Wednesday, September 23, 2015

When Beauty Rises From the Rubble of Our Plans

I am truly honored and grateful to my dear friend, Jenny, who has kindly shared this post with her readers at her blog, Mama Needs Coffee.  Her writing is an inspiring font of both wisdom and humor, and I hope that you will visit her often.  You will not be disappointed!
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Of the many lessons motherhood has taught me over the past fifteen years, perhaps the most meaningful one is to be fully present to and embrace the little moments of each day.  Whoever said it's the little moments that make a big life spoke truth.

I pray it's a truth I can abide by, because every day I feel challenged to stay tuned in to the beauty of the life around me, especially when there are so many seemingly important distractions vying for my attention.

I was reminded of this "be fully present" truth in quite a profound way last summer. While standing at the kitchen table, upon which I was constructing freshly laundered towers of underwear and t-shirts, my task was happily interrupted when our three oldest sons burst through the front door, joyfully announcing their homecoming after being away for a week at their grandparents' farm.

In a split second, the house erupted with testosterone filled chatter.  Smiling, I made my way with arms wide open toward the sweet chaos. In that moment, the Holy Spirit took hold of my heart and fixed it firmly upon the reunion of the oldest boys with the younger ones.  The intensity of their joy was indescribable.  

Before I knew it, I was reaching out for my camera and managed to snap a few fuzzy pics (nothing works right when you're crying), hoping to capture the purity of the affection between the brothers as they delighted in being in one another's presence once again.
I've looked at these photos dozens of times since that day, with the hope of understanding, with greater clarity, exactly what it was about the reunion between our sons that gripped me so strongly.

Seeing them embrace was a transcendental moment, for sure. It was a glimpse of the eternal, and it made me feel as though nothing else in the world mattered but their love - a love whose origins are rooted in the love that my Husband and I share, a love that is fruitful only because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

In my contemplation of the photos, the word "testimony" kept coming to mind.  I wasn't sure why, but I let it simmer inside of me for a few weeks, during which I asked the Lord over and over again, why of the thousands of photos I've taken of our children is this the one that has marked my memory for life?

And, I think, perhaps that this is why...

Because, there is a testimony in those photos.  

We live in a time where, now more than ever, people hunger and thirst for a testimony of love.  I'm not speaking of romantic love here, but the love that emanates from self-gift - the real, strangely indescribable, yet beautiful love that flows forth from surrender, from struggle, from the abandonment of one's life plans for the unplanned life - the kind of love that seeks an eternal home, and awaits the ultimate homecoming.  

As a mother, I've experienced such a love of surrender in countless tangible and profound ways, and I would like to share one testimony of that love with you... 

We are a nation of planners.  It's written in our DNA. As soon as we can talk, we are being asked questions that involve the making of plans. 

What do you want to do today? Where would you like to go? What do you want to be when you grow up?

And those simple questions evolve into more complex ones, ones that look to the future, hoping that future is as bright and promising as the detailed list of goals and adventures we've carefully written for ourselves.

We plan which schools our children should attend, which activities to devote our time to, which career path to take, which person to date, which house will make all of our Pinterest dreams come true.  

We plan for the life that will bring us the most comfort, satisfaction, happiness and fulfillment, a plan that avoids pain, and embraces comfort, shirks suffering and follows the path of least resistance.

Why do we do this? Because we're human.

And, in our humanity, it's easy to believe that we know what is best for us.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that planning is a bad thing, or trying to avoid a life full of disasters and disappointments is either.  On the contrary, planning and preparing are two very good and necessary things. 

But, sometimes it's a greater good and necessary thing to let go of the script, and allow Someone else to help write your story.

Two weeks after Steve and I were married, I was pulling weeds out of the landscaping that edged the house that we were renting, when suddenly I felt dizzy, almost nauseous.  

It's just the crazy Kansas heat I told myself.  No biggie.  

Actually, it kind of was a biggie. A super-sized biggie. 

Let's just say that that same evening I greeted my hard working farmer husband with a hot plate of roast beef and mashed potatoes served with a side of pregnancy test - the plus sign kind.

Well that was not my plan!  Actually, getting married fresh out of college really wasn't part of my life plan either, but this, this was like the Lord went from using a pick-axe to a wrecking ball on my carefully orchestrated ideals .  Hasta la vista, project "Susan's life!"

