Homeschool transition 

Good morning,

This is a blog to update you on why I haven’t been blogging, silly as that seems. As some of you know, we are moving from our small house in St. Paul to a small town named Isanti (still in Minnesota) where we are building a house (or having one built for us, rather). I haven’t been writing lately because on top of Dylan working a lot, we are homeschooling and that is keeping me busy and SUPER overwhelmed. 

We decided that Catholic School is too expensive for us, especially with building a brand new house. And you couldn’t pay us to put our kids back in St. Paul Public Schools (literally). If you are curious about why I feel so strongly about our district’s public schools, this is an editorial with some of our final experiences (the straws that finally broke the camel’s back) in the St. Paul School system: https://www.google.com/amp/www.twincities.com/2016/05/25/letter-to-the-editor-for-may-25-2016/amp/

Homeschooling has been rough. I am having the school-aged kids wear uniforms so they get into the habit of dressing properly weekday mornings and once they are dressed, it is supposed signal that they are ready to learn. A good idea but I’m not sure it’s as effective as I intended. 

Our oldest two children are doing an online school. They are independent and motivated. In fact, they’re so motivated that they are working ahead and as middle schoolers, they are a third of the way through a high school Geometry Class and it’s only September. They are the youngest ones in their online class and they just keep working and moving ahead. I’m proud of their work ethic and motivation, but I’m especially proud that they are loving and helpful. 

Our third, fourth and fifth children are far more challenging. They’re energetic, and they aren’t motivated like their older siblings. I’m really thankful that my Aunt Kathy, a retired school teacher and Sister of St. Joseph is taking our third and fourth child to tutor them in reading every week. They need some extra help and are receiving it from a retired reading specialist that loves them, knows we she’s doing and believes in educating the whole child (for example, they pick fruit and vegetables from her abundant garden in between lessons). They love, respect and listen to her, and that makes a huge difference. 


Dylan bought me a Y membership and it’s been a lifesaver (or at least a mental health saver which might be the same thing) to get away from the kids and workout (or even walk the track kidless). 

All in all, I have to be honest I really can’t wait to move and give the kids all the learning support they need. I thought I’d be better at this homeschool thing than I am. Yesterday our fourth child (1st grade) said, “Mom, I wish we moved into the new house right now.” I asked why. And she said, “Because then I could use the bathroom.” A sibling was in our one bathroom. The big move can’t come soon enough. Pray for us as we await a new life.

Shoeless feet, Elephant Trunks and Loving without Judgment 

An old Indian saying states, “I complained that I had no shoes and then I met a man with no feet.”

It’s so easy to complain and judge without knowing someone else’s reality, to feel sad and jealous about what we don’t have instead of noticing and feeling thankful for what we do have. 

Last summer we attended a parade during “rodeo weekend” in small town Wisconsin. Our eight year old was so excited and exclaimed, “This is my first parade!” The reality is she has been in many parades, but this was the first she watched. It was exciting for all the kids, but especially this candy-lover, to watch the groups of people walking by and race to collect candy.

As we adults (there were six of us) sat in our lawn chairs and watched our kids run out to grab candy whenever it was thrown, we glanced at each other and whispered unkind comments about the grown man running out in front of the kids to grab candy, as if he was an undisciplined five year old with no one watching him. Here, my eleven year old and twelve year old daughters were patiently helping their siblings grab candy, not taking any for themselves, and even though I loathe bringing candy into our home, that wasn’t the point. The grown man grabbing candy like he was competing with children irked me. In fact, it irked us all. 

What I’m sure went further to justify our guiltless comments and judgmental glances at each other was that he looked “normal.” In fact, he even looked better than normal. He was physically fit and boasted a military haircut. He didn’t say anything to defend his actions; although, I’m sure he knew we were talking about him. 

When he walked behind our lawn chairs and gave the bucket of candy he raced to collect to a little girl (probably around nine years old) missing an arm, we all wished we had kept our mouths shut and helped him rather than assuming, being rude and judgmental. The silence was piercing and the shame is eternal. 

The truth is we never really know what another person’s reality is . . . even though the man looked like a healthy adult male, it doesn’t mean we should have assumed he shares our cognition, emotional quotient, social education. Any of the reasons a grown man would run out and grab candy in front of children make it morally reprehensible to jump to judgments and conclusions, as if that man has been dealt the same exact hand in life as us and should play it the same way. That’s pretty much true of any experience with anyone anywhere. 

