Sunday, December 30, 2012

6 years of our holy family

Once upon a time, this girl
Her name is Bonnie, and she had great legs.  
and this boy
His name is Travis, and he was pretending to be the Karate Kid.
were good friends.

And then one day they realized they really liked each other.  A friend was in a musical and invited Travis to come.  Travis said he'd go when Hell froze over... which happened later that week when Bonnie said she'd love to see the musical for their first date.

Two weeks later, after watching

they sat on a couch and more or less said "I love you" for the first time and decided to get married.

Bonnie got her

and they looked over possible dates.  They settled on a date almost 7 months later, December 30th.  It was the Vigil of the Feast of the Holy Family and during the Octave of Christmas and on a holiday weekend.

They were told they were rushing and at times they were worried, but they were confident that God wanted them together.  So they went ahead and got hitched.

And they went on their Scottish honeymoon.
Where the adorable elderly tour guide thought it was more important to get feet in the picture than  the beautiful castle ruins behind them.
And then because

they had
Peter Mark
who they lost and still mourn.

But God blessed them with
Lydia Anne
and 16 months later
Bennet Mark

and 54 weeks later 
James Fulton

and 20 months later
Teresa Marie

And in the meantime they sold

so they could put a down payment on a house that looked like

and Travis worked really hard and made it look like

They had some ups
like the Behold Conference

and a Boston vacation
and downs along the way.
a stillborn and 7 weeks in the NICU

They got to know some new friends.
Venerable Sheen, pray for us!

And they enjoyed their super cute kids

And they lived happily ever after, laughing at each other's jokes, bickering, and him appreciating her ability to stay within budget (most of the time) and her appreciating his ability to work hard and still come in and play with the kids at the end of the day.

Happy Feast of the Holy Family to everyone!

Happy Anniversary to the love of my life!

Friday, December 28, 2012

7 quick takes

1 - I'm not sure if there's another carol that captures the emotions of the Christmas story better than the first verse of this one.

2 - If you didn't see it, here's a post I wrote called Holy Innocents - why it's best not to tell a grieving parent "God needed another angel".

3 - A mild 24 hour flu slowly made it's way through the house, though Travis and Teresa were spared fortunately.  I am hoping and praying that we're in the clear now.  Hope you are all well!

4 - So, what did we bake for Christmas?  Great question!

Some from-scratch cinnamon rolls.  My mom always made these for Christmas and Easter mornings and since they're delicious I thought I should continue the tradition in my own home.

The recipe makes 3 dozen and one of them I shaped into a tea ring.  Or, well, I tried to.  I let the kids top it with some Christmas-y sprinkles which wasn't as exciting for them as they had hoped it would be.

Neighbors and great-grandparents also got a plate of cookies.  Chocolate crinkles, peanut butter choc chip cookies, peppermint kiss cookies, and sugar cut out cookies.  Delish.
5 - Christmas Eve was spent with my parents, which is pretty traditional. 
This is the "What I Wore on Christmas" part of the post. 
The only person whose outfit is worth mentioning is Bennet who wore the catfish shirt with the googely eye.  He insisted and so I let him. Feliz Navidad.
I love the look on James' face here.

Big present = big excitement
6 - Christmas morning looked like this:
New big kid bikes for the big kids.
In between the above picture and the next we attended Mass.  During the homily poor James threw up.  The priest made an expression like, "Oh!" but just kept on talking.  The woman in the pew in front of me (whom I don't even know) turned around and grabbed my diaper bag so I could pull a scarf out of it.  James and I went to the bathroom, leaving my mom with Teresa, Bennet, and Lydia while Travis and my friend Jen went to get a bunch of paper towels to start cleaning up.  The couple in the pew ahead of us, turned and had Bennet come sit with them so Mom wouldn't have her hands quite so full.  Another friend, who also happens to clean our church, came in and asked what I needed.  She got me a plastic bag to put James' clothes in and took some Lysol spray to finish cleaning up.  So all this to say that no one was upset and everyone was really great about it.  It was awesome.

