Something Other Than God

This week my goal is to publish three posts, each about a different book I’ve read in the past few months that has left a deep impression on me.  I am starting with Something Other Than God.  Last fall I read this incredible memoir by Jennifer Fulwiler.  She chronicles her journey to Christianity after growing up in an atheist family.  Her story is fascinating, and her humor and humility come through in her writing.  It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

Her story is so different from my own, but we do have a few things in common.  We both moved frequently as children because of our dads’ jobs, and we are both college-educated American women.  Actually, I guess that’s about all we have in common until we reach the point in her story when she becomes a mother.  Having a baby was a turning point for her.  She had struggled to face her own mortality; the thought of her child’s mortality was more than she could handle.  Yet, heaven was one of that last pieces of the puzzle that she fit into place as she opened her eyes, her mind, and her heart to God.

Her journey is far from smooth, and her husband shows little interest in her search even though he has always considered himself a Christian.  He seems to be too busy starting his own law firm to help his wife find answers to life’s biggest questions, until one day he unexpectedly jumps into an online discussion she’s having and suddenly becomes more enthusiastic than she is to learn more about the history of Christianity and to ponder moral issues.  His turning point is one of my favorite moments in the book, so I don’t want to reveal what prompts it.

The title comes from C.S. Lewis, who once wrote, “All that we call human history . . . [is] the long, terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”  Fulwiler spent about 20 years of her life trying to have as much fun as possible in an effort to forget that she would one day die, that someday there would be nothing left of her.  Ultimately, she learns that true happiness comes from service to God and others.  There’s nothing wrong with having fun, but lasting happiness only comes from opening ourselves to God’s plan for our lives.

Fulwiler has helped me see that God has a mission for me, too.  Really, I should have been more aware of it all along.  I have a husband and three children, and I’m supposed to be caring for them and teaching my little ones and helping them all follow the path to heaven.  That means I need to turn off Facebook and go fold the laundry in service to my family.  Or better yet, I need to encourage my seven-year-old and five-year-old to sit down with me and learn how to fold the laundry because I need to teach them about serving others as well.  Most importantly, it means nurturing the spiritual life of my family so that we can each grow closer to God and hear His voice in our hearts, inviting each of us to live out His plan for us.

Fulwiler’s next book will be out in 2018.  The title is One Beautiful Dream:  The Rollicking Tale of Personal Passions, Family Chaos, and Saying Yes to Them Both.  I can’t wait to read it!  In the meantime, I’ll probably be rereading  Something Other Than God, and I highly recommend that you pick it up as well.

 

 

Selective Mutism

I wrote one of my earliest blog posts about my struggle with social anxiety disorder.  Anyone who has faced a similar struggle knows how painful that is, but it is probably even more painful to watch your young child suffer from anxiety, especially when no one seems to know exactly what’s wrong or how to help.  My daughter’s anxiety disorder is the biggest challenge I’ve faced so far as a parent.  My little family struggled for almost two and a half years before we even had a name for the problem.  As I relate this story, I’m going to refer to people outside my family by their last initials to protect their privacy.

Right around her second birthday, my oldest child, Kathleen, stopped talking to her grandpa (my dad).  Soon she was acting anxious around other members of our extended family.  She needed lots of time to warm up to her grandmothers and her aunts.  In fact, she would not even respond to cartoon characters who addressed her directly from the TV screen, and she got very upset if I suggested she should repeat a Spanish word after Dora or tell Daniel Tiger what she likes to eat for breakfast.  It was right around this time that I had baby Daniel and stopped working.  She wasn’t going to my parents’ house any more for daycare, and we were spending most of our time at home.  At her two-year well child visit, our family doctor, Dr. K., said that stranger anxiety was normal at this age, and she wasn’t concerned that Kathleen wouldn’t speak to her or cooperate with her examination.  This would have been in early August.

Kathleen on her second birthday

By the spring I was growing more and more concerned.  I spoke to the doctor about the behavior we were observing, and she recommended play therapy.  In fact, there was a therapist who shared office space with her medical practice, so she set us up with him.  Over the next few months, Kathleen slowly warmed up to playing with the toys in his office, but she didn’t make much progress with her anxiety.  She would not say “I love you” to anyone except her baby brother; she was attached to me at library story hour, and she HATED being complimented or applauded for a new accomplishment.

Speaking of new accomplishments, she resisted trying anything new:  sitting on a swing, drinking from an open cup, spitting out toothpaste instead of swallowing it, and most of all using the potty.  Oh my goodness, the battles we had over the potty!  There was only one new thing she grew to like the year she was three:  ballet class.  At first, she did not want to stay in the classroom without me, but after a few weeks, I was waiting in the hall with the other moms.  On the day of the recital I had a hard time convincing her to put on her costume but once we made it to the auditorium, she went out on stage and danced a little bit.  It was amazing.  She even let one of the volunteer moms take her to the potty before she went on stage!  (She was still wearing pull-ups all the time at this point.)

It was about two months after the recital that her therapist decided she didn’t need him anymore.  I was surprised.  Yes, she would now sit on her mat at story hour while I sat a few feet away, and she would even take a snack or a craft supply out of the story lady’s hand.  Yes, she would now sit on a swing and let me push her.  But she didn’t talk to anyone except a few close family members.  And he knew that.  He had been pressuring her to talk for months, insisting that speaking for herself was a life skill she needed.  He wouldn’t give her a sticker or a lollipop at the end of her appointment if she didn’t say yes out loud when he asked her if she wanted one.  She never said yes out loud.  We were approaching her fourth birthday, and she still wasn’t potty trained.  Well, she knew how to use the potty, but she chose not to do it.  She was supposed to start preschool in the fall.  And he decided she was done with therapy?

