…So I Didn’t Say A Word

It was September of 2018, and I was sitting in my doctor’s office trying to hide my smile. After six months without a period and lots of tests, my GYN was explaining that he thought I was getting close to menopause. “It won’t be official until you’ve gone a year without a cycle, but based on your hormone levels I’d say it’s highly unlikely that you’re ovulating.”

I walked out of his office and did a triumphant fist bump. I’d reached the finish line. After twelve pregnancies that gave us eight living children, at the age of 44, menopause was on the horizon. While I adore my children, I was so very tired of being pregnant.

Fast forward to early March 2019, and I was dying. There was something seriously wrong with me. My joints ached, I lived with a migraine that kept returning the moment my medication wore off, I struggled to find the energy to even eat, and my even my hair hurt. I soldiered on for two weeks before I finally called my GP, who is a friend of mine at this point, and cried as I told him what was going on. He ordered all the blood tests he could think of running, and then we waited.

The next day he called me and with a serious note in his voice said “Who is around you? Is there someone with you? I think you need to sit down.”

“I think you need to shut up with all this and just tell me what’s going on.” I demanded.

“You’re probably somewhere around three months pregnant.” He said softly.

“Shut the hell up!” I told him. “You’re not funny. If this is your lead in to tell me I’m dying of cancer, you need to know that I don’t like you any more and YOU’RE NOT FUNNY!”

He might not be funny, but he was right. I wasn’t in menopause yet after all. I was pregnant. And p*ssed. Still incredibly sick. And oh so very tired already.

This wasn’t in my plan at all. I had things I wanted to do, and none of them included pregnancy and another new baby. I knew he would be wonderful blah, blah, blah, but wasn’t I entitled to my own plans? Why couldn’t my body be my own again at last? Surely by now I had earned the right to set my own course. I just wanted to be anything other than pregnant and a new mom. Again.

Angry and resentful (and perhaps a little hormonal,) I didn’t say a word to anyone. I just stewed in my own juices, and cried. A lot.

Two weeks later I exploded in tears and yelling when I finally broke the news to my husband. The next day I texted my best friend “I’m pregnant. I don’t want to talk about it, but I just needed you to know. But seriously. I don’t want to talk about it.” God bless her, she didn’t say a word until I was ready. I don’t know how she had the self control, but she did.

I fired my OB/GYN (obviously) and went looking for someone who would rejoice in this new baby until I was ready to. As sick as I was, as overwhelmed as I was with the life I was already living, as tired and run down as I already felt, I wasn’t in a place of joyful or hopeful expectation. I was sitting at the bottom of horrible deep pregnancy related depression with months and months to go.

I reached out to friends and family members, letting them know that I was pregnant, and hoping to find happiness that I could draw on. They made snide comments and lame jokes about whether or not we “know what causes that.” Others said that we were crazy. One family member actually yelled and lectured about our “irresponsibility.” The small support network I had around me watched as I drew further into myself as my prepartum depression deepened.

And I said nothing to the rest of the world. I made jokes on social media, laughed with people online, and put on a brave and smiling face to the people I saw in real life, but inside I was numb. We had a baby coming and I didn’t prepare. I bought no clothes, I didn’t set up the crib, I didn’t talk about baby names, or start making plans for his arrival. I couldn’t write, not even about other things.

Depression had stolen everything except my exhaustion and resentment of the situation and a general malaise that covered everything I looked at. The last thing I wanted to do was to talk about being pregnant, and I certainly didn’t want to speak what I was feeling out loud because I knew how awful it would sound, and so I didn’t talk about it. I ignored my expanding middle, and was, for the first time in my life, silent.

 

 

 

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Tales from Home – The Story of Our Side Door

There is a glass and wood door just off of our sun porch. It doesn’t honestly look like much of interest. It’s just on an ordinary-looking old door. It wears the patina of almost a hundred years and the brass doorknob is worn smooth by decades of wear and tear. It certainly doesn’t look like the bold political statement it was when it was hung there or the danger that the door meant to the whole family who once lived here.

Dr. and Mrs. Smith moved into our house right after returning from their honeymoon, which was sometime in early 1920. He was the only dentist in our small town with his office set up right down on the square. Dr. Smith was liked and well-respected among the citizens on this side of F-Ville except for his insistence on seeing Black patients as well as White.