After Mass they played with their new grocery store, train tracks and Creaky Cranky.

My 7 month old baby girl, wearing the super cute outfit her great grandpa picked out for her.
7 - The rest of Christmas Day and the days since have been mostly spent watching movies, playing with toys, taking naps, and eating yummy food.  I hope you've been blessed this Christmas Season, too.
Thanks to Jen for hosting!

Holy Innocents - why it's best not to tell a grieving parent "God needed another angel"

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  It is the day that the Catholic Church recognizes and honors the baby and toddler boys who were killed by Herod after he learned from the Wise Men that a new King of the Jews had been born. (Read Matthew 2 for the story.)

For many parents who have lost a baby or child through miscarriage, stillborn birth, or another early death this feast day is, in a way, a feast day for all of us - binding together all parents throughout the ages who have lost a precious child far too soon.  It's a club you don't want to be in.

I hope it doesn't seem crass then that I take this feast day to explain something to those who are fortunate enough to not be in that club. 

For most grieving parents to hear the phrase, "God needed another angel" does not bring comfort.  In fact, for most grieving parents it makes things hurt even more.  It does not matter if you are talking about their child or children who have died in a horrible event, such as the Sandy Hook shootings or a tornado that blasted through a community.  It doesn't matter if their child died yesterday or six months ago or ten years ago. 

I realize that people say it because it is a sweet sentiment, they want to bring comfort, and they don't know what else to say.  And as the parent of a dead child I can honestly say that I appreciate all those things.  I understand that some people think we die, get our wings, and some bell rings somewhere and everything is a warm fuzzy.  I'm not mocking when I write that: in times of great grief - and the death of a child always causes great grief - we want and need comfort and we grasp for beauty because everything else seems so ugly.  I appreciate all the people who said such wrong, horrible things to me when my baby died because really they were just trying to bring comfort and they didn't know what else to say. 

But if you don't know what to say, at least know this: Do not say "God needed another angel."  Just say that you're sorry, or that you have no words for something so sad, so horrible.  That's enough.

After the Sandy Hook shootings I asked people on Facebook to not use the expression.  Quite frankly I was shocked that several people told me, "We feel sad, thinking about those children as angels makes us feel better, so I don't care if it makes you or any other grieving parent hurt worse."  Of course they said it more politely and charitably but that was the bottom line.  "Don't tell me what to say when I feel sad, even if what I say makes you feel much, much worse."  I noticed that the people who wrote those things and gave the FB like to those comments are not in the club.  I also noticed that the ones who stood with me are.

So let me explain why those words can hurt so much.

On the most basic level "God needed another angel" implies that it was God's will that the child died.  It was God's actual, active will that sent a shooter into the school, church, grocery store, movie theater, shopping mall to kill innocent children.  It was God's actual, active will - it was what He wanted and needed to happen - for my baby to die in my womb, for another's to suffocate on the umbilical cord, for another's to develop in such a way that he could not live outside of the womb, for another's to be killed in a house fire or by a drunk driver.

What kind of crappy god is that?!  What kind of pathetic god needs to send down severe pain and anguish so he can populate heaven with more angels to worship him?!  When people make that statement they denote god into someone horrible and evil, unintentionally chipping away at whatever hope the parents have.  Please don't do that to us.  Please don't chip away at our hope in an all good and all powerful God.  It is already shaky because of what we're living through.

And related to that hope, at least for me, is some basic theology about Heaven and angels.  First, it is traditional Christian teaching that God created all angels at one time, when He was busy about creating things.  Since that time He has not created any new angels nor will He.  That is important because it relates to this: We do not become angels when we die and go to Heaven, we become saints. 

For now, just our souls go to Heaven.  But when the world ends God will raise our corpses, our bodies and souls will again be united, and our bodies will be glorified.  I don't know exactly what that will look like or how it'll all go down but I find great comfort in the fact that one day I will see my child in his body, looking like himself.  I did not conceive an angel - I conceived a little boy.  It is not an angel I want to meet and hold, it is a little boy - my little boy.  Just like we say in the Creed each Sunday, "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."  Please don't take this hope away from me by removing my son and replacing him with an angel.

