Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Grace for the Chronically Sick Mama

"'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me." 2 Corinthians 12:9

This has been a challenging month for our family. I had a flare of a chronic disease coupled with a serious infection, pain, vomiting, diarrhea, drug interactions, side effects, the works. It was miserable.
I have successfully managed this disease fairly effective for several years. This was my first major flare as a mother with two little kids. This was the first flare when my kids started to notice how sick I was. I watched my two beautiful little humans run around, asking me to join their games. My son would quietly watch me not eating during mealtime and say, "I don't think Mommy is eating enough."

I could not tell my kids a definitive date that I'd be better. This is the struggle with chronic illnesses. There is no finality of "Yay! I kicked that flu! Onward march!" There is a lot of sitting in pain that doesn't end, finding acceptance in the questions, living in the now of what you can and cannot do. 

When you have nothing left to give, that moment of disease feels like it can last forever. And that's when you have to rest in that vulnerable place and trust the healing process.

My husband was able to work flexible hours from home so we didn't even have financial worries and the kids had lots of Daddy time. He has been working non-stop either providing for our family or working to keep the household going. Our family is such a blessing, bringing us food, grocery shopping, cleaning, folding laundry, taking care of kiddos. Friends checked in frequently, bringing activities for my kids, encouragement for me.

My kids were so flexible with what mommy could and could not do. When I said, "I don't feel up to doing right now," they would nod, give me a hug, and ask what we could do together.

They rephrased the question. They rephrased my view of my illness.

I had to cancel their combined birthday with friends, replaced instead with a small family gathering that I fell asleep half way through. My son said it was wonderful.

I canceled our long awaited family trip to the city, cancelled field trips, homeschool group outings, and play dates. Sometimes, I wasn't always able to talk from exhaustion or nausea or pain. I still feel distracted by fatigue, from not enough spoons.

Honestly, there have been more than a few rough spots as the kids ride out an unpredictable time in our family and a mommy who sits. A lot. I remind myself that through this process they are learning new levels of compassion, empathy, flexibility, and thoughtfulness.

It is their acceptance of our life as it is that is simply beautiful. I love the way my kids live in the moment. I'm their mommy whether I'm productive or mobile or simply... not.

My worth as a mommy is providing mama-love as only I can in whatever ways I can. I'm leaning into grace right now, reaching for that strength that comes when I give over my weakness. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

You Keep Us Adventuring, I'll Keep You Safe

Dear Kiddo,

Today, we took a hike in the woods.  You hopped over rocks and explored the winding path. You picked me a bouquet. A small collection of leaves and sticks. And you presented it to me with a big smile, "Here, Mommy, I picked this for you."

I yelped "Yikes! Drop it!" and started to hurriedly move us towards the bathroom (the second of what would be four visits).

The bouquet was composed of big, shiny poison ivy leaves. You had been twirling, caressing, arranging those leaves. A gift for me.

You were complained, questioned, dragged your feet. I finally captured you and then scrubbed and scrubbed, praying that the plant oils hadn't spread to any other parts of your little person.

I want you to know that it's my job to keep you safe. I will do whatever I can to keep you safe. My mommy quoted me this passage by Elizabeth Stone when you were a newborn,
"Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." 
This might sound cheeseball to you, but it's true.

You are out to explore the world with vigor and vim, woe to the mommy that tries to stop you! You are my perpetual gerund, always moving, leaping, hopping, skipping. I love your curiosity and careful eye, how you notice the woodpecker holes and the caterpillar on the path. I see your sweetness, your smile, and how you find me special rocks or flowers (or poison ivy).

You're my wild man; I'll be your steady rock. You keep us adventuring; I'll keep you safe. You explore the ranges of your emotions; I'll be your compass and guide. Together, we'll find a way to be wild and free, safe and loved.

"i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)"  - E. E. Cummings

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Bravest Prayer I Know

The Bravest Prayer

All prayer is brave. We have the audacity to address the Lord of the Universe, to call Him Abba, Daddy. We leap into our Daddy's arms and renew this Covenant of love at every mass. Last Sunday, a dear friend gave a homily about how we are called to be true spiritual Olympiads. We have to train constantly to be ready for a the final test. We must develop our prayer life and virtues slowly, growing in spiritual muscle. I don't know about you, but I'm not too comfortable in a gym. 

The Litany of Humility is prayerful weightlifting. It's the hardest prayer I know. It's one of those you pray to be able to pray better. The author Cardinal Merry Del Val is now a Servant of God, on his way to being canonized a saint. He prayed this prayer daily after each mass. 