He was a sensible man and didn’t allow his patients to mix in his waiting room. He saw his White patients openly during the day, and his Black and Hispanic patients after his office had closed, bringing them in the back door to keep it all as quiet as possible. It didn’t take long before the whole town knew that Dr. Smith was seeing “Colored” patients on the down-low, and soon after that the Klan paid him a visit. Stop seeing your Black patients, they told him, or we’ll run you out of town.

He didn’t change his clientele, and the Klan swung into action. They let it be known around town that Dr. Smith was anathema and that anyone who knew what was good for them would stop seeing him immediately.  They then posted a giant of a man on the sidewalk outside his office to scare off anyone who ignored their ban and brought a Klan-friendly dentist into town to set up shop and run Dr. Smith out of business.

Dr. Smith wasn’t dropping any of his patients, or letting the Klan push him around. Instead, he hired a contractor to add a side entrance onto his house, renovated to change the downstairs bedroom into a waiting room and the backroom into an exam room, and added a parking space on the front lawn. He’d made an end-run around the Klan and brought his office home.

The KKK muscle man soon showed up on the sidewalk in front of our house, trying to keep the embargo in place. Dr. Smith had had enough. He grabbed his double-barrelled shotgun and ran at the goon screaming, “Get away from my house you sum-bitch!” The Klansman hightailed it out of there with the good doctor hot on his heels.

It was the last that Dr. Smith saw of the Klan around his business. He continued his practice here at home for years after that.

 

 

*We were fortunate to meet a few of his grandsons and one great-grandson last year. They stopped by to see the house where they’d spent their summers, and over a few glasses of sweet tea and Southern hospitality, they regaled us with the stories of the house we now call home.

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Tales from Home – The Grudge Hedge

When we moved into our house in August of 2018, we were the first people who were not the Smith family to live in it. Mrs. Smith (the Mrs is pronounced Mizz with the hard Z of a soft Texas twang) the previous owner was born in 1923 in the downstairs bedroom and only moved out to enter hospice a few weeks before her death. She was a fixture in our small Texas town. Whip-smart, proud, and filled with all the feistiness that would fit into her tiny frame, she was a fierce woman who seems to either have been loved or feared, with not much in between, but always treated with a great deal of respect. While I’ve seen her Christian name on her tombstone in the town cemetery, I’ve heard the people who knew her only refer to her as Mrs. Smith, and so therefore so will I.

Mrs. Smith was a championship gardener, and it would seem a very good cook. There is a marble slab set into my kitchen counter which was a gift from the local Baptist Church to the woman who made the bread for their communion services every week.

Now, next door to Mrs. Smith lived Mrs. Cook, Mrs. Smith’s nemesis. A “villain” in a housecoat and apron. These women were neighbors for more than fifty years, and their children were around the same ages, and that’s a lot of time for water to flow under the bridge. I don’t think the potato salad was the start of their feud, but I’ve heard tell that it was the spark that got it going hot.

The rumor is (and you can judge for yourself whether or not it’s true) that sometime in the 1960’s the Baptist Church, of which Mrs. Smith was a member, and the local Methodist Church, attended by Mrs. Cook, decided to combine their Fourth of July celebrations at the City Park with a pot luck supper.

Mrs. Smith brought potato salad.

So did Mrs. Cook.

Dueling dished being set upon the table was insult enough, but some words were exchanged that day about whose potatoes were better than the other’s, and it was more than Mrs. Smith was willing to bear. She came home and did what any sensible woman would do. She planted a wall of crepe myrtle bushes between the two houses so that she never had to lay eyes on Mrs. Cook’s ever house again.

Fifteen years ago Mrs. Cook passed on, and her house was sold to the Lane family who still live next door. During their settling in period, Mrs. Lane walked over to introduce herself to the now elderly Mrs. Smith who was out weeding the flower beds in her front yard. Mrs. Smith listened as she introduced herself, fixed her with a steady gaze, and crossing her arms across her bosom replied resolutely, “My name is Mrs. Smith, and if you touch my hedge, I will call the city on you.” She stared at Mrs. Lane a minute longer before turning and walking back into her house.

 

I’ve spent some time over the last few years looking for their competing recipes. I finally found Mrs. Cook’s in a cookbook put out by the Methodist women’s society in the 1970’s. It seems that Mrs. Smith’s recipe went with her to the grave.