Dr. K. could also see that she was not “cured”, but she suggested that we see how preschool went and if that “brought her out of her shell.”  Luckily, she decided to start using the potty just after her 4th birthday, and she was able to start school.

School was another thing I had agonized over.  Should I send her to universal pre-kindergarten in our school district for free?  Maybe the routine of going five days a week would help her adjust?  But I just couldn’t see myself putting this little girl who didn’t talk on a school bus and sending her off for half a day.  I decided instead to send her to a little private preschool in a nearby town three mornings a week.  About two weeks before the school year started, our district announced that they had received a state grant and that UPK would now be full-day instead of half-day.  I knew I had made the right choice for my anxious child.

The preschool was wonderful.  The teacher and her assistant were caring and supportive.  They wanted to help Kathleen, but sticker charts and a promised reward of lunch at Wendy’s if she used her voice just weren’t working.  One day Mrs. S. pulled me aside and asked if Kathleen’s doctor had ever labeled Kathleen’s problem “selective mutism”.  No, I had never heard that term.  Mrs. S. had found it by researching how she could help my child.  That night I googled it and knew from what I read that this was Kathleen’s problem.

I found this website and started to learn about what was going on inside my child’s head and how I could help.  Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum introduces selective mutism as follows:

Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.

More than 90% of children with Selective Mutism also have social phobia or social anxiety. This disorder is quite debilitating and painful to the child. Children and adolescents with Selective Mutism have an actual FEAR of speaking and of social interactions where there is an expectation to speak and communicate. Many children with Selective Mutism have great difficulty responding or initiating communication in a nonverbal manner; therefore social engagement may be compromised in many children when confronted by others or in an overwhelming setting where they sense a feeling of expectation.

The first and most important lesson I learned was that pressuring Kathleen to speak would only increase her anxiety.  (You can imagine how angry I was at her therapist for using exactly the wrong strategy with her, but I’m trying to let that go now.  I’m working on forgiveness!)

The little girl in pink glasses who doesn’t talk

I gave myself permission to go back to speaking for her as I had done when she was a toddler.  If a friendly stranger complimented her dress or asked her how old she was, I modeled for her how to respond instead of waiting in silence for an answer that was never going to come from her.  So many people used to comment about her glasses that for about two years I felt as if my daughter’s identity in the eyes of everyone outside our family was “the little girl in pink glasses who doesn’t talk.” It bothered me so much that no one else could see a little person who loved to dance and sing and color and explore the outdoors.

But her preschool teachers saw her personality.  Even though she never spoke to them, she did speak to a few of her classmates.  When her class held a Christmas concert, she sang with the group.  One day her class played Musical Chairs and after she was out, she danced to the music while she watched the rest of the kids.  I spent these next few months checking in with Dr. K. while she worked on trying to find a local therapist who could help us.  She really wanted Kathleen to see a child psychiatrist who would be able to evaluate whether or not she needed anxiety medication.  I hated the idea of medicating a four-year-old, but I figured that a psychiatrist would know how severe Kathleen’s case was.  Ultimately, we weren’t able to find a child psychiatrist in our area who was accepting new patients, but at the end of the school year a social worker who visited the preschool regularly to work with another child put me in touch with a speech pathologist, who then connected me to a family therapist who was familiar with selective mutism and wanted to help us.

Kindergarten was looming.  Dan and I and six-day-old Rose went to parent information night for incoming kindergartners.  We had to sign up for a kindergarten screening appointment, and I thought, “What are we going to do?  Kathleen isn’t going to talk at her screening.”  So, I told the secretary that my child had selective mutism and didn’t talk to strangers.  She kindly walked me over to the the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Special Education and introduced me.  I told her that my daughter had not attended UPK in the district and that she had selective mutism.  Mrs. Sh. responded, “Don’t worry. We’ve seen this before, and we know just what to do.”  The tense muscles in my face and shoulders relaxed, and, especially with all those postpartum hormones swirling around inside of me, I almost cried.  She spoke to me for a few minutes and reassured me that Kathleen was going to be just fine in kindergarten.  She asked me to email her so that she could put me in touch with the speech pathologist at the elementary school, which she did promptly.  When I took Kathleen to the school for her screening the next week, I met with Mrs. A., the speech therapist, and Mrs. W., the school psychologist, and we soon had a plan in place for helping my little girl.

Over the summer Dan and I took Kathleen weekly to meet with Mrs. K., the family therapist we had found, who taught us all some breathing and stretching exercises for coping with anxiety.  I also took Kathleen weekly to visit the summer school class at the elementary school so that she could start to feel comfortable in the building.  She never talked to any of the adults or kids there, and she only whispered to me in their presence, but she did join in their games on the playground or in the gym and sometimes participated in their academic activities.

