What I Learned in February

In case you haven't noticed, I've been struggling to find my voice here lately outside of #morningrun. I'm not sure why, though I do have some hunches. I love my blog, so I'm tying to push through and find my voice again, or perhaps, to find a new voice. Emily, at Chatting at the Sky, has invited readers to share what they learned in February.

That seems like a great way to begin chatting again.

1. I learned that I am happier when I begin my day outdoors. (Apparently this is a lesson I need to learn over and over again.) I really, really  miss my summer walks and runs. I've tried to be good about getting to the gym, but it's a lot more complicated than rolling out of bed and hitting the trails right outside my door. It's trickier when I need to figure in transit time and traffic and such and it's also not nearly as motivating to run on a treadmill. I love the outdoors and I thought that I could walk or run outside as much as I had in the summer. But ice. And subzero wind chills. So, no. When I do get out there, I've been listening to The Fringe Hours. It's good to be given permission for self-care and this book definitely does that! I hope to chat with you more about it when the needle & thREAD feature makes its return. 

2. Mike has been traveling a lot lately. We sat down Sunday afternoon, as the ice did its thing outside and we mapped out the spring. I learned it looks daunting.  I think I heard him hyperventilating. We have lots of kids at an active stage of life and he is highly sought after in Connecticut and DC and Florida. Much juggling of the calendar and some frequent flier miles to bank. Ours was a long distance relationship when we were in college. Little did I know that some of those relationship skills would be refined over the course of our lifetime. I'm still learning.

3. I have a real life friend who will sit with my girls while they throw up. That is one "for real" friend! Her presence in my very messy house with my very messy girls early on a Sunday was necessitated by the fact that I also have a friend who will scoop my son off a soccer field (which he has made a bloody mess) and hurry him to the ER so that a plastic surgeon can stitch his cheek back together. Thirty-seven stitches later, we learned that Stephen's soccer team is made of people who don't flinch and don't turn the other way; they gather and support. That was a hard, hard week. Mike was gone. All the girls were extremely sick. Stephen was a bit of a mess. I also learned that...

4. My orthodontist and pediatrician are pretty much the best. My orthodontist saw pictures of Stephen on social media and texted me immediately to tell me he wanted to see him. Upon close (and very gentle) inspection, we learned that the permanent retainer cemented to the back of his teeth saved his teeth. It's definitely taken a good knock but it held and though the teeth were knocked around, they were braced. So, yay! My pediatrician also wanted to see Stephen right away. He hung with us closely through the weeks of concussion evaluation, alternating between concern for Stephen and concern for Mary Beth, who has caught one nasty infection after another. Lesson there: the first year of teaching in an early childhood setting will yield all kinds of germ exposure, especially if you've never gone to school. Poor girl. When I'm flying solo, and everyone seems to be super needy at the same time, it's good to know that the people we've chosen for health care are invested in us. (<--absolutely NOT a paid promotion.)

5. One skill that Mike and I have gotten much better at in the last couple years is making time for focused attention with each other. We really, really benefit from one-on-one, totally uninterrupted time. And we are learning to look for the small pocket of time, call in our resources, and seize the opportunity. We launched February by practicing this strategy really well. Through some ridiculous logistical gymnastics, Mike and I were able to get away for about 24 hours. We went to Charlottesville to see the soccer team honored for their NCAA championship at a UVa basketball game. We stopped at JMU to pick up Christian on our way, so that he could hang out with Paddy. The game was so much fun--crazy electric atmosphere of ESPN Game Day in a place filled with students fired up about an unbeaten season. 

We left at halftime. It wasn't that we don't both love college basketball. It was more about the fact that we hadn't seen each other in over a week and we were staying at my folks' house and they weren't home. The thought of an entire evening with no interruptions and no obligations other than each other? Opportunity seized. Such a great night and so nice to wake early on Sunday, go to Mass alone together, and gather the boys so that we could prop them up and feed them breakfast. (They'd clearly enjoyed their Saturday night, too.)

