Best Laid Plans

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For the past nine days, I have had the privilege and the pleasure to accompany my son and his college football team on a tour of Ireland and Scotland, complete with a visit to the iconic Guinness Storehouse and a friendly game of American football against the Scottish East Kilbride Pirates.

I have nothing but admiration for the logistical and sheep-herding talents of our tour guide, who has been responsible for getting 50 people on and off our motor coach for visits to five different cities on two different islands. We have seen everything from the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher on the southwest coast of Ireland to the awe-inspiring Croke Park, one of the biggest sports arenas in the world, to the charming and ancient city of Edinburgh, Scotland, a city with its very own medieval castle. We have been fed, housed, and otherwise looked after with consummate professionalism and unfailing friendliness.

The ancient lands from which my ancestors descended are some of the loveliest places I have ever seen. The verdant fields dotted with peacefully grazing sheep. The mysterious islands shrouded in fog. The mountains and rocky coastlines. The charming little rural cottages and the Georgian row houses in the big cities. The rivers winding through these tiny countries that formed the lifeblood of commerce and sustenance for the people, as well as made them bombing targets during the World Wars.

We have had the good fortune to learn from our history buff of a tour director so much about the past that has formed the British Isles into what they are today. It was one thing to be somewhat aware of the sectarian violence that has marked many periods in Irish and Scottish history. But it was quite another to see in person the partitions that still separate Catholics from Protestants in Belfast, Northern Ireland – or to witness the Orange marches asserting Protestant dominance in Glasgow, Scotland. Such estrangement reminded me of the political divisiveness in the United States these days and makes me realize that all countries have conflict and strife of one kind or another.

Yet this trip has been a unifying and bonding experience for us. My husband and I have met and gotten to know so many of my son’s teammates and their parents. We have had great fun with their coaches and joined in on their good-natured teasing of each other. Was some of this camaraderie fueled by pints of Guinness? Maybe. But I have been so gratified to know that my son is living and working among good young men with good people as their role models.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” But in the case of this wonderful tour, those plans have been executed flawlessly to create an experience that will give us memories to last a lifetime.

 

Mother of All Mothers

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OLFatimaMother’s Day weekend in Chicagoland has been beautiful – mild and sunny, with flowers in bloom, lawns lushly green from abundant rainfall, and even little hummingbirds buzzing around the tree in our front yard.

Saturday also marked the hundredth anniversary of the miracle at Fatima, Portugal, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young children, two of whom were canonized this past Saturday by Pope Francis.

Whatever one might think about such apparitions at places like Fatima, Lourdes, and Medjugorje, The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, holds a very special place in the lives of Catholics.  She is considered the mother of all believers, as demonstrated at the foot of the cross when Jesus gestured to his apostle John, “Behold, your mother.”

The cult of Mary has been the source of much confusion and disagreement among Christians. Many Protestants believe that Catholics wrongly worship Mary through their prayers, feast days, and other honors bestowed upon the Mother of God. But Catholic devotion to Mary is not worship. We believe that, through her close relationship with her son, Mary is uniquely poised to intercede for us with Jesus. It is the same reason we pray to the saints: to ask for their continual prayer and intercession on our behalf. So it is natural for Catholics to turn to Mary, the greatest of all saints, for help.

The image of Mary as our mother can be of great comfort to us in our journey in life. Many of us have lost our mothers. Some of us are estranged from family members. All of us have endured pain and sorrow. To lay our cares at the foot of Mary as our spiritual mother is comforting indeed.

This weekend at Mass, we were called upon to bring flowers in honor of Mary, the Mother of God and the mother of us all. Every May, in churches all over the world, statues of Mary are crowned, signifying her place as the Queen of Heaven. This title, too, is steeped in tradition. In ancient Israel, the most powerful and important figure next to the king was the queen mother, as kings had many wives but only one mother. So it is with Mary. As mother of the King, she takes her place of honor next to her beloved son, Jesus.

