The Cross and the Stag- The Life of a Saint in a Graphic Novel

69641967_10157907034903352_5565236816191160320_oPerhaps I’m not the only mother of a child who struggled to read, nor the only to find that graphic novels, comics, and Big Nate style hybrid books were part of the key to helping such a child to ease into reading, spurred on by visual story to decode the text that would give the key to understanding.

When I met the author of The Cross and the Stag, Gabriel Wilson, at a writer’s conference, I was intrigued by his project with Ancient Faith, the Among the Saints Series.  Graphic novels with beautifully rendered illustrations that tell the stories of our beloved saints?  I immediately thought of my newly-illumined eleven year old son and how much he’d appreciate this way of learning about the saints.

The Cross and the Stag tells the story of the life of St. Eustathius, his wife, and two sons through their conversion to Christianity, their seemingly insurmountable trials and tests of faith, and their martyrdom circa AD 118-126.  I had heard his story before, but somehow seeing it illustrated placed and grounded my imagination into the scene, the horrors he faced as he lost all that he held dear were inescapably before my eyes, indelible as ink.

As a mother raising six children, I am so incredibly grateful for every tool available to teach my kids about the heroes of our faith.  Finishing the book in one sitting, my eleven year old wrote out his thoughts, among them:  “Never give up God, even in the hardest times.  It’s hard for me to find God when I miss a playdate or something, but St. Eustathius lost his cattle, servants, grain, and got his wife taken away from him.  He thought his kids were dead, but he kept praying to God.”  What a powerful example of perseverance for all of us to aspire to!

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What Busyness Takes

There will not be that ideal moment to write; when all ripe tomatoes are cleared from the weighted, fragrant vines, when the laundry is all tucked into drawers and relaxing onto hangers, when the children are deep into quiet, peaceful play, and the to do list is a crossed-off list of merry accomplishment.  Such a moment would last, at best, a span of minutes, and so I write anyways.  I just left to help a frustrated toddler remove his wooden cars from his little barn toy where he had hopelessly wedged them.

Financial burdens led me this past year into multiple jobs and homeschooling my five year old, with a baby and toddler at home as well.  I did babysitting at a local church, I became a direct care worker for a disabled person, and I continued my soap business, albeit without a partner, who moved out of state.  Though there was love in my offering, I felt, and still feel, hollowed out by the weight of the work of that year.  The children I cared for gave me their smiles and their joy, and I love them.  The person I care for with a disability has given me concrete perspective on suffering and perseverance.  My small soap company has given me just enough to stave off needing loans to pay for our childrens’ education, and gave me the opportunity to grow in my craft.  All these good things, and yet, there was too much, leaving not enough of me to breathe.  Not enough of me to connect at day’s end with my kids and husband and friends.  I missed the kids’ sports, social events, and quiet evening time playing games around the table, because I was working or falling asleep standing up.

Activities give, but busyness takes, and I’ve found that I cannot live well with what it takes.  We are taking steps to reduce my work.  We enrolled the homeschooled kiddo, and I declined to babysit this year.  I put in a request to drop to one morning a week for direct care.  I wrote to one of my wholesale customers that I’d be unlikely to make the quantity of soaps they’d requested (this was a sorrow as I love the shop’s owner and have sold at their location for years).  I am fully owning that I’m one person and that I can’t breathe; that I require open stretches of time that aren’t stalked and menaced by a workload that endlessly intones, “back to work, back to work”.  I need my energy that has been consumed by busyness; I need it to be a “horsey” for my baby to ride on, I need it to cook wholesome food for my growing kids, I need it for cheering on my kids while they play sports.  They have first dibs on what I have to give.

I don’t want to miss these years.  I don’t want to produce a thousand bars of soap if it means I’m too tired to read a bedtime story to these little ones who grow an inch every time I look away.  I’m putting a stop to the madness that can be stopped, so that I can reasonably  deal with the madness that can’t.55458331_10157517776583352_5915649093199200256_o55819024_10157527981533352_787634639161262080_o56396022_10157545627993352_5875322391126605824_o57568478_10157581165648352_7460836377630867456_odrawing

 

Nature, Like White Paper

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We aren’t really playground material.  Unless, that is, if no one else is using it.  Then it can become an obstacle course for an intense game of tag or a jungle gym for my children who find no joy nor challenge in the “correct usage” of the equipment.  They go up the slides, climb on top of the swing bars, and try to spin themselves into white-knuckled, near-projectiles on the merry-go-round.