The speech pathologist had hand-picked Kathleen’s kindergarten teacher for us and when we met her in August at orientation, I was even more reassured.  She greeted each child with the warmest smile and seemed genuinely delighted to meet them all.  Mrs. G. was another God-send.  She had heard of selective mutism but had never encountered it before.  She researched and consulted with Mrs. A. and wanted to learn about Kathleen’s history.  One month into the school year a miracle happened:  Kathleen began to whisper to Mrs. G.  Then she had her first speech therapy session and whispered to Mrs. A., who was blown away.  By November the specialists at the school decided she didn’t need their services.  Slowly, whispering became talking quietly, and it spread to other adults in the community.  Finally, one day she spoke out loud to my dad.  That was the moment I’d been waiting for.  It took nearly three and a half years.

The family therapist, Mrs. K., wanted to take full credit for Kathleen’s success.  While I’m sure she played her part, I believe that a number of people contributed to her healing from this crippling anxiety.  Most importantly, she had warm and caring teachers in preschool and kindergarten who accepted her as she was and saw the person behind the symptoms.  God placed these people in our path.

Today Kathleen is almost seven and has just finished first grade.  She is soft-spoken but will answer adults who address her.  She still loves ballet and wants to sign up for soccer this year.  She enjoys reading, swimming, coloring, and playing with her dolls.  I still worry about her, and you can be sure I will email her second grade teacher before the new year starts to fill her in on Kathleen’s history, but I trust that she is going to be okay now.  Gratitude overflows my heart when I reflect on how far she has come.  She is one strong little girl.

Kathleen after her kindergarten graduation

My Lenten Journey

Just before Lent started this year, I wrote a post about my struggles to forgive those who hurt me.  If you missed that post the first time around, you might want to read it now before you continue here.

I promised that after Easter I would report on my progress with learning to forgive, and I am several weeks overdue on keeping that promise.  I began saying my prayer of forgiveness on Ash Wednesday.  I made a routine of going into my bedroom every day after I put my toddler down for her nap.  I knelt before my crucifix to help me remember that I am also in need of forgiveness, and then I said my little prayer out loud.  That first day was hard.  It made me cry to say the name of the person I had been struggling to forgive for so long.  I had to choke out the end of the prayer, “I ask you to bless (Name).”  But I did it.

The next day was a tiny bit easier, and so was the day after that.  After about three weeks, I felt more peaceful, and I was inspired to add a second name when I prayed.  By the end of Lent, I had a list of five names I was praying for.  One of them was my own.  As I loosened my grip on old hurts, I saw that I also needed to forgive myself for past mistakes.

Now, as I let go of some of the deepest pain from my past, I can see so much more clearly the smaller grudges I have been holding.  Frequently, I will have a flash of insight that leads me to say my little prayer for yet another person.  I feel as if I am cleaning out my soul, but there always seems to be more dirt to sweep away.  That’s okay because I’m making progress.  Isn’t that what this life is all about:  growing every day toward becoming a better person?

Through this experience I’ve learned a couple of important lessons about forgiveness.  First of all, forgiving someone doesn’t mean I want to have a personal relationship with the one who hurt me.  I don’t have to want to be friends with someone who has betrayed me or abused me or insulted me.  I do have to hope that that person will make it safely to heaven someday.  That’s what it means when I pray for God to bless the person I want to forgive.

Also, forgiveness takes time.  Even after 40 days of praying for this particular person, some of the pain he caused me resurfaces from time to time.  When that happens, I take a deep breath and say my little prayer, and the pain dissipates.  In fact, I just did that this morning.

While I’m still a work in progress, and I will be until I arrive in heaven, I have a little more peace in my heart each time I say this prayer of forgiveness.  Here’s the whole prayer in case you’d like to try it yourself:

Lord, you know I have unforgiveness in my heart toward (Name).  I don’t want this.  I will to forgive, and I ask you to bless (Name).

 

Bathroom Dreams

Have you ever had a recurring dream?  For most of my adult life I’ve had dreams about public restrooms.  Yeah, that’s pretty weird.

Once every few weeks or so I have a dream in which I really need to go to the bathroom but when I walk in, it’s either disgustingly filthy or seriously lacking in privacy – or both.  I had one of these dreams a couple of weeks ago, and I thought maybe I would write a blog post about it, but then I thought no one would want to read about gross bathrooms.  Last night I had another one.  Clearly, my subconscious has been trying to tell me something for about the past 15 years, and I haven’t gotten the message yet.  Maybe someone reading this can help me figure it out.  You never know, right?

The dream I had about two weeks ago was particularly vivid and striking.  I was at a restaurant for dinner, and I went to use the restroom.  I walked in and discovered it was co-ed, and there was a line of people waiting.  The good news about this one is that it was clean.  Shortly, a stall became available, and the man sitting on the floor in front of it told me he was just waiting for a friend, so it was my turn.  I felt a little uncomfortable about going into the stall when he was sitting right in front of it, but when ya gotta go, ya gotta go.  Inside the stall was very cramped.  It was difficult to move my arms.  I felt quite constrained, and I noticed that the partition walls were not as tall as they should have been.  Just then, a “dirty old man” looked over the door at me and then ran away.  I managed to finish my business, wash my hands, and get out of there.  The dream continued as I left the restroom and ran into two of my former students outside.  These two teenage girls eagerly asked for my advice on a serious topic.  I gave them my strong opinion, and they seemed likely to act on what I said.  I don’t remember if anything happened after that.

Last night’s dream was more typical.  The restroom I entered had small puddles on the floor, and I think I was wearing only socks on my feet.  I was careful about where I stepped.  I was carrying two coats and was looking for a clean place to set them down.  There was a long row of toilets but essentially no stalls around them, just a short, translucent screen next to every other one.  I was trying to decide which toilet seemed to offer the most privacy when more people began to enter the restroom, including two men.  Feeling I would have no privacy at all, I left to look for another restroom.  These dreams usually end this way with no relief for me because it is either too dirty or too public.