There’s an ancient Indian parable about a group of blind men and an elephant. The blind men had no previous knowledge of or experience with elephants so the animal was unfamiliar to them. When they heard that an elephant was in the neighboring town, they were curious and went to examine the strange creature through touch. One blind man touched tail of the elephant and said, “Elephant is like a rope.” Another blind man touched the side of the elephant and said, “Elephant is like a wall.” Yet another blind man touched the trunk and exclaimed, “Oh, elephant is like a giant snake!” All three men were partially right and partially wrong. Each blind man had captured a piece of reality and projected the understanding of what they do know unto what they were experiencing. 

As Christians, we are called to love without judgment and often to accept others’ realities as they see them. To be truly non-judgmental, we must humbly acknowledge that our own reality is subjective and limited, a small piece of something much larger. 

I’m writing today to remind myself to stop before judging. It’s really, really hard. As a Christian, it’s easy to say, “I believe in Christ” but it’s much harder to PRACTICE Christianity. It’s hard to be the Samaritan that stops to care for his enemy rather than thinking, “I’m busy. I’ve helped enough. Someone else will stop.”  But Jesus calls us to be the Samaritan. Every time. He says we are our brother’s keeper, even when our culture, nationality or society tells us that a brother with a different reality is the enemy. 

One of my heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, said, “I would be a Christian if I ever met one.” And so, I’m trying. And I’m trying to teach the children we’ve been blessed with as parents. And it’s damn hard! But in the end, I know that practicing LOVE without judgment is all that really matters. I have no enemies, only brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Love–the best ingredient

Dylan used to cook quite a bit when we first married, and when I would compliment what he made, he would tell me that the key ingredient was love. Times have changed. He works an awful lot and now I am the primary cook for our hungry household. But the key ingredient remains love.

Dylan bought me a Kitchen Aid for Mother’s Day this year. It’s the type of gift that I would have felt insulted by little over a decade ago because I would have seen it as him assigning me an unpaid domestic working role. However, after years of struggling with a tight grocery budget in which we couldn’t afford to go buy whatever ingredients suited our fancy, buying groceries without worrying about bouncing a check feels like financial freedom. What used to be a chore has become a liberating form of art, an expression of love from me for my family, and something I really enjoy. It sounds sappy but the babies that I grew in my womb then nursed ex utero continue to be nourished by what I create for them. And that’s meaningful to me during this season of motherhood.

As the stay-at-home mother of six children, it’s good I enjoy creating in the kitchen because I spend a heck-of-a-lot of time preparing meals these days. And the kids love to help me bake/cook. They love to measure, mix and taste. Perhaps that’s why fractions are second nature for them.

This particular morning, my only son, Basil, came into my bedroom and said, “Mom, we need to make be-sert (dessert) like Diane.” Diane is our neighbor from across the alley and she’s become a good friend, the type of person you would CHOOSE to be a family member, if you could choose family. You can’t choose family, but you CAN choose friends. Among other talents (like being a kick-arse attorney), Diane is an amazing cook and has been kind enough to invite the kids over to bake with her many times.

Thanks to her baking with the kids, Basil very clearly has a reference-point for what a Kitchen Aid does. He was so insistent on making “be-sert” this morning that we made brownies before breakfast.

As I sip my coffee on this dreary day, I feel a glint of hope and happiness that my son feels so excited about preparing food. My daughters love to cook and bake, and I am proud of their culinary skills and desire to work in the kitchen too, but so often I think we naturally prepare girls to nurture, cook and do housework. Meanwhile, we send a subliminal message (and sometimes not-so-subliminal) to boys that the kitchen and housework is not for them. As a mother, a wife, and a citizen it is important to me that we raise our son (like my husband was raised) to be a good father and nurturing spouse in case he is called to that vocation.

No matter how liberal or conservative you are, caring for others is non-gendered and apolitical.

I will admit that I share part of the following advice both humbly and hypocritically since my kids all claim to be allergic to dish soap, and the words “sort laundry” has a similar consequence to the warning, “Fire!” screamed in my household . . . Okay, maybe there’s no stop, drop and roll with “sort laundry,” but the kids do flee from the house as if they are in imminent danger.

