Friday, October 30, 2009

Red Trees

I had a big imagination. Okay, so I think they call it delusions of grandeur. I was nineteen and heading off to my semester in Rome, Italy. My high school boyfriend had broken up with me. Like all hard times in my life, I felt close to God. I felt particularly close this time, like if I turned around quickly, I might see my Guardian Angel.

It was a sign, my boyfriend breaking up with me. A sign, I thought. I am called to be a missionary, a nun, something holy. I was ready to give up everything for God and become famously holy.

Then I landed in Rome: The Papal City, the Catacombs, the Coliseum where so much blood had been shed for Christ. My class was even granted a private mass with John Paul II. I spoke to the Pope, gave him flowers. He said, "You do not look old enough to be in college." And what did I feel...Nothing. I was having the longest driest spell of my young life.

We visited Assisi, the home of my favorite Saint, St. Francis. And what was the homily? The duty of the rich to the poor. What? I am willing to give up everything, all material possessions, marriage, family, everything and you are giving me 'duty of the rich to the poor'? And what was the response?...Nothing.

Toward the end of the semester, we were reading The Book of Job in literature class. I wasn't really paying attention. I was flipping through the bible trying to get my silent God to say something, anything. To feel something, anything. I flipped to the Psalm of the Happy Man. I paraphrase:

The happy man is like a tree near ever running water whose leaves are always green.

Isn't that just like God? I thought. A happy tree is red. The first red tree of fall standing out like a beacon amongst the still yet green on the side of a mountain.

And then I understood. I felt something, I knew something. "You will not be a red tree and be happy. I could make you a red tree, but you would loose your soul. No, my child, you will be green. Your roots will be deep, but you will look like every other tree on the mountainside. This is how you will be happy, you whose leaves must always be green. You think you know what makes you happy, I know."

And He does, doesn't He? He always knows and sometimes we don't.

I still love red trees best. Sometimes I still want to be one. But I know that I would not be happy, at least not for long. As delusions of grandeur fade with youth, I just hope what I thought I knew, thought I felt in Rome comes true. I hope my roots will grow deep even if He is the only one who knows.

Monday, October 26, 2009

More 'bout Books

I have two prior posts that deal with Children's Literature: The Story of Childhood and Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales (June Archive).

I did not decide to become a teacher until after college. This was in part due to the one Education Course I took at the college level: Children's Literature. It was an excellent class and the teacher was a legend in her field. I did well in the class. This had more to do with my love of story and the fact that our final exam included writing our own children's book, than with the fact that I mastered the course content. The main goal was to teach us to judge what was good children's literature.

I didn't get it. Good Night Moon? What? Why was this a classic? Even Madeline seemed more like an outline than actual story. Books I did love would be classified as appealing to adults, but not to children. Completion of the course left me feeling inadequate to the task. It also made me aware of the enormous responsibility one took on in teaching a child to read. I did not want such an awesome responsibility.

When I did decide to go back to school to get certified, I chose Secondary Social Studies. I wanted to stay as far away from teaching reading as I could. Fate has a sense of humor. My fourth and last paying job put me back in Middle School, where I had always loved being most, teaching Reading and Language Arts.

In this job, I had the opportunity to take a summer course at NYU on the Reading and Writing Workshop. Having taught for four years, I had more confidence and fell into a job that combined my favorite age with what had always in fact been my passions: books and writing.

I still think it is nearly impossible to teach a course on the assessment of Children's Literature in the classroom setting. To really do this well, you need children. It was not long after I had my own, that I got why Good Night Moon, Madeline and all the others were Classics. You only have to read Green Eggs and Ham or Are you my Mother once to a child to get it. And you will never actually be able to read it just once but will be required to read it again and again and again.

I am moving through the spectrum from Classic Picture books to Juvenille Literature along with my kids. I am learning through trial and error what appeals to children, what is readable and what is read over and over again. Because my older children are boys, I am more aware of what is appealing to boys at this stage. (Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tales).