According to the book The Secret Language of Dreams by David Fontana, “to dream of unsuccessfully finding a toilet may indicate a conflict between the need to express oneself in public and a fear of doing so.”  I bought this book years ago, and I’ve read this sentence many times, but it hasn’t really helped me figure out what my mind is trying to tell me.  I mean, I’m well aware that I struggle with social anxiety disorder, and that certainly keeps me from expressing myself in public quite frequently.  I don’t need to dream about toilets to figure that out.  Actually, when I started this blog just about a year ago, I thought that might put an end to the dreams because I’ve been expressing some pretty personal stuff here, but clearly that hasn’t worked.

Maybe this book that is based in Freudian and Jungian psychology has it all wrong.  Maybe there’s some connection I’m just not making.  I don’t know, but I really would be quite happy if I never had another dream about a dirty bathroom with no stalls, and I don’t think they will stop until I figure out what they mean and face the issue they are trying to bring to light.  If you have any ideas for me, please share them!  And if you don’t have any ideas, feel free to share any meaningful dreams you have had.

Forgiveness

I have to admit that I have an unfortunate talent for holding grudges.  It might come from my Irish and Scottish ancestors, who certainly knew how to hold a grudge against the English.  Actually, now that I think about it, that’s still one of my own grudges that I need to learn to let go of:  Englishmen from history who oppressed my ancestors.  I have more work to do than I realized!

I definitely have a hard time forgiving anyone who hurts or insults my family members or close friends.  When I was in eighth grade, just before homeroom one day, I got into an argument with one of my best friends, and she insulted my parents.  I was so angry I hit her on the shoulder.  (I don’t think I actually hurt her.)  By first period, kids were asking me if it was true that I’d been in a fight with Chrissy.  They were incredulous because I was always a model student, but that’s just how angry I get if you go after my family.  This particular case is one of my success stories; I quickly forgave Chrissy, and we’ve been on friendly terms ever since then.  Other cases aren’t so easy for me.

As a teenager, I discovered St. Maria Goretti, and I’ve been in awe of her ever since.  If you’re not familiar with this lovely saint, let me tell you a little bit about her.  In 1902 Maria was not quite 12 years old when her 18-year-old neighbor, Alessandro, tried to rape her.  She resisted him, and he began to choke her and then stabbed her 14 times.  Lying on her deathbed in the hospital with her mother and a priest at her side, she freely forgave Alessandro and expressed her hope that he would join her in heaven someday.  In prison for his crime, but unrepentant, Alessandro had a dream in which Maria came to him and offered him lilies.  He accepted them, but they burned in his hands.  He awoke from that dream a changed man and was actually in the audience at Maria’s canonization in 1950.

Maria is my heroine.  For many years now I have asked her daily to pray for me so that I can become more like her.  If that young girl can forgive her murderer, what is wrong with me?

Part of the problem is my desire for justice.  I’m not out for revenge, but I do want to see people answer for the pain they cause.  Shouldn’t they at least have to recognize that they have caused pain?  If someone apologizes to me, I can forgive rather easily because I know from personal experience that it’s not easy to apologize and I know that it means that person has stood in my shoes for a moment and realized, “I wouldn’t want someone to treat me like that.”

But what do you do with the person who is never going to apologize?  The person who gives no indication of empathy or guilt?  As I sit here writing, I am starting to realize how many people I need to forgive even though not one of them will ever ask me for that forgiveness.  Some of these infractions are quite small in the grand scheme of things, but others have caused me deep pain indeed.  No matter the depth, all of this pain is real.

Of course, I recognize that often I am the one who needs to ask forgiveness.  I make mistakes that hurt people and damage my relationship with God.  As a Christian, I pray every day, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  There’s no getting around it that if I want God to forgive me, I have to learn to forgive others, so that’s going to be my focus for Lent this year.  For forty days I am going to pray for the person who has caused the most pain in my life, someone I have been struggling to forgive for 12 years.  This is the prayer I am going to use:  “Lord, you know I have unforgiveness in my heart toward (Name).  I don’t want this.  I will to forgive, and I ask you to bless (Name).”  I will not rush through this prayer or say it offhandedly.  I will kneel.  I will speak the words clearly.  I will force myself to say aloud the name that I usually refuse to even think about.

Here’s my challenge for you:  join me in this endeavor.  Even if you don’t normally observe Lent, say this prayer every day from March 1 to April 15.  Maybe you can free yourself from a burden that you may have been carrying for a long, long time.  I’ll let you know after Easter how it has changed me.

 

Little House

When I discovered that it was the 150th anniversary of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birth last week, I knew I had to write a post about her.  When I was in elementary school, I often watched reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” in the afternoon.  Then one day my mother mentioned that there were books about Laura Ingalls and her family.  What?!  How did I not know this?  I already loved reading, but discovering the Little House books made me a lifelong reader.

I found the books at our public library, and they were all I wanted to read.  I didn’t start with Little House in the Big Woods and read them in order.  I didn’t have any preconceived notions about reading a series of books in chronological order, so I would look them over and choose the one that interested me the most to read next.  I put the story together like a jigsaw puzzle as I read about little Laura and almost-grown-up Laura and in-between Laura. I saved Farmer Boy for last because I thought it would probably be boring since it was about a boy.  I was wrong.  Little Town on the Prairie became my favorite as I grew a little older because I enjoyed reading about Laura and Almanzo’s courtship and about Laura’s experiences as a teacher.  (I already knew that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up.) 