This prayer stretches my own desires upwards, away from myself, turns my focus away from myself and my own worries. 
"He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3:30)
What would my life look like if I didn't worry about what others thought but only lived for Jesus? What if I were free from all fear? Can I honestly add that someone who is especially challenging to be with at the end of each of the lines? I'll be honest, the thought is... hard. I still have a lot of time to put in the spiritual gym! Seriously, this is the bravest prayer I know.
"Not my will, but yours be done," (Luke 22:42)
The Litany of Humility by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus (repeat after each line).
From the desire of being extolled ...
From the desire of being honored ...
From the desire of being praised ...
From the desire of being preferred to others...
From the desire of being consulted ...
From the desire of being approved ...
From the fear of being humiliated ...
From the fear of being despised...
From the fear of suffering rebukes ...
From the fear of being calumniated ...
From the fear of being forgotten ...
From the fear of being ridiculed ...
From the fear of being wronged ...
From the fear of being suspected ...

That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it (repeat after each line).
That others may be chosen and I set aside ...
That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...
That others may be preferred to me in everything...
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

From the desire of being loved...
That others may be loved more than I,
That others may be esteemed more than I ...

Danielle Rose wrote a beautiful musical adaption here if you wish to pray through song. 

"For freedom, Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery" (Galations 5:1). This prayer is for me all the things I didn't know to pray for, all the secret places I need grace so desperately. So that's what I'm praying. I'm praying to be set free. And it's scary. Prayer is for the brave-hearted, those walking the road of grace by faith. 

What is your brave prayer? 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mommy, What Is a Soul?

"Mommy, What is a soul?"

You ask and wait over your yogurt and grapes, philosophizing before mama has even had her coffee. 

We have moved beyond why is the sky blue
Moved so far beyond, diving, plummeting, sinking, swimming off together into-

"Mommy, what is a soul?"

Your blue eyes so deep with the thirst of knowledge
that tickle in the back of your mind that must be quenched,
the full understanding that you don't know everything. 
But you want to. 

"Mommy, what is a soul?” 

I think back to my once upon a time after a happily ever after, 
Two souls united and ignited your fire, sent you spinning into orbit until 
one day 
you will create your own world apart from us. 

"Mommy what's a soul?"

A soul, little one, you have one. You are one, it's invisible, but real. 
It animates, it's God-given, it's freedom, it's spirit, it's life.
It's you 

I soak up your grin as you ponder, your eyes crunch up trying to see the unseen. 

Oh, My wild child, not mine to keep. I treasure your soul that's only mine 
to teach to love to grow to foster to pray
until your fire burns so strong 
You don't need me. 

Until you are certain 
your soul is.

Copyright 2016 Hannah J. Conti

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Podcasts for Little Ones

My kids have grown up hearing "Mommy's podcasts." For the most part, they've ignored me while I listen and wash dishes unless they hear a snippet that intrigues them (side note: both kids learned to clap along to "NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" while they were toddlers. Future NPR lovers).

Here is a list of our favorite podcasts for kids, available for free download. These are a perfect accompaniment for car rides or sitting down with an art project. To give you an idea, my son is 4.5-years-old and he loves these podcasts, but they would also be great for older elementary aged kids.

Story Pirates: these zany stories are written by kids and performed by professional actors, comedians, and sketch artists using almost exact language of the original composition. Each episode includes a reading of the original story, the performance, and an interview the writer. This inspired my four-year-old to submit his own story which will be performed live in NYC in December by the StoryPirates. Needless to say, we are big fans.

Sparkle Stories: These are sweet, calming stories centered around families and overcoming everyday challenges. These stories preserve a child's innocence, while encouraging them to explore the world and face their fears. The Sparkle Stories website also offers extra stories, recipes, and crafts. They also offer a subscription service if you need more Sparkle Stories on demand all the time. My son will listen to these stories repeatedly for up to an hour while he plays with Legos or does craft projects.

But Why: This podcasts picks the theme based on real kids' questions (you can submit your own questions to become podcasts!) and has real scientists, professors, historians, etc. answer these inquiries through a conversational interview. Some episodes have held my son's interest better than others.

Tumble: Science Podcasts for Kids: These science podcasts are intended for kids aged 8-12 years and also told via interview with scientists. I am a great believer in being able to learn from a wide variety of materials, even those harder or easier than one is accustomed to. My son still enjoyed these, notably the space ones and most especially the Journey to the Deepest Part of the Ocean because we are all about the Marianna Trench. I can see him really loving this podcast in a few years.

Not podcasts, but other free things to listen to...

Our favorite stories on Spotify: A collection of our favorite stories found on Spotify. You can listen for free with commercials. Eclectic, goofy, and thoughtful, this playlist is a wide variety of stories.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Dear Kiddos, Be the Change.

Dear kiddos,

I write this to you so one day, when you're a little older, we can have an in-depth conversation. I hope we will continue to revisit this conversation throughout our relationship because this is important. 

I want you to know that there are a lot sad things happening right now. Sometimes my heart is so heavy I feel like it's fallen somewhere down by my feet. I want you to know that people are not becoming more evil, but that we are shedding light further and finding more shadows, darkness that always was. Only if we find the darkness, can we shed light on the shadowy places. 

There are people in our world who don't have many of the good things we take for granted, such as safety, peace knowing there is money in the bank, a roof over their heads, food on their table, and family who can help if needed. I know you give thanks for these things every night. I hear you pray for those without and my heart smiles knowing you care, that it's one step towards not assuming you are the norm.