 

Here is Mrs. Cook’s potato salad

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups peeled and cubed potatoes
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • 2 ribs of celery, sliced thin
  • 1/4 cup of green onions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise (she said Miracle Whip, but the real thing is better)
  • 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp  mustard
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper

Directions:

  1.  Place potatoes in pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Cook for 20-30 min until tender. Drain. Put in a bowl with eggs, celery, and onions. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl,  mix together the rest of the ingredients. Pour over potatoes and toss to coat.
  3. Refrigerate for at least one hour.

**When I’ve made this I added on depending on what I had on hand. We/ve liked it with bacon, purple onions, sweet pickles, dill pickles, and a variety of other things. Don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s a good basic recipe and stands up to some tomfoolery.

 

***We currently live in a 100-year-old home in a historic neighborhood. There are all kinds of stories floating around about the people who used to live here. I’ll be sharing a few of them with you during this quarantine.

 

 

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Steubenville Conferences Are Great….Unless You’re Disabled

Before our children were even old enough to attend them, we heard of the beauty of Steubenville Catholic Conferences. Friends and acquaintances alike sang the praises of the renewal of faith and refreshed spirits that their children experienced each Summer. When our eldest children reached high school age, we were determined that this needed to be a part of their faith experience, and worked hard to put aside the money necessary for them to attend. We saw the deep cut to our budget as a worthwhile investment to their faith lives.

Last year, we again began setting aside the funds for yet another child to make her first pilgrimage to a Steubenville Conference, this time in St Louis. We were sending our daughter, who is a wheelchair user, with her older brother, and their youth group, to what we hoped would be a beautiful weekend with God.

The week before they were due to leave, I received a concerned phone call from a friend of ours, who also uses a mobility device and was attending the Conference at the same venue our kids would attend. “I’m here at Steubenville in St Louis,” he said, “and it’s not accessible.” He recited for me a litany of problems he was having maneuvering around the conference space including lack of handicapped accessible doors, blocked aisles, locked elevators, bathrooms doors too narrow for wheelchairs, and more. Most disturbing to us was what he referred to as the “penalty box.” Church groups at Steubenville Conferences are assigned seating in the venue, but people with walkers or wheelchairs weren’t permitted to sit with their groups. Instead, they were placed off to the side by themselves in a designated and roped off seating area, and no one was permitted to sit with them. “I feel like a leper,” this adult friend told us. “It’s obvious that accessibility is an afterthought, and I’m little more than an inconvenience to them.”

Segregated and alone were not what we had hoped for our daughter to experience at a Catholic youth conference. I drove to our parish to give our youth director a heads up. Thankfully, she was just as disturbed as we were at the idea of isolating a 14 year old from her peers and the chaperones/adults who were traveling as a group, and the lack of basic accommodations that we’d been alerted to. She called the conference organizers a week before they were scheduled to arrive and attempted to fix all of these issues by notifying them that our daughter was coming. She asked them to be honest with her about what we could all expect, and if it was as we’d been told, we wanted Ella’s registration fees refunded before she was put in this kind of situation. Don’t worry, we were told, the Steubenville staff would be ready for her when she got there, and make sure that the weekend ran smoothly.

They had been there less than two hours when I got the first phone call from my daughter, she couldn’t get to her dorm room because the only outside door to the dorms that had a ramp instead of stairs was locked to the outside. Her youth leader had gone inside to open the door and get it unlocked only to be told that keeping it locked was a security measure and couldn’t be changed. For Ella to get inside the building, she’d have to wait by the back door until someone from her group went through the front door and all the way through the building to let her inside. “And of course it’s raining, so my chair and I are soaked,” she added. Rain or shine, it didn’t matter, the back doors were locked as a security request made by the conference, and no appeals that weekend saw it reversed.

The evening wasn’t over before I got a rueful text message. “The elevators are locked too, and my room is on the second floor. We’re waiting for them to find the person with the key, but they think she might be at dinner. This sucks. I want to change out of my wet clothes, and I have to pee. Do you think they’d give a crippled girl the key, or am I going to have to hunt for the key lady every time I want to go up or downstairs?” It was a great question, and it was answered a half hour later when the key master was finally located. Neither my daughter, nor any adult in their party, could be given access to the elevator key. The elevators were off limits because “the teenagers might play in them.” “I hope there’s not an emergency,” she typed, “because that could really suck if I’m stuck up here while someone searches for the person with the key.”