If you are disinterested in my advice after reading the paragraph above, stop reading. But if you don’t mind my parenting advice, a kind of advice I am documenting partially so I don’t forget it myself, please read on: Please teach your children–girls AND boys—basic skills. Teach them the power of serving others. And don’t be afraid to teach your girls to do outdoor work, especially if they are interested. Our oldest daughter mows our lawn and does a lot of our laborious outdoor work. And I mean A LOT. Our second daughter does a lot of babysitting of her siblings, especially the baby. Both daughters enjoy cooking and have a healthy relationship with food. I could make a list of what each child does to contribute to our household, but I have six kids so I’ll spare you of that. My point is that each child should contribute. Recognize now that they won’t do it perfectly. But hey, I don’t contribute perfectly either. Just look at my porch and you’ll notice I’m an imperfect housekeeper. We are all works in progress.

The important thing is not WHAT children do to contribute to the household, the important things is THAT they contribute to the household.  As humans, we are interdependent. The family is the foundation of humanity; each person has something to contribute to the whole. Regardless of IQ, development, able-bodiedness, we all have something to contribute.

Let’s teach our kids to work in solidarity and let’s teach them that the most important ingredient is love. It’s not what you give but how you give it that makes a difference.

This Mother’s Day, let’s praise and encourage, not blame or shame, single mothers

I am not a single mother, but as a military wife, sometimes I get a little glimpse of what single-mothering is like, and it’s super hard. If we Catholics really want to call ourselves pro-life, we need to do *something* to help single mothers that have chosen to give life and are trying to parent in a culture that excludes them from community support. And by the way, the *something* we do must be helpful, reliable and consistent.

Parenting is isolating, exhausting, and thankless. We live in a culture that supports privileged, PLANNED parenthood, but when people are poor, uneducated, nonwhite, or are blessed with children out of wedlock (or get divorced), we submit messages of blame and shame instead of encouragement and praise. The messages we send through our words, body langauge, action, inaction, inclusion and exclusion matters. The choices we make drive the outcomes we experience. How we treat Moms has an immense impact on the children they parent. Plus, besides the collateral impact of honoring marginalized mothers because it is the right thing to do, when we respect mothers they are more likely to feel energized and nurture children that grow up to be successful, autonomous, caring adults. The future depends on how we treat each other today, so let’s treat each other with love and compassion.

Speak loving words at home

We are all sacred temples of the Holy Spirit. Words, actions and inactions can hurt or they can nourish the spiritual flame. Do not let your children pierce each other with unkind words or hurtful names. Don’t let them try to suffocate or blow out another’s flame. Teach them to kindle the flame and be a light unto each other.

Sibling conflict is natural, especially when you live in close quarters. Therefore, give your children language to resolve conflict through nonviolent communication. Do not be a bystander to a child’s suffering—no matter how big, no matter how small.

In the end, the only thing that matters is love. And we first learn how to communicate love from our experience at home.

Home is where the heart is—Easter reflections

During the genesis of our marriage, Dylan and I moved around a lot. When we closed on our first home, our oldest two daughters were preschoolers. While a short time in retrospect, moving around was an act of trust. It felt as if we had been wandering the desert for forty years, waiting for manna to fall from heaven. When we closed on our first home, it felt like we had finally reached the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. Stability at last.

Our home was beautiful—shiny hardwood floors, a fireplace, a four season porch, a laundry chute. Big new windows throughout the home and a large sliding door in the back brightened the mood of home. We had great neighbors that cared for us, and we met some of our best friends to this day in that neighborhood and during that time period.

When Dylan was home (and not away with the military), we would often have friends over for last-minute beergaritas after the kids were in bed. Longing to give our kids the gift of family traditions in the comfort of their own home, we tried to host as many holidays as we could. I adopted my mother-in-law’s theme party idea, and she helped me out with the menu on multiple occasions. We had everything from Roman Holidays to International Navidads. We ended up with a hodgepodge of people at Christmas every year—and it was beautiful. Friends became family.

We made a tough decision and bought a different house not long after Dylan came home from a deployment to Kuwait. That was nearly five years ago now. And recently, our “old” house went up for sale again. Same beautiful house but with another bathroom.