I have two new series to add to the list.

We grabbed a book on tape at our last Library visit: Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins. It was a huge success. We have listened to it three times since last week and my son read 100 pages of the second book in the series in one day. There are five books in this series. We can't wait to get through them all.

While purchasing the second of the Gregor series at our local book store, the saleswoman recommended a similar series: Percy Jackson and the Olympians By Rick Riordan. We are now listening to the first book, The Lightening Thief. Based on the Greek Gods, this is already proving to be a family favorite.

I love finding good books. I almost like finding things my children love as much as I love finding my own, often they are one in the same. While I am at it, I might as well throw in my new favorite book: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It is, in fact, marketed as a children's novel. It is set in Nazi Germany and told by the Grim Reaper. Its content is a bit too much for my current fourth grader, but it is a book I will love forever. I will for sure introduce it to him at a later stage.

Fall is a great time to read. A cozy fire on a dreary day, under a colored tree on a sunny day: It is sublime. All you need is the good book. If you are looking for some suggestions for your children, check out my other posts or find Gregor and Percy. You may find something they like. Chances are that you will have loved it too, or you will now. Some things, even children's literature, are better with age.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Food for Thought

I have written here before about why I home school (The Home School Why/July Archive). It may be a different reason than most suspect. In a nut shell it is because I like being around my kids. I am a typical extrovert. I love being around people, get energy from crowds, do well with managed chaos.

While reading a post and comments on a friend's blog ( Sweet Surprise not so Sweet, I was forced to contemplate a drawback to homeschooling. The discussion was about High Fructose Sugar. The drawback may not be what you suspect. When you home school, there is no school lunch.

As homeschooling Moms, we are free to set priorities for our children. This is an incredible benefit, especially with regard to curriculum. As primary teacher, we pick where to put the academic emphasis. For me, the emphasis has always been on Reading and Religion. Our home is so full of books, we are running out of shelves. There is a book on tape playing at almost any free moment of the day. We get several children's magazines a month. I have no problem "setting the example" by letting my children see me reading on a regular basis.

I believe that video games and too much TV hinder a child's ability to develop good reading habits and make limiting these activities in my children's lives a priority.

Religion is primarily character building. Along with knowledge of their faith, participation in the Sacraments, and daily prayers; the day to day struggles of instilling the values of justice, charity, honesty, selflessness, prudence and temperance fall under one of my main priorities.

My point is that I find it easier to work into my routine, those things which I have made a priority. The problem is, there are other things that are important that I don't have the energy for at the end of the day. The main thorn in my side is food.

It should be a priority. I despise picky eaters. I have an intolerance to milk and absolutely hate the fact that I am not at liberty to eat everything I am served by a host. For my children to refuse food prepared by me (or more importantly another) for no good reason is infuriating. But in truth, I know why it is not a priority. While I despise pickiness, I am not a food lover. Dinner out is never about the food for me, but the company and conversation. I get little pleasure out of food itself. I never eat breakfast and most days eat the left overs on my children's plates after lunch.

I know why I want my children to treasure reading and their faith. I can't imagine my life with out a love of books and Catholicism. These two aspects of my life, often intertwined, fill my days with pleasure, guidance, food for thought. I don't want my children to miss the benefits I have enjoyed. If it were possible, I can imagine my life without food.

My kids are active and healthy. It is a joke that my brother's kids, who are the best eaters in the world, catch everything going around, while my kids are saved from most bugs because they are filled with so many preservatives. I can't use their health to motivate me because they are not unhealthy. I can't find the means to get motivated to make this a priority.

It is in part because I have tried and the amount of energy, discipline and time it takes to really put into place a system that would force them to be good eaters is enormous. This is in part because we home school. If I were sending them off to school, starving them into eating what is served or not eating for 8 hours would be built into their day. But they are home, so I have to monitor their every minute. If I say no eating breakfast until you finish last night's dinner, I have to guard the kitchen until it is accomplished.