The problems were to continue throughout the weekend, with frequent updates from both my daughter and the youth director.

Despite their being told to expect a student with a wheelchair with our group, their assigned seating was nowhere near the handicapped “penalty box.” Our parish’s youth were seated on the opposite side of the auditorium and up the stairs from where Ella was required to sit. Please could she sit with her group, the people in charge were begged. Her friends would piggy-back her up to a seat, and her chair could be stored out of the way until the session was over. Please, could they let her sit with her friends? The answer was a resounding ‘No.’ Her chair, even tucked out of the way, was a trip hazard. She had to sit in the “Handicapped Area.” No exceptions.

With tears in her eyes, she tried to make her way down the aisle, only to be stopped by the sound equipment that was in her way. She would have to go outside the building, back and around, and in the other door to the designated area. They relented and allowed her to bring one friend with her, but only because the door was heavy, and “there’s no one there to open it for you.”

I wish that I could say the weekend improved at some point, but it never did. By the final session, my girl’s requests for people to hold or unlock doors, find the person with the elevator key, or get the friend who was allowed to sit with her a folding chair so that they could actually sit with her were met with barely concealed annoyance that was remarked on by everyone who was with her. The message was loud and clear, she was annoying the staff simply by being present.

When registration for this year’s Conference rolled around, our parish was in the process of hiring a new Youth Director, and the DRE, unaware of what had gone on the year before, booked our group into the same St Louis conference. Maybe it would be different, I told my daughter. After all, the youth director had had long discussions with the Conference organizers, and I had had more than one phone call with them. We had spoken to other people with mobility issues who had raised their concerns after last year’s events, so we knew they were aware that there were serious problems. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the planners had made adjustments for those who were not able bodied to attend.

Last week we heard from the first of our disabled Catholic friends who will to venture to St Louis. After speaking to organizers, he reported “Nothing has changed. It’s still not accessible, and I’m still an inconvenience.” We let our girl make the call, and she’s opted not to go.

She curled up next to me as I called the Youth Director to withdraw her from the group, and cried. After five years of fighting our parish for accessibility and dialoguing with the diocese about the unmet needs of people with disabilities to even get into buildings and participate in events with only minimal success, she’s done. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she said, “but I don’t think I’ll be Catholic when I’m an adult. I believe in what the Church teaches, but they clearly don’t want me here.”

Once upon a time, there was a disabled man who wanted to get close to Christ, and his companions literally ripped the roof off of the building to make that happen. There was no sacrifice or inconvenience too big if it got even one soul close to Jesus. It seems as though we’ve lost our way on this issue.

 

 

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The Dragon in the Garden of Eden

Whenever I thought of the devil of the Garden of Eden, or told the story to my children, I saw him as a small green fellow. First a lizard like the ones in my garden, and then a skinny grass snake with a sneaky smile – small, cunning, wheedling. Adam and Eve I imagined to be beguiled, talked into eating that apple the same way a slick used car salesman talks you into buying a lemon. Slimy and smarmy, and slick.

It was a dive into medieval art that turned my notions on their ear.

There are traditions, I learned, in which the serpent in the garden is not small, snake-like, and whispering lies. He’s very much a fearsome dragon, before he is cursed into legless mortification. He oppresses, threatens, and intimidates. He’s more Vito Corleone making Eve an offer she can’t refuse, then someone trying to sell her on a “good deal for today only.” In those traditions, Eve trembled in fear at Satan’s awesomeness rather than being simply seduced into disobedience, She bit into the fruit, hoping to avoid pain and even the unknown-until-now death, and the knowledge of Good and Evil was the carrot dangled in front of her fear.

The failure and sin of Adam, then, is not merely that he is morally weak and easily persuaded. His failure lies in his spinelessness, his cringing, his disobedience, and his refusal to protect not just his wife; but all of creation. The very same creation which had been designed for and entrusted to him by God, Adam wasn’t willing to chance his health and safety to defend.

In this tradition, Adam failed in the most basic task which had been given to him, to care for the gifts he had been given dominion over. It’s easy to skip past that part and rush on to the nakedness and the avenging angel, and yet in that truth lies his failure. Adam hadn’t been called to be a father figure wagging his finger as he scolded Eve for her transgressions. He was called to be a heroic figure willing to give everything, even his own life, in defense of all that is good. He had only to protect and defend, follow the rules God had placed upon him, and to care for all that had been given to him. It was his job to stand between all of creation and the Dragon.