6. I learned that Liberty University offers an excellent online education. Mary Beth is fully enrolled this semester. It's been a challenge for both of us as she learns to navigate the demands of college and the nuances of online education (and a couple of jobs). What she is being offered is so much better than the dual enrollment experiences the boys had at community college for their senior years in high school that I'm peaceful about the higher price tag. 

7. My teen boys have pretty good taste in music. I let them man the radio buttons to and from soccer and I've added to my repertoire lately. Upon their recommendation, I've become a fan of Ed Sheeran and Andy Grammer. It's a little disconcerting when my six-year-old belts out "Honey, I'm Good" on endless repeat, but I've learned that the the culture infiltrates the childhoods of kids #7, #8, and #9 and we kind of have to roll with that. The video is pretty darn cute, by the way.

8. Soccer can and will be played year 'round, regardless of the weather. I have now witnessed soccer when the real temperature is 7 degrees and the wind chill is hovering around zero. I've watched how the artificial turf reacts to an inch or so of sleet and how 14-year-old boys think playing in that is about the most fun you can have in February. And I've seriously considered one of these. And a space heater. 

~*~

I've talked about some of these things and some more significant life lessons over at Mercy Found Me. Jacque Watkins is such a good listener! And her blog is just so great--indulge in a little reading over there if you have a few moments. 

What have you learned lately?

 

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I planned on beach sewing. I packed all the things necessary to have a little creative fun in the sun. Well, actually, not all the things. I left the sewing machine pedal at home. This was very unfortunate on lots of levels. The most minor was that I have some nicely cut headbands that will have to be sewn at home. The most distressing is a costume malfunciton that might just haunt me for years:-(.

But there was plenty of costume handsewing. I've gotten to be expert at repairing fishnet tights while they are being worn (they snag on everything) and I can whipstitch a bodice to a tutu like nobody's business. Psst: I'm really looking forward to sewing with good fabric and making some real clothes in August.

And just in time for that, Fat Quarter Shop is having a Moda sale. 25% off. But hurry. I didn't check my mail until today, so Friday July 18 is the last day. I have a Fat Quarter Shop gift card that my kids gave me for Christmas sitting on my desk at home. I can't reach it until July 19th. So you all buy some Moda and let me live vicariously, okay? 

The morning walk routine is going nuts. I've had some pretty horrible insomnia here at the beach. I'd imagined long walks on the beach or along the golf cart path or down the trail that leads to the marina. Those places are very, very dark at 4 AM. So, I've been logging 8,000-10,000 steps around the well-lit parking lot. It's something, right? And it's a great way to get lots of books read. I'm listening to The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I highly recommend the book. It's excellent. I don't recommend the audio version, though. There are lots of checklists and it just doesn't convey very practically on Audible. I poked around the website a bit to see if those lists are available there for audio "readers," and only found one of them online. You can take the quiz to see how well you know your partner here, but that's the only one I see online. If you find something, let me know. I'm happy to be corrected.

Gottman says that his research proves that marriage counseling most often doesn't work because most conflicts aren't solvable in the first place. After just 5 minutes of watching a couple converse, he can predict divorce (or not) with a 91% accuracy rate. That's mighty impressive. What's more impressive is the way he does it. He's nailed down marriages biggest demons. If he sees one of the "four horsemen," he knows the couple is in trouble. Those "horsemen" that escort the demise of relationship? Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

The book is a worthy investment, and not just for newlyweds. There's a great deal to think about there. Here's a little sample, from the website. The top seven ways to improve your marriage:

1. Seek help early.

The average couple waits 6 years before seeking help for relationship problems. (And keep in mind, half of all marriages that end do so in the first 7 years). This means the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long.

2. Edit yourself.

The happiest couples avoid saying every critical thought when discussing touchy topics.

3. Soften your “start up.”

Arguments often “start up” because one partner escalates the conflict by making a critical or contemptuous remark. Bringing up problems gently and without blame works much better.

