“It’s the season of mothers!” the bright pink ad declared. I smiled. Well, maybe I smirked. In my mind, I was editing. Perhaps it is a season to celebrate mothers, I thought, but there is no such thing as a season of mothers. Motherhood is a vocation — a holy calling — and it is the call of a lifetime, not limited to society’s little box. It’s not an item for a list of life goals. It’s not just another endeavor to pursue. It’s the beckoning of the Holy Spirit to a path of sanctity. It’s an invitation to create a haven for a family where souls are nurtured and God is known. With motherhood, comes the call to create home. I think that Mother’s Day might herald the beginning of the “season of home” for women.
It’s mid-August and the back corner of Target smells like Office Depot. The aroma of notebook paper mingles with that of waxy crayons, with just a hint of ink smell making things interesting. But mostly, it’s the paper I smell. Brightly colored lunchboxes are stacked too high, teetering toward the rainbow of vinyl binders. It’s back-to-school shopping time.
Here in the back corner, children jostle and beg, hoping to capture the goodies they are sure will make the year a happy one. Wonder Woman lunchbox? Sure, if that’s what it takes to get you to eat a packed lunch. Several aisles over, in the bedding department, there is a different milieu altogether. Mothers bite their lower lips while checking through the “dorm essentials” list and avoiding the eyes of their daughters lest they both cry.
It’s August and there are so many new beginnings slated for later this month. In our family, where grown children are no longer bound to school calendars and younger children have been homeschooling year-round, August is still (and always has been) that start of something new.
My eldest child has moved his young family from the West Coast to the East, is about to buy his first house, and just learned he and his wife are expecting twins. My second child is off to the big city to begin a brand-new grown-up adventure. The next one in line just called to let me know he no longer needs to be on our cell phone plan. He’s got a new job, a new apartment and a new phone. It’s August. Time for all things new.
It’s August and we’re all a little terrified if we’re honest. I meet the eyes of my friend who is sending her firstborn to college and fear pools in the depth of her usually sparking blue eyes. I take a friend’s baby on my hip while she tells me about her 5-year-old’s kindergarten teacher. Her hand shakes just a little as she pushes her bangs out of her eyes. How can we possibly send them off into the unknown? For their part, the ones who are leaving ask, “Can I do this? Can I really, really do this? Or will I mess it up? Disappoint? Fail?” New beginnings are never easy. Fear smells as strongly as a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils.
Faith speaks words of truth to fear. Wherever you’re going this August, God goes with you. Tell your fear there is no where He can’t and won’t reach. When we’re sure we cannot do the task that lies before us, when we’re afraid our hearts will break or we will fail or we will disappoint, we have to cling to the truth. God knows we’re not enough and He will fill in the gaps. When we step out in faith, we do it knowing that we are not enough. That’s where the faith comes in. If we were everything we needed and wanted, what use would we have for God?
Fear is insidious, paralyzing us if we let it. It doesn’t prevent bad things from happening. It doesn’t make anything more secure. All fear really does is keep us from living the life that God intends for us. That life — the one for which we were created — requires that we do the thing we couldn’t possibly do if not for knowing that Jesus is there, ready and waiting to give us grace and strength sufficient for both the good moments and the ones that feel like utter failures.
If everything always stayed as fresh and pretty as a brand-new notebook, where’s the living? The notebook has value when we take up the pen and bravely write our hearts in its pages. It has worth when the corners begin to separate and the cover gets scuffed. If we tuck it safely away and never make our mark on it, there’s no purpose and no real beauty. Life has purpose when we stop protecting the pretty veneer and use all 64 crayons to play with color on its pages. Life is beautiful — even on the hard days — when we let faith triumph over fear.
We close the covers of the beautiful book, and sit and look at each other. She sighs contentedly, the deep and satisfied sigh of a 10-year-old who has just heard the story of Beauty and the Beast translated from its original French. She sighs the fairytale sigh, the one that says, “They were good, but flawed. They hoped. They experienced hardship and suffering. Evil was defeated. Beautiful lessons were learned. They lived happily ever after.”
