school and college.  We made a lot of memories to his music country swing dancing, road tripping, and for Steve, passing the long hours on the tractor stacking hay in the hot summer sun.

We still love to take a spin around the kitchen floor to his tunes while the kids pull k.p. duty.

One of our favorite hits from back in the day was Two of a Kind Workin' On a Full House. During our engagement, we'd talk about our dreams of raising a big family in the country on a farm, and this song became a soundtrack for that dream.
It was such a neat feeling to be standing in a sold-out crowd Sunday night, singing along to this song, Steve's hand on my expectant tummy, knowing that our house really is becoming a full one!

We talked non-stop all the way home about the concert, our favorite songs, and funny stories of our dating and engagement days.  It was truly wonderful.

Unfortunately, when we got home, the tacos I snarfed down before the concert decided to wake me up.  I grabbed my robe and snuck out to the living room, where I found a comfy space on the couch right between two Hot Wheels and an algebra book.

In the silence of the late night hours, as I waited for my stomach to settle down, I couldn't help but think back upon the day and all of it's blessings.

The afternoon prior to the concert had been spent outdoors.  We soaked in all the loveliness of the fifty-degree weather by trekking out to find the perfect Christmas tree, then Steve played basketball with the boys, squeezing every last drop of sunlight out of the day.

As I sat at the dining room table trying to whittle away at my online Christmas shopping, my attention was constantly drawn away from Amazon and out to the great intensities of both laughter and fierce competition on the basketball court.

Something inside of me felt so indescribably happy and content.
Joey getting ready to saddle up for a ride around the yard.
Rose. She's part horse, part pillow, part pooch - and not a bit the watch dog type.
I grabbed my camera and ran out to snap a few pics of the boys.  It's the every day stuff that I love the capture most.  The big events are wonderful, of course, but it's the ordinary things that I never want to forget, because they are the substance of our life together.

Somehow, as I marveled at our family from behind the lens, I knew I would need these very pictures to remind myself during the most difficult days, when Steve is feeling so terrible that both of us are challenged to remain hopeful that he'll ever be healed, that there really is is joy between the pain, and generosity within the exhaustion.
I am amazed every single day at how Steve is able to answer the call to be a father to our sons, no matter how badly the Lyme is trying to beat him up on the inside.

When I see that that kind of love, I know it's the kind of love that changes people. It makes us better, helps us to forget about ourselves, and moves us to love freely, unreservedly, selflessly.

Drawn into the memories of the afternoon, it suddenly dawned on me, as I sat curled up on the couch, arms wrapped around my expanding middle, that while I've been trying for weeks now to finish up all of the Christmas shopping, that there is one ultimate gift I need, forever and always, to give our children and that is to love their father, and to love him well.

Sometimes I feel like as a mother I can get caught up in the idea that the best gifts I can give to our family are the gifts of a perfectly kept home, remembering to make special treats for every occasion, volunteering to lead our children's activities, coaching sports....all of the things that, while are at root very good things, can make life so unbelievably crazy that I lose sight of the time and attention that those, whom I so desperately love, need and long for.

At the top of that list is my husband.

Not the kids.

My husband.

Advent is such a perfect time to take a moment to evaluate how we love, to settle our little restless hearts down, to ponder life quietly in our hearts, just as Our Mother Mary did.

This is hard for me, because I'm such a doer.  But, I would be amiss if I really believed, for even a second, that filling my heart and my time with the details of busyness will actually make me a better wife and mother.

Loving my husband through thoughtful conversation, anticipating his needs, being a good listener, creating opportunities for him to spend time with the children, complimenting his strengths in front of the children, these are the things that truly matter.  

I realize that no family is perfect, and some of you may be feeling frustrated reading this, especially if you're experiencing a difficult time in your marriage right now.  I want you to know that, as I write this, I have paused to pray for you. I want to share my deepest empathy and compassion with you, but also I want to encourage you.  Don't give up.  Keep praying.  Keep striving. Keep loving.  The Lord will honor your generosity, your love.