Throughout history, people have tried to decide that some humans are innately better than others whether that is due to ancestry, disability or ability, skin color, religion, physicality, country of origin, age, gender, or sexuality. There are those in power who try to keep those without without. 

This is still happening. It's important to be aware, to listen. We are called to listen to the minority, to those who cry, to those who shout "injustice!" or those who have no voice. I want you to be unafraid to talk to people even those who disagree with you. I want you to have the courage to examine your heart, your conscience, and then trust yourself and trust grace to see you through.

We have always taught you that all lives matter, have infinite worth. Sometimes you need to speak up for a particular, singular group that is not being heard or valued or understood. That is why currently there is a movement called Black Lives Matter. It does not mean that black lives matter more than other skin colors. The movement started because the personhood, the very lives of black people have been undervalued for centuries. And it's long past time for change.

So. Never stop listening to the marginalized. Speak up. Be brave. Don't forget you are privileged, but don't get mired in guilt. Be grateful for the opportunity to stand with the disenfranchised, to lend a hand, to shine the spotlight on the shadows, to speak the truth, and give the microphone to someone with no voice. You have tremendous conviction. I know you will use that in beautiful ways in the future.

Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." The change I see is you. And it gives me hope.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Offering Up Sleep Deprivation: Finding a Tired Spirituality

I often think back to before I became a mother. And then I laugh really hard. I assumed so many things, one of which was that my children would inevitably sleep. My imaginary, angelic children would sleep soundly while I would accomplish all the chores, make a healthy dinner, exercise, pray, and improve my mind, probably bring in a lot of money by freelancing. As it turns out, sleep is not really my kids' favorite activity. I'm not looking for advice, but more to share about the struggles of sleepless parenthood from a spiritual perspective. 'Cause the struggle is real.

Something I did not realize about sleep deprivation is that how much energy it can take to focus on one thing. I often feel scattered, unable to focus, and fall asleep praying. So how is a tired mama (or papa) supposed to pray, to transcend the ordinary and find God in the sleeplessness? 

Offer up sleep deprivation as a sacrifice: 
Apparently many cradle Catholics grew up with an understand of redemptive suffering and being told to "offer up" various discomforts and problems. As a covert, it took several years for me to figure out how to offer up anything (and if this is something you're unfamiliar with I highly suggest this Catholic Mom article). I have since found peace and even joy in offering up physical pain and illness as a prayer. However, it was only four and half years into parenting (I know, I know, I'm dense. The Lord is also rolling His eyes) that I suddenly realized that sleep deprivation can be a form of redemptive suffering. Not only can I take care of my children's emotional and physical needs in the middle of the night, but I can offer up my suffering for their spiritual needs. I can also sing a hymn as they go to sleep or mumble a prayer if I'm awake enough.

Sleep Deprivation is a type of Suffering:
At first, I was very hesitant to call sleep deprivation suffering; that recognition was reserved only for serious problems, pain, and illnesses. This perspective led me to not give myself much grace throughout the day because what was I caterwauling about? Only a little lost sleep. I wondered how other people managed to focus or get anything done in life while I was really struggling. Then I learned that sleep deprivation is sometimes used as a form of torture. I realized that I was not being humble or realistic about my limitations. Humility is not a self-righteous, resentful martyrdom. True humility is the right understanding of self and God and how two are in relation. By acknowledging my personal challenge of sleeplessness, I was becoming more humble and living more truthfully. I like sleep, my kids don't, and I'm learning to live with that. I also realized that nighttime parenting is actually a gift of self, another type of laying down our lives for the sake of our child. 

Sleeplessness as a Prayer for Our Children:
Right after Jesus' instituted the Eucharist, he went out the garden to pray all night. The sacrificial passion of our Lord started in sleeplessness. His ultimate gift of self started with a sleepless night. I like to imagine that the  Blessed Mother also knows something of sleeplessness whether from Jesus' night waking as a child or when he was lost in Jerusalem. Our Heavenly Father sees our parenting and our offerings of a the difficulty parts and can use those prayers to help our children's spiritual lives. Just as we try to give our infants the best nutrition and care during those early days of their lives, we can offer up our parenting challenges as fodder for their spiritual lives.

Offering Up Nighttime Parenting:
This can be as simple as glancing upwards and breathing a wordless prayer of offering. Sometimes when you're so tired, there are not words left. Sometimes I end up mumbling "Hail Mary, full of grace... Hail Mary full of grace" unable to finish a single prayer. That's okay too. Or you can say something like the following:

"Lord, I offer you this sleepless night. I offer up my exhaustion. I offer myself as a watchman before dawn (Psalm 130:6), comforting and loving this little soul in the darkness. I offer my ineptitude tomorrow as I stumble through the day. I rely on you to give me the grace I need for the daylight and nighttime hours. I stand on your promise "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." (1 Corinthians 12:9) May my children see your love in me even when I feel I have nothing left to give."