I have often heard Jesus referred to as “The New Adam”. This always made sense to me in that creation began anew with Him. But, for me at least, the dragon-like snake completes the circle. In this other tradition, Christ steps into the role, not simply as the sacrificial victim he certainly was, but also as the hero Adam refused to be. He is the giant of courage to Adam’s cowardice. Where Adam  cringes in the face of intimidation and loses paradise because of it, Jesus walks defiantly in the presence of that same evil when He meets it in a garden, stepping between the devil and the world, offering himself where Adam would not.

For me, it took the idea of the serpent as an oppressive and threatening force in order to see the image of Christ, not simply as a lamb heading willingly and obediently to slaughter, but as the defiant hero. It is in contrast to Adam’s weakness that He stands tall. It is then that his slow walk down the Via Dolarosa becomes the triumphant march of a warrior assured of victory, and through His defense that Paradise is restored to us.

 

image: Adam and Eve by Rembrandt

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Instant Pot Pork Carnitas (Crispy pulled pork tacos)

I had a whole cute story to go up here about how I grew up in South Texas eating Tex-Mex food, and that because of that I’m a Mexican food snob. How pork carnitas are a great break from heavy winter foods because their citrus-y notes are surprisingly refreshing on a cold day. I was going to regale you with how the Instant Pot has revolutionized cooking for me, and made getting food on the table so much simpler.

But then I thought about how much I hate having to wade through tomes on other people’s blogs in order to get the recipe I’m looking for, so I’m keeping this simple. Carnitas are yummy. Here’s how to make them:

Instant Pot Carnitas (or slow cooker if that’s more your jam, it just takes longer)

  • 4-5 lb pork butt or shoulder roast (it’s not actually the pig’s butt, in case you were wondering)
  • 4 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano (Mexican oregano is best, but use what you have)
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 2-3 bay leaves (I use two unless they’re small, then I need three)
  • 6-8 cloves garlic (I always use 8, but we really like garlic)
  • 1 cup orange juice (I use the pulp free kind my kids drink, but you can fresh squeeze it if you want to)
  • juice from 3 med or 2 large limes
  • 3/4 cup of Coke (yes, you can use Dr Pepper instead)
  • 1 large onion cut into chunks
  • 1 4.5 oz can of diced green chilis (I use the mild because some of my kids are wimps)

Dump it all into your Instant Pot (or slow cooker.) There’s no reason to try to be pretty about this since you’re just going to cook the heck out of it and no one else is going to see it. Dump it all in.

Put the lid on and cook on Manual for 2 hours (8-10 on low or 5-6 on high for you slow cooker peeps.) Slow pressure release, and then shred the whole thing.

*My pork roast is usually frozen when I put it into the IP because I never think ahead enough to thaw it first.

 

Making them crispy

You can go ahead and make tacos out of the carnitas right now, but they’re so much better when they’re crispy.

I use 2 methods depending on how many people I’m feeding at any given meal.

  1. Crisp them up in a pan – Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a pan on medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add enough of the shredded pork to cover the surface pan (or as much as y’all are going to eat.) You don’t want a thick layer here, you want it to sear and get crispy on the edges. Ladle the liquid (broth) over it while it’s cooking to make it extra flavorful.
  2. Crisp them in the oven – This is what I usually do because there are a lot of us. You’re going to need a cookie sheet with a rim on it, or other suitable pan. Spray your cookie sheet with nonstick spray or line it with foil. Put a thin layer of pork on the sheet. It can be touching, you can crowd it a bit. Pour a cup or so of the broth over the pork and then broil it 5-10 minutes until the ends are deliciously crispy and browned.

Serve the crispy shredded pork on a warm tortilla (corn is traditional, but my kids won’t eat them) with chopped onion, cilantro if you like it, and a touch of salsa. It’s also great on a salad, on nachos, stirred up with so guac and dipped on chips, or eaten straight from the pan before you tell anyone else they’re ready.

 

 

 

 

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Be STILL

The end of 2018 was a strange one for me. The year which had started with the exhaustion and fulfillment of a new book completed, new speaking engagements booked (I still have room in my 2019 calendar if your group needs a speaker,) and all kinds of possibilities; ended as a mixture of contentment, new energy, and hope.