When you and I love our husbands well - even if it feels difficult at times, we show our children how to love.  We give them a great sense of security.  We give honor to their father, and show them how to honor and respect him, too.

Our truest love for one person, is not of a singular focus, it is a love multiplied.  It pours out over our children in the most beautiful ways, and (by God's grace and design) becomes the very best gift we can give them - now, in this Holy season, and always.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Cuisinart 8 Cup Food Processor Times Two - One For Me, and One for You!!

Something kind of awesome happened here yesterday.

While my eyeballs were multi-sensing between third declension noun endings (Latin nerds we are) and cyber Monday deals, I had one hand on the phone and the other swinging between a cold cup of coffee and a hurricane toddler.  Check-marking my way through a list of phone calls that had to be made, I finally arrived at the very last one: "Call Sur-la-Table customer service."

Ugh.  Customer service.  You never know exactly what you're gonna get served, right?

But, people, this is where the awesomeness begins.
Just before Thanksgiving, I decided that in order to keep feeding this small army of men, who are hungry 24/7, I was going to have to rethink my battle plan in the kitchen.  While there's no room for a double oven or a six burner cook top, there is room (well, I can always make room) for a few smaller appliances that can help me zip through the prep work.

With coupon in hand and a free shipping code, I ordered a new food processor...only somewhere in the whole order-pack-ship process, they thought I needed not one, but TWO food processors.  So, yesterday I rang 'em up and requested that they send me a shipping slip so that I could return the second item.

Apparently that was just too much hassle for them.

So, they told me I could KEEP IT!!!!!!!!!!

I felt like I had just won the culinary lottery.
{All Photos compliments of Sur-la-Table.}

What is one to do with two food processors, exactly?

The third born suggested that he be allowed to disassemble it and use the parts to reconstruct a robot. That seems complicated.  And, dangerous. Blades + electricity = a trip to the ER.  Let's stick with Lego's and play dough.

While the boys discussed whey they thought I should do with my bonus machine, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it, and that's to GIVE IT AWAY TO ONE OF YOU!!!

We are all so busy at this time of year, so I don't want you to waste one moment trying to figure out what you have to do to win this thing.  You don't have to "like" or follow anything! Just follow the prompts below, and be sure that I have your name and e-mail so that I can contact you if you're the lucky winner!

*If the Rafflecopter is being uncooperative, you can send me an e-mail with your info, and I'll happily add you to the entry, or message me on Facebook.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Moving Beyond Picture Books & Presents: Helping Your Teens Transition to a Deeper, More Meaningful Advent

"Look up, and lift up your heads, because your redemption is at hand (Luke 21:28)."  
This time of Advent is a time for hope.  These great horizons of our Christian vocation, this unity of life built on the presence of God our Father, can and ought to be a daily reality."
-St. Josemaria Escriva, Life is Passing By

Our family loves traditions, and never more so than those we experience together throughout the Advent and Christmas season.  Just a few days ago, I sat down to make my annual Advent checklist, which looked exactly like this (minus the cute paper and perfect handwriting, add coffee stains and purple marker scribbles, compliments of Jophis):
Over the past fifteen years, the Jesse Tree, Advent wreath, family book basket, Feast of St. Nicholas, and prayers around the nativity traditions have been a wonderful way for us to nurture a deeper faith in our children.  

In an effort to preserve this sacred time, and to truly give meaning to the season of Advent, it is our hope that our children will not just know, but understand and live Advent for that which it is meant to be - a season of preparation.

Yet, I confess, when the world around us begins to break out the Christmas decor before Halloween, it's a great challenge to draw their little hearts in away from secular influences and in toward Jesus Christ.

The challenge is becoming greater, now that we have teens in the house.

Every year I hear Christians chatting about how secularized Christmas has become, and how the season of Advent seems almost to have been forgotten.  We shake our heads, throw up our hands and wonder if it's worth all the effort to keep Christ in Christmas.

I admit, that I feel quite alone the day after Christmas when everyone else is taking down their decorations and lights.  What seems to be the end of the celebration is just the beginning for us.  We take that Twelve Days of Christmas song seriously!