I can control what is in my home, and I do. I actually had to get rid of bagels and peanut butter because my oldest ate ten a day. It is not the junk food, it is the okay food. How do you get rid of bread and milk? Cheerios aren't bad, but if they are there, they are eaten all day long when there is not an other acceptable option for my second.

I don't have the energy, but after the discussion on High Fructose Sugar, it was clear I really need to do something. At this point, I just don't what to do. I have been child rearing long enough to know it takes two weeks of constant attention to get rid of most bad habits. I don't think I have two weeks in me for this. Short of putting a pad lock on the pantry, I am at a loss.

Let me add, just to make myself feel better, that my girls are great eaters. The only credit I can take for this is that I had already ruined my boys by the time they were three. I did do things a bit differently with the bottom half. I did not start feeding the girls solid food until they reached up on the table and grabbed it. We skipped the baby food stage. I was so uptight during the babyfood stage with my boys about doing something wrong, I probably contributed to (or created)their neurotic tendencies.

So if you have been there done that, I would love your advice. Or, I guess if you want to get me a pad lock for Christmas, I will take the hint.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In Defense of Halloween

I love Halloween. I always have. The beautiful setting of the colorful leaves of fall, the harvest time of pumpkins and apples, the crispness in the air. Being born with a theatrical nature, I adore costumes, makeup, wigs, hats and props. And of course as a child, who didn't love the candy.

I always loved being Catholic on Halloween. Because it is the Eve of All Saint's, a Holy Day of Obligation, we did not have to go to school on the day following the night's festivities.

Throughout my life, I have encountered other Christians who do not share my love of All Hallow's Eve. Some try to temper the day by banning the ghostly and ghastly costumes or having Saint costumes in lieu of Disney Characters and Super Heroes, others call it the Festival of the Harvest, still others refuse to participate at all. I respect their right to celebrate whatever Holidays they choose, but I believe that Halloween is in fact a Very Christian holiday.

I think it is important, for the benefit of our children, to examine the Christian nature of this wonderful time of year. What exactly are we celebrating? What are all the ghosts, goblins and jack-o-lanterns intended to bring to our mind?

Prior to the Risen Christ, death was scary. In fact, after the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, death had won an incredible victory. Satan had tempted God's most precious creatures into abandoning His presence to walk on their own. The victorious Satan had helped to banish man from Eden. But God in His goodness placed an angel to guard the Tree of Everlasting Life. Though man had eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the belief that such power would allow him to define what is good and evil rather than follow the objective laws of God, the angel with his sword would prevent him from returning to make his punishment everlasting.

God would win in the end. Man's fall from Grace would not be eternal but would be remedied by the Incarnation. Christ's death and resurrection changed death forever. On Easter Sunday, death ceased to be a victory for Satan. Christ conquered death.

The laughing face of the Jack-o-lantern symbolizes this fact. He is laughing at death. He knows that death no longer holds the place of victory. Death is no longer an enemy of the living, but the means to eternal life with God. The candy is the representation of the sweetness of that life everlasting.

The ghosts, goblins, grim reapers are also a big joke. They no longer hold any power over the living because of the love of the risen Christ. We let them pretend on this one night to still have some power over us, but we are laughing at them as we do the jester on their right and the harlequin on their left.

With the rising of the sun on November 1, we begin the celebration of the Saints in Heaven: Those who have conquered death and are now in the eternal presence of God. The following day, we celebrate the Feast of all Souls. The day we dedicate to prayers for those who have died and are being purified in purgatory in order to meet their Lord and Savior.

