Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gifts and Advent

I wrote this piece for our church's newsletter. I sat down at a blank computer screen, and the words came pouring out on the page.... and I realized that too often, I quiet my Voice. And two, I am surrounded by Gifts.


Advent is a new beginning, a new year in our church calendar.  Advent speaks powerfully to me, ever since Aidan was very young and I witnessed him arranging, then rearranging, the characters in his chunky, child-sized nativity scene: there is nothing to capture one’s attention more completely than a child retelling the story of Jesus’ birth.  When he was two years old, I was listening to him deliver the good news that the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary.  In that instant, I recognized a most fitting middle name for the second son we were expecting, Leo Gabriel, as he was our “good news” baby.  Witnessing how intently Pax listened to the secular yet beloved “Little Drummer Boy,” I marveled at how humbled we are in Christ’s presence, at times prepared with only the simplest of offerings.  Last year, I was smitten with Mary, and the faith she had in God, for her strength and dignity and grace.  Despite the predictable return of Advent each year, I am still struck by how God reveals God’s self in unique and powerful ways, again and again.  

This year, I am focused on the gift that we celebrate come Advent: the gift of the tiny baby Jesus, delivered to the world as a helpless and mewling newborn.  I am amazed by this tiny child, and what He did for our world.  And it leads me to think very much about the gifts we have in our own congregation, the gifts our children and youth bring to our faith family.  

Like many of you, I watch with wonder and marvel as the youngest in our congregation gather around the chancel steps, to hear the children’s message, and later, to receive the body and blood of Christ at the communion table.  I listen to their questions, breathtaking in their complexity, joyful in their simplicity.  I watch their tiny, solemn hands raise up to meet the pastor’s hands, delivering bread; the chalice bearer’s hands, delivering wine.  Week after week, I watch the children; they return me to solid ground.  They reveal to me the mystery of Christ within us.  In their sweet, unknowing, hopeful faces, they reveal all that is good in this world, all that we may hope to do for them.  I watch the way they run with abandon in the sanctuary, not yet recognizing the space as Holy Ground, or perhaps, better still - recognizing at once, and allowing their feet to dance across it joyfully.  I’ve marveled at the draw of the simple mosaic stained glass windows that line both sides of the sanctuary - a mere $10 at time of purchase - for the joy they have brought nearly every child who has entered into our sacred space of worship.  I witness beautiful moments between parent and child in church - a lingering hug; a meaningful look that passes; a calming embrace around a child’s shoulder; a long lap snuggle during the sermon; a soundly sleeping infant in arms - made more beautiful in the context of worship.  Our children, our gifts.

I watch as our older children have grown into the acolyte robes they coveted wearing as youngsters.  I witness their solemn devotion to bearing the cross, offering the chalice, week after week. I listen as they offer up their gifts of music, of the readings of the Word during worship, of a welcome extended at the church’s front door, the laughter they share with one another in the narthex and hallways and rooms of our church building.  I watch as they guide their young peers into getting apple juice at the snack table, or helping them climb a ladder to hang an ornament on the tree just before Christmas.  I see how they act as role models, being kind and loving and open, unique and independent, being engaged in community with our faith family.

In youth group and Sunday School, I witness our youth grapple with difficult questions about life and faith.  I watch them confront challenges and face obstacles, offering help to one another, acting as both leaders and followers.  I listen to their prayers, hear their joys and sorrows, their worries and fears, their gratitudes and deepest desires.  During service projects, I marvel as they serve with accepting and loving hearts, wanting to affect change to the marginalized in our immediate community and beyond.   

Time and time again, I see the face of Christ in our young people.  So often, they are my Godsights - moments so powerfully filled with God’s presence that they are sightings of God.  This Advent season, as I reflect on the gift of the baby Jesus to the world, so too do I connect with the gift of all children, and especially the children and youth of our congregation - and I am filled with such deep gratitude for them all.

As we prepare to welcome the baby Jesus into our hearts again this season, let us also celebrate the children and youth of this congregation: the wonder and newness of them; the joy they bring, and the richness they provide our faith family.

Saturday, November 12, 2016


My high school Latin teacher taught me that a "cornucopia" is a "horn of plenty."

As we sat around our table tonight after dinner, I could not help but feel - but know - that this was a year of plenty.  That we are blessed with more than enough.  That we are so damn lucky.

Since the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of having children who could doodle or draw or write, I've been creating trees of thanksgiving, or banners of thanks, or wreaths of gratitude.  This year, we sat down after dinner, ready to fill out our leaves of thanks after a very, very tough week, both personally and in the bigger world.