While I'm convinced that those of us who long to live the seasons of Advent and Christmas to the fullest are not going to change society's perspective toward the true meaning of the holidays, we can have a strong and lasting influence within our own families, and pray that they will pass the truths and traditions we teach them on to their own families one day.

Maintaining the magical spirit of the season is simple with little ones, but for our older children, Steve and I have realized that there is a time of transition where they move from a simplistic experience of Christ's coming into a more sincere and efficacious one.
Steve reading from The Holy Mass after Sunday brunch.

Guidance through this transition requires time and effort on our part, and also an authentic example that is visible and trustworthy. Just a few of the ways in which we are forming and nurturing our teenage sons' faith throughout the season of Advent (and beyond) are:

1.  Advent is a Time of Preparation
We remind them that Advent (like Lent) is a time of fast and abstinence meant to prepare our souls for the reception our Lord.  What a great challenge this is, when typically the days leading up to Christmas are filled with abundant opportunities to indulge! Fasting, however, can come in forms other than giving up food.  The fruit of the sacrifice, whatever form it may be, is an increased hunger and longing for our Lord, as well as a humility that recognizes a real need for Him.

2.  Make Prayer a Priority
Making time for family prayer can be difficult, especially with so many activities and responsibilities weighing on our shoulders and our schedules.  But during Advent this is the one thing that, for our family, does not play second fiddle to other committments.  As Catholics, praying the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary together around the nativity is one of our favorite forms of prayer.  If it is late, and the children are restless, sometimes we say just a decade together, then Steve and I will finish the prayers together after the kids go to bed.

3.  Practice Examination of Conscience 
I have written more on that here, but for now, I'll just say that during Advent, in preparation for Christ's coming, we follow the example of John the Baptist who's message was one of conversion, of forgiveness, of repentance (Mark 1:3).  While we strive to pray an examination of conscience with the family once a week, our good night hugs to the older boys are often followed by a simple, "Don't forget to examine your conscience before you go to sleep."

4.  Read Aloud 
Our Christmas book basket is overflowing, as each year I cannot resist adding one or two new stories to the stack.  As the older boys have moved well beyond picture books, we still continue the tradition of reading aloud to them with more challenging texts.  This usually takes place after the evening meal or before night prayer.  Of course we understand that the little ones will reach boredom quickly, so they are allowed to color or play during this time.  We read for a short while and then have discussion.  It's amazing how even Henry, who is 8, and George, who is 10, enjoy participating in the dialog.

 *See list below of what we're reading this season.*

5.  Pray for One Another. 
Steve and I pray for each one of our children every day. But, when it comes to praying for the older children, I believe it's important that we ask them how we can pray for them, and also we request that they pray for us.

This is where the faith gets real.  Faith isn't comprised of a firm devotion to habits and traditions alone, it is a challenging interior work, a daily resolution to become less of ourselves and more of Christ. When we share a few of our own struggles to overcome ourselves, our weaknesses, and our defects with our sons, when we ask for their help through prayer, they see that we are sincere in preparing our own hearts for Christ.

Parents are first and primary Catechists to their children.  The most powerful lessons are always taught best through example.  Steve and I are by no means perfect in our endeavors to form our children in their faith.  But, we struggle on, as I hope you are too, trusting in God's mercy and love to guide us every step of the way.

*Any books relating to the faith, the saints, conversion stories, etc. are great, so long as they encourage discussion and contemplation. *
This book is truly a gem of a read.  While it's not necessarily specific to Advent or Christmas, I wanted to include it here, because it is such a treasure and can be read year round. Steve and I are in awe of how much knowledge and wisdom we are garnering from this little book.  It is a fantastic teaching tool for parents and catechists.

by Dr. Scott Hahn

by Dr. Ted Sri

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Husband Headlines - Broken Bones, Baby Bump, Bye-Bye Football and More

Oh, how I wish I had more time to blog (says every mama blogger on the web).  There's always a dozen stories and post ideas floating around in my head as well as pages of pictures to share, but getting them all organized in this little space can be such a challenge, especially since I haven't figured out how to type with my knees and toes.