Ella’s rheumatoid arthritis began to flare up over the summer, but became debilitating after a simple cold became a sinus infection and then triggered her immune system. (Please don’t come near us if you have a sniffle. It can be catastrophic for us.) The arthritis which had been confined in her legs rapidly went systemic invading her arms, wrists, hands, and jaw. My girl who was famous for her ability to get around suddenly couldn’t open her mouth beyond halfway or get out of bed without her wrists dislocating from the swelling and pressure.

Despite the wheelchair, I had never thought of Ella as being handicapped before this Fall. She was profoundly disabled, and the phrase “wheelchair-bound” became a description of her reality. And she needed me home.

I prayed about it, and then resigned from everything I was doing. I quit my job coaching at the Crossfit box near our old house. I stepped back from volunteering at the kids’ schools. I stopped traveling to meet up with friends, cutting way back on my social life and asking those I did see to come here instead.

I spent my time writing (look for new books later this year,) reading, and working on our new home. As I worked at making our new spaces feel more comfortable (and pretty, pretty is VERY important,) I purged. I weeded through mountains of paperwork and old clothes, a virago of cleaning frenzy. I took all of the energy that I used to spend running around and living out loud, and turned it back towards my home, family, and writing.

My husband and I discussed my schedule and decided how many days a month I could be gone for speaking and book stuff, and I began to see them as joyful God-sent mini-vacations. I stopped seeking them, and God gently filled my Fall and Winter calendar.

As we got to Christmas, Ella’s new medication finally began working, and her strength and mobility have begun to return. She’s no longer sleeping 18-20 hours a day (autoimmune diseases are exhausting,) and she can once again venture out to see friends one or two times a week.

As our world has begun to open back up to us, I began considering what I could and should add back to my schedule as she continues to improve. I’ve decided, for now, to stick with what’s working.

There is a peace in my simplified life that my former busyness had kept hidden. All of the running kept me from the work God has placed in front of me. Designing a life for myself that was lived so much away from my home was robbing me of the simple warmth of home and family. It was and is a fun life, but it’s not honest and real.

Just for fun, I rolled the dice with Jen Fulwiler’s “Word of the Year” generator twice and it gave me the words “Engage” and “Still.” It made me smile, because that was exactly what I had already planned for 2019 to look like – more writing, more blogging, more engaging with people that God places in my path (look out world! If y’all thought that I talked to everyone I met before now, multiply that by a LOT!) and to be still. I’m planning on a lot more days of my minivan’s being parked in my driveway.

God wasn’t in the earthquake, or the wind, or any of the loud and violent things that passed by. He was in the quiet breeze. This year, I’m going to stay still long enough to hear Him.

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The Secret Society of St Nick

 

We were on our way to Confirmation prep class and our eldest boy, who was thirteen at the time, was talking about Christmas and Santa Claus.  After a bit, I asked him, “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”

“Yes.” He replied confidently. “Lots of my friends don’t, but there are all kinds of things we don’t see or understand and still believe.”  My heart both sank and leapt at the gentle trust and faith of my son.  “I just tell them they’re wrong, and that it can’t be their parents.”

I reached over in the dark of the car and held his hand.

“Oh no.” He whispered.  “Say it isn’t really…”

“Do you know the story of St Nicholas?” I asked him.  “The real story of the saint?”

“Yeah…kinda…”

“1700 years ago give or take a bit, St Nicholas was a wealthy man who had become a priest, and then a bishop, at a time when it was against the law to be a Christian. He didn’t care what the law was, he loved God and tried to take care of his little corner of the Church as best as he could.  He took the wealth his parents had left him and began giving it away to those members of his flock who needed it.  Remember, Christianity was illegal, so a lot of people suffered terribly.”

“Like they couldn’t get jobs?” My son asked.

“I would assume so.  I can’t imagine the people of that area liking these lawbreakers, could you? So, anyway, the Christian people were being persecuted and many were poor.  There’s a well-known tale of a family that was so poor that the father was having to sell his daughters into slavery because he couldn’t pay his bills and they couldn’t eat.  Can you imagine the sadness of having to sell your children because you had no money?  It’s unbelievable almost, that kind of pain.

