Wednesday, August 31, 2011

on second thought.....

 maybe for a while I'll just blog about things for which I don't need visual aids ....

I only had one grandparent. Of course, there were officially three others, but as far as memories go I really only clearly remember my paternal grandmother. She didn't bake. There were never any delicious snacks at her house. In fact, the only special food I can remember eating at her house was store-bought dinner rolls (and those she always burned!). At Christmas - until her stroke made shopping impossible - she FILLED huge bags with presents for each of us kids....but I no longer recall or own a single item that she gave me. What I loved best about my grandmother - and still possess in detailed memories - were the sleepovers at her house. An enormous hammock hung between two old trees in her yard; she would line it with abundant soft quilts and thick pillows for my sister and I to enjoy all afternoon. We were given total freedom to poke through all of her drawers and closets, "organizing" her vast stores of costume jewelry and Mary Kay cosmetics. In the evenings, when her house was dimly lit and cozy, her cat would come out of hiding. Then she would tuck us in to magnificently made beds and with her fingers she would draw letters on our backs for us to guess. The beds in her house were lovely- big wooden beds raised up high. The sheets were smoother and cooler than any others in the world and there were so many wonderful blankets atop. Unlike our own house, her bedrooms did not have carpets but her kitchen and bathroom did. I thought it was all enchanting and I still remember the way each room smelled, including the basement, even though I've not been in that house for these 15 years since she passed away.

I now often wish I had one piece of the costume jewelry that filled her chest drawers or one of the little animal figurines that used to line the shelves of her house, but I do not. Of all those bags filled with Christmas gifts, nothing remains. But there was one gift of a different sort. When I was a teenager she sent me to Europe. There was a school trip and she paid for a large portion of my ticket. Other than New Zealand, it's the only time I've left North America. I took it a bit for granted at the time but the memories of Rome, Assisi, Monaco and Madrid became more valuable to me as I matured. I outgrew (and discarded) all those toys, clothes and games - they lost all value to me - but my appreciation of my grandmother's sleepovers and the European experience has increased with time. The point I'm getting at tonight is that I've been thinking more and more about the gift of experiences, not things.

Now, I do need to preface this all by admitting that I was the kind of child who, when asked for a Christmas list for Santa, invariably produced a piece of paper with only the words "blackboard chalk" written on it. My parents must have relied on my siblings' lists for inspiration as they shopped for their eldest because in the end there was always an abundance of gifts under the tree for me as well. Unlike my grandmother's presents, I do remember quite a number of these. But I don't own them anymore either. What I do own - and very much so - is again intangible....memories and formative experiences and nonmaterial expressions of love: the annual winter trip to see The Nutcracker in Manhattan with my mother and the hours spent in the basement with my father building a long-desired wooden dollhouse. It took us so long to finish that house that I was almost past the age of playing with it when it was complete, but the dollhouse for me was precious for the journey, not the destination - those hours in the basement with my dad all to myself. I fixed up the 20 year old dollhouse for Maria's 2nd birthday. My daughters have thus benefitted not only from the legacy of HopPop's dollhouse but also from Yowee's passion for The Nutcracker. My girls had their first taste of the tradition when Maria was two and Bernadette was only five months old. (It was a bit brainless bringing two babies to a highbrow event at Lincoln Center but both watched silently in rapt attention and are still performing in tutus to Tchaikovsky almost daily). I'm amazed at the power of the gift of experiences, not things even in children so young.