My favorite stranger-in-the-grocery-store-statement, My your hands are full! (to which I always reply, Full of love. Full. Of. Love.) has never been more true, especially now that I spend 80% of my day holding Peg-Leg Joey.

My poor little Jophis.
A few weeks ago, a slipper slide on the playground just got the best of him. But, thankfully his little fractured tibia is nearly healed and the cast will be coming off on Friday.  For the first few days after getting the cast put on he was pretty droopy, and was only content if I held him for most of his waking hours.

*Side note: If someone could please explain to me why holding a 28 pound toddler all day does not give me the arms of a cross-fitter, I would really appreciate it.

He made a solid effort to go back to crawling, but that totally shattered his pride.  He couldn't bear the thought of reverting back to his old developmental milestones.
With brothers running mach-80 through the house, he was not about to sit back and watch everyone else shred the carpet without him.  When Steve and I caught him begin to limping around on his cast one morning, we knew he couldn't be stopped.  I wouldn't exactly say that the doctor approved of his peg-leggin' around the house, but as a father of boys, he understood that there would be no stopping him.
Whenever I leave for a run, Charlie asks, "Are you taking *our* baby out for a run, mommy? I love that even our four year old knows that there is another person with us at all times!

In other news, most of you know by now that Tenant #7 is nice and cozy in the uterine apartment. I'm happy to be through the "is she pregnant or just really enjoying pizza and beer brownies now that the marathon is over?" stage.

I don't want to scare anyone away who might possibly be open to having more than two kids, but the truth is, with every successive child after #2, you start to show much earlier than usual. And, should you be blessed with babies beyond say three or four, your uterus will develop a super-ego. Not kidding. I swear she's all, Hey, body, I've totally got this. Professional belly builder right here.(Instantly makes room for triplets).

Maternity clothes at twelve weeks? Super.

On a mixed emotion note, football season is over, and football season is over.  I'm always happy to welcome a pause between sport seasons.  It's just nice to have a couple of weeks to enjoy without the hectic practice and game schedules. But, at the same time, football is by far my favorite sport that the boys play, and seeing another season come to an end kinda makes me sad.
 Both Ben and Andrew proudly wear #24 - their father's number, of course!

Benedict played strong safety for the freshman team at his school this year, and loved it.  With 53 kids on the team, playing time was pretty divided, but he enjoyed every second that he got to play. The move up from city league competition to the high school level was quite a jump, but he hung right in there and loved being part of a winning team that plays for a school known for its great athleticism and strong commitment to sportsmanship.

Could their success possibly be because they kneel on the field in prayer before every game? Hmmmmmm......
BBL (before broken leg) sideline games.
You're goin' down, brother!  If we had to pick one man out of our gang that could make it to the college level, we'd put our money Joseph. As the youngest of 6 boys, he's no wimp!
Andrew played on both sides of the pigskin, outside linebacker and slotback.  His team is so much fun to watch.  They work really hard together as a team and proudly celebrate each other's successes. Finishing the season undefeated was a great accomplishment for them!

We all love to see Andrew run the ball, but honestly, watching him wrap up a good tackle on defense is much more exciting for me.  I admire how fearless he is on the field.
My guys.  Can't you just smell the clean?  Mmmmmm.

And, wrapping up the headlines news is the business of family pictures.  When it comes to family pics, I'm convinced that we mamas do all that planning, primping, and preparing for one person: OURSELVES.

Do you really think our husbands or kids give a hoot about capturing color-coordinated smiles and cleanliness at the same time? Nope. But for me, those precious photos are a sweet reminder that as messy and undone as real life is every day, there's beauty within and underneath it all, and I love how a simple photo has the power to capture that truth.

Thanks for checking in! I hope you're all having a fabulous week!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

An Easy-Peasy Two-Minute Updo For Short To Mid-Length Hair

This post is dedicated to my friend Lisa, who wouldn't stop nagging me last summer to make a how-to video of an updo I wore during the Edel Gathering last summer.  Because I'm technologically challenged, and because the boys would insist on contributing their favorite sound effects to the show, (I'm sure you can guess what those would be), I think a photo tutorial is our best option here.