I close my eyes. Fairytales annoy me. When I was her age, I believed the plot lines. I wasn’t at all enamored of the magic, but I held steadfastly to the belief that the good girl heroine would triumph over trials and tribulations and, sometime in her late teens or early 20s, a prince on a white horse would whisk her to ever-after. And my life went according to script. After a not-all-that-happy childhood, I married my prince when I was 21. My father gave me a fine porcelain statue of Cinderella as a wedding gift.
The following year, we welcomed a fair-haired, blue-eyed firstborn son. But of course. It’s in the script.
The year after that, I was diagnosed with cancer.
Did not see that sequel coming. Not at all.
This time, I needed more than a fairytale horse to navigate the turbulence. I needed a lifeboat. I climbed aboard a giant one with “Religion” emblazoned on her bow. She carried me well through various storms of the cancer years and then the storms of the recovery years, the ones during which I was bearing children. I thought her a sturdy and dependable ship.
The ship crashed headlong right around the time our ninth child was born. Like a young girl who learns that magic isn’t really a thing and that the horse will grow old and lame, I learned that even if the church is God’s perfect vehicle of grace, the people who comprise it are not. I can only compare this chapter in the story to the one where the heroine wanders in the woods at night and every familiar, comforting figure in the shadows shows itself to be something else entirely and hisses or bares fangs, or both. No one was to be trusted.
The ship no longer seaworthy, the heroine is shipwrecked, and one after another, bottles wash up bearing bad news from home. And this time, the heroine is neither young, nor fair. She is neither idealistic, nor romantic. She is tired. She wonders if this is a trilogy.
Probably not. It’s unlikely that a tidy ending is in the script of the third installment. Instead it is an intermission marked with an asterisk, most certainly a point of reflection. This time, there is no white horse, no sturdy boat. This time, there is only faith in the grace of God.
For so long, grace was a gentle word, the one that captured the nuanced breath of a nearly fairytale God. Now, I see that grace can be severe. I believed that the goal was to be transported from the suffering. Grace, I thought, was the intercession of a benevolent God who swept the heroine away from heartbreak. The whole point of the plot, I thought, was to get beyond the pain to the promised happiness. I learned that by the time one gets to the third episode, one is weary from the effort of pushing through to the happy ending.
Now, I see that grace is in the struggle itself. And I have been resisting grace in favor of fairytales. In the words of Flannery O’Connor, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
Vigorously resisting grace. Fighting against the suffering instead of leaning into it. Cursing the circumstances instead of confidently resting in the faith that God will use them to change me. Resisting grace.
Even still, grace found me. It was there all along. In the fairytale moments, to be sure. But also in the dark woods moments. I see it now, in hindsight, because I recognize the moments of change.
It happened for the first time almost exactly to the minute, 28 years from the moment my first baby was born. That morning, I didn’t have to silence the voice. For the entire span of a childhood and then some, the voice has been telling me the same lie over and over again. But the morning of my eldest boy’s birthday, I couldn’t hear the voice. I didn’t have to argue with it.
Like nearly every day, I was the first person in the kitchen that morning. I flipped on the lights at 6 a.m. and noted the piles — mountains of assorted books, art projects, dance forms, folded laundry, posters from last weekend’s soccer game and clean plates stacked by the sink.
“Dang,” I thought to myself. “We sure are getting a lot done around here these days.”
And then I made myself a cup of coffee without feeling even so much as a hint of adrenaline prompting me to hurry and clean up all the piles.
It wasn’t until I was deep into the morning’s Bible study that it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard the voice. No one had admonished me for the mess. No one had told me the neighbors would raise their eyebrows at my less than model home. No one had called me a failure for not maintaining a household of nine with perfect order. No one had compared me unfavorably to every other woman who seemingly could do it all and more.
The voice was gone.
In its place was the voice of encouragement. I had just told myself something affirmative and positive from the outset, despite the obvious imperfections of my environment. All grace. So much grace.
This journey to silence the voice has been an arduous uphill climb. Through the perfect storm of nature and nurture, perfectionism and self-recrimination are hardwired into my psyche. I’ve been one to try too hard, move too fast, produce too much and reach too high for as long as I can remember. All my life, I have lived with the exhaustion and utter despair of never measuring up to my own perfectionistic standards. The first response in my brain, until that morning, was always the critical one.