My four year old climbed a five foot fake boulder at a playground while I watched from about ten feet away.  Another mother was soon spotting him from below, asking anxiously, “OH HONEY!  Where is your mommy?”

“I’m here,” I said, giving a little wave, “He’s fine.”

Her eyes told me that he was indeed not fine, but she moved on.  I appreciate her care, I do.  If he’d been wandering toward a busy road or had been being bullied by some big kids, she’d be one I’d want to have around; a protector, an ally, a do-er.  Unfortunately, we don’t always see eye-to-eye about what constitutes acceptable risk.  I find the current culture of helicopter parenting to be exhausting.  Have you been to a playground on a busy day recently?  Kids are followed around, constantly!  They are directed on how to use the playground “correctly”.  There is a chorus of mothers saying “OKAY, no, no, honey, we only go down the slides.  NO, no, sweetie, take turns.  Oh, say you’re sorry for bumping into that boy.  OKAY, kids, not so fast on the merry-go-round; now stop it so this girl can get on, okay, go slowly, NO STANDING, okay stop it and let him off, okay….”  It’s like this delicate dance of politeness and correctness and fairness and safety, and really, I didn’t come here to direct a ballet; I came so that my children could dash about, climb, spin, and work off that boisterous and overflowing energy which is there for a reason.  And if you don’t follow the Momicopter Culture?  You’re shamed.  Shamed for letting your kid carry a small stick.  Shamed for letting them climb.  Shamed for letting them jump off the swings.  Shamed for letting them throw snowballs.  Shamed for not making them slow the tire swing down to a speed other parents comfortable with (even if it’s just your own kids on it!).  Shamed for letting your kid stomp in the rain puddles and get understandably cold.

I vividly remember the playgrounds of my youth.  They were made of wood and metal; they had precipitous drop offs, unforgiving angles, and slides that could fry eggs in the summer.  Tall towers to climb, high swings from which kids could launch into glory, and wondrously speedy, large merry-go-rounds.  And the moms?  Stationed on a park bench, book in hand, happy to have a rest while the kids exhausted themselves.  Kids got splinters, bruises, and the wind knocked out of them, sure.  They also got to navigate risk.

I took my kids to our local playground today, which was blessedly empty.  I noticed that the huge wooden ship, where many of my kids’ early memories were staged of harpooning imaginary whales, leading a band of pirates, or braving typhoons, was gone, replaced by an open stretch of newly seeded grass.  First had went the open stairwell to the ship’s interior, boarded shut “for safety”.  Then the mast.  Then the slide. Then the whole boat itself.  I noticed quite a few more missing attractions; without a doubt they were deemed “unsafe”.  There remained nothing exciting; no apparatus which caused any tingle of fear.  There was no risk.

My kids solved it.  They climbed in the no-climb zones (atop partitions, over low walls, etc).  They dragged big gnarly downed branches in and made weapons and tools out of them.  They plunged headfirst down the small slides.  Their developing brains made accommodations for the lack of risk.  I scribbled out these thoughts on a scrap of paper in my purse and tilted my face to the sun.  “Nature is like blank white paper; anything can be wrought upon it; it can absorb any story you draw on it.  Playgrounds are like coloring books; the stage, the lines, are set, fixed.  There is a degree of success expected because of the proferred design:  here is how to enjoy this; follow the rules and it will turn out nicely.  Playgrounds with helicopter moms in full command are like paint-by-number pieces, where even the minutest details are not left to chance in the pursuit of excellent, safe, play.  I can think of no greater threat to imagination and safety than this current state of affairs.”  I wrote it out in hurried cursive.  My baby clambered past, slipping on patches of snow.  He hollered at the icy cold on his bare hands, shook off the snow, and carried on.