On this Mother’s Day, I pray for all mothers – pray that they be honored and cared for and valued for their place in our hearts and homes. Happy Mother’s Day!

 

No News Is Good News

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My daughter is on spring break this week, so we are enjoying the beautiful weather in sunny Florida. Yesterday, we spent the entire day at a theme park, away from real life and immersed in the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and King Kong. So it was jarring to come back to the condo and hear the news emanating from our television set.

When I am away, especially in a relaxing place like Florida, I forget about the outside world. The daily newspaper doesn’t arrive here, and I’m not in my regular routine. Instead, I am slathering myself with sunscreen and hitting the beach or pool with a water bottle and a good book. It’s a great, albeit temporary, existence.

My husband the news junkie never likes to be far away from the world’s events, so I make a conscious effort to avoid the TV and tune out the radio in order to take a break from the news. As much as I care about what is happening in my country and in the world, I sometimes need to get away from the constant strife that is the bread and butter of journalism. After all, I’m not the president, so I don’t need to deal directly with any major crisis that might occur.

Taking a break from ordinary life is restorative. Here I don’t have my mountains of paperwork, house to manage, school schedule to monitor. Relationship drama and family squabbles seem very far away. My biggest decision is what to choose from the restaurant menu. I am separated from home by a time zone, but more importantly, from a mental and emotional zone that, short of a life-threatening crisis, I can choose to ignore for a little while.

Still, there’s no place like home. After a week of lounging in la la land, I will start missing my bed, my neighborhood, my friends, the routine that grounds me, the news that sparks ideas for my writing. But for now, no news is the best news of all.

 

Love, Actually

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Last night my daughters and I watched the movie Love, Actually. This 2003 film has fast become a Christmas classic for many viewers, with its humor and light romantic touch and its climax occurring on Christmas Eve. But the movie is about so much more than romantic love. It is about the enduring bonds of friendship and family, about loss, about bridging gaps between cultures, and about the triumph of love in the midst of life.

The first time I saw Love Actually, I’ll admit I was mostly focused on the couples, or the would-be couples, in the movie. Hugh Grant’s charming turn as a single British prime minister in love with an employee; cuckolded Colin Firth finding romance with his Portuguese maid; a little boy bereft of his mother falling in love with a classmate; wonderful Emma Thompson getting short shrift from her long-time husband, played by the late Alan Rickman. I felt the young man’s pain as he endured the love of his life marrying his own best friend, and the angst of a young woman in love from afar with a coworker but burdened with responsibility for her mentally ill brother.

What I like about the movie is that it is not all “happily ever after” for each romantic pair. And that is because other kinds of love often trump romance. For instance, when the woman and her colleague finally get together, the woman gets a call from her brother, and that familial love continually forces her to sacrifice her own happiness. Likewise, the forlorn member of the love triangle struggles to keep his feelings to himself so as not to harm the friendship he has with her husband. The young boy may be in love with a young girl, but it is the story of him and his stepdad and their growing relationship in the absence of a wife and mother that really takes center stage. And the Emma Thompson character stays with her unfaithful husband (for shame, Alan!) for the sake of their family.

At the end of the movie, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” we see love in all its many permutations as loved ones are reunited at Heathrow Airport. Parents and children, lovers, friends – all embrace in the comfort of their love for each other. Each snapshot is strung together on the screen until there is a “wall of love.”

Love, Actually is a cute, clever, but also surprisingly realistic depiction of the ties that bind. What better way to finish out Christmas Day with the family?*

 

*The movie is rated R for nudity, subject matter, and language. So save it for when your little ones are mature enough.

 

 

Christmas Memories

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242AB00E00000578-2881290-image-a-28_1419262681192.jpgAlthough I am mostly a forward-looking person, at Christmas I enjoy indulging in a bit of nostalgia. As a writer, I have always appreciated the Christmas vignettes of well-known authors, such as Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and the poet Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” In that spirit, I’d like to reminisce about my own childhood Christmases in a family of 13.