Lisa, if you're out there, and you are bored, read this, because it's for you!!

When you have multiple babes, ponytails and updo's really are a mamas best friend.  The boys currently have me on the "4.3 minutes per day to primp" plan with zero roll-over minutes.

They're so generous.  That gives me just enough time to choose between black or grey sweats and brush my teeth. So, make-up? Nada.  Hair? Ponytail.

But, every once in a while I get sick of the ponytail and feel all, "I hate my hair" crazy, which leads me to opt for the chop. I have to say that while I've really enjoyed having shorter hair, figuring out the pony tail and updo (I couldn't give 'em up) were a wee bit tricky at first. But, I finally figured out a quick way to tame my tresses without a lot of time or fuss.

{If this updo is already on Pinterest, my deepest apologies to whomever figured it out a long time ago.  I promise I'm not robbing your fame! Take comfort in knowing that last time I checked, the number of people who actually read this blog is around somewhere between 10 and 12.}
With a little practice, some twisting, and a few bobby pins, this updo can be mastered in just a couple of minutes.  Take that, boyyyyzzz! *wink*

The best thing about this do, is that you can totally start with bed head (do I hear applause?)!! For those of you who are sipping wine (oh, you know who you are), raise your glass.  This is a toast-worthy revelation!
All those Pinterest hair tutorials with photos that start with perfectly cascading curls just make me want to cry. Why would you wreck the hair most of us only dream of having with bobby pins and hair spray?? Why???? *sniff-sniff*
If you are afraid that nothing good can come out of bedhead, then put on your queen bee t-shirt and tell that girl in the mirror she's about to make something awesome happen.

Grab a few bobby pins, some hairspray, a comb, and a hair tie - the clear ones are nice, especially if you're planning to go out beyond the mail-box today.
 *If your bedhead head hair isn't fluffy enough already, tease the roots at the crown and spritz with a little hairspray first before you begin.

/1./  Gather hair from both sides of your head, about an inch or so above the ears.  Twist once and secure with a bobby pin.

/ 2. / Taking a small section of hair from one side, pull it across the twisted section, and secure with a pin (be sure to tuck the pin under the hair so it doesn't show. Repeat from the other side.

/3./  Using a comb, slightly tease the remaining hair to give it a little umph.  Then, gather it up like a pony tail just under the pinned section of hair. Secure with a hair tie.  Take a few pieces of the ponytail and twist them in different directions, tucking the ends back into the hair tie.

/4./  Loosen any tight loops and secure with pins. You want it to look effortless and natural, but not too messy. Tuck in any crazy hairs with bobby pins and mist with hairspray to set.

*My hair is about two inches longer in these pics than when I first had it cut, and even then I was still able to work this up-do.  It just takes a few more pins.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Whole30 Friendly Coconut Almond "Cereal" ~ For the Love of My Carb-Craving Husband

Love can make a person do crazy things.  I'm talking crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy.

For example, agreeing to embark upon the Whole30 with your husband during the season where football, birthdays, and Halloween inspirations make the the diary-carb-sugar possibilities extra yummy.
{95%of husbands believe that muscle flexing will convince their wives to give up chocolate and cream in their coffee for an entire month.  Or something like that.}

As I was processing Steve's request to tackle this detachment-from-all-things-delicious-diet my pregnancy brain freaked out a little knowing that baby #7 loves to remind me of his/her presence with frequent bouts of nausea. If macaroni and cheese is the only food that sounds remotely edible at 3 a.m., then you eat the macaroni, right?

Just the thought of a slab of bacon or pound of raw hamburger staring at me like roadkill from the fridge did not have a positive effect on my gag reflex.

But, when the one you love has spent two years fighting Lyme Disease with little improvement, and he's desperately seeking a little relief from his symptoms, you don't think about macaroni or road-kill, you think about him and you say, YES.