Appropriate risk is crucial to developing brains.  Overly coddled and protected children don’t have the tools to interact with their environment in the absence of their parent.  I’ll never forget the time when I hosted a stream-stomping birthday party for my son in third grade and invited several boys from his class.  One boy, whose mother was on the extreme end of helicoptering, asked if I was going to hold his hand on the walk to the park (it’s just through a development, no major roads nor traffic).  When we arrived at the stream, the boys clambered down through the brush and started exploring, splashing, and pretending.  He turned to me and asked “Where are the steps to get down to the water?”

“Um…there are no steps, just walk through the brush.”

“But what do I do?”

I was shocked.  Had this child ever been allowed to interact with nature without an adult telling him how?  “Just go explore, feel the water, run around, be a kid!”

After the creek stomp we headed back and I let the boys build a fire to cook our supper on.  The one boy looked on with a mystified expression on his face.  Fire was danger, danger is for adults.

I don’t pretend that every adult reading this is agreeing with my point of view, but I do ask you…if 100% of kids love to try to climb up slides, why are we always telling them not to?  When the worst case scenario is as benign as getting run into by a kid coming down, which automatically teaches the climber the risk involved and how to hedge against it, say, by observing by sight and sound whether another person is up at the top, why are we interfering?  Couldn’t it be that kids’ minds know what they need to do to grow?

It is my contention that good playgrounds enable rather than inhibit appropriate risk, and so do good parents.  I think the magic of kids’ play really takes place when they not only navigate bodily risk, but also learn the give and take of social interactions (sharing, apologizing, being considerate) without a parent prompting them.  When they screw up, of course a parent should pull them aside and reiterate expectations, but that should be a rarity.  They’re there to play, to learn, to risk, and to grow.  That will only happen if we get out of the way.

Until then, I prefer nature itself; there is no “correct usage” of a fallen tree spanning a small creek.  Maybe it’s a bridge, maybe it’s a pirate ship’s plank to walk, maybe it’s simply the risk-du-jour that needs experienced and conquered.

 

 

Write The Love

53651619_10157473629653352_4215585030375735296_oOh, the power of our words.  Bad habits can creep in like the dry leaves that blow in the front door, rattling across the floor, accumulating all sneaky-like.  We don’t notice, we’re busy doing this, doing that.  It’s only when one finds a pile of leaves, or an entrenched habit, that the problem is truly seen for what it is.

I’ve noticed our short fuses and resultant words that cut and sting.  The casual put-downs, the snide remarks, the jokes that hurt.  When did we let all these leaves in?

I was walking through our local thrift store, trying to find white clothes for our upcoming chrismations/baptisms.  There amidst a jumble of Christmas items was a little white metal mailbox, with a sticker on the side of cardinals and a cursive “Merry Christmas!”  Fifty cents later, it was mine.

I guess it’s not obvious why I had to have it, but I believe in the power of words, for wounding and healing.  Lent is nearly upon us; how can we remember to fast from hurtful speech?  Perhaps, just perhaps, by feasting on kind words.  Thus, the mailbox.

My children love rituals, traditions, and surprises.  They delight in the suspense, the sense that normal time has been suspended, that a special season is upon us that we are compelled to feel, down in our marrow.  Could I make kindness, encouragement, and love a tradition; could it help us use this gift all year?

I had to make it easy; who has the time and energy to track down a working pen, nice paper, and so on?  I had to make it intentional; it needed a space of its own, right in the heart of the home.  I had to make it fun; personalized and anticipatory.  My Made In China, cardinal-clad mailbox put the rest into motion.

53545858_10157473629373352_6883640889567084544_oFolded cards and writing implements at the ready.  The cheerful mailbox, sporting a paper sign (sorry, cardinals!), stands ready to receive missives.53357806_10157473629448352_4832568313785614336_oUsing glass gems, a drop of transparent glue (you can use clear silicone too), tiny scrap pieces of paper, and little round magnets, I made these little alert gems to signal when the recipients have mail waiting for them.  This protects the privacy of those who are receiving notes as the other children aren’t allowed to look inside the box unless their name is on.  53679360_10157473629488352_5180555068142780416_oHe’s got mail!53089500_10157473629688352_5572183762583683072_oRight beside the writing station is an alms box.  I spoke with the children at length that any giving into it needed to be done in absolute secrecy, so that only God sees.  At the end of Lent we’ll count it together and donate it to a charity we agree upon, or a person we know needs timely help.  53472775_10157473629943352_3927092712758575104_oTo the left of this I assembled a Lenten bouquet; dried weeds and plants from a recent walk, that in their death, still are beautiful.  The brittleness reminds me that Lent can be difficult and can make us feel a bit dried up, especially as important work is done on our souls.  As Holy Week progresses, so will the bouquet, ending up resplendent.  53793183_10157473629773352_5414610397565026304_oOur candle calendar sits ready to mark the days of the Bright Sadness.53270766_10157473630008352_4616132898716647424_oAnd finally, our Lenten devotional, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts”, which will help us once again to gather each evening and be blessed, challenged, and encouraged in our journeys to Pascha.