After reflecting for the last few days, I believe that the Little House books helped me discover what I like to read.  Still today I love historical fiction.  I love reading about people who are just like me on the inside but who live in much different circumstances from mine.  For this reason, I also enjoy well-written fantasy, and my deepest love is nineteenth century British literature.  As an adult, I discovered Willa Cather and felt like I had hit the jackpot with pioneer fiction for grown-ups.

Over the last few days I reread Little House on the Prairie because I wanted to remember some of the details before I wrote this post.  I was instantly struck by Wilder’s beautiful storytelling and enthralled by the many life-or-death experiences the Ingalls family faced as they set out for Kansas and established their homestead.  For instance, one night a pack of 50 wolves surrounds their log cabin that doesn’t have door on it yet.  They have a quilt over the doorway, and they have Jack their bulldog and Pa with his rifle.  Imagine yourself as a young child facing a night like that.

Of course, the story is told from Laura’s perspective, but reading the book as an adult I found myself fascinated by Ma.  What did she really think about leaving her extended family behind and setting out for Indian Territory?  What was her relationship like with her husband?  How did she raise her girls?  I was delighted by the little details that revealed how much Charles and Caroline Ingalls wanted to please each other and the gratitude they expressed for each other’s simple offerings of love.  Ma’s concern for teaching her girls manners amused me because it’s such typical mom behavior even though they are living in isolation.

My children noticed me reading a book with pictures in it, and four-year-old Daniel was particularly curious about it.  He asked me to read it to him.  We’ve read five chapters together so far, and he loves it.  Two days ago I mentioned that the story is about real people, and his jaw dropped.  I explained that they’re all in heaven now, but, yes, the Ingalls family is real.  “You mean, when I go to heaven, I can meet them?” he asked.  I just loved that question because I specifically remember asking my mom one day, “When we go to heaven, do you think we’ll be able to talk to other people about their lives on Earth?”  She thought we could, and I was very excited because it meant I would be able to talk to Laura Ingalls Wilder and ask her all the questions I had about her experiences.  Imagine leaving behind a legacy that makes generations of children eager to meet you in heaven!

Parenting Books

Since I started this blog last spring, I’ve been wanting to write about the books that have made the deepest impressions on me, but I’ve struggled to come up with a place to start.  After all, I’m an English teacher, and books have always been a huge part of my life.  Then it occurred to me that I could begin not with Jane Eyre or Man’s Search for Meaning but instead with a few of the books that have had the strongest influence on my parenting.  It’s a lot easier to write about practical advice that has guided me in my day-to-day life than it is to put into words everything that my favorite novel has meant in the way I see literature and the world around me.  So, here are my four favorite parenting books and one honorable mention.

  1.  The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp:  When you bring your first baby home from the hospital, what do you do next?  Of course, you feed her and change her diaper.  But what do you do if she is fed and dry, not too warm and not too cold, but she won’t stop crying, let alone go to sleep?  You could try Dr. Karp’s 5S’s.  The advice in this book worked so well for all three of my babies!  Dr. Karp theorizes that because human babies have such large heads to accommodate their highly evolved human brains, they are forced to make their arrival in the outside world before they’re ready.  The best way to care for them during the first four months after birth is to recreate the experience of the womb.  We swaddled our babies to help them feel snug and secure, shushed them with white noise, gave them pacifiers to suck on, swung or bounced them to
    Newborn Rose fell asleep swaddled and sucking on her pacifier while I held her on her side. Photo Credit: Emily Laing

    the tempo of “Hard Day’s Night,” and held them on their side or stomach.  (Just to be clear, babies need to be put down to sleep on their backs, but we can hold them in a position that puts a little soothing pressure on their tummies.)  Combining all 5 of these at the same time was guaranteed to calm our fussy babies.

  2.   The Sleepeasy Solution by Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, and Jill Spivak, LCSW :  Once we got through “the fourth trimester,” we were ready for our babies to have a regular routine and learn to go to sleep without so much assistance from us.  Kathleen was a tough case, our fussiest baby who had the most trouble sleeping well.  I read a few books about babies and sleep, but this one is far and away my favorite.  I love the authors’ approach, which balances the needs of babies and parents.  They know that parents don’t want to listen to their babies crying for long stretches without being able to comfort them (and babies probably don’t like that too much either!).  They also know that after the sleep deprivation that comes with caring for a newborn, each member of the family needs more rest.  They call their system the “least cry” method, and it worked wonders with all three of our children.  Additionally, this book provides lots of useful information about age-appropriate nap schedules, sleep issues like nightmares and fear of the dark that come up with toddlers and preschoolers, and milestones like potty training or the birth of a new sibling that can affect sleep.  I’ll be holding onto my copy at least until Rose is in kindergarten!
  3. Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker: I mentioned this book previously in my post on decluttering.  It introduced me to the concept of minimalism and changed my perspective on the life I want for my children.  Instead of piles of material possessions in cluttered rooms, I would like to give them happy memories of fun family experiences.  That does not necessarily mean trips to Disney World and other expensive vacations.  Instead, it could mean baking cookies together, playing a board game, or planting a garden.  Without all the clutter that consumes our time and adds stress to our lives, we could have the time and energy for more fun.  Unfortunately, I’m still working on selling this to the rest of my family.  My children haven’t noticed yet that their interest in a new toy lasts about three days at the most.  I have become quite concerned by their lack of gratitude for their many blessings, which leads me to . . .
  4. The Gift of Enough by Marianne Miller:  Marianne Miller is the mother of four boys, all teenagers now, a middle school teacher, and a financial counselor with Crown Financial Ministries.  She knows kids; she knows the world of their peers, and she knows how to manage money.  Her advice about teaching kids gratitude and money management never comes across as preachy because she tells plenty of funny stories about her own family and some of the mistakes they’ve made.   Some of the strategies she used with her own boys seem a bit extreme to me (asking the four of them to share two ice cream cones, for example), but I love all the practical wisdom she offers on dealing with school book fairs, grab-claw machines, check-out aisles, gift-giving holidays, and other danger zones where children seem to get the “gimmes.”  Ultimately, Miller wants children and their parents to recognize when they have enough, whether it’s M&Ms, sweatshirts, or stuffed animals, so that they can appreciate their blessings and delight in occasional treats.  (Hey, let’s each get our own ice cream cone today!)