Halloween is the first celebration of this trilogy. We mock death, celebrate eternal life, and pray for the salvation of our fellow man. All three together present an opportunity for us to reflect on our own Christian life. Halloween reminds us of the opportunity we now have because of the gift of the Risen Lord, All Saint's reminds us of our goal of everlasting life and how it is now attainable, All Souls reminds us of our need for atonement and grace to live forever in the presence of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Halloween is a celebration, not of evil, but of the conquering of evil by Christ. It is at its heart a joyful celebration of Christ's victory over death. We, like the Jack-o-lantern can now see the joke. We can laugh with the Saints in heaven, for we as Christians know, God is the final victor and we the beneficiaries.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Walmart Scrooge

I am sure you have seen one of the series of e-mails of Walmart photos going around, perhaps you have visited the web site. Let me state up front, I know I am going to be accused of being a curmudgeon with no sense of humor. Maybe, just maybe, I may hit on a little tinge you too felt. Or, perhaps I AM a curmudgeon with no sense of humor.

The photos, all of them, ARE ridiculous. You can't help but laugh or stare in shocked horror at many. Even "better" are the incredibly clever comments people write to accompany them.

BUT, I have to admit, looking at them makes me uncomfortable. Laughing at them makes me feel guilty.

We took a trip to Chicago when I was about ten. We were looking for a restaurant. We would stop and view the menus posted outside the doors. My father was in shock at the prices of a BLT. Just then a homeless man came up and asked us if we had a bit of change to spare. My father laughed and making a joke about the cost of a lunch in Chicago said, "Not in this town." We all laughed. Well, almost all of us.

Let me clarify that my father was not an ungenerous man. My mom had told us stories of how he would take homeless men to lunch with him when he was younger and lived where there were actually homeless people. In our small town, it was not something one would see very often.

I had a quarter in my pocket. I wanted to give it to the homeless man. I don't think he got my father's joke. It was my young opinion that he thought we were laughing at him. I fumbled with my quarter wondering what to do. He turned and looked my way. The sadness in his eyes at being the butt of some joke he didn't understand has stayed with me for nearly thirty years.

As he walked away, my laugh turned to a lump in my throat. I didn't even eat lunch when we finally found a place we could afford. My stomach felt too sick.

In my mind, I see those faces of the Walmart Shoppers after the camera has flashed. I cringe to think of them coming across themselves on the internet and not getting the joke.

I am not trying to make you feel guilty if you laughed at the photos or if you think they are the funniest thing out there right now. I am really not. I wish I could laugh too, and I do appreciate the wit of those posting the comments. But I promised myself way back when I was ten, that I would never again laugh at someone who was down on his luck. Because even though we weren't really laughing at him, I never had the chance to explain. One set of sad eyes of a stranger locked in on me is enough.

So, perhaps I am a Scrooge. I don't mean to be. But unless laughter leaves me feeling happy, I'd rather not laugh. And laughing at the Walmart shoppers taken unawares just leaves me sad.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hopes, Dreams and Fears

As a writer, I hope for one great line. One memorable, beautifully written line that states the complex so simply it speaks to the past, present and future. A string of words that expresses a truth in a way never done before and that lingers in the mind of the reader forever.

Okay, so I hope for one great character too. A character that is beloved from the first page until the reader's dying day. A character that plays his role in that one great novel of my dreams that must be inside of me somewhere waiting to emerge.

I don't hope for much do I? A girl can dream can't she?

I have been thinking about one such line stated by one such character in one such novel. Shakespeare's Cordelia in King Lear... The Counte of Monte Cristo by Dumas' novel of the same name... Odysseus in Homer? You ask.

No, actually, I have had a line from Peter Pan moving through my head, down to my heart and back up again. I have loved Peter Pan for as long as I can remember. His ability to fly, his crow, his baby teeth, his attitude, his eternal youth. Who can not fall in love with Peter?

I have a secret to tell. I did not read the book until a few years ago. Actually, I lie even now. I did not actually read the book, but listened to the unabridged version on CD with my children. We all know the book is better than the movie, it always is. If you loved Disney's Peter, I highly recommend reading (or listening) to J.M. Barry's original.