I may not have known what in the world the Lord was doing with me back then, but I did know that as He was slowly loosening my grip on all of the mission work, teaching career, and travel-the-world plans that I had made for myself, He was planting a desire in my heart for something different.

What I found in that fresh desire, by way of providential circumstances and opportunities, was a great sense of freedom to open my eyes to the possibilities of a new path.  A freedom to let go of everything I thought I wanted, and the courage to hold on tightly to everything He wanted for me.

As a lover of the philosophies of John Paul II, I had deeply and earnestly embraced his words, Be not afraid, and Man cannot fully find himself except through sincere gift of himself. But, now those words were taking on new meaning, and living them in the form of motherhood was quite different than writing them down in my tidy little book of favorite quotes.

Don't get me wrong, despite the state of shock I was in over being pregnant, I was also terribly excited. Steve and I both approached the altar fully and completely open to life, and even shared a great hope of having a large family one day. I just thought we might do something crazy before having babies, like actually go on our honeymoon (yeah, there's a reason why farmers don't get married in the summer)!

I look back, with great fondness, upon those early days of marriage and motherhood, especially the ones where we were living from pay-check to pay-check, with two boys under the age of two, in an apartment complex full of exactly zero couples our age who also had children.  

We were definitely the odd-balls on the block. The other twenty-somethings all had jobs and dogs, and looked at us as if we were some unfortunate Catholic couple who was drowning in the NFP Kool-Aid.  

But, you all know that things are rarely what they seem. 

I'm telling you, we had nothing, and yet we had everything.  

There were no cell phones, or new cars, no casual dinners out, no gym memberships, no Saturday morning lattes sipped while shopping, no travel plans.  Instead, there was a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and garage sales, and bike rides, and great anticipation of daddy coming home from work because, without texting, life is full of surprises!

But, best of all, there were babies.  And, despite the fact that we were in the red nearly every single month for two years, those babies NEVER ONCE made me feel like I was missing out on something better.  I didn't know it then, but I see very clearly now, that they were the very best gift I could ever have received.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and rely not upon your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.
Proverbs 3:5

Why am I telling you all this?  Because I have a hunch that maybe there's a few of you out there who aren't quite sure if a baby or another baby is really going to fit into your plan of life.

I also have a hunch, ladies, that maybe you just need to hear someone say, I believe in you. You can do this. Don't worry about what others expect of you, what they might think of you or say about you if you welcome another child into this world.

I've been there, too - afraid, unsure, lonely, misunderstood.  I've heard the criticisms and condescension, and I'm here to tell you that every little tiny ounce of fear, every unkind word was worth enduring for these little ones!

If you are afraid of welcoming a child or another child into the world, for fear of it being too difficult, please hear me when I say that babies are not the difficult thing.  

It is the letting go of the plans we have for ourselves and the things that we think will make us happy, trusting firmly that the Father's grace is sufficient for us - that is the difficult thing.  

If we go back to Catechism 101, we learn that our goal as Christians is to know God, to love God, and to serve God so that we may be happy with him in this life and in the next.  It doesn't say anything about serving ourselves.  To serve God is not always the easy path to take, but it is the one that will truly bring about an authentic happiness, which is joy.

I put my self-serving plans before the Lord, and most of them did not match up with His plans for me.  In His will I have found great joy. Thank God. Literally.

But, the truly beautiful fruit of trust is knowing that, within the wreckage of our plans, the rubble-remains of who we were and what we thought we wanted, we will find it is the very place where Lord does His very best work.  He wants to, and he CAN, build the most beautiful life for us, if we let Him.

We have welcomed six sons through financial strain, illness, career changes, multiple moves, losses of friendships and loved ones, as well as countless adversities that I'm sure cannot even begin to compare with the sufferings so many others have endured.

And, yet, I'll say it again: there wasn't ever one moment when we felt that the burdens of life, the tears, and the anxiety would be lessened if only we had fewer children.  In fact the opposite is true. 

Children are a beacon of light in the darkness, an anchor of joy in the storm, a pure witness to all that is true and good and beautiful in this world - the very reminder we need believe that those things still exist, to give us reason to hope in God's plans for us all. 