4. Accept influence from your partner.

Gottman and his colleagues found that a relationship succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. For instance, a woman says, “Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready.” Her husband then replies, “My plans are set, and I’m not changing them.” As you might guess, this guy is in a shaky marriage. A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial – because research shows that women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men. A true partnership only occurs when a husband can do the same thing.

5. Have high standards.

Happy couples have high standards for each other. The most successful couples are those who, even as newlyweds, refused to accept hurtful behavior from one another. Low levels of tolerance for bad behavior in the beginning of a relationship equals a happier couple down the road.

6. Learn to repair and exit the argument.

Happy couples have learned how to exit an argument, or how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Examples of repair attempts: using humor; stroking your partner with a caring remark (“I understand that this is hard for you”); making it clear you’re on common ground (“We’ll tackle this problem together”); backing down (in marriage, as in the martial art Aikido, you often have to yield to win); and, in general, offering signs of appreciation for your partner and his or her feelings along the way. If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break, and agree to approach the topic again when you are both calm.

7. Focus on the positives.

In a happy marriage, while discussing problems, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones. For example, “We laugh a lot” as opposed to “We never have any fun.” A good marriage must have a rich climate of positivity. Make regular deposits to your emotional bank accounts!

What would you put in yourTop 7 Ways to Nurture a Happy Marriage?

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Date Night

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I guess there is enough gray in my hair these days that people suddenly have decided I’m old enough to have “regrets.” Recently, several different people asked me what I would do differently if I had my years of early parenting to do over again. Without hesitation, I told both of them, “Date nights.”

When our children were little, my husband and I very rarely planned date nights. I had a nursing baby for nearly all of 25 years. I was committed to attachment parenting. And really, who do you have come to babysit seven children at a time? It just seemed so impossible to go out by ourselves. We did lots of “at-home dates” — just closing the door to our room and setting aside focused time after the children were asleep. But it’s really not the same.

Then, for our 25th wedding anniversary, Mike insisted we go to northern California for a week without the children. In that week, I became a strong and vocal advocate for honeymoons (we’d never had one) and date nights. As a change of scenery and an easing of momentary responsibilities melted day-to-day tensions, I relaxed into the happy company of my husband’s undivided attention. And I found I really liked it — and him.

Like a child who wants to buy everything in the souvenir shop at Disney World so that she can take the whole amazing adventure home with her, I resolved then and there to take a little “evening out adventure” with my husband at least once a month forevermore. I recognized that this was beneficial for our whole family. I shared those sentiments recently with my friend, Youth Apostles Father Peter W. Nassetta, who affirmed for me how necessary date night is. “Sometimes, parents become so focused on their kids that they forget about each other,” he said. “Kids need parents who love each other, and they need to see it!

Date nights can help children see their parents take time for each other. Of course, the parents benefit, too. They deepen their love for one another by taking the time for each other.”

When Mike insisted on an enormous seven-night date to northern California, he was insisting on making our relationship a priority. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave the kids, didn’t want to travel all the way across the country in an airplane. Didn’t want to do all the work that came before and after the trip. But I said “yes” because I knew it was really, really important to him. So, we flew to wine country. Did I mention that prior to this trip I could count on one hand the number of glasses of wine I’d had in my lifetime? The trip was amazing.

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In my attempt to bring home the whole souvenir store, I found an amazing local winery and determined to learn about wine in order to share my husband’s wine- tasting hobby. Then, I — who had never really been into wine at all — signed us up for the wine club. Further, I said that we’d come out and pick up our monthly deliveries instead of having them shipped. I thereby committed to a mini-honeymoon kind of date once a month.

That was a year and a half ago. Now, Rappahannock Cellars wine is a staple in our house, and that trip to the foothills once a month is a cherished “tradition.”