The leaves that fill our wreath of plenty include the following:

I am thankful for unexpected kindness (Aidan Paul, AP)
My house.  (Pax, P)
The Obamas (Anne, AC)
I am thankful for food on the table (Leo, L)
I am thankful for the great outdoors (AP)
Electricity! (P)
Music (AP)
I am grateful for Mrs. Muddiman (P)
Our church family... the kids whom I teach and whom I love, fiercely.  My youth group kids. (AC)
I'm thankful for unikspektit (unexpected) notes (P)
I am thankful for God's grace. (AP)
Food (P)
I'm  happy we are smart people. (L)
I am grateful for Doctors and nurses like Dr. Mason and Dr. Smyth that keep us healthy. (AP)
I am grateful for health and safety and happiness.  We are abundantly lucky in all of these areas... I am SO grateful. (AC)
Klintine.  (Clinton - P)
I'm grateful that we have awesome grandparents.  (L)
I'm thankful for diversity (AP)
I am so grateful for my friends and colleagues at Burnley Moran:  such smart, compassionate, wise, and funny women.  I love you all. (AC)
I am thankful for people teaching me my grilling expertise (AP)
Our fire pit and fire place.  (P)
I am thankful for the schools.  (AP)
All of the students whom I teach... all of my colleagues and co-workers. (AC)
All my friends near and far.  Benny close and Conner and Patrick far.  (L)
School! (P)
I'm grateful for the unconditional, undeserved love from God.  For grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace. (AC)
I am thankful for friends that always have your back. (AP)
I love our community and network of friends.  Our village loves and cares for us all so much.  (AC)
I am thankful for the wonderful house I live in.  (AP)
I am thankful for all my teachers who teach me, whether in school or not.  (AP)
I am grateful for the family dinners with Grandma and Grandpa, the trails that lead to their home, and so much more.... (AC)
I am thankful for the beautiful state of Virginia.  (AP)
I am thankful for the wildlife.  (AP)
I am thankful for my trumpet.  (AP)
I am thankful that Grandma and Grandpa live so close by.  (AP)
I am thankful for Leo, Pax, and Mom.  (AP)
I'm thankful for my bruthers.  (P)
I'm thankful that I have the BEST MOM EVER!!  And brothers.  (L)
I am so DEEP DOWN GRATEFUL for my three sons.  I love you to the ends of the earth, Aidan, Leo, and Pax.  (AC)

I am grateful for music, laughter, food, wine, beer, ocean waves, birds at sunset.  Coffee in the morning.  Sunrises.  Unexpected hugs.  Compliments.  Friendships:  new, renewed, old, and everything in between.  Kindness.  Thoughtfulness.  Surprise.  Love.  Vulnerability.  Grit.  Forgiveness.  New paths.  The Journey. The memories.  The tomorrows.  And You.  (AC)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Halloween 2016

Aidan, Leo, and Pax had an absolutely *wonderful* Halloween night.  My mom was in charge of their costumes, and the kids enjoyed working with her on them.  Aidan dressed as Legolas, from Lord of the Rings - this is the 3rd or 4th year he's chosen a literary character, which I positively adore.  Leo dressed as Hans Solo, and proclaimed to me upon seeing himself in costume, "Mom!  I have the PERFECT hair for Hans Solo!" And Pax dressed as a white ninja warrior "who fights for peace."

It was a good night.  Jeff came over to have pizza with us and see the kids in their costumes, then we met up with good friends.  The moonless night, the bright stars, and the chill in the air made for a perfect evening.  My dad walked the neighborhood with us and helped carry the impressive loot of candy, and my mom stayed at our home to pass out candy.

This past weekend, I enjoyed an adult-only costume party at the home of my good friends Kyle and Jeanne.  Such a good time, so many laughs, and so many clever costumes all around.
My buddy happens to be a cop.  He is dressed as a breathalyzer, which seems fitting that he found
 a flapper (or two) at the party.

Indeed, what a difference a year makes.  In all these months of my silence on this blog, there have been stories too painful and too heartbreaking to share.  And yet there have also been stories that are so poignant and tender and lovely that, in time, perhaps I will be able to make space for them here.  I was reminded of one such memory earlier this week.... In hindsight, it is a story of success, of sweetness, of the power of do-overs.

A year ago, due to myriad reasons, my kids didn't end up getting to trick or treat for very long, and came home with a meager handful of candy.  Their sadness and disappointment over Halloween was too much for my heart to bear, since Halloween is among my favorite holidays.  And so, on November 1, a Sunday last year, I went out and bought several big bags of candy that I knew my kids loved.  I put our trunk of dress up clothes on the porch, handed bags to each kid, and gave them their instructions:  they were to get dressed outside in whatever costume they chose from the trunk, and ring the doorbell.  Meanwhile, inside, I had my own stash of wardrobe changes and a large bowl of candy to distribute.