Christmas Eve seemed to take forever to arrive. After weeks of thumbing through the dog-eared pages of the Sears Roebuck & Company Christmas wish book, we kids were beside ourselves anticipating Santa’s visit and the toys we were dreaming of being placed magically under our Christmas tree.

Just a few days earlier, my father had bought a real balsam fir from the local tree lot and set it up in our basement. He’d wound the colored lights around the tree with the patience of Job. Then began our painstaking job of hanging the tinsel. Strand by strand, we hung each piece just so on the branches until the tree shimmered. Finally, we were allowed to hang the ornaments, many of them homemade by us and Dad, who loved art projects, paint by numbers, model airplanes and the like. I still have a couple of the sorry looking satin ball ornaments I decorated years ago with the bare minimum of flourishes. Art was never my strong suit.

But baking was. My favorite Christmas activity was baking cookies with my mother and sisters. Our table was covered with cookie pans, colored decorations, flour and the cookie press, which made adorable and delicious little spritz cookies that looked like trees and stars. My mother would color some of the dough green and red for an added festive touch. While we rolled and decorated and baked, we listened to Christmas songs on the hi-fi and sang along, attempting harmonies we’d learned in chorus class.

In school we cut out snowflakes and made cards with a lot of glitter and thick white paste from a jar with a plastic stick. We visited the Nativity scene at church and noticed that the manger was empty, awaiting the baby Jesus’ birth on Christmas. We sang the traditional carols of the season and lit the Advent candles each week – first one, then two, then the pink one, and finally all four in a circle, the four Sundays of waiting for Emmanuel.

In our big Catholic family, religion was central to our identity and to Christmas. Before we were even allowed to peek at what Santa had brought us on Christmas morning, we would bundle off to Christmas Mass. It was so hard to sit through an hour of prayers and songs, kneeling, standing, and sitting. All I could think about was my present under the tree. Even the arrival of baby Jesus in the manger couldn’t distract me.

The night before, Christmas Eve, I had found it so hard to sleep. I lay snug in my bed near the hissing radiator and strained to hear reindeer hoofbeats on our roof. I was sure I’d never fall asleep until, all at once, a filtered light shone through the curtains and onto the snow-ladened yard, and I knew Christmas had come at last.

All eleven of us kids sat at the long table in our breakfast room and choked down food, scarcely noticing what it was. We dressed in our red velvet jumpers, each of them painstakingly sewn by Mom. Our hair was brushed, and our patent leather shoes shone, and we passed the closed basement door longingly, knowing that Santa had come last night and deposited the mother lode down there under our tree. Into our galoshes, our coats, and our mittens, which were attached by a clip to our coats so that they wouldn’t get lost, we ventured into the cold and piled into our station wagon.

After Mass and the riot of 13 people removing all their winter outerwear (and, of course, hanging it up neatly), it was finally time. We lined up in the kitchen from youngest to oldest. My dad opened the door and went down the basement stairs with his camera so that he could film us coming down. Then pandemonium. We galloped down the stairs with shrieks of glee and ran to our spots around the tree.

The mountain of gifts seemed enormous. In reality, we each received two or three things. Our excited chatter filled the room, and my parents wearily watched us from a couple of easy chairs. Dolls, toy cars, games, soft and cozy pajamas. One year my younger sister and I received a joint gift – a beautiful dollhouse with tiny furniture and a little family. I still remember my favorite piece from that dollhouse: a red velvet chaise longue. It seemed so elegant, as if a rich family resided in that toy mansion. After sufficient oohing and ahhing over our gifts, we checked the socks we had hung by the fireplace. Invariably, there would be plenty of hard candy stuffed inside and, at the bottom, a perfectly round tangerine.

Later on, we would have an early Christmas dinner in our dining room and then visit relatives. After a long, full day, we would go to bed and sleep heavily, our days of waiting and longing finally fulfilled. And in the morning, if we were lucky, there would be snow to play in. And I could start dreaming – of my January birthday!