I feel like I should mention that we love so much about our current home–the financial stability it gives us, the friends we’ve made, the access we have to get anywhere in the Cities by foot or bus. But in spite of everything we love, eight people, a dog and two cats in a 1300 square foot home with one bathroom can be a real challenge at times. I mean, can you imagine? There are definite upsides. For example, my kids know how to share. They are keen negotiators, and have excellent conflict resolution skills. If your family of eight shares one toilet and just finished your Chinese takeout, trust me, you need tip-top negotiating skills. It’s great and all but to be totally transparent, it’s not always fun parenting while they are “resolving conflict,” even if we stay out of it and let them work it out. A small space is sure to be a loud space, even if they are using their inside voices. Our old house being on sale combined with the first world inconvenience of our current home’s size has prompted a lot of conversations about home and the idea of moving lately.

As we were talking about “home” the other day, our six-year-old, M4, interrupted us during dinner, “I never ‘weally’ feel at home,” she stated matter-of-factly.” She captivated all of our attention. All of us. Even our nine-month-old looked at M4, confused by the sudden silence at the dinner table. In a home like ours, there are often multiple conversations happening at once. Silence never happens. All eyes were on M4 and she grinned as she confidently shared, “Because my weal home is with God in heaven,” and then she repeated, “so I never weally feel at home here or anywhere.” We were so taken aback that for a moment, you could have heard a pin drop. It’s so easy for grown ups to focus on the material, the literal, and what we can control. We have our own ideas about what our children’s basic needs are and what’s best for them. Often we think they need more things than they actually do. In reality, children need less, and they need love more than anyTHING. Children have a closeness to God that has not been corrupted by earthly desires or measures of status.

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As a Catholic adult, I went through the motions of Lent this year. You maybe know how it goes. I fasted a little, prayed a lot, attended Mass regularly, even attended Adoration. I tried to offer up my suffering without complaining. That is hard, by the way! I thought I did pretty well. But my kids were more reverent at practicing Lent and are much better at celebrating the true meaning of Easter—the resurrection, eternal life and the excitement of our eternal home. We always go around the table before every family meal and each person says what they’re thankful for. At our house, it’s a requirement for those that want to eat.

I think I said I was thankful for the beautiful weather yesterday. But my kids each said, “I’m thankful for the resurrection” or “I’m thankful Jesus is risen.” And they said it with deep joy and unprompted sincerity.

If you ask me what I’m thankful for today, I am thankful for them. As their parent, I am their steward and it’s my most important job to teach them about their faith, but it seems they are constantly teaching me about mine. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Let the children come unto me” or that “You must be like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven.” I’m going to work a little harder to see the world through my children’s eyes and live as an authentic Christian.

 

On Good Friday being Good

As we walked out of Church on Holy Thursday, a concerned look came over my nine-year-old’s face and she looked at me, dark curls framing her face, blue eyes wrought with confusion. Carrying the baby with my left arm, I reached out and grabbed my four-year-old’s hand as he rapidly approached the Church parking lot with a bounce in his step and not a worry in his mind. My nine-year-old trodded along, lost in her thoughts. The pitter-patter of her footsteps drew closer and she suddenly blurted out, as if we had been engaged in an argument, “But Mom! I don’t understand. Why is tomorrow called *Good* Friday if that’s when Jesus was crucified?”

In the millisecond before I answered the depth of my mind responded with a response we say aloud during the Stations of the Cross, “(We adore you oh Christ and we praise you.) Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” And I explained to her as best I could our story, the story of salvation.

It is tough, even for our adult minds, to understand the redemptive value of suffering, to trust the light at the end of the tunnel when we are holding our breaths through the darkness.

My priest, Father Paul, reminded me recently that there is a reason there’s a cross hanging above our altar at Church, not an empty tomb. Because it is through the cross that we get to the empty tomb. Good Friday is good because without the holy cross, there is no Easter, no resurrection or redemption.

I have a really hard time embracing the poverty of injustice in my suffering. It’s really hard to carry my cross and see it as the way to the empty tomb, the resurrection.

As I write, the refrain of an old song I learned from my Protestant father comes to mind, “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.”