I witness this reality day after day as our children are the greatest comfort to my husband who is fighting through a very tough battle with Lyme disease.  He has told me over and over what a gift our boys are, and what a great consolation they are to him.

At any point in time, I believe I could have tried to salvage what was left of MY life plans.  Have a little pride and save yourself, honey. Satan temps us, just as he tempted our Lord.  And, I'd be lying if I told you that I never once pondered a temporary means of escape from the heavy crosses life has asked me to carry, or thought about what my life would be like if I had chosen to turn away from God's plans for my life.

We're all free to choose how we want to live our lives, God will never take that freedom from us, because He loves us.  But, there's a greater freedom in choosing Him, in wanting to follow Him, and I suppose that's the catch.

When I look at those photos of my sons, I don't want to escape. I don't want a different life, a different story. I want to honor this testimony, to live most fully in and present to the little moments, and let God continue to do the planning - come what may.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.
Plans for welfare and not for harm, to give you a future full of hope.
Jeremiah 29:11

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Senior Pics , All Things Fluffy, & Why I'd Love to Be Jophis For Just One Day

It's been a while since I've written anything in our virtual scrapbook about our beloved Jophis, so while the kids keep snoozing, I will try to squeeze in a few details about the favorite brother of the household!  

Joey truly is the most precious little boy.  He's silly, sweet, affectionate and wild.

If I could be anyone else besides myself for just one day, I would want to be Joseph.

(Danica Patrick would be a close second.  She gets to drive a super fast car super fast every day for a living. Who wouldn't love that? I've tried driving our medium fast wagon medium fast, but apparently the police don't appreciate the fact that I'm trying to get my children to football practice on time. Sheesh. She also has amazing hair. Deep down, I've always wanted to be a brunette. And, she has killer abs.  I donated my abs to my children, and they don't seem to want to give them back.)

Anyyyyyyway.  Back to Jophis.

Here are just a few reasons I would love to live in his bare feet for just one day:
1.  Barely a whimper from that child and everyone comes running with kisses.  When I whine it's much less effective.  He's got the whole family wrapped around his chubby little finger!
2.  Double naps.  10 and 2.  Need I say more about that?
3.  He thinks everyone is so funny.  Smiles and giggles all around for everyone all day long.  I wish I could smile and giggle at everything, particularly the three shattered family picture frames that mysteriously fell off the wall last weekend while the boys were doing absolutely nothing.  I love how nothing has the power to break everything in my house.

Steve and I think he might have a career in plumbing:
Serious faucet obsession.  Turning the knobs off and on does keep him entertained while I attempt to get ready in the morning, so this current interest is very beneficial for both of us.
There's also modeling.  We call these his senior pics:
He was having fun posing for us during half-time of one of Benedict's football games.  We kept cracking up at all of his funny faces.  These are the times when we would really, really love to have another baby.  Babies bring so much joy to the entire family.  They are such a wonderful gift.
 I think there's someone behind us! Whatever you do, George, don't. move. a. muscle.  
Whew, that was a close one!
Check out that hair.  If you can imagine, it's about an inch longer all around right now than when I took this photo.  He's rockin' a serious mullet.  His hair is so long and unruly, the boys think he looks like Donald Trump.  We've added Don-Don to his long list of nicknames.  I think I'm going to have to let go of those baby locks (sniff) and give him a hair cut.
His current favorite game is hide-and-go-seek.  Sometimes we'll walk into a room and find him perched in the middle of the room exactly like this.
There he sits, all alone, patiently waiting for someone to find him. 
If plumbing and modeling don't work out, there's always interior design:
As long as you don't mind every single thing in your house being plush and made out of some type of fleece.
I think it was ninety degrees in the house the day I snapped this pic, and we were all sweating.  I was sweating extra sweat just watching Joey wrap that purple furnace around himself. 
He's also become quite fond of swinging.  The boys love to take take him outside and play with him on the swing set.  He's very entertained watching them do stunts and tricks around the yard. Being on the swings makes him feel like he's one of the big guys.

I'm definitely not ready for that!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Epic Silly String Ambush & Other Jewels From the Mercy Baby's Birthday

On Sunday we celebrated Henry's 8th birthday. I will always and forever look at Henry and see him as my mercy baby.  The night before I was to be induced (all of my babies insist on being fashionably late) Steve and I went to the adoration chapel to pray.