I’m going to entice you out to join us for a date next month. Rappahannock Cellars is hosting Slow Food, Vast Wine, an annual fundraising event benefiting a local Catholic atrium and Montessori center. The center is a beautiful place for children to encounter the Good Shepherd in their weekly atrium sessions. A good number of the center families rely on financial aid to afford the tuition, which is kept as low as possible. Every year, Rappahannock Cellars hosts a gala of local food and wine, together with live and silent auctions. This year, the event is April 26. The beautiful setting near Front Royal is just perfect for a date night getaway that will refresh your souls and make you feel like you’ve just been on a little bit of a honeymoon. And that can only be a good thing, right?

 

A Great, Big Valentine's Bouquet

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I used to hate Valentine's Day. All romantic notions and lofty daydreams wrapped in red satin bows, just waiting for disappointment and disillusionment. It never works out the way it does on the Hallmark channel. I tread carefully here, since I've had the same Valentine for over thirty years and I absolutely wouldn't have it any other way. He speaks a beautiful love language. But offerings of flowers and candlelight on a specific day in the middle of February isn't it.

Truth be told, I'm not the best gift-giver either. I try hard, but I can't always make the grand ideas in my head match what actually happens, especially on a deadline of someone else's making. Two years ago, I hated Valentine's Day the most. That was my first year of Instagram. Since I use Pinterest maybe 4 times a year and only when I'm specifically researching to find out how to do something, Instagram is my visual connection to the vast world out there. 

Instagram explodes with hearts and flowers and husbands and mothers who are just so very good at this whole Valentine thing.  Last year, I didn't even look there at all on February 14 because the year before it was so deflating. Not good enough. Not good enough. Not good enough.

It's a language problem, really. I see that now. Love speaks so many languages and sometimes, there is only one person in the world who can understand the language of another. And, if that is the case, then a picture posted for all the world to see probably isn't going to convey its meaning.

My friend Lisa-Jo is writing today about all the ways Love runs. She is putting words to the expressions of love that far exceed cards in red envelopes and out-of-season, not-local-at-all flowers. She's got an amazing, amazing act of love to tell you about, something we can all share

She asked about gardens and love. I laughed out loud, alone in my bed last night, when I read it. Gardens are sort of running joke around here. In my imagination, I have a lush, beautiful garden growing in my backyard. Something nearly big enough to sustain us. It's a ridiculous dream in a lot of ways. I can't do the labor to establish a garden of that size. Most of our backyard is a soccer field. And, really, do the math: do you know how much spinach I'd have to plant to keep a family this size in salad? It's crazy. My husband spends long days working and any "leisure time" caring for his children. He wasn't called to be a farmer, even of a little farm. He was called to be the dad on the sidelines all over the world.

So, I have a little vegetable garden and a full bed of roses along the side of the house. And I can't ever go out to tend those roses without remembering the words spoken by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. "How can there be too many children? That's like saying there are too many flowers."

My husband has spent the last 26 years gathering the most amazing bouquet for me. He tends it ever so carefully. He shelters it in life's raging storms. He tenderly tucks warmth around it on cold nights and he offers it nourishment and refreshment on hot days. He blows gentle breezes onto its faces and smiles sunshine at how beautifully it blooms. 

Today, he'll try to do a little airline magic to get home after all flights were canceled yesterday. Likely, he'll have to drive to an airport other than the one he intended originally. He'll have to catch a plane that flies "home" to the airport in the city instead of the one ten minutes from our house. He'll have to drive home in the slippery, ugly aftermath of what used to be a beautiful snowstorm. And then, he will walk through the door and love will light the room. He'll gather tender rosebuds, and tall, woody reeds of gold. He'll tousle their heads and kiss their cheeks and take their handmade offerings and tell them how wonderful it all is. 

I will remember that this is my Valentine bouquet, grown in the garden of his heart and this man has sown seeds of love and made sure the finest blossoms grew. every. single. day. since he first promised he would on a dark Valentine's Eve 32 years ago. That's one dedicated gardener, there.