I've lived in eleven different "homes" since I turned 18, moved thirteen times into various dorm rooms, cramped apartments, to a tiny two bedroom "starter house" and then finally to the furthest point of the globe. Frequent moving and tight quarters have only exacerbated my passion for getting rid of all unnecessary, unused or unuseful items. I'm not sentimental about stuff. Having to pack up, transit, unpack, store, sort, organize, clean, launder, put away, tidy and pick up the worldly possessions of just one person helped me to realize that "stuff equals time" and that the less stuff I own, the more time I have. Multiplying this by a husband and three children has only underscored that truth. Moving to New Zealand placed several exclamation points near it. Stuff equals chaos. We packed the bare minimum to come here, or so we thought, and have found that even that was too much. If it's not regularly worn, read, played with or used, it's given to someone who will appreciate it. Except Richard's stuff. I would never covertly cut up his holey, raggedy, frayed, favorite old sweatshirts to make rags for cleaning the bathroom counters. Never. I think robbers must steal them.

My graduate school roommate entered a convent several years ago - of all the gifts given her throughout a lifetime, all she now possesses are those which were experiences, not things. Hurricane Irene sent a mini-tsunami into my newlywed sister's beachfront home, sparing, I hope, at least some of her week-old wedding gifts. Jesus reminds us that moth and rust will consume the bulk of our treasure and that our focus us best spent on the kind of treasure that will last. When each of us is "packing a suitcase for a place that none of us has been - a place that has to be believed to be seen" the gifts we'll be retaining through eternity will be experiences, not things. I like that. I'm amazed that you can take it with you as long as it is not really an "it". It's inspiring.

Richard and I have been giving this all a lot of thought, as anyone would while on a two year vacation from almost all of their stuff. We've been talking a lot about how we want to approach stuff when we return home - for the sake of simplicity and order - for the sake of not raising "committed little materialists" (a quote from a wonderful parenting book we've been enjoying by Andrew Mullins) - for the sake of having more time, more meaning in our lives and more fun as a family. We've talked a lot about making "experiences, not things" the guideline in our gift-giving to our children and we've brainstormed about all different kinds of experiences based on the interests of each family member: from the simplest hikes and ice cream store trips and bowling excursions and duck pond visits - to the more expensive ballet lessons and theatre tickets and family vacations. Of course, there is legitimate joy in unwrapping a beautiful present and we won't want to deny our children (or ourselves!) that pleasure, but we hope to swim strongly against the cultural tide in terms of frequency, quantity and extravagance. We believe that it will actually heighten the pleasure of receiving simple gifts and serve as an antidote for the ingratitude and endless desire so common to the materialistic spirit of our era. Our point is to focus on making memories and building relationships, on formation and culture, on simplicity and appreciation. Getting a really clear vision for this has been an awesome grace of our mission time. Part of the appeal of this two year mission was the opportunity to step completely out of our normal lifestyle and then, with the perspective that time and space and grace have offered, to reevaluate everything. 

In the vein of experiences as gifts, Richard's 30th birthday presents included a planned guys-only excursion to Taupo for bungee-jumping, followed by tickets to a World Cup Rugby game (all Fr. Michael's idea). I'm happy for him about the Rugby. I hate the bungee jumping part. I had thought long and hard about what Richard would want most and I realized it was to see the South Island. And so he shall. He'll fly in the cockpit with his friend Paul (a commercial pilot) and then spend 10 days exploring arguably the most beautiful and varied terrain on the planet. And then he will come home just in time to try to think of an equally amazing experience, not thing to give to his wife on October 25th. But he knows deep down that if he gets desperate, she's always thrilled with peppermint chapstick. Or blackboard chalk.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

a royal pain

The blog is going to be on a pause of sorts until the issues with uploading photos are resolved. I just tried to post a bunch of photos and the picture above of the puppet king (made by the girls group) is the only one that uploaded without discolored lines and blocks through it.  Richard and I have been trying to figure out what the problem is - and if any computer-savvy individuals out there have any ideas or suggestions, WE ARE VERY OPEN TO ACCEPTING HELP!!!!

Friday, August 26, 2011

this guy turned 30

happy birthday handsome
here's to another 30 years (at least)
of you being our hero!

PS since you really can do everything, 
can you please figure out why the website no longer 
uploads photos properly?