I realize that there are grieving parents who do find comfort in those words, but I would caution you to not say anything until you have heard them speak of it first.  But for the rest of us, I ask that you be compassionate and refrain from the "God needed another angel" line.

Holy Innocents, pray for us!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Observing Silence Before Perfection by Cynthia Schroeder

I have never been one to like admitting when I'm wrong...or even when I've fallen behind. Truth be told, I've been wrong a lot (and by a lot, I mean a whole heck of a lot)...and it bothers me.

Undoubtedly, this kind of motivation and frustration can go hand in hand when you are a perfectionist. When you think that God observes you by the deeds you perform - and the will behind them - and waits to pat you on the back with a,“Well done, good and faithful servant. You nailed it...perfectly.” When you are a perfectionist, those are the only words you want to hear. Forget about finding His happiness when you fail. When you fall behind. When you are lazy. When you lack the appropriate amount of faith.

When you “fail” at observing Advent.

I have been reading some amazing posts this month on Bonnie's blog. Each day has provided some of the best advice I've ever heard on keeping these days special while leading up to Our Lord's birth. The heart-wrenching posts, the suggestions, the recipes, the motivations – all so poignant for this constant learner.

You see, I didn't understand the meaning of Advent until about the age of 24.  My parents were well-intentioned, but never really had any major religious traditions outside of putting up Christmas decorations and going to Mass with everyone else. I was always taught that Christmas was Christ's birthday, but beyond that, we never surrounded ourselves with any physical preparations for the big day. We never had the purple and pink candles, the wreath, the Jesse Tree, the “stand-off” with the St. Nick vs. Santa question. It wasn't until having a family of my own that these physical “things” took a mere grip on my face and shook me into the surprising submission of confusion and angst.

“Woman, wake up! What have you been doing with your faith life this whole time!!?? What kind of children will you be raising if you don't light those darn candles!??!” (No one ever said overreacting wasn't also one of my strong suits).

For me, with angst comes frustration. With frustration comes immobility. With immobility comes a sense of failure. It was all I could do to not cry heavy tears when the fourth Advent candle was lit during mass last year. I turned to my husband and mouthed, “BUT Josh, we haven't really done anything yet!”

For four years running, this delicious pattern has miraculously played itself out the same way. We set up the Advent decorations. We have good intentions...and then life happens. Children happen. Things get broken. Parents fall asleep before planning out a fun activity for the next get the idea. It seemed like observing the appropriate Catholic “waiting” game just wasn't going to be a strong suit of mine. I had failed...and in my mind, that meant that I also failed God and my family. So, in an appropriate (mature) response, I've sulked and pouted, as only a 31 year-old pregnant woman can.

A few days ago it occurred to me that perhaps I should be tackling some actual prayer to figure this situation out. For me to step outside the hurtful voice inside my head and talk to the One who probably had been desiring to teach me a thing or two anyway.

So, a few days ago, I plopped down on the floor of my room, criss-crossed my legs around the 7- month belly that has been growing, and stared at an old picture of Jesus. I began to observe its faded appearance. His intentional stare. It's always been one of my favorites. Simple and honest. Which is undoubtedly what I needed to be...

“Jesus,” I began, “I am sorry. I've been so lazy. You know this.  I've tried too hard to keep up appearances on the outside, but not to maintain my heart. I hate this feeling so much. Why are tasks like this so overwhelming for me?”


“ Lord, what do YOU (or did You) want me to do this Advent? How can I serve You the way I should?”

Then it came to me:

“Cynthia, start with silence. After that, come to Me and get to know Me..”

As I rolled this answer around in my head, I realized how wrong I'd been from the beginning. Where in all the worrying and carrying on with outwardly perfection...was Jesus? Where was my prayer? My sacrifice? My honesty? How could I have missed all this?