Nicholas, the Bishop, heard about this family and wanted to help them, but couldn’t do it where other people could see.  The cops already knew that he was a Christian, they had sent him to jail for it.  If he was seen giving money to someone, they would be exposed as Christians, too.  But Nicholas was clever, and as he walked by their house, he dropped a small bag of coins through the window.  Three times he did this, until the family had enough money to not need to sell their daughters.  One of those times, the coins landed in one of the girls’ shoes which were sitting by the fireplace.”

“Is that where the stockings on the mantle thing comes from?”

“Exactly right.  We know these stories and retell them.  That’s how most traditions begin.  Like St Nicholas.  We don’t actually know what time of year it was when he gave the money to the girls, but we know it was cold-ish or her shoes wouldn’t have been near the fire.

Over the centuries, St Nicholas became more and more loved by people as they heard tales of his goodness and generosity.  Eventually, it became a thing for children to put out shoes on his feast day to see if they could get something good in their shoes, too.”

He sat for a second and thought about it.  “So, how did it end up at Christmas? I know he was a bishop and loved Jesus, but how did we end up with Santa Claus and presents on Christmas Day?”

“I don’t really know the answer to that, but I have a guess.  I’d think it was two things.  The first is that his feast day is in December and close to Christmas.  The second is the Protestants.  They don’t have a love or an understanding of the saints the same way that we do.  They also celebrate Christmas way before it actually arrives.  That all kind of combined to make the Christmas season come before Christmas Day and St Nick got swallowed up into it all.”

“So why do we do it?  Why do Catholics play this game?”

“Because to us it’s not a game.  To us, it’s doing something in memory and in the name of a great and wonderful man.  It’s taking a moment to think about the needs and wants of others and then giving generously in the manner of St Nicholas.  We do it anonymously, and sign his name to the gift tags.  Because, it isn’t about us, it’s about love and kindness.  It’s about taking what we have and sharing what God has given us.  It may not be an actual physical St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, arriving at our homes on Christmas Eve, but it is those of us who love him and follow his example.  In that way, his spirit of unselfish giving lives on along with his great faith and love.”

“So that makes us his followers…like disciples?” He asked me.

“Or elves…” I told him.

He laughed a bit and squeezed my hand.  “It’s kind of like we’re a secret society, The Followers of Nicholas, isn’t it?”

“It is.  Only you know the thing about a secret society is….”

“What happens in Fight Club stays in Fight Club?”

“Cute.  If St Nicholas didn’t tell, then neither should you.”

I waited a few moments before asking him, “I didn’t just kill it for you, did I?  Have I killed the magic for you?”

“No.  It’s not the sparkly magic, but it’s kinda better.  There’s a secret pact of all the people in the world to love each other.  That’s cooler than toy-making elves….Plus it takes away the creepy part of ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping…’

“So, what do you think? Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”

“Absolutely, yes…..even more now than ever before.  Now, I get to be a part of it”

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Opting out of the “National Day of Prosperity”

**I originally wrote this post two years ago, but I think it’s worth dusting off and sharing it again.

 

Last year, two Chinese students joined our family for the week of Thanksgiving. The dorms had been closed for maintenance, and the school pleaded for families to find space for those students unable to travel to their homes for the holiday. Plenty of space and food, and a long tradition of Southern hospitality led to our spending the week with two young men from China.

Our bustling child-filled home was a shock to them. Raised in a world of only children, they were  overwhelmed by the number of children in our house. One of the young men, who goes by the American name David, is an only child without cousins, aunts or uncles. The other, Sean, has an elder sister. It took his parents and grandparents years to raise the $45,000 bribe to gain permission to have a second child. He told us how relieved everyone had been that he was a boy, because their was no way for them to either raise that amount again or gain permission for a third child.

Thanksgiving itself didn’t hold much interest for them. Instead, they focused almost entirely on Black Friday. They scoured ads and compared the advertised deals. They asked me repeatedly where we would be shopping, and were confused when I said that our family doesn’t do Black Friday shopping unless it’s online. We prefer to eat leftovers, watch movies, and lounge around in our pajamas all day Friday.

On Thanksgiving Day, dinner started at two o’clock, but our house-guests were already checking the time long before we had begun to eat. David looked at me nervously and asked if we would be done eating by 4:00, and would we have enough time for me to drive them to Best Buy for their opening time of 5:00. When I told that I’d likely be doing dishes or eating pie at that time, and that we didn’t still didn’t plan shop on Thanksgiving Day itself, he shook his head and ordered an Uber for 4:00. They inhaled their food before dashing out the front door.