Nearly two weeks overdue, I was exhausted and so very ready to be done with pregnancy, but I did not want to be induced.

I knelt down, and with absolute abandon, begged God for the mercy of a short labor, and that my labor would begin naturally.  Three hours, I told Him, I can handle three hours, but nothing more. I'm not sure why I was so specific about the three hours. I suppose sometimes we pray for certain things without knowing exactly why.  We just pray.  And hope. And wait.

I was due to be induced at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, and at 5:00 a.m. set out to walk the dark halls of the hospital with my rosary and a lot of determination.  After about thirty minutes of shuffling, the contractions began.

Exactly three hours later Henry was born.  When the nurse announced the time of birth, I burst into tears.  I was already emotional at the sight of my sweet miracle, but when I realized it had all happened in exactly three hours, I began to sob.

I hadn't told a single soul about my prayers, even Steve didn't know. After I explained everything to him, we were both overwhelmed with emotion.

It was such a joyful time. I will never, ever forget the way in which I experienced God's mercy and love that day!

Henry's happy entrance into the world was just a preview of what was to come. He brings so much life and enthusiasm to our family.  Every day he hugs me several times, and often throughout the day, we will hear him laughing out loud at something or someone he thinks is terribly funny.  His laugh is incredibly contagious!

The look of total surprise on his face with every single gift had us all in stitches!
Birthdays are becoming a really big deal around here. The boys spend a lot of time planning and thinking about what they want to do for the special person weeks in advance.  I love the way they plan "secret" meetings with me to see when I might be able to take them shopping.  The older boys like to order gifts from Amazon, and wait in great anticipation for those gifts to arrive.

I gotta be honest, they make birthdays so great for each other, it really takes the pressure off of the parents!

Even better than the gifts the boys give each other are the pranks they come up with. I really love this aspect of mothering boys.  They have taught me a lot about the way boys relate to each other and how important their crazy ways of interacting are for building relationships.

Being ornery and teasing is one way that boys bond, and I love watching them grow closer with every hilarious stunt!
Andrew's idea to do a silly string ambush on Henry went over famously with the brothers. After Mass Steve lured Henry outside with his eyes closed, telling him that one of his gifts was waiting for him in the back yard. He put a silly string can in Henry's hand, and told him it was his "weapon of defense."

The boys darted out from under the deck and the battle was on! For three minutes everyone went absolutely wild, and then the string ran out. But, oh, what a grand three minutes it was!
They are already starting to scheme an even better plan for Andrew's birthday, which is coming up soon.

After the silly string war, Steve fulfilled Henry's birthday wish by taking him golfing for the afternoon.  Golfing is usually an activity reserved for the older boys, so it meant a lot to Henry to be able to have that special time with dad.
Last, but not least, there was pizza for supper and birthday cake.  I really like how dark this photo is, because that football cake, which was supposed to be "easy," didn't turn out so hot.  But put enough chocolate butter cream frosting on anything, and nobody cares what it looks like, right?

It's so easy, in the day-to-day happenings of ordinary life, to forget about the ways God answers our prayers, whether they be big or small.  But as long as I live, Henry will forever be my mercy baby, a flesh and blood reminder of God's gift to me eight years ago.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Labor Day Weekend at the Lake ~ Plus a Few Thoughts on Leisure & the Glorification of Busy

Happy Tuesday Wednesday, Friends!

How was your Labor Day weekend?? Did you do anything special?

We went to the lake to be lazy for a couple of days, and therefore I'm a day {and three-quarters} behind. Long weekends are dangerous like that!

In fact, the little bits of rest and relaxation that I was able to snag, in between zipping up life jackets and doling out snacks, felt so wonderful that I am convinced that we need more R & R in our lives. Not necessarily in the form of trips, but simply in minutes or hours that are not spent working, doing, planning, focusing, practicing, or preparing for the next goal or task.

We just need time to BE.