The one great line, the line I love, the line that is in my heart and head is not part of Disney. It is because of lines like this one that it is a tragedy that many settle only for screen versions of Classic Literature.

Get on with it already, you say. Tell us the line. Tell us what he says that rivals Homer and Shakespeare. I will but first I have a question for you:

Are you afraid of death? Do you feel the heavy hopelessness of those around us who do not believe in an afterlife? Do you worry that even though you believe, believe, believe, at the hour of death, you will freeze up and be gripped by the terror of the unknown? I do. I think we all must at some point. For some it is a fleeting fear, for others, it is a life time struggle resulting in the desire to live at all costs for all time.

Isn't this one of the reasons we love Peter? He never grows old. He will live forever.

Okay, to the line:

Hook says to Peter, "And now, Peter Pan, you shall die." To which Peter Pan, eternal youth and joy, responds, "To die would be an awfully big adventure."


...To die would be an awfully big adventure... Two thousand years of Christian Theology in eight words from the beloved boy who fell out of his pram and went to live with the faeries in Kensington Gardens before settling in Never Land.

...To die would be an awfully big adventure...

Maybe I will change my hopes. Do I really care about one great line, one great character, one great novel? Maybe. I can still dream. But just let me face death like Peter and that will be enough.

Monday, October 12, 2009

This one's for all the girls...who are waiting

Being pregnant sucks. It is hard especially if like me, you add an extra 60lbs. to a 115lb frame. My feet hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurts. Delivery is a pain, pun intended. I will not even go into the details of a fourth degree tear and a bruised tail bone.

Boy, those moms who adopt have it easy. You can drink like a fish, stay up as late as you choose with out paying double the next day, heck, you can sleep on your stomach every night of the year. You don't need a new over sized wardrobe or one of those little donuts to sit on for a month after your baby comes home.

Why doesn't everyone just skip the whole pregnancy thing and adopt? Well, there is a reason. It is a secret we in the adoption world know:

Waiting to adopt sucks. It is hard, especially if like me, you add an extra 60lbs of stress to a 115lb frame. Your head hurts, your neck hurts, your shoulders hurt. Waiting is a pain, pun intended. I will not even go into the details of a torn and bruised heart.

There is no forgetting you are pregnant. Your body reminds you of it everyday. But there is a plus to all that. Knowing you are with child means you know where the child is. He is there with you, all day long as you walk around with an aching back and all night as you toss and turn trying to get comfortable.

All you have to do is reach down and touch your skin stretched stomach. You can't see him, but you know he is there: listening, growing, waiting to emerge into the light of your life. He is 100% in your care.

Adoption doesn't provide such comfort. For the longest time, you just wait. You have nothing to hold on to except the knowledge that you are in the pipeline moving closer day by day to the top of the list. You can't even count the calendar as your friend. There is no 42 week guarantee with adoption. They say two months, then it becomes four, then it is a year and counting. It is like giving birth to an elephant. And that doesn't even count the months needed to prepare everything to get your spot in line.

Then you get your referral and a bit of the weight comes off. You have a picture, a name, a small bit of history. You can't reach out and touch anything real, but you hold your photo close and say the name in your prayers.

You have a face in your dreams but not within your reach. Your child is 100% dependent on someone else for his care. You pray he is being held, fed, comforted when he cries. But you don't know. You just don't know, for he isn't there, with you. He is far away across the ocean.

The joke is told that if men had babies, everyone would just have one. It is true that the pain of being pregnant and the agony of delivery is all but forgotten in a very short time for us mothers. Strange how we will never forget the smallest slight to our children by another, but the incredible pain of bringing him into the world floats away like a bad dream in the morning sunlight. The love in our heart leaves no room for anything else.

This too happens in the world of adoption. The time finally comes, you pack your bags and travel half way across the globe to meet your child. You bring him home and realize a few weeks later that your shoulders are no longer stuck to your ears. There will be stress filled days and nights to be sure, but the incredible anxiety of bringing him into your world floats away like a bad dream in the morning sunlight. Your heart is too filled with love to leave room for anything else.