The first time, the kids rang the doorbell and said "Trick or Treat!" in rather reluctant and skeptical voices.  I answered the door, pretended they were strangers, admired their costumes, gave them candy, and shut the door.  Costume and wardrobe changes ensued; the doorbell rang again; again, I answered them as strangers, oohed and aahed over their new personas, passed out the treats, and closed the door.

This continued for many rounds.  Each round got more entertaining, as the kids added story lines to their characters.  As they neared the bottom of the dress up trunk, the stories became more elaborate as their costumes became more weird.  As I shut the door on the final round, all I heard was laughter on both sides of the door.  A few minutes later, they came into the house, and I greeted them as their Mom, delighted to see them.  I reveled in hearing their tales of trick or treating, and how they had dressed.

This year was a good year - made sweeter by that powerful memory from our bitter past.

Monday, October 3, 2016

...and they flew...

I've long admired Maria Montessori for her work as an educator and a progressive pioneer in empowering children.  She observed,

"The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one's self. Adults work to finish a task, but the child works in order to grow, and is working to create the adult, the person that is to be. Such experience is not just play... it is work he must do in order to grow up."

Indeed, such an opportunity for independence and growth came along this weekend, quite unexpectedly and with equal parts thrill and terror.  

Aidan and I were preparing a double batch of lasagna when I discovered, to my dismay, that I had completely forgotten an essential ingredient - mozzarella cheese.  "What are we going to DO?" I exclaimed, my head in my hands.

"Mom!  I'll go to the store!" Aidan suggested, his whole face lit up with the possibility. 

"How will you get there?" I asked.

"My bike!" he said with a laugh.  And I stared at him, as Montessori's words echoed in my head.  (Not so eloquently, of course.  More like independence.  Adventure.  Resourcefulness.)

And so with just a little more convincing on Aidan's part, plus the additional help of his brother Leo, I agreed to let them go.  I packed a backpack with the grocery list, cash, and a cell phone; I reminded them to be smart and safe; we briefly reviewed the route and the rules of the road.... and they were off.

55 minutes later, just as I had started wringing my hands, they returned. Triumphant, sweaty, glowing with pride and accomplishment and independence.  I felt so proud of them in that moment, and of US.  This was measureable, real, triumphant growth for each of us...

"Come to the edge," she said.
"We are afraid," they said.
"Come to the edge," she said.
They came.  
She pushed them...
...and they flew.
-Guillaume Apollinaire

Friday, September 16, 2016


Tonight, there was magic.

It began at the dinner table, where so many sacred and sustaining moments occur... and it carried through the night.  Our dinner was late on the table, due in part because of after-school plans and a new recipe I'd been eager to try but took longer to make than anticipated.  Hungry but happy, we gathered around Anne(tte)'s enchilladas, cornbread, chips and salsa, and pineapple.  Everyone devoured dinner and exclaimed how good it was; that, in and of itself, felt satisfying and rewarding, given it was a brand new recipe with components that often get nose snubs.  (What the hell is offensive about shredded chicken, may I dare ask?)

As we filled our bellies, we filled each other in on our days.  Pax had a marvelous field trip to the Frontier Culture Museum; Aidan loves his science class and teacher; Leo had an awesome time at Fun Fridays; and I enjoyed a good haircut and a great run.  And then.

Out of the seemingly clear blue, Leo said, "I think that some girls are like magnets, and some boys are like metal."  "What do you mean by that, like they attract each other?" I asked.

"No," he clarified, "Like some boys want all the girls to stick to them."

Again I asked, "What do you mean by that?"

"Well, there's this boy, Carter.  He likes all the girls.  He talks to them, and says stuff to them.  And today at recess, he was saying stuff to a girl, and then he ran away.  The girl came and sat next to me, and I think she felt uncomfortable because of what Carter said to her."

I rehearsed those words a hundred times so that I committed them to memory.  My 9 year old son observed "I think she felt uncomfortable because of what Carter said to her." 

If ever there was a teachable moment, wrapped up in a shining gold ribbon and sitting on my plate, begging to be unwrapped, it was This Moment.

I praised Leo for observing that the girl felt uncomfortable.  I validated how important it is for girls to feel comfortable with boys, and that boys may not say or do anything to make a girl feel uncomfortable.  I shared with them my experience as I was walking on the Downtown Mall.

"Just yesterday, I was walking to the gym, and a man that I passed said to me, 'Hey sexy.' "(brief interruption to explain that "hey sexy" essentially meant "I like your body.")

 I told my sons how it made me feel, like I was only being seen for what I look like on the outside, not for who I am on the inside.  And that each of us are so much more than what we see on the outside.  And I said that it wasn't a compliment, because it didn't make me feel good at all.

"I'm smart," I began.
"VERY smart," Aidan added.

"You're strong, Mama!  You can see it, like, in your arms," Pax observed.