Now, I've been through the Whole30 six times (thoughts on that here, here and here) and this is the third time partnering up with Steve. At the end of those 30 day experiences with him, I have the same conclusion about my husband: He will never, ever, ever, ever, never, give up grains.

He's just a meat and potatoes with a side of bread (like a loaf of bread) kind of guy.  And, lucky for him, his Usain Bolt metabolism can handle the same caloric intake as a horse. But, I do think the reduction of grains in his diet, helps tremendously with the inflammation in his joints.

Every night, since we've been married, he's either eaten a pb&j or a bowl of cereal before bed, but of course that's all a big no-no on this diet.  So, this time around, I thought that surely I could find a recipe that would resemble cereal in some way, and still be Whole30 approved.

Luckily, I found this recipe a few days ago, and after making a few alterations, asked Steve to give it a try. Judging by his reaction, I seriously think he fell in love with me all over again! 
If you're a lover of sugary cereals, this probably will not fulfill your every expectation for a bowl of nourishment, but since that's not the case for us, this cereal is more than satisfying.

Whadda ya pour on top?

We substitute canned coconut milk for regular milk, this is not the coconut milk in the refrigerated section (because of all of the fillers and additives, it is not Whole30 approved).

Tip: Pour a can of coconut milk into a glass jar with a tight fitting lid, add a couple of ice cubes and shake vigorously. After the milk and cream are combined, remove the ice cubes and store milk in the fridge until you're ready to use it.  A shaker bottle, the ones that come with the stainless steal ball whisk, work great, too.

Coconut Almond Cereal
- 1-7oz. bag (about 2 cups) of unsweetened coconut flakes {I like this brand}
- 1 cup sliced almonds
- Cinnamon (about a tablespoon)
- Nutmeg (about a teaspoon)
- Ginger (about a teaspoon)
- Salt (about 1/4 teaspoon)

Mix the almonds and coconut flakes together and spread out evenly on a rimmed baking sheet. Combine all of the spices together and sprinkle liberally over the top of the coconut/almond mixture.* Do not stir. Bake at 250 stirring after 5 minutes and every 2-3 minutes after until the coconut is lightly toasted. Watch it carefully, as the coconut can turn dark quickly.  Store in an air-tight container.

* Adjust the spices according to your own tastes.  For me, the more spices, the more flavorful the cereal, and most of the time, I don't measure, I just sprinkle away.  Just remember that nutmeg and ginger are very pungent, so I recommend using a significantly greater amount of cinnamon than nutmeg and ginger.

Our favorite toppings: sliced banana, fresh blueberries, sliced fresh strawberries, apple juice-sweetened, dried cranberries (in limited amounts).

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

And the Big Brother Club Gains a New Member

Hello, Joseph.  

Welcome to the Big Brother Club.

Sometime in May, you will no longer hold the title of Baby of the Family, but will move up the ranks to the honorary position of Big Brother.

Your promotion to Big Brother is a privilege, and it with it comes great responsibility.  We know that giving up your place as Baby will be difficult at times, but trust us, becoming a big brother is awesome.

Right now, as a 16 month old tot,  you have absolutely no idea what it means to be a member of something so special, but soon you will. And when the time comes, we will be right here to show you the ropes.  You're gonna be a great big bro, Joey, and one thing's for certain, you're gonna love it. 

We promise.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Running the Chicago Marathon & Why I Believe In Redemptive Suffering

I could never run a marathon. Heck, I couldn't even run a mile.
This is what most people tell me.  And what do I tell them?
 Yes, yes you could.
But, I don't say those words just to be kind, or because it's the polite response. I say them because I mean them.  And I mean them, because I believe them. And I believe them, because I have seen them to be true with my very own eyes.

Those "I could never run a mile" people were right beside me, and even up ahead of me at the Chicago Marathon.  They were ordinary people, just like you and me, all ages, all shapes and sizes, all abilities and strengths, putting one foot in front of the other one mile at a time.

Sometimes I think people have a stereotype of who runners are, and especially what they look like. But go and stand along the course of any race, and those stereotypes will be shattered.