Tending the Garden of Our Hearts FINAL COVER53509571_10157473629888352_9020214349972635648_oAnd, prayer, sweet, glorious, challenging, prayer.

May your Lenten journey be blessed!

Lent a Hand

The approach of Lent is everywhere, hints in the flora outside; Lenten roses ready to unfold their majestic petals, the pussy willow whips full of emerging puffs, peeking out under brown husks.  The faithful are eating meat with a certain urgency, and the pre-Lenten Sundays tick by, marking the approach to the “bright sadness”.

It reminds me of my rowing days.  In the weeks preceding a regatta I’d be an absolute bundle of nerves, all that tension settling in my stomach in a hard, twisty knot.  As a catechumen, I feel the same way as Lent approaches.  Will I make it?  Can I fast well, pray more, give more, attend more services, and grow spiritually…and not lose my ever-loving mind?  My thoughts are full of logistics and bean recipes and, honestly, a bit of panic.  It’s not just my journey, but my whole family’s; how can I help my kids connect to the beautiful, difficult season of Lent?  How can I make sure we don’t miss it?Tending the Garden of Our Hearts FINAL COVER

Last year we huddled around our aging laptop and listened to “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts”, a Lenten podcast on Ancient Faith Radio by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger.  It was such an unmitigated blessing to have a spiritual meditation at the end of each day that wove in the strands we’d otherwise miss in our fatigue and busyness.  Stories of the saints mingled with the history behind the services we were attending, helping to anchor what we were seeing in a deeper understanding.  We were all challenged by the holy lives we read about.  This was a catalyst for great conversations with our toddlers, all the way up to our teenagers.

I’m thrilled that the podcast has been adapted into a book, and as I read through it again this month, I’m blessed anew by the thoughtful meditations that will again lead my family through Lent, one living room gathering at a time.  Being a visual person, I decided to make a calendar of sorts to further anchor the stories we read and the lessons we learned in our hearts.  I’ve included it here for your use as well, if it would be helpful for you!

The book is available on ancientfaith.com.  I pray you enjoy it as much as we do!

Tending the Garden of Our Hearts- Lenten Heart Calendar

Materials:

  • 12×12 piece of scrapbook paper for heart
  • scissors
  • thin ribbon, baker’s twine, or yarn
  • small safety pin
  • printable ornaments:  Page 1, and Page 2
  • color pencils
  • hole punch
  • marker

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Fold the piece of scrapbook paper in half, draw half of a heart and cut out.  While still folded, punch 25 holes along the edge.  Unfold and press flat.

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Each day, after the meditation, color in the ornament of the day.  The littlest children may enjoy the word ornaments where they can color quite freely, while the older ones may prefer the more intricate illustrations.  Cut out the ornament.

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Cut a length of your string or thin ribbon that is roughly two times as long as the perimeter of your heart.  Tie one end to the first hole, and the other to a small safety pin for a “needle”.
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Go up from underneath, looping each ornament into place each day, allowing the string to hang for the next addition.FullSizeRender-97

May your Lent be blessed!

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Small

I’m small, and my voice doesn’t carry very far. I don’t have answers; it’s like staring at a giant tangle of strings and being asked which one to tug on to begin to unknot the mess. It really doesn’t help that we tend to dive in and grab the “right” string and yank on it, tightening the tangles and frustrating our neighbors. We argue and the knots get tighter as we pull. Impasse.

I can only do small things. I look deeply into my kids’ eyes and search for brokenness; I ask questions; is there a kid who doesn’t get included? Is there someone who struggles to connect with others? How are you; no…how are you really? Kid, where is this anger springing from? Talk to me. I want to hear you.