"Yes.  I am smart, and I am strong.  I am also kind," I stated.  "And that's what I want people to notice about me, and so it hurt my feelings when that man said 'Hey, Sexy,' because he didn't see me for who I am."

"Like Brian sees you?" Leo asked.
"Yes," I replied.  "Like Brian sees me."

Pax said, "But Mama, you're still cute.  You are always cute."

(Honestly, how many arguments can one have with a six year old in a day?)

I reiterated again how powerful it was that Leo paid attention to how uncomfortable a boy made a girl feel, and that we must be very careful to give compliments to people - using words to express what we admire about another person - and that our words our powerful.

Abruptly, as these moments tend to be, we moved on to another topic, and eventually found our way on to the deck, where we'd gathered materials in advance for the first fire pit of the season, plus s'mores to go with.  As we coaxed fire out of kindling and a match, and waited patiently to add logs, just to wait more patiently for the fire to burn down to s'more temperature, we told stories.

Most of them featured three little boys who were just sittin' and thinkin', sittin' and thinkin'.  A few included a Mama, or a Mama and Daddy who loved them fiercely.  Most of them made sense, some of them were poignant in the face of our moment in time, and all of them were magical.

I sat back and gazed upon my three sons, drinking in redemption, and reveling....

It is my great hope that I will take my sons to Disney World to experience all of the Magic of the Mouse.  But tonight, all I could think was, the magic is here.  For free.  At our table.  On my deck. With my sons.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Start Where You Are.

I'm reading two books that are powerful and healing, each in their own right.  One phrase from one of the books has latched into my brain, and it's what I tell myself now when I am overwhelmed by what is ahead of me, what I'm wanting to do or trying to do or afraid to do:  start where you are.

I've wanted to try to start writing again in this space for months and months and months.  I kept putting it off.  The expectations I place on myself can be crushing, and I resisted getting started because what if I can't find the time to write?  What if I can't make sense of the lags in entries, because some moments are too painful, some struggles are too big?  What if my voice becomes inauthentic?  What if I over edit?  What if I under edit?  (And what if I stop right now, doing both, since I also told myself I'd post as is, without the edits?)

Today was a horrible, worrisome day at the school where I work.  It was the perfect storm of awful, and it left me feeling defeated and shaken.  As I reflected on my day and why it affected me so much, I realized one beautiful truth:  I, along with many of my colleagues, left today feeling the same way - utterly defeated and distraught - because of the depth of our concern for and devotion to these kids whom we teach and care for and guide, as best we can, each day at school.  And so the weight of today meant something important to me - it is the weight of caring deeply for young human beings, the burden of that weight shared with my smart, kind, and compassionate colleagues.

I came home.  I headed straight for the gym, and was able to shed much of my yuck.  I greeted my children with honesty, telling them that I had had a really awful day.  But I also cared for them, showed them grace and kindness and patience and guided them through the afternoon hours, drying tears and holding small heaving shoulders as two boys cried out their frustrations and upsets.  Dinner, as it is most nights, was the great equalizer.  It was a simple enough meal, but it was a particularly victorious moment when Aidan exclaimed, "This is the best broccoli you have EVER made!" followed by Pax asking for leftover broccoli in his lunch tomorrow.

We chatted about our days, taking turns, and at the end Pax shared a homemade book titled "my love" that he had created in the minutes before dinner.  It was filled with pictures and simple sentences about the people he loves.

And so I held fast to each of these small victories.  Calmed and settled hearts; a nourishing meal with good connection to one another; a settling in for the evening.  Pax wasn't feeling well and went to sleep early, but not before a long snuggle in his bed.  Leo and I curled up on my bed for a long snuggle and a thoughtful reading of this book, which led to many questions and comments about powerful leaders and beautiful ideas.

When I returned from tucking Leo into his bed, I found Aidan sprawled out on my bed, flipping through the pages of "Of Thee I Sing."  After a long snuggle, Aidan told me how he thought Nelson Mandela and Sitting Bull were a lot a like, and that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, we'll refer to Bill as First Gentleman President.  All of these observations and realizations in the span of just a few minutes, sparked by a quick flip through of the book on the bed.  And suddenly I'm marveling at this 12 year old boy before me in a whole new way.  Seventh grade is the "sweet spot" of school aged people, the grade in which you are not ready to give up being a child, yet you are not quite ready to be a young person yet.  And so you dabble between the two, blurring the lines with your wisdom and perspective, balancing them with the desire to be tucked in, to be sung to before falling asleep.  Sweet spot, indeed.

And in that moment, in hearing my 12 year old describe the similarities between inspirational leaders from two very different times and places, to jumping into dialogue on what to call our first male spouse of the White House, I realized it was a moment I wished to never forget.  I wrestled the goodness out of the day, and there it was, curled up next to me for a long snuggle, three times over, with new knowledge and ideas and perspective to go with.

So I start where I am.