Running a marathon really isn't all that special.  What is special is the reason why people run.  There's always that select few that are out there just for sport, to add another medal to their collection, to shatter a PR, to attain bragging rights, or the 26.2 bumper sticker badge of honor.

But, in my experience, those people are truly the minority.  The majority of us submit ourselves to eighteen long weeks of training inspired by reasons far bigger than a race, far bigger than ourselves.

Over the long, demanding weeks of training, I became very attached to those "reasons,"  because I carried them with me, every day, every mile.  Friends and family battling cancer, friends whose children who are fighting cancer, my husband and everyone out there who is enduring the horrors of lyme disease, the women who are contemplating abortion and those who suffer the traumas of abortion....the list of intentions that crossed the finish line with me was long, but I loved every one of them, and they became the very reason that I made it to the end.

It probably sounds strange to run for sake of others.  How can this even be possible? How can an intention be transformed into something tangible, something real? Redemptive suffering is a great mystery and no small topic to try to unravel.  I think it's best explained through the evidence of action rather than words.

At the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon I was humbled at the sight of a group of firefighters who ran the entire marathon in full gear.  Full. Gear.  Why didn't they just wear a fire fighter t-shirt, shorts and comfy shoes like the rest of us? They didn't do the easy thing, because, the easy thing was not enough.  

There's something within each of us that longs to unite ourselves to the suffering of others - it goes deeper than compassion, deeper than empathy, deeper than writing a check or donating to a cause. It's the willful, purpose-filled sacrifice, the taking up of the cross and placing it upon our own shoulders out of love for our brothers and sisters.

This is what Christ did. He did not wave a wand and say I have come to set you free.  He paid for our freedom, by willingly submitting himself to the agony of the cross. When we witness this kind of love, we cannot question it, nor deny it.  The desire that lies within each one of us to suffer for the sake of others, is Christ alive in us.

This is the mystery, that we can participate in His fount of love and mercy through our own suffering. And, that participation has the power to redeem not only others, but ourselves as well.  To share in the cross is indeed a mystery, but no less a gift, a very powerful gift.

For me, the discipline it takes to train for and run a marathon - the injuries, pain, and exhaustion - every ounce of it is an offering for particular intentions.  I can attach the physical sacrifice of running to my prayers, and those prayers are given a weight that deepens the intention.  A weight that they did not have before.

This unification of prayer and sacrifice doesn't just have to be in the form of running, it can be offered through any sport, through the sacrifice of time to volunteer, through fasting from food, television, Starbucks drive-thru -whatever it is that is sacrificial to you.  This is the beauty of humanity.  We are compassionate givers by nature, but the root of that desire to give is Christ alive in us, it's His grace at work, and He receives, with great joy, every tiny little bit of the offering we lay before him for the sake of others.

Last spring I was beginning to enjoy running more than ever.  This was a special joy for me, especially after having six children! It was then that I decided to sign up for the Chicago Marathon, a race I had wanted to run since college.

Also driving my ambition was the knowledge that I would be turning forty in October, the month of the race.  This was my way of telling the forties where to stick it!

When the time for the marathon finally arrived, my heart was aflame with gratitude, excitement and nerves.  I could not believe the goal I had set years ago was finally going to be actualized.  The morning of race day could not have been more beautiful.

At the half-way point of the race, I was under the two hour mark and confident that I would meet my goal finishing time.  Just one mile later, my confidence began to wither, as I could feel the ache of an old hamstring injury beginning to fire up.

No, no, no, not now.  You're fine.  You've got this, Susan.  Just keep going. You're fine.

Despite my mental pep-talks, the pain did not go away go away.  In fact, it worsened with every step. From mile fifteen on I decided to stop and stretch at every water station from that point to the finish. Resigning myself to reality, I shut my watch off, and let go of the goal time.

It became my mission just to finish.

Seeing Steve and the boys at mile 21 was such an incredible boost.  I ran over, threw my arms around Steve and fought back tears as I told him that my leg was on fire, and that I didn't know if I could finish.  He hugged me tight and told me to remember why I was running.

His words were everything.

Those reasons why I was running, the very people I wanted to help through my prayers and sacrifice helped me get to the finish.  They were my focus and motivation.