Maria, Bernadette, Joseph
and Christine

Saturday, August 20, 2011

tyburn monastery

my retreat bedroom's name:
"Heart of Jesus: Fullness of Peace"
(each bedroom was named for a different attribute
 of the Sacred Heart of Jesus)

Today was beautiful. It was sunny, clear, not too cold and filled with nuns. Real nuns - authentic, cloistered, pray all day nuns in full habit. Some of the girls in the youth group were going on a retreat at the Tyburn Monastery in Rotorua and Christine and I were welcomed along on the outing with our trusty sidekick, Joseph Pio. 

We left at 7am sharp to make it there in time for 9am Mass in their chapel, which we did with exactly three minutes to spare. However Joseph's diaper must have exploded at the very start of our journey and so by the time we arrived, an unfortunate yellow sticky substance had leaked in wet clumps through three layers of clothing, shot all the way down one leg (to the ankle) and crept up his back to the middle of his shoulder blades. So I spent most of the Mass in the sacristy trying to piece him back together with the six baby wipes that turned out to be all I had managed to bring along for the day. The day could only get better from there.

a tyburn nun at prayer behind the grille in the chapel

After the Mass and the Mess were done, Mother Prior brought us into the uncloistered rooms of the monastery and served morning tea. True "nuns" are cloistered, meaning they do not venture off of the grounds upon which they live and are often separated from visitors by a "grille". Most of what are commonly call "nuns" are actually technically "religious sisters" - most people could never possibly meet a proper nun unless they visited a cloister. I say all of this by way of explanation that the Tyburn nuns are semi-cloistered; they do not leave the grounds under normal circumstances and they spend most of their time behind the grille or in the enclosed parts of the monastery. Their days are spent in prayer, physical labor, and in hospitality to those who visit the retreat center in which they live. Since Christine and the girls were visiting as part of a discernment process, they were permitted behind the grille and inside the enclosure with the nuns while Joseph and I enjoyed the grounds....immensely.

 door to the cloistered part of the monastery,
the "enclosure"

I have seen a lot of beauty in New Zealand.  An awesome beauty, and in abundance. There is nothing you could possibly ever hear about the natural beauty of New Zealand that is an overstatement. To the contrary, words and photos and even Lord of the Rings films cannot possibly capture the majesty of this landscape. But today there was this little house. It was just a tiny little farmhouse alongside the winding oak-lined gravel driveway that stretches the kilometer from the road to the monastery.  The tall, pointy green hills so characteristic of New Zealand surrounded it almost completely. A small herd of graceful alpaca stood between the house and the drive. A few horses grazed on a hill above the house and a handful of sheep roamed close to the front porch. One rooster called frequently at some distance while another ran close at my heels, trying to keep up. The gravel made a wonderful crunching under my feet and the sun was warm on my face. There were no sounds other than that one persistant rooster and a few small birds. None. The hills must just absorb and block all the noise of a whole universe. The peace was profound - natural - and supernatural in its proximity to all that holy prayer. Although the township calls that gravel run Dods Road, the nuns have painted a little sign renaming it God's Road. And so it is. I stood for a long time taking it all in and feeling the most certain sense of belonging in a place I have ever experienced. I had just made up my mind to go home and ask Richard to pretty pretty please buy that house for me for my birthday when I remembered that the house would never ever ever be a cozy haven from swirling snows. I could no longer decide. Surely somewhere in the Pennsylvania countryside there must be a tiny house, quietly surrounded by tall pointy hills and crunchy gravel roads which see regular winter snow.  I realized it would be better not to confess that fleeting moment of temptation to my New Zealand infatuated husband.

touring the monastic grounds with the nuns 
these nuns are fun, funny and always laughing

I went eagerly to the Tyburn today seeking peace, after a year that has been a true school in the grace and virtue of peace. I brought with me a small book on peace, sent to me from the States by a dear friend who has walked faithfully at my side through all the hard lessons. I was assigned, through no choice of my own, to the bedroom named in honor of Jesus' peace. I stood on God's Road and was immersed in the greatest sense of peace I have had since the overwhelming "mission-preparation process" began, aside from some of the lovely hours I spent nursing newlyborn Joseph (back when we were blissfully ignorant of the road ahead for him).  I was gratified to see the young girls who were my companions seeming so at peace as well.

the view from my bedroom!