Stopping for a minute, I browsed through the weeks in my mind. I realized that in spite of forgetting to observe major traditions, my husband and I did continue the small and simple ones. We prayed, every night, for those who needed our prayers. We gave of our resources to families who needed them. We had been reading the Nativity story about as frequently as we breathe (our youngest has found this his favorite book and won't be persuaded toward anything else).

In fact, just yesterday I was told that the babe in my belly is like the “baby in Mama Mary's tummy.” Baby Jesus grew up to be a man who had “owies” for us so that we could live with Him and His Father in Heaven, etc. Miraculously, my kids, somehow, even with my lack of direction and planning, still know this stuff. 

That's when it hit me: it's not about me.
It never was and never will be.
It's about Him..and He's powerful enough to take matters into His own hands when need be.

Jesus desires to know us. All of us. He desires our hearts and in turn desires to give us love in return. Suddenly it occurred to me that no matter what kind of Advent practices will get you there, as long as we try, we have one more gift to lay at His feet in the manager. Not our perfection (or our fierce desire for it) but our love.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

(Matthew 11:28-30)

We just need to show up and try.

I imagine how special it was to be one of the wise men or the Blessed Mother, herself, in the stable that night. Watching and admiring in silence, marveling at the tiny miracle that came unto the earth so as to take a part in our salvation history. A God that allowed Himself to be like one of us in order to know us, to sympathize with us, to save us; to love us.

Out of reverence, out of thanks...I am reminded of how important it is to receive that love this Christmas - that gift – and pay it forward for as long as we live. That's what Christmas is all about, is it not? He came to earth to take our place. Let's meet him in the stable this Christmas bringing Him all that we have without shame...even if it seems like the gift may be absolutely nothing perfect at the time. Perhaps even three weeks late. Give it anyway.

This, I believe, is perfection to Him.

Cynthia is a stay-at-home mom of two, with one soon on the way. She likes to pretend that her head is filled with all sorts of interesting things, but in reality, she just thinks about food. She loves her faith, her family and life's random moments...and doesn't mind sharing these details in the blog, Finding Great Joy.

For more posts on Advent traditions and reflections check out the Advent series.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

What I Wore Sunday

So apparently you need to have your act together to partake in the WIWS link-ups because if you try to join Wednesday morning you will find everything closed up.  So I give you, what I wore for the last 3 Sundays:

Second Sunday of Advent:
Husband and older two kids were out of town for the weekend so Teresa, James, and I attended Mass with my parents.  We went to the Cathedral for the closing Mass for the Sheen novena.  If it please God and Sheen is declared a saint December 9th will likely be his feast day (I have this on no authority but my own) because it was the day he entered into eternal life.
Thanks to Julie from the Sheen Foundation for taking our picture.  I lifted this picture from the Sheen blog.  Clearly I had recently been nursing Teresa, which is why my shirt is bunched up and not looking too hot.  Oh well.
Shirt: Target
Grey tank: Target maternity - I wear it almost every day and wash it only weekly.  Is that gross?
Skirt: JC Penny from a few years back
Boots: Payless, a present from last Christmas
James' outfit: hand-me-down jacket and shoes, courtesy of his big brother; khakis from Target
Teresa's outfit: hand-me-down dress from Lydia; hand-me-down long-sleeve onesie from James, tights from Target
Gaudete Sunday:
The girls all wore pink for the third Sunday of Advent.  Teresa was napping during this picture, though.
Shirt: WalMart? It's old.
Same grey tank: still Target
Skirt: JC Penny's, purchased for Lydia's baptism
Cardigan, missing 2 buttons: Target, last year
Boots: still from Payless

Boys' clothes: All hand-me-downs or gifts.
Lydia's dress: WalMart, from Easter.  She's worn it almost every Sunday since.
Cardigan and tights: Target.
Hair in her face: her preferred way to wear it - drives me crazy

Fourth Sunday of Advent:
It's my turn with the flu. 