When you become pregnant, you know, God willing, you will have a beautiful child in your home in the not too distant future...

When you choose to adopt, you know, God willing, you will have a beautiful child in your home in the not too distant future...

And then the not too distant future becomes the not too distant past, and you can't remember your life before he came...

Guilt Free and Artistic

Though some might call me crafty (in more ways than one), no one would ever use the word artistic in a list of adjectives describing me. One of the major art mediums we use around here is cutting out shapes and gluing them to paper to create faces, dogs, trees, fairies, etc. I can handle shapes and it is the perfect project for young children.

I just discovered an incredible way to make these projects even better: Magazines. Using a blue sky to make eyes, hair for hair, garden scenes for fairy wings, a tomato for lips, all the colors of the rainbow for clothing, glossy skin (which is in quite an abundance in even the most boring of magazines) for noses, ears, legs and arms. The possibilities are endless: A leather chair for the boxcar of a train or a puppy, a wheat field for a sunshine. Don't forget gum wrappers for wands and stars and paper bags for tree trunks.

The results are really quite artistic if you ask me. It gives the simple project a depth and beauty, and though it is still probably considered an abstract work, it has a realism not managed by the use of plain old construction paper.

It is also good for the conscience. As we are bombarded by requests to be "green" and to save our planet from every angle under the sun, you can feel good about reusing paper and perhaps saving the trees. Having your children do such a project will allow you to continue to use more than one sheet of toilet paper guilt free.

We have just completed a gorgeous fairy with a combination of green and fall colored wings, flowing blond hair and a dress with a beautiful purple bodice and sleeves. Now I am can go and finish my fall cleaning, filling my trash cans with mounds of junk to put on the curb this week sans the normal guilt I am forced to feel by the amount of trash generated by a family of six.

Who would have thought a simple art project designed by an utterly non-artistic, ultra conservative could accomplish so much beauty and good in the world by 9:00 am.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Left To Tell

For those in the Kansas City Area, Immaculee Ilibagiza will speaking at Rockhurst High School on October 14 at 6:00 pm. She is the author of the book Left to Tell. A survivor of the Rwandan genocide, she speaks on peace, faith and forgiveness.

For those not in the area, the book is worth reading. She survives the majority of her family by hiding in a tiny room with seven other women. They can hear the killing going on around them and are in constant fear for their own lives and virtues. She manages to keep her sanity in the midst of such horror and insanity through prayer.

The story is told in her own voice. The contrast between her simplicity in describing events most of us will hopefully never live through and the atrocities she describes is a moving look at history in the not too distant past.

Her ability to forgive and move beyond all that she has witnessed is an incredible tribute to the gift of faith and to the human spirit's love of life.

In the wake of the incredible joke that the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barak Obama has become, Immaculee sets an example to all of us of the real means to peace in our world. It is through forgiveness that we find peace and that we are able to bring peace to the world.

I guess President Obama should be given some credit (though I am sure he even agrees not the Nobel Peace Prize) for initiating dialogue by apologizing for our country for everything from slavery to supporting Israel to the Iraq War and Guantanamo. But even if he has a reason to apologize, these mea culpas will never bring about peace. Peace does not come from the apology, it comes from the victims' forgiveness and the willingness to move beyond the past into a future free from bitterness.

Like Immaculee who had so much more to forgive than most of us will ever confront, may we spend some time today forgiving. And remember that sometimes, the person we must start with is ourselves. For the Catholic, it is the beauty of confession. A time to confront our own weakness and ask for forgiveness. If the author of life can forgive me, surely I can forgive myself and those who have wronged me.

Tonight, after my nightly examination of conscience, I think I will try to forgive the Nobel Peace Prize committee for embarrassing our president and for tarnishing an award won by many who deserved its accolades.