The calm openness of my younger companions as they experienced the cloister scene was remarkable. It's not that the nuns and the vistas and the prayerful atmosphere lend themselves to anything else, it's simply that I did not have that kind of spiritual maturity when I discerned religious life at an age quite a bit older than theirs. My memories are a mix - I was very powerfully attracted to the peace, simplicity, prayerfulness, joy, virtue (and to the community life, which I found so much more droll and hilarious than I expected it to be). I was also very afraid. I was afraid of the sacrifice that would be involved and afraid to really ask myself if the Lord was inviting me into this life. I spent most of my mental energy trying to find "flaws" in religious life that would let me off the hook. The "flaws" I found are quite humorous to me now. For example, I was very turned off by the convent rising at 5:30 every morning. I felt certain that I could never be a pleasant or productive person on that little amount sleep. I never fathomed that I would one day meet a little man who thought the day should begin at four am...every morning. Nor did I ever imagine his sister's habit of disrupting my sleep precisely once an hour every night for the first year of her life. I did not at the time realize that most nuns are getting more and better sleep than most mothers of young children and that nuns get a day off - to sleep undisturbed in a silent bedroom - if they are ill (I do not). I have not now decided that motherhood is harder than religious life, but I've realized that sacrifice and suffering are equally present in both vocations. The girls at the Tyburn today seem to understand that. They were awed and impressed with the sacrifices of the monastic life, but not unduly afraid. They remain open. And that is the peace that the Lord gives, which "the world" cannot give, but tries so hard to take away - a peace that comes from trusting so entirely in the goodness of God that suffering does not reduce us to fear or despair or excessive sadness. I did not know or understand or believe in this peace during my high school years and was drawn to youth ministry ten years ago by a strong desire to communicate the reality of that sort of peace to as many young people as possible. These girls already know it. Praise God. May they live it compellingly in a world desperately in need of witnesses.

the alpaca greeting committee

"my" house
(almost hidden there at the right)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

holy puppets!

Last term was war. The battleground was the wall of the youth room and paint was the weapon of choice. This term we've aimed for artistic collaboration in lieu of competition. The girl's group is fashioning puppets whilst the boy's group will construct a wooden puppet theatre. In September, the girls will use the puppets to present two parables to the little ones who attend Children's Liturgy during Sunday Masses. Last week they crafted the "minor characters" out of socks. This week they'll be using felt to make main characters, including Jesus. Stay tuned for those photos.

The theme for the term is "Give Praise" and we'll be using a different praise and worship song each week to delve more deeply into the nature of praising God. At the end of the term we're organizing a big praise and worship music festival for the whole parish, featuring the songs that were dissected at youth nights and some testimonies from the youth about the music and about the Lord. We're pretty excited about it. 

I personally was also pretty excited about the SNOW that allegedly fell for about 6.3 minutes this week in the Tauranga area. Snow is one of the things that I miss MOST about Pennsylvania. Although we are in the dead of winter here in New Zealand, the particular part of the country which we are inhabiting does not see snow. Like ever. The trees are covered in flowers, I've planted strawberries and tomatos this week with my children, we wear flip-flops (aka "jandals") many days. That kind of winter. Some of the kids in our youth group here have never seen snow. Almost unfathomable. Definitely tragic. However, a few days ago the temperatures plummeted uncharacteristically and a storm blew up from the south. The smallest flake of a chance of snow overshadowed us. The scoffers scoffed: impossible! But nothing shall be impossible with God. My most snow-pining fellow snow-hoper kept me posted on the forecast via text (even though she was at school and I suspect this activity was illegal). Finally the blessed news - although I was engrossed in a Deep Conversation with Maria in a warm coffeeshop and missed it, the snow had come. A triumph. Such fabulous news that I am choosing to ignore the debate I glimpsed on Richard's Facebook account between the kiwi kids who rejoiced at seeing actual snow at school and those who scoffed that it was all "just sleet". Haters. 