Honorable Mention:  Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman:  When this book was published in 2012, it was marketed as a parenting manual that would show Americans how the French are better than we are at one more thing.  I would actually call it a memoir.  An American woman, married to a British man, is raising her children in Paris.  She discovers that the French parent quite differently than Anglophones, and often she recognizes the wisdom in this different approach, but she also sees clearly that different is not always better.  For instance, she is not comfortable with sending a first grader away on a week-long class camping trip.  (I wouldn’t be either!)  On the other hand, she does find that the French are really good at developing sophisticated palates in small children (no surprise there) and believe in setting firm limits and then giving the children lots of freedom within those limits.  For example, bedtime might be set strictly at 8 o’clock every night, but the child is allowed to play quietly in his room until he is sleepy as long as he stays there.  The parent will not read one more story or get another drink of water after 8 o’clock.  I found this book entertaining, and it helped me realize that there isn’t one right way to parent.

The next parenting book I’m hoping to read is The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.  It comes highly recommended by my sister and has 4 1/2 stars on Amazon.  Dr. Mogel applies Jewish teachings to everyday parenting problems such as chores, dinner battles, and over-scheduling.  I’ve been meaning to read this one for several years now.

In the comments let me know about books that have provided you with valuable advice or guidance – about parenting or anything else!

Acts of Kindness

Today I’ve been thinking about a few people who have touched my life with a small act or a few words of kindness.  These are people I am unlikely to meet again in this lifetime, but I will never forget them.

The first one is a five-year-old boy whose name I may never have known.  When I was six, my father’s company transferred him from Connecticut to Georgia.  I have a November birthday, and I had started first grade while I was still five.  By January I was six, but in Georgia the law stated that a child had to be six by September 1st to enter first grade.  Even though I had already completed (successfully!) half of the school year, I wasn’t old enough to join the first grade at my new school.  The administration came up with an arrangement by which I would attend a first grade class, but I had to go home with the morning kindergartners, and then I would have to repeat first grade the following year.  Here’s the kicker:  my new teacher made me responsible for watching the clock and knowing when it was time to gather my things and head down the hall to the kindergarten classroom for my dismissal.  Since I was just learning to tell time, I missed my bus occasionally.  Usually, the kindergarten teacher sent me to the office to call my mother, but one day she wouldn’t let me do that.  I have no idea what her reasoning was, but I did know that I was scared.  The teacher didn’t tell me how I was going to get home.  I started to cry.  A little boy who was still waiting for his bus brought over Chutes and Ladders and offered to play with me.  He really didn’t know me, but he saw that I was sad and wanted to comfort me.  It did make me feel a little better, a little less alone.  I am so grateful for that little boy’s compassion.

(By the way, that kindergarten teacher arranged for another bus driver to drop me off at the end of her route.  I did get home that day, although it was rather late.)

The next person I want to remember here is my middle school social studies teacher.  I had Mr. Haak in seventh grade and again in eighth grade.  He was one of my favorite teachers, and I knew that he appreciated my hard work in his class, but his inscription in my yearbook at the end of eighth grade brought tears to my eyes.  Here it is:

Julie, I’ve greatly enjoyed having you in class.  Your quiet, yet attentive personality is a strength you should be proud of.  Best of luck to you in the future and continue to strive to do your best.  Mr. Haak

Now, you might be wondering what is so incredible about those words.  I was fourteen-years-old, and this was the first time anyone had ever praised me for being quiet.  I had heard lots of times, “you’re so quiet” or “you’re so shy,” but it was always said in a tone that made it clear that this was something wrong with me.  Here was someone I respected, someone who had been my teacher for two years, telling me I should be proud of being quiet because I was also attentive.  There wasn’t anything wrong with me!  My personality was a strength!!  Even into adulthood I’ve had plenty of people telling me I’m too shy or I need to learn to speak up for myself, but I have a little weapon to fight  back against the negative voices.  I can repeat to myself that my “quiet, yet attentive personality is a strength.”  Thank you, Mr. Haak.