Kids pajamas: Courtesy of St. Nicholas

My pajamas (sorry, not photo available):
Polska t-shirt: street vendor in Krakow, Poland
yoga pants: hand-me-downs
Pink, fuzzy robe: former Christmas present

A Birthday to Celebrate by Kathryn Whitaker

The fourth Sunday of Advent marks one very important thing in my mind: we are ALL in now, aren’t we? Around this time, most folks have all their decorations up, they’ve completed most of the shopping and the Christmas menu is nearly planned.

For us, the fourth Sunday of Advent is the real start of the Christmas season. The excitement is crackling in the air. Can’t you feel it? A baby is about to be born. A birthday to celebrate. A new life to love! Many of my most favorite family traditions center around Christmas Eve. Yes, we attend Mass, have a delicious Christmas Eve dinner, open gifts, prepare the hearth for Santa and crank the Christmas music. But there are a few things in particular that have become beloved family traditions that help focus our heart on that sweet babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

We do what any God-fearing southern family should do, we celebrate with cake and a party! After dinner, the children place the Baby Jesus in our nativity. Then, we bring out the dessert and sing “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” I have always been a fan of birthdays and making Jesus’ big day a BIG day just helps my children refocus on why we celebrate. In an age of relentless toy commercials, mail circulars and loud billboards we need to constantly remind ourselves the simplicity and the generosity of God’s greatest gift to us.

Speaking of God’s generosity, we also pray. Over the past sixteen years of marriage, my husband and I began to notice that our children were fixated on how many presents they received. I mean, it’s natural, right? We all love to receive gifts and a holiday designated by society to dole them out just seems like heaven to a five-year-old. To help center our hearts, and theirs, on the sacrifice and love that went into the gift giving, we began praying over our gifts. We pray for those that made them, those that gave them and those that go without. It’s the grateful heart that we hope to foster.
I suspect that during the Christmas season your family has received a card, or two, from friends and family. Rather than socking those cards away in box or admonishing them to the recycle bin, we pile ours in the coffee table drawer. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, I believe, and so we adopted a good friend’s tradition and made it our own. Each night, for the next year, the children race to pull out “the” card. We re-read the letter, admire the photos, share our connection to the family and then we pray for those sweet faces. It has become the highlight of our dinner hour.

Without a doubt, this is the most wonderful time of the year. My greatest hope is that my children will come to love celebrating this season not for the gifts, sure to be discarded, but for the lasting and eternal promise of a Creator who will love us for eternity.

Merry (almost) Christmas

Kathryn Whitaker is the mom of five children, wife to pretty amazing Catholic man and a freelance graphic designer. On her blog, Team Whitaker, she writes about what she knows: big families, carpool, her beloved Texas Aggies, prematurity, organizing, party planning and finding God in the details. She is Dr Pepper's biggest fan and loves a good Derby pie. You can find her on Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook.

For more posts on Advent traditions and reflections check out the Advent series.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Jesus Stocking by Karen Edmisten

The Jesus stocking is something I came up with when Anne-with-an-e (now 19) was a little girl. I was looking for ways to stay focused on Jesus through Advent, rather than on all the  other trappings of the holiday season, delightful and fun though they are.

It's a simple stocking, and I just used fabric paint to add His name. Over the years, I thought of upgrading to a beautiful stocking, more worthy of our King, but on the other hand, I hope He's pleased with the simplicity.

What goes in the Jesus stocking? Whatever you like -- we've done it a couple of different ways.

As we do with our Thanksgiving Tree, every night at dinner, we each name something for which we're thankful, write it on small piece of paper, and put it in the stocking. On Christmas day (and in future years -- we save each year’s bunch of notes) it's fun to read all the blessings that were counted during Advent, from the littlest things (past examples include a tea party with Tigger and chocolate cookies), to grown-up concerns (such as being thankful that the car broke down in our driveway instead of twenty miles from home on a sub-zero day), to every-day-but-enormous joys (friendship, family, faith.) Here are some samples from years past:

Another idea for the Jesus stocking is to use it for corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Small sacrifices, kindnesses, or prayers are recorded and dropped in the stocking as gifts for Jesus. Kids can be encouraged to fill Jesus's stocking with gifts throughout Advent.