So, maybe you don't think you could run a mile....but I say you can!  And, I hope that if you do, and if you can find your reason for running that mile, and the next and the next, that you discover all of the blessings and joy that can come for running for reasons bigger than yourself.

I'd like to say thank you to everyone who was praying for me the day of the race, and also to those of you who took the time to message me good wishes.  
Your thoughtfulness was a great source of strength for me!

A little album of our journey to Chicago...

That guy behind us? That's the running stereotype I'm talking about.  Those speedsters make up about 0.043% of the running population.  I calculated it myself.

The day before the race we went to the marathon expo so that I could check in and pick up my race bib.  The expo was HUGE, the atmosphere was full of energy, and I think the boys were surprised at how many people were there - it was crazy! The highlight was seeing Team Hoyt - my all time favorite, most inspiring running story ever.

One of the most creative displays at the expo were the giant metallic block letters that spelled out WE RUN CHICAGO.  They transported the signed words to the finish line, it was an awesome display!  
Steve and I had to stand next to the "H" of course!  Do you like his shirt? I think it's been in my last five blog post.  We may have an issue here.  I promise, he does have other options in his closet.  My teen boys might be rubbing of on him, oh no!
After the expo experience, we treated the boys to the famous Chicago pizza.  I admit I cried tears of self-pity in my gluten free spaghetti while watching them shamelessly sip soda and beer with pizza sauce and cheese stuck to their chins.  These are the moments when running is stupid. 
The afternoon offered time for one big tourist event before Holy Mass.  We let the boys choose where to go, so we headed to the Museum of Science and Industry.
I was really blown away by the various fascinating exhibits at the museum.  Our favorite, though, was the feature exhibit on robots.  Andrew had a blast playing tic-tac-toe with this one.  I dont' have any pics of Ben - he's a camera dodger like his mama. But, he was there, I promise!
The evening before the marathon, we attended Holy Mass at Holy Name Cathedral.  This picture does not capture the beauty and magnanimity of the church's architecture.  After the homily, the priest gave all of the runners a special blessing.  I was really moved by his encouraging, faith-filled prayer over us.  His words completely affirmed my experience of running being spiritual.
Race morning was intense.  There's just no way to anticipate how grand the scale of this race is.  With 45,000 runners trying to stretch, fuel up, check their bags, and hit restrooms before the race, the atmosphere at the park was pretty chaotic.  This was my view at the start of the race.
Touring the city by foot was such a treat.  There was never a lack of visual interest. Chicago truly is a beautiful place to run.  Around mile thirteen we ran by a Planned Parenthood Clinic. Everything became silent for me at that moment.  I prayed so hard for the next few miles....
The entire race was charged with an indescribable energy.  With 1.2 million spectators attending, there wasn't even the slightest stretch of roadway lacking enthusiastic supporters cheering us on.  

I had heard that Chicago is a crowded race, but I didn't think it would be crowded the entire way, yet it was.  This was the only aspect of the race I did not enjoy.  Having people constantly surrounding me at close proximity made it hard for me to relax and catch my stride.

Steve bought me a really nice pair of wireless headphones for the race as a surprise, but I didn't use them for long, because the course was very loud, and there was music playing at almost every mile.
Trying to navigate the city by car along the route was nearly impossible, because so many roads were blocked off.  Steve and the boys had the brilliant idea to rent bikes and ride them to the various spots where they wanted to cheer for me.  I was so happy to get to see them four different times during the race, and they were happy to get a grand tour of some of the most historic and beautiful spots in the city!
At the finish line, I was really limping, and a very kind older gentleman (around 70, I'm guessing) offered to help me to the medical tent.  I was really touched by his kindness - especially since I wasn't the only one limping.  Thankfully, rest and a hefty dose of ibuprofen was all I really needed. When I look at this picture, I see the joy on my face is truly supernatural considering how much pain I was in. God is so good!!
My most precious "reason" of all to run. Keep the prayers coming - I hope that after my next marathon I can say that Steve has beat Lyme!