Those moments are so difficult to find, aren't they?
Last summer I saw a boy wearing a shirt that said, "If you're 15 minutes early to practice, you're late.{I don't know who in the world made that rule, but he obviously never had his mother drive him to practice.}

This may be the work harder philosophy, the one that has turned two hour practices into three and rolled them on into the weekend, that makes winners out of our kids, but I'm not sure it's a philosophy that I want to subscribe to.  It sound a lot like burn-out to me.

It's not just the philosophy of the sporting world, though, it's become the philosophy of everything - we put in longer hours at work, at school, at organization meetings, at church, and every single one of those things seems dependent upon our ability to sell trash bags or cookie dough in order to keep good going, which is another HUGE time suck.

I think, for myself anyway, it's becoming more and more important to discern what is the highest and worthwhile value of my time, of our family's time, because there is so very little of it here on this earth.

At the lake I was reminded of the truth that when all of my thoughts and energy are focused on the work I have to do, (or think I have to do) there is little time left over to pay attention to, to be mindful of, to appreciate all of the beauty and goodness that is right in front of me.

Removed from the demands of labor, suddenly the simplest things become so wonderfully fulfilling - the glow of sunshine dancing on a child's hair, sparkling dew on a spider web, leaves beginning to give way to autumn, the exact sound of each and every one of my childs' laughs....

One of the best books I read during my college years was Joseph Pieper's Leisure Basis of Culture. My experience of the weekend away reminded me of a quote from the book:

“Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.”  

I can't stop chewing on those words.  

How much of our work is done simply to justify our existence, to feel productive, to feel useful, to show others what we're capable of doing, to convince ourselves, through our successes, that our lives have value and worth?

Am I passing this along to our kids? It's not WHO you are, but what you're capable of DOING that matters??  

I think I need to pull that book out again and give it a little re-read.  In the mean time, how about we just set the philosophy aside for a bit and just chill with some lake pics?

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While at Beaver Lake, we stayed at an amazing cabin nestled up on a hill just a few strides from the shoreline.  VRBO is an awesome accommodation resource for big families (all 14 of us!).  It's a sucker-punch to those teenie-weenie overpriced hotel rooms.
One of the best features of the home we rented, besides the spectacular view of the lake and beautifully spacious interior, was that we had access to our own dock.

This was super convenient for Sir Joseph, who very muchly needed his afternoon siesta, because being captain of the boat is hard work, y'all.
El Capiton himself (who was pretty sure that he was the right man to steer our ship)!
I've totally got this, guys. Let's see, just a little to the left.  Awww, yeah.
Ladies, please.  I'm trying to focus here.
Last year Joey was just a wee-little newborn who slept away the hours in the boat.  Not this year!

I like playing resident photographer whenever our family travels, but I was kind of lazy over the weekend and only took photos one day out on the lake.

*We* did a lot of swimming. The adult version of this activity would be floating...

Charlie was so comfortable in the water this year! He loved zipping on his "angel wings" and jumping off the boat into the water all by his big self.
And 27,000 dives later he still asks me to "watch this one!" Margaritas anyone?
And also there was some proving of manhood....
Pardon me, ladies, but if you don't mind, I'm gonna go ahead and jump of this cliff while you stand around and chat about whose tattoo is purdiest.
I'm not sure which was worse for my nerves, watching my children jump off a fifty foot cliff, or worrying about the stranger danger up there on the edge.
George was the first one to run to the top, which surprised exactly none of us.
 The cool, casual high-schooler, just takin' his time, thinkin' it over.
Riding the boat across the lake was one of the high points for me.  I discovered that it really is possible for my children to sit down and be quiet, for more than thirty seconds.  Glorious! 
At least one muscle flexing pic is mandatory.
Geesh. All this doin' nuthin' stuff is exhausting.
In case you were wondering, that smile says FUN!!

Papa taking a break from Lyme disease to show off for Mama. 
Let's play Name That Movie. 
Jack and Rose on the Titanic? C'mon you guys!

And the highlight of lake life? Tubing!...
Our resident suckers.
I'm only gonna say this one more time: lean left!
Monday morning, as we peeled ourselves away from the shore and piled up in the car for the journey home, Joseph felt it was an appropriate time to begin cutting his molars.
Captain Joe-Joe did the snooze thing for about 30 minutes, and then proceeded to cry every single second of the remaining four hour trip home.  Sigh.

Thanks for "easing" me back into reality, Lord! *wink*