Sean Hegarty was one of the first students I ever taught.  He was in one of my eighth grade classes at Hornell Junior-Senior High School when I was a student teacher.  One day my supervisor from the university came to observe me during Sean’s fourth period class.  The class was not particularly well-behaved that day, and I was not exactly skillful at managing them yet.  Sean realized that his behavior had reflected poorly on me, and he knew that it was not the behavior expected of someone who had just applied for membership in the Junior National Honor Society.  The next day I found a letter of apology from him in my mailbox.  What an impressive act of humility from a young teenager!  I knew very well that I still had plenty to learn on my road to becoming a teacher, especially in the area of classroom management, but Sean’s letter showed me that I had at least one student who understood that I was still learning and who wanted to help me succeed.

Three years later I was in my first full-time teaching position and didn’t feel as if I knew much more about how to do my job than I did that day when Sean and his classmates had embarrassed me in front of my supervisor.  In the first few years of her career, the teacher is learning at least as much as her students are.  I had lots of support from my colleagues, and I worked long hours at night, preparing my lessons and evaluating my students’ work.  Even so, I felt as if I were fumbling through that school year, and I still cringe when I remember a few of the mistakes I made.  By June I wasn’t sure if my year had actually been successful, but at least I had survived.  After the final exam, one of my favorite students, Amanda Posson, stopped by my classroom.  She wanted to tell me that this year had been her favorite year ever for English, and she thought I had done a great job.  Her words made my year and are one of the highlights of my teaching career.

There is a reason that even though I have forgotten the names of many of the students I have taught over the years, I remember Sean Hegarty and Amanda Posson.  Instead of complaining that they got stuck with a student teacher or a first-year teacher who was unsure of herself, they were able to look at me with compassion  and let me know that they were on my side.  I hope that I have similarly touched a few lives along the way, and I will be more intentional in the future about looking for opportunities to comfort or encourage anyone who might be in need of a kind word or act.

 

Christmas Gifts

Here in upstate New York we’ve had our first big snow of the year, and then we had Thanksgiving, so now it’s time to turn our thoughts to Christmas.  As much as I love Christmas, the last couple of years have also brought some serious tension into the season for me.  Ever since I discovered the FlyLady and began to declutter my home, Christmas gifts have become a tricky issue.  I recognize that gifts are given from love, but how many gifts are enough?  How many are too much?  How do I teach my children gratitude when the presents just keep coming?

Over the past couple of days I’ve read a few blog posts on simplifying Christmas, and they have gotten me thinking about where the peace, joy, and merriment actually come from.  One of these posts had me awake at three o’clock in the morning, reflecting on an “ah-ha moment.”  (You can read it here.)  The author, Everett Bogue, asks his readers to stop and think about the Christmas gifts they have received in the past.  How many were put away in a closet out of sight?  Donated to a thrift store after holding on to them long enough to assuage your guilt over not liking them?  How many of your Christmas gifts do you truly love or find useful?  How many make you exclaim, “This is just what I wanted!”?  If you don’t particularly care for the majority of gifts you receive, what do you think that means about the gifts you’ve been giving others all these years?  It’s a good bet that your friends and relatives are stuffing the candles and scarves and lotions axjb7du_4kqq-andrew-neelnd slippers and mugs into their closets too.

I was awake for a long time Monday morning, thinking first about all the gifts I have received as an adult.  Unless I have made very specific requests (I’d like to read this book: here’s the title and author.  These slippers look comfy: I’m a size 8, and I like them in blue.), I’m usually underwhelmed by the presents I receive.  I actually can’t remember receiving a book I thoroughly enjoyed that anyone else selected for me since my parents gave me Anne of Green Gables when I was 12 or 13 years old.   I’m not writing this to make my loved ones feel bad.  I’m writing this because I feel bad if I’ve been burdening my husband, my parents, my sisters, my in-laws, and my friends with items that are doomed to become clutter in their homes.  Now I’m thinking maybe all the adults on my gift list will receive gift cards for the movies or their favorite restaurant this year.

But then there are the kids.  I have three young children, and Santa is supposed to bring them lots of toys, right?  Certainly, kids are happy with the presents they receive on Christmas, right?  When I think back to my childhood, I can’t remember too many of the toys I received on Christmas morning.  I can tell you that Santa brought me a new Barbie doll just about every Christmas, and I loved them.  I played with my Barbies all the time, and they were treasured gifts.   However, I also remember a couple of presents that packed quite a punch on Christmas morning but that ended up in the back of my closet, rarely seeing the light of day.  Specifically, I am referring to the Barbie Dream Store and the Barbie Dream Kitchen.  I was so excited to open both of these gifts.  I probably spent a lot of time with them over Christmas break, but all the fun little pieces soon became a hassle.  It was so much easier to imagine Barbie was at the store or in the kitchen than it was to fiddle around, trying to get the clothing rack to stand up on carpet or keep track of all those tiny forks and spoons.