For much of Advent, the Jesus stocking is the only one hanging on the mantle (the small tree to the right is our Jesse Tree), reminding us that He is at the center of all celebration:

 Surrounded by our favorite Advent books and calendars, this place of honor for the King is a constant reminder that what we anticipate in this season of hope is not a gift, but the Gift: our Lord and Savior.

And though it may be too late to start a Jesus stocking for this Advent, you can always file the idea away for next year. Or, you can do a Jesus stocking during the Twelve Days of Christmas!

For lots more Advent ideas, visit my “No-Panic Advent” series of posts. Happy Eve of the Fourth Sunday of Advent!
Karen Edmisten is a Catholic, homeschooling, stay-at-home mom and a convert from atheism.  She and her wonderful husband and raising three children but are also the parents of five miscarried babies in Heaven.  She is the author of After Miscarriage: A Catholic Woman's Companion to Healing and Hope, a book I personally have benefited from tremendously.  She is also the author of Through the Year with Mary, and The Rosary: Keeping Company with Jesus and MaryAdditionally she has contributed to Sex, Style, & Substance by Hallie Lord, Atheist to Catholic: Stories of Conversion by Rebecca Cherico, and A Little Way of Homeschooling by Suzie Andres and her writing can be found across the internet at places like OSV, Catholic Digest, and Catholic Exchange.

For more posts on Advent traditions and reflections check out the Advent series.

Friday, December 21, 2012

7 quick takes

1 - In high school our madrigals were awesome.  Especially when you factor in that our madrigal singers were football players and small town kids.  I was not a madrigal singer, which is part of the reason they were so good.  Anyways, one of the songs they sang every year was Riu Riu Chiu which is a Spanish madrigal about Christ's bith.  And here it's sung by The Monkees because I'm classy like that.

2 - Well, this morning we had another mouse on a trap.  This one was stuck on a sticky trap behind a bookcase.  I couldn't even look at it.  My 4 year old proudly, bravely got it out and took it to the back porch.  I know, I know, I'm ridiculous.

3 - We have good news in the Engstrom home!  For weeks Teresa was not sleeping well at night.  It started when she was close to crawling and had a growth spurt.  She was nursing more to accomplish the growing and milestone.  And then she had a few days of bad naps which began a horrible cycle of not sleeping well during the day => not sleeping well during the night => not sleeping well during the day.  After two good days of good naps and a good night's sleep two nights ago she finally had a great night's sleep last night.  I'm hoping we are on the path to being rested again.

4 - Does anyone know if the second episode of Minor Revisions will be on YouTube?  I was so tired I fell asleep on the sofa shortly after Joe's hilarious story of throwing the potty over the fence.

5 - We have 3 great posts coming up to end the Advent series by 3 wonderful women.  Karen Edmisten is on deck, Kathryn Whitaker is in the hole, and Cynthia Schroeder is the last to bat.  I know the next few days will be crazy busy but I hope you still find time to stop in and read their articles.  They really are lovely. 

6 - On a related note - have you read Jen Sagel's post?  It's lovely.  My favorite part is this:
Quite frankly, our feeling of being prepared is not an indication of how we have grown spiritually (or helped our little ones to grow) during this time of Advent. I can say with certainty that I don’t feel holier than I did four weeks ago. But I can look back and say that I relied on the Lord more. 

7 - We had a little blizzard here yesterday, you know, after it was sunny and 50 degrees outside in the morning.  Now the windchill is single digits and my kids just want to go outside and play in the snow.  That's not gonna happen when it's this cold and they don't keep gloves on.  So it's time I get off the computer, turn off Netflix, and we go frost some cookies. 
This is where James ususally eats breakfast, sitting on the computer desk while I check email. 
Do you feel better about your mothering now?

Lydia, my hero, and Bennet, engrossed in Kipper.
Many thanks to superstar Jen for hosting!  Have a wonderful weekend, friends!