The very small, almost bald gentleman in the center of the creative chaos had some medical appointments this morning. Because of the UTI that landed him in hospital when he was 6 weeks old, his kidneys needed to be tested to see if they are refluxing urine. Today he was catheterized for that procedure and the reflux was confirmed. The test itself was a horrible ordeal for both of us. I've seen him endure several other painful procedures over the past few months but this was the most fear I have seen in his eyes yet. I hate how he locks eyes with me during these dreadful moments in the hospital, not understanding why I am not protecting him - or even holding him - while strangers hurt him.  It was an additional blow to hear that he is indeed refluxing; Richard and I had been so very sure that this test would eliminate this concern that we weren't prepared at all for the news. Joseph's case is neither mild nor severe, which means there is a chance he might outgrow it in 5 or 10 years but he will need to repeat this invasive test annually until he does so - and he will need to continue taking a daily antibiotic to prevent infection. While at the hospital today he also had his weekly weigh-in and showed a modest gain on his new medication. Over the next few weeks he will need to put on weight at an accelerated speed in order to avoid the feeding tube, which we are still hoping and praying with all our hearts to escape. We appreciate having company in those prayers. 

Today, after spending over 5 hours in the hospital, I am particularly moved to write about how truly having Christine here is an awesome blessing. It's been more than two weeks since she arrived and she has given her testimony to girls' group, made puppets, gone to the hot pools with Lighthouse and attended a "normal" youth night, started doing one-to-one ministry and mentoring and has begun writing her first talk for a youth night. Her babysitting duties have been no less abundant. She's already logged in many hours with Maria and Bernadette while Richard and I have partied with Joseph and his doctors. Tonight for the first time she babysat all three of our children while we attended a marriage course in the church (attended! not lead!) On a day to day basis her peaceful, prayerful presence is steadying and strengthening us.  

I am blessed by Christine's presence here in many ways far too numerous to list. However, two practical areas have been almost life-changing! Firstly, she is willing to take our little girls to the park for an hour in the mornings. It amazes me how much laundry, cleaning and organizing I can get done in just one hour, even if I have to stop twice to feed Joseph! Secondly, because of Christine, I have been able to start taking each one of my daughters on a private "date" each week. That's been something I have really been wanting to be able to do. Bernadette and I went a long, slow walk last week and examined every thorn on one barren rose bush, ran in circles pretending to be butterflies and went down twin slides together holding hands. A few days later Maria and I got hot chocolate in a warm empty coffeeshop while sharing our feelings on modern art (not even kidding) and then popped into a pet store to talk to budgies and show each other which kind of tropical fish we like best. As I'm beginning to see some evidence that my frequent hospital disappearances are affecting the girls, I am extra grateful for these chances to reconnect with them. But even if I never had to go off to another doctor ever, I'd be loathe to quit this new habit. These dates are becoming the highlight of my week and at least for now, the girls seem to be big fans as well. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

causes for joy

We've had a lot to be glad about here. Bernadette turned 2 at the end of July and we had a blast helping her celebrate. Days later Joseph became an officially recognized American citizen and it was with a feeling of relief that we finally took possession of all the documents proving such. We also most joyfully collected Aunt Christine from the Tauranga airport and have spent the last few days happily getting her adjusted to the time, weather and cultural differences. Christine by now has triumphed over jet lag but has nearly succumbed to maria lag. The love and excitement of a 4 year old girl can be an even more exhausting experience than air travel. Christine has come to assist us both in ministry and in caring for our girls during the times when Joseph's health requires more intensive attention. She's already been called into active duty on both fronts. A very enthused girls' group warmly welcomed Christine on Wednesday night immediately on the heels of her first few hours as mother-substitute.