Old Rugged Cross (originally by George Bennard)

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(This painting is my favorite art piece, possibly ever. It was a gift to me from my husband after years of searching for a “black crucifixion.” An anniversary gift. How romantic, right? It hangs in our dining room as a reminder that there is light at the end of the tunnel, salvation for those that suffer pain and oppression. The artist is Tim Ashkar.)

As counterintuitive as it is, Good Friday is good, just like our suffering is good. It is through suffering and death that we experience eternal life, after all.

source and summit

I was twenty-two at my wedding, barely twenty-three at the birth of my first child, twenty-four when I ran for public office . . . I earned my bachelor’s degree while my husband worked multiple jobs and I mothered two children and worked as a political consultant. Those were days in which every hour was a waking hour and sleep felt like a distant memory. I attended my first year of law school full time with four daughters at home and a husband deployed overseas. I completed law school while mothering five children, pregnant with the sixth child, supporting my husband’s two careers through crockpot meals at home. For over a decade, I have been deeply engaged in political activity and invested in serving my neighbors through volunteer work on boards and commissions.

I am now thirty-six, jobless, not in school, and absolutely exhausted. I’m home taking care of the baby, driving the kids to and from school, to and from basketball practice, dance practice, more dance practice, even more dance practice, music lessons, volleyball, the doctor, dentist and orthodontist too. We rush to Mass on the weekend and rush home to get to the next activity. During the school days, while the kids are at school, I clean the house . . . but there’s always more to do. And the cleaning never ends. I make a homemade dinner daily and justify the processed food I send in my kids’ lunchboxes. I put the baby in her jumper and hope she will entertain herself while I sweep the floor, do the dishes, clean the one toilet that all seven of us use daily. I try to offer it up, because it can be easy to be self-centered.

Through the lens of American culture, I am judged by so-called feminists for not having a career outside of the home, and yet, I am doing the hardest and the most femenistic job I have ever done. Because there is nothing more femininistic than bearing human life and caring for that life, educating and leading the next generation of humans. As I am caring for my husband, home and family, and yet, I feel exhausted. Frequently, I even feel defeated. But it is not the cleaning or cooking or caring that is exhausting. That part might actually be empowering. What is exhausting is socializing children into a culture that rewards superior athleticism, academia, musical talent, coordination. We no longer have a culture that allows kids to be kids, games to be pure fun, but the pressure is on to be good at every activity they do. And much like we have a culture that defines adults by their paid careers, we have a culture that defines children by their special talents, not by their senses of wonder and play, not by their unscathed spirituality.

Being so busy as a family is completely draining . . . Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Perhaps that is why I feel most at peace at Mass or at my Eucharistic Adoration Hours. My children ask to go to adoration with me. My oldest begs me to wake her up for my 2 a.m. Eucharistic Adoration hour.

Vatican II called the Holy Eucharist the “source and the summit of Christian life” (Lumen gentium, no. 11; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1324). A source is defined on dictionary.com as “anything or place from which something comes, arises, or is obtained; origin.” A summit, on the other hand, is the high point of a hill or a mountain, but it is also a meeting between heads of government. The Holy Eucharist, therefore, is the origin and the high point–the source and the summit–of our spiritual lives. It is through the Holy Eucharist that we encounter God and are nourished by Him.

The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving” and we praise God because we need it to be ordered within ourselves. We need the spiritual nourishment. Literally. After receiving God in the Eucharist, we are commanded to go forth in peace to share God’s love, a love which has to be so powerful that through our love is inspiring enough to establish such wonder, curiosity and inspiration that we are able to make God known and loved. We are the temples of the living God and when people watch us, if we are truly good Christians, they are able to encounter God through us, just as we are able to encounter Him through them.

And so I hope to shift to a simpler life that allows my family to make Sunday a holiday, as the Holy Father has encouraged us to do, and to encounter God in our interactions with others. This blog is part of my effort to hold myself accountable.

My end-of-the-busy-season prayer is this:

Dear God,
Help us to put you first in all things,
Teach us Your will and nourish us with your loving grace.
Have mercy on us and give us the grace we need to forgive those that hurt us and to love them.
Do not tempt us with worldly ways, but provide us with the means to live simple lives that honor You above all else. . . our Source and our Summit . . .
Amen

P.S. This was originally published on my other blog which is now hidden. I’m republishing it here.