Love. Hugs. Kisses. Tears and prayers. Long, slow, revelatory conversations.

The big ones…the politicians and the lobbyists and the organizations having a war of words; their work is large and beyond my understanding. No one can untangle knots while shouting and jerking the strings. I can’t tell them anything; I’m small, and my voice doesn’t carry very far.

But I will pray, and it isn’t a small thing; not a trite thing. Not a half-hearted thing, not an opiate, not a crutch, not an “out”. It is the Made saying to the Maker, we are undone; help! Our children are bleeding out under their desks and pain is written on our turned-away faces. Our hands are sliced by pulling strings and we can’t see through our tears and our voices are hoarse from shouting.

“The children are dying!”, my shout rings out and the string-pullers look at their bloodied palms and at the tightened wad of chaos quivering in the middle of them. “But the right to bear…” “But video games….” “But mental health”…”But background checks…”, whispered, chanting, building into shouting, and I back away.

“Love well today; be kind to those who need a friend”, I say as my kids head off to school. My prayers trail after them. I am small, and my voice carries to God’s ears.

 

*I wrote this in February, after a school shooting.  Which one was it?  That is a painful question to ask.  Lord, have mercy.shortstory9

Scars Of My Stumblings

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“This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.”

+ St. Anthony the Great

I dared to shower, I dared to answer some work emails.  Meanwhile my five year-old and my three year-old dared to destroy.  A school library book and a fake plant.  I asked, exasperated by the thoughtlessness of it,”WHY?”.

They said, one tearfully and the other with a barely-suppressed grin, “I don’t know.”

I can relate.

Why did I snap at my husband over a minor offense?  I don’t know.

Why didn’t I pray instead of flinging myself at the to-do list, heedless of filling my cup before washing cups?  I don’t know.

Why didn’t I listen attentively to my preteen at bedtime when it seemed he was down, because I was ready to be done for the day?  I don’t know.

But I do know.

I know that I like to choose me over:  you, them, that (obligation, responsibility, good).  Sometimes it’s easier to choose the right way; sometimes it’s extremely difficult; sometimes I fail.  Daily I have reason to pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Daily I have the absolute obligation to forgive others their sins as well; if I do not I cannot expect mercy myself.  I am not a healthy person responsible for chastising the sick for their poor state; I am a sick person in need of a Physician, and I must help the other sick ones in my care to choose to follow the Physician’s instructions as well.  Am I letting the Doctor address my illness?  Am I following His treatment plan?  Am I getting better and better?  My children will see.  My spouse will see.  It is not enough for my words and beliefs to be correct; so also must my behavior, speech, and love reflect Christ, must honor Him, must spring from the healing He is doing in my heart and soul.

There is a beautiful hymn that I often have on repeat when I need a reset.  It is good medicine for me, especially this part:

You Who did fashion me of old out of nothingness, and with Your Image divine did honor me; but because of transgressions of Your commandments did return me again to the earth from whence I was taken; lead me back to be refashioned into that ancient beauty of Your Likeness.

Blessed are You, O Lord; teach me Your statutes.
I am the image of Your unutterable glory, though I bear the scars of my stumblings. Have compassion upon me, the work of Your hands, O Sovereign Lord,
And cleanse me through Your loving kindness; and the homeland of my heart’s desire bestow on me
By making me a citizen of Paradise.

I certainly bear the scars of my stumblings.  God’s healing and forgiveness does not take away all the brokenness from our sins.  Some relationships never truly heal, some temptations will dog us to our deathbeds.  But we do know that God’s love is great, warm, merciful, and powerful.  He is meticulous and persevering in mending us, healing us.

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The book and the plant will never be as beautiful and perfect as they once were; they look a bit shabby and patched-up, but they are no longer bound for the trash; that’s something, right?  Mended things are a bit more humble, aren’t they?  Wouldn’t we all benefit from a strong dose of humility?

I have this hanging in my kitchen; a constant reminder to remember my own brokenness and sin as I raise these dear children, as I interact with my husband, as I try to be a good friend, daughter-in-law, neighbor, and parishioner.  May God enable us to heal, forgive, mend, be mended, persevere, and live holy lives “by humble love”.IMG_6223