What does that mean for my children?  Don’t they love the presents Santa brings them?  Two years ago my then-four-year-old daughter got ahold of an ad at Christmastime.  She spotted the Sofia the First Royal Prep Academy Play Set.  She had  to have it.  Whenever someone asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she answered, “The Sofia the First Royal Prep Academy Play Set!”  She sounded just like Ralphie asking for his Red Ryder BB Gun.  My husband and I couldn’t imagine disappointing her.  I shopped around online and found the best deal on the play set for just under $60.  Then I discovered that it didn’t come with all the princess figures it had been pictured with in the ad.  A collection of Sofia’s friends was sold separately for just over $40.  Well, how was she supposed to play with it if she didn’t have the princesses?  So we spent $100 to make her Christmas dream come true.  On Christmas morning we had her open the box with all the princesses first, and she exclaimed, “Just what I wanted!!!!”  Then she opened the play set, and I spent a good part of the morning assembling it.  In fact, one of my most frequent tasks for the next few days was reattaching the staircase.  By the time I insisted on removing the whole thing from the living room a few days after Christmas, the glow was wearing off.  It was nearly impossible to balance any of the princesses on the little plastic chairs.  As soon as the dining table was set with tiny water goblets and plates, someone was sure to bump against it and knock everything off.  Soon enough a spindly plastic leg broke off one of the desks, and we had to throw it away.  Now the play set spends most of its time in Kathleen’s closet.  Occasionally, her little brother pulls it out, but by the time he has everything set up, either he loses interest or I call him to supper and he never gets back to it.  I think I could have saved us $60, and she would have been perfectly happy with just the collection of princess figures.

I’m not sure what that means for this year, but I want to put plenty of thought into the gifts I buy for my children.  I will consider carefully the quality of each toy and think hard about how long their enthusiasm for it is likely to last.

So, if gifts don’t really bring as much joy to the holidays as I thought they did, where does the joy come from?  I know my husband loves the glow of the Christmas tree.  My kids are amazed by our neighbor’s house, which is lit up brightly enough to keep us awake at night.  Perhaps you look forward to the music, or traditional foods, or spending time with family members who live far away.

As for me, I think it’s my memories from childhood that make Christmas magical.  After Mass on Christmas Eve, we would go to my aunt and uncle’s house for dinner.  My sisters and I spent the evening playing with our cousins and staging an original Christmas-themed play for our parents.  Then my dad read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” before we went home, sleepy but excited.  One of my favorite memories from my entire life is a brief moment after we had arrived home on one of these Christmas Eves.  It was snowing, and the ground was already well covered.  The snow made the whole world seem quiet and as I stood on our walk while my dad unlocked our door, I just soaked it all in:  the peace, the stillness, the happy evening, the love of my family, the wonder of Christmas.

No present can ever compete with that memory.

Shanahan

I wrote my very first post about the difference my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Eckles, made in my life.  I was a shy new student in a large public junior high and while Mrs. Eckles helped me that year, I was still miserable.  I didn’t make any friends at my new school.  I cried almost every night while I did my homework, and I felt sick to my stomach every morning when my bus arrived at school.  As a field trip approached, I worried so much about not having anyone to sit with on the bus or in the theater that I actually made myself sick and stayed home from school that day.  My parents tried to help me, and about halfway through the school year they suggested that we look into the local Catholic high school.  It was the best idea they could have had.

The following autumn I began tenth grade at Bishop Shanahan High School.  Naturally, I was nervous on my first day.  All the students assembled in the gym, and there I was sitting on the bleachers surrounded by a few hundred strangers.  To my surprise, a couple of girls sitting next to me introduced themselves.  In fact, that kept happening all day.  Friendly students noticed that I was new, and they would introduce themselves and their friends to me.  I felt welcomed.

There was such a difference in the atmosphere at my new school.  I  loved beginning classes with a prayer and saying grace before lunch.  I loved the uniforms that made us all equals; no one was judging me based on clothing labels.  14572742_10100217213569201_516097563_oAfter four years of changing classes in middle school/junior high, I was used to all the students jumping up at the sound of the bell and pushing through the crowds to get to their next classes, but it was different at Shanahan.  I will never forget the boys standing aside and letting the girls go first.  These kids were taught to be ladies and gentlemen.

In the spring of that first year at Shanahan, we went on a field trip to Washington, D.C.  I had a friend to sit with on the bus and a group of girls to explore the capital with.  The next year I joined chorus and had the amazing opportunity to travel to England.  There I also had friends with whom I could share the biggest adventure of my life.  To tell the truth, I didn’t actually have much of a social life outside of school or these school-sponsored trips, but that was okay.  While I was at school, I felt a strong sense of belonging.

I had wonderful teachers at Shanahan, too, who made the school a place in which I was happy to spend my days.  Well, maybe not all of them were wonderful, but 23 years later (how is it possible that it’s been that long?) my memories of Mr. McQuiston and Mr. Keane are a lot stronger than my memories of, let’s say, my chemistry teacher.  (There’s no need to mention his name here, or the name we called him behind his back.  I guess I do remember that.)  I’d rather laugh over my memory of Mr. McQuiston’s April Fool’s prank on Rose and smile when I think of Mr. Keane reading the entirety of Macbeth aloud to us.  Oh my, and then there was the time Mr. Finlay came bursting through Mr. McQuiston’s door and announced, “That was my best Kramer.”  Mr. Degnan kept us entertained with his Irish gift for storytelling.  Perhaps my best memory of all is my fourth period study hall my senior year.  Thank you to Mr. Sagnella for taking attendance and then walking out of the room every day so that we could watch The Love Boat and play cards and once in a while do our physics homework that was due the next period.

I spent three years at Shanahan.  I learned French and Latin, religion and history, physics and calculus.  I learned about St. Catherine of Siena’s influence on the pope, about Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, about Arthur Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy.  Shanahan gave me an education, but it also gave me a safe place to work through my adolescent struggle to figure out who I was and helped to establish my faith as the foundation of my identity.  Shanahan is truly my alma mater, my “nurturing mother.”