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"There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps."

~ Ronald Reagan

My heart skips a beat just thinking about his footsteps on the front porch.

Psst: Go visit Lisa-Jo.

Knit or Read, Read or Knit (and some great quotes for marriage)

Seems like a good day to join Ginny for a Yarn Along. I haven't done that in a very long while. I'm a woefully slow knitter. I don't have much new to show from week to week. For nearly a month, I've been working along on a Honey Cowl in Opaline Pashmina. Beautiful yarn, it's a pleasure to knit. But goodness, I hope I have it finished before the winter is over!

My great dilemma these days has been whether to knit or to read (or to sew, but that's tomorrow). I know there are people who can do both simultaneously. I am most definitely not one of them. Beth recommended Breath of Peace to me a couple weeks ago. I mistakenly had Amazon ship it to Christian's house instead of mine. I picked it up Saturday night when I dropped him off, then I finished the book Sunday -- all in one day. I'm kind of a binge reader like that. One of the biggest draws in homeschooling for me was the ability to give my children permission to do nothing but read some days. Very rarely do they request such a day. Somehow, I've not raised the voracious readers that I am. Come to think of it, I do have some accumulated Audible credit. I could listen to a book read to me and knit at the same time. Do you have some favorite fiction read aloud to recommend?

Back to the book. Very, very thoughtful. And thought-provoking. It's the story of an ex-monk in the 1300s who marries at midlife. I'm not sure the plot is even plausible and I do not want to debate the theology, but the messages woven into the fabric of the compelling story are well worth willful suspension of disbelief. I almost abandoned it in the beginning because I couldn't bear to read the dialogue between the man and his wife. Do people really talk to their husbands that way? I can't even imagine it. Late in the book, we hear the wife's thought process and maybe I better understand her. Still, I can't imagine even thinking so much snarkiness. I didn't really identify with either the woman or her husband exactly. I understood his ghosts well enough, but was astonsihed at her lack of compassion. Still, page after page, I was intrigued by their story. And the lessons here are excellent ones. None of us might be quite as extreme as these two, but all of us could work on our communication skills and our understanding of the history we bring to our marriages. And it seems it's possible that a married couple could learn a great deal from a community of monks who live mostly in silence. Hmmm.

I've gathered a few quotes for you here.

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“When I cross the threshold of our home, for mercy’s sake, this should feel like a sanctuary. I should not be bracing myself for whatever might hit me this time—what reprimand, what fault exposed. As I open the door, I take a quick glance at your face to see if I must expect trouble. Sometimes, all is well. Sometimes my heart sinks and I think, oh save us, what have I done wrong now? Heaven knows I’m familiar enough with that kind of home: but I’ve always cherished the dream it doesn't have to be this way." 

~

“Love, love is not a matter of endearments murmured in the bedroom and forgotten in the day’s work around the yard. Love is for the everyday, and its courtesies are for the ordinary round, not just for the conquest of seduction.”

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"I think, if you are willing to let things go sometimes, not have to have everything done right, that will help. So what if the fox steals a hen or two? Is that more serious than letting the devil steal your marriage? Do you really want William dancing like a puppet while you pull the strings, afraid to offend you, frightened of what you'll say if he makes a mistake?"

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"It's a hard lesson to learn and it asks a lot of anyone. I think even when we've practiced for years it takes more than most of us have, to get it right. Again and again in community here, I have to ask my brothers' forgiveness when I forget myself and say something cutting or contemptuous or intolerant. And I imagine it must be the same in marriage. Except, in the night, where we have our holy silence to help us, you married folk are also blessed with an extra way to put things right."

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"Maintaining careful courtesy and gentle speech began to drain Madeleine's resources after a while. She wondered if the brothers at St. Alcuin found it as hard work as this, or if it somehow came naturally to them. Even so, she had to admit, pleasant and cheerful conversation added something of a flavor of courtship to their evening together. Everything felt less empty and prosaic than it usually did."