I don’t know how many shops they hit between Thursday afternoon and 3:45pm the next day. They came dragging back through the door with tales of all the things they had bought “very much cheap,” and the crowds they had waded through in an orgy of buying. Twenty-three straight hours of shopping,  then they fell into bed, and slept until 10:00 on Saturday morning.

As we got ready to take them back to the dorms on Saturday evening, David asked me, “Your family is not very patriotic?”

I was momentarily surprised, and answered, “We’re very patriotic, David. Why would you ask that?”

“You didn’t participate in the celebrations.”

It seems that our foreign guests totally misunderstood the holiday that week. In their minds, the real festival had been Black Friday. They saw Americans celebrating our national wealth and abundance with an all-night shopping spreethat saw stores open for 24 hours straight and hoards lined up to take part. They saw the news stories and media reports as further proof that Black Friday was about showing how well our government runs our economy in a massive propaganda scheme.

What about the Thanksgiving dinner, I asked him.

That was the cleverness of Americans, he explained to me. We have a day of gorging ourselves on food on Thursday so that we had the strength to make it through the shopping frenzy to come.

These men who had each lived in America for over six months, who had studied American culture for years, and worked hard to prepare themselves for the holiday spent at my house, never got the message from our culture that the whole point of Thanksgiving was thankfulness and gratitude. Sadly, I don’t think we were able to counteract any of what they had seen. Thanksgiving, which was meant to be a day for counting our blessings and our gratitude for what we have, has been overshadowed by an annual rampage of greed. When foreigners can’t be convinced that it’s anything other than a nation-wide shopping binge, maybe it’s time for us to reexamine who we are as a people.

There have been years when Black Friday was a game that we chose to play, but as it crept backwards into Thanksgiving itself, we decided to no longer take part. We consciously  chose to forgo the pursuit of bargain priced Christmas presents in favor of appreciating the people and gifts we already have.

While we don’t judge those who choose to go out in the wee hours of Friday morning, it’s not something we want to be a part of. Our un-patriotic selves will be drinking hot chocolate and staying in our pajamas until it’s time for Mass on Sunday morning.

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The Wine Fairy

To call the last week rough would be an understatement. Ella’s arthritis flared in a whole new set of joints, the baby got the stomach virus that never ends, it won’t freaking quit raining and the kids are making me insane, plus a thousand other things I’m sure I’ve forgotten. I was hanging in there, but running on fumes.

Tuesday morning, I got ready to dash out the front door for a school run in the pouring rain when I spotted a bottle of wine sitting on my front porch.

I thanked the “wine fairy” on social media, and smiled all morning at the thoughtfulness of some unknown someone in my neighborhood. (Yes, I know who it is now. No, I’m not telling. The Wine Fairy wishes to remain anonymous.)

Throughout the morning, people left comments about how lucky I was to live in a place with such a thoughtful neighbor, and how they wished a Wine Fairy lived near them. They wished for people to be generous in their own lives, and for a community where you didn’t just know the names of the people living nearby, but enough about their lives to know that they really could use a bottle of wine right about now. I agree with them that it’s pretty cool. I do live with some amazingly kind and generous people nearby.

What I noticed on all of those social media platforms was that not a single person said “out loud, “Oh my gosh, I could BE the Wine Fairy!” Nobody commented in public about the challenge to reach out to the people around them and truly get to know them. Nobody seemed to get that for there to be a Wine Fairy, someone has to BE the Wine Fairy.

Communities don’t just happen. It’s not accidental that neighborhoods exist where people know each other and try to lift each other up. It exists because someone started it. Generosity and compassion are contagious, and it just takes one person to get it all going. Which means that you, too, can live in a neighborhood like mine. You can live in a place where people know each other by more than the car they drive or the dogs we hear barking when they get let outside.

There are people living in the houses all around you. Interesting people. Funny people. Kind people. (And some unfunny, boring ones too.) There are people who are just aching for community hiding right behind those doors, and you could be the one who sets the whole thing in motion. There’s nothing stopping you from being the anonymous generosity of wine, chocolate, flowers, kind notes, balloons, or anything else you can imagine. Don’t be afraid. Don’t second guess. Don’t sit around waiting for the generosity to come and find you. Go out and BE the generosity and compassion in your neighborhood, and I’ll bet that you’ll be surprised at all the ways it comes back to you.

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