The voice was back around lunchtime, as I hustled to get everyone out of the house in time to celebrate the neighborhood opening of Chick-fil-A. We had to move quickly and efficiently, because I knew the lines would be long and we barely had time for lunch before I’d have to hurry a child to a physical therapy appointment. Someone couldn’t find her shoes.
“Why is it I’m so incompetent that we can’t even do something fun because we can never find what we need when we need it?” I stormed aloud to no one in particular.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” came a small voice. “I was so tired when I got home yesterday that I forget where I left my shoes. “
Now I remembered. She really, really was that tired. She’d had an allergic reaction and been fully dosed on an antihistamine. She’d tumbled into bed a weepy, wilted mess. Frankly, I couldn’t remember where we’d taken off her shoes, either.
This lost shoe thing wasn’t inefficiency. It was the honest result of choosing to meet the moment with compassion and letting something slide in the process.
I apologized to myself — and my kids — for the ugly chastisement, blowing away the voice of shame with a breath of honest grace for all of us.
Begin again, I told myself. Invite again the peace of the morning, the knowing deep down that I was not created to prove myself the latest model of perfection. I was created to rest in the knowledge that we’re doing the best we can and keeping step with our Savior. His voice is the only one that matters.
It’s that time of year in the life of a family when calendar squares begin to fill. Pencils in hand (because things change and it’s not quite time for pens yet), we grid in the soccer schedule, the “first day of” dates, the fall birthdays, the auditions, the new lessons. When finished, we stare in disbelief at how full it all looks. Yet that fullness rarely inspires a sense of abundance. Instead, there are alternate feelings of dread and disbelief. Sometimes, there is even fear. How in the world will all these things pull together for a life that is meaningful and not chaotic? May I suggest that the day-to-day rushing that seems so inevitable with growing families desperately needs intentional ritual?
Our children need routines. They thrive in structured time and ordered settings. We need it, too. Routines provide security; they calm the chaos, comfort us and make life at least a little predictable. Beyond routine, we need the richness of rituals. Rituals imbue ordinary time with a sense of grace. Both routines and rituals require discipline. The virtue applied to such discipline is rewarded almost immediately.
To create rituals in your life that will nurture you, begin with intention. Consider how your ritual will affect your day. Do you need a few moments in the morning to review your plans, collect yourself, to pray quietly and invite God into your agenda? (Hint: you do.) Create a ritual for that need. Awaken 15 minutes earlier. Brew a favorite beverage and pour it into a favorite cup. Sit in a particular chair, one that catches the morning light. Grant yourself a few moments of quiet, alert time that is focused and aware. Do it every day. There, you have a ritual.
After several days of practicing such discipline, your ritual will gain momentum. You’ll find that the morning focus continues to pay itself forward into the rest of the day. Where else shall we establish a ritual? Find something that is repeated daily and imbue it with some meaning and purpose. When you walk over the threshold of your office, do you bless the day and begin with integrity? Every day, can you establish the same movements of intention?
What about the drive home? We live in a traffic quagmire. Can you establish a ritual that divides the time and offers you an opportunity to transition from work to home peacefully? For the first few minutes, listen to news, catch up on the world events that happened during your workday. Then, with discipline, turn off the talking and the shouting and listen to music. Better yet, listen to the Divine Office app and pray Vespers.
Finally, spend the last 10 or 15 minutes in silence. Focus on the family waiting behind the door of your home. Pray about how you will give them the best of you, despite the fatigue that has come with a long day and seemingly longer drive home. Let the ritual carry you from the workaday world to the peace of home.
Similarly, if you take children to school, institute a subtle shift in that routine to bring gentle, grace-filled ritual. In the car or as you walk, informally review together the known plans of the day. This isn’t the time to troubleshoot or seek alternatives or solve the problem of the mean girl. Just get on the same page. Promise to pray for their days and assure them that you will hold them in your prayers all day long. Then, as you approach the sign that tells you you’re in a school zone and to slow down, let that be your family reminder to pray aloud for the day. Keep it short and simple, but do it every day at the same time. Let your rituals reassure, then be prepared to see how much more they can do.