The timing of Christine's arrival was amazingly providential. The medical community is determined to see Joseph climb a little higher than the humble second percentile line of the growth chart. So just this week the powers that be decided to place Joseph on a semi-permanent feeding tube for a few months (or more) because we've failed to persuade the little man of the importance of bottles and prescription formula. Although I have found it possible by God's grace to remain relatively peaceful and stoic for the past few months, the prospect of the feeding tube completely undid me. Therefore I was extra grateful for Christine's timely arrival, which freed Richard to accompany me for this hospital visit - and gave us both complete peace of mind on account of our daughters. We arrived at the hospital last night, bracing ourselves for this horrible next step and filled with many questions we wanted to ask before the tube was inserted. However, the answers to each question only seemed to increase the confused and overwhelmed feelings.
For example, first question:
"Will we be in the hospital one night or two nights?"
"Ten nights."

The longer we conferred, the more confused we became about what was really best for Joseph. We asked to see a lactation consultant because some of my heaviest concerns had to do with Joseph's ability to continue nursing. What an inspired request it was! Karen immediately grasped the heart of our concerns while also being able to understand the medical jargon that was bewildering us. It was almost like having a translator present to mediate between my essentially emotional communication and the hospital's scientific language. It was Karen who was able to broker a deal which satisfied all parties. It still involved a feeding tube, but for a short, limited duration and only for use overnight. My ten days in hospital with Joseph would become ten nights - we'd be able to be home with the girls for most of each day and would simply return to the hospital to sleep.  It wasn't exactly an "awesome" prospect...but Divine Providence wasn't done yet.

There was a pediatric GI specialist from Australia visiting the hospital for three weeks only who was interested in seeing Joseph in the morning. We therefore went home tube-less, planning to return today for this review and for the insertion of the tube. To our surprise, this doctor threw out the feeding tube plan altogether in favor of a much less invasive approach. If it does not work, we may need to reconsider the tube, but at least we will be certain at that point that it is truly necessary - that we have been given a chance to try every other avenue. I nearly floated out of that hospital this morning. I thought I'd be leaving with a plastic tube taped to those happy little cheeks. I thought every picture of that big gummy smile would be marred by the presence of that tube - perhaps there would be teeth in the smile before that tube was removed.

Driving home Richard and I just dwelt in amazement at how many negative medical experiences have just sort of unexpectedly evaporated for Joseph over the past few months. In spite of so many dire expectations and predictions, Joseph and his parents have escaped time and again with relatively minor "hassles" - inconvenienced instead of crucified - splinters in lieu of the cross. We can only attribute it to the mercy of God who has heard the prayers of so many good people. Once again, we are just filled with gratitude towards the Lord and to all those who are praying so generously and so compassionately for our little boy. Please keep praying for him and for us. We are so certain that it is these prayers that have secured the graces, the little miracles, the practical assistance and the many perfect "coincidences" that have marked his path. Joseph's name means "the Lord will enlarge". We chose this name long before we first beheld our unusually tiny baby boy, before we first observed his meagre weight gain, before we ever heard the term "Alagille Syndrome" or imagined that feeding tubes and prescription formula and IV needles and regular hospitalizations would have any part in his first 5 months of life.  But these things were not hidden from the eyes of the God to whom we turned in discerning a name for our child. Before He formed Joseph in the womb, He knew him and had a wonderful plan for him - including giving him a name that is a daily reminder to his parents that the Lord is fully capable of enlarging him. So we are so grateful to all who pray for him and encourage us. Please continue to intercede for Joseph that the Lord would give the promised increase to his body and, even more importantly, that Joseph would in time also prove worthy of the name Pio  -  pious - that he would be always filled with gratitude and love towards the Lord who has loved him so well.