 

 

Bleak Midwinter

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The poem/carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” is an homage to the lowly circumstances of Christ’s birth. Like the setting in everyone’s favorite fantasy gore-fest, Game of Thrones, the cold and humble stable where God’s son entered the world serves as a metaphor for a world of pain and bleakness.

This year, winter has come early and with a vengeance here in the Midwest. Only a couple of weeks into meteorological winter, Chicago already has about 10 inches of snow on the ground. In the next few days, temperatures are expected to plunge below zero. I’d say it’s more like a bleak early winter.

Already feeling a bit blue over the results of the presidential election and the horrid slew of Cabinet appointments by Donald Trump, I am in no mood to slog through the snow or face the bitter cold. Despite the twinkly Christmas lights that adorn houses and commercial buildings, I just can’t get my merry on.

Christmas is a difficult time for many people. The poor, the sick, the lonely, and the homeless all suffer from want in the midst of plenty. Those who recently lost a loved one can’t help but compare this year’s emptiness with last year’s cheer. Depression hits many at this time of year, and some of us are emotionally affected by the lack of daylight.

As I see it, the only way to shake the melancholy is to take the focus off myself and give it to others. Making the effort to smile and be kind to harried shopkeepers and other service personnel; placing an extra dollar or two into the tip jars of those who help us all year; participating in toy, clothing, and food drives; staying in touch with friends and family: All are good ways to banish the cold that creeps into our winter hearts.

The last stanza of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” goes:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.

No matter what our circumstances this Christmas season, our love for others is a gift that keeps on giving. And it’s the one gift that we feel lucky when it’s returned.

War on Christmas

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I’m so relieved! Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has announced that, thanks to Trump’s election as president, Christmas is saved. So glad that President-elect Trump is Making Christmas Great Again.

To be honest, though, I was pretty sure Christmas was not going underground when I shopped recently at my local Target. Here’s the display of Christmas items there:

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In contrast, here are the Hanukkah items you can buy at Target:

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And thank heavens I didn’t even see any Eid or Kwanzaa decorations. I guess Christmas’s dominance over the holidays is assured.

But not so fast. Many Americans are still concerned that the political correctness police (AKA the Democratic Party) is preventing innocent citizens from uttering the words, “Merry Christmas.” For instance, just this morning the smiling but frozen Salvation Army bell ringer offered me a mere “Happy Holidays.” But seriously, folks, I think the “C” word is safe, what with all the radio stations playing Christmas music 24/7. I haven’t heard of one instance of someone feeling affronted by being wished a Merry Christmas.

Yet what about that creche you want put up in the public square? The hateful U.S. Constitution won’t allow it! To these people I say: If you want to see baby Jesus in the manger, get your a** to church. They all have them on display, usually outside, so you don’t even have the inconvenience of attending a service.

I do believe there is a war on Christmas, but to my mind it’s a spiritual one. It’s the lack of civility and kindness that has really ratcheted up since the election of the Divider-in- Chief, Donald Trump. Newsweek recently reported the following:

There were nearly 900 reports of hate incidents in the 10 days after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and schools across the country reported an uptick in violence, derogatory comments and verbal harassment, according to a new study from the Southern Poverty Law Center. (newsweek.com, Nov. 29, 2016)

In the ultimate irony of conservatives’ insistence that Christmas is under attack, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, was vilified for having a black Santa Claus greet kids and hear their Christmas wishes. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which reported this “first” for MOA, was forced to turn off the comments section of its online site due to the racist and hateful messages posted. And the corker is that black Santa Larry Jefferson is a U.S. Army veteran. The right loves their veterans, except when they are black and trying to be Santa.

On the very first Christmas night, when angels appeared to announce the birth of a newborn king, they proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

That is the Christmas spirit for which we should all be striving during these next few weeks. All the rest of it – the jingle bells, decorated trees, presents, and Santa – are just trappings.