Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Waiting for God


Waiting is not a very popular attitude. Waiting is not something that people think about with great sympathy. In fact, most people consider waiting a waste of time. ... For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place. They want to get out of it by doing something.

Henri Nouwen

In preparation for the Advent season this year, before all the craziness I talked about in my last post hit us, I purchased two devotionals. The first, Let Every Heart, I'm using with my girls. It's an older book, and it can be purchased used nice and cheap from Amazon (which is what I did)! To be honest, though it's billed as a family devotional, it would be better for pre-teens and teens, in terms of the level of the writing.

However, we enjoy the hymns that precede each devotional, and the singing helps prepare our hearts for the message to come. The devotions themselves are short and include questions for discussion at the end, as well as a little ending prayer. This devotional is good for me on days when I'm short on time, because it doesn't take long to read. I just find myself paraphrasing as I go for my girls, 5 and 7. (The 5-year-old has a short attention span and doesn't seem to be getting much out of it, but the 7-year-old is listening.)

I'm sure there are better kid Advent devotionals out there, but for us, this is the first time we have been more intentional about devotions and Advent. So, it's more about the exercise itself that is important to our family.

For myself, I bought Watch for the Light, which is a collection of Advent and Christmas readings, including pieces by C.S. Lewis, Annie Dilliard, Thomas Merton, and more.  (There's even a Sylvia Plath poem.) These are meatier readings, worthy of more time and thought. I have only read about three or four so far. One was too stuffy and didactic, but the others I've really enjoyed. I like the scholarly feeling of this book.

I really loved Henri Nouwen's piece, "Waiting for God" (also the title of this post) and the source of the beginning quote). I like how it gets me thinking. I'm not a waiter; I'm a doer. I'm terribly impatient.

But, God asks us to wait.

Consider Nouwen's insights on purposeful waiting. He explains how, in the beginning of the gospel of Luke, we see Mary and Elizabeth, waiting. But, this is no ordinary waiting; they are waiting with a sense of promise. Of course, they are both with child, but their situation teaches us that if we believe we have the seed of promise within us, we are ready for waiting, God-style.

"We can only really wait if what we we are waiting for has already begun for us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more," says Nouwen.

Nouwen also teaches us the benefits of what he terms "active waiting." He says it's all about being present in the moment. That's a lesson worth learning for an impatient doer like me, often distracted with tasks and lists of "what's next" scrolling through my brain.

"Active waiting means ... the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment."

Dear Lord: During this season of Advent, of preparing for the day we celebrate your birth, teach us how to wait. Help us learn that you have planted the seed of promise within each and every one of us, if only we believe. Help us learn to have faith that you can do something miraculous through us, if only we wait patiently. Embue us with a sense of  hope and purpose that allows us to do this important work of waiting, while still being present to the moment. Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Keeping it Simple for the Holidays

Photo Credit: Beth May, Copyright 2010

I'm a bit of a type A personality. If I'm doing something, I'm doing it all the way. No in-between for me. You can imagine what the holidays are like in our family. We go out to the tree farm and hand cut our tree; we have a tree decorating party that night with fancy drinks and fruit trays and hors d oeuvres (this is just for the five of us); we decorate inside and out; we bake multiple kinds of cookies; we wrap each gift ourselves; we make sure our Christmas cards are out the first week of the month; we listen to Christmas music; we DVR every Christmas movie we don't already own; we go into the city for special holiday activities (this year it was touring a historic mansion, but we've done ice skating downtown, carriage rides, candelit visits to the area's conservatory).

I love all of it. It doesn't feel like too much--well, not usually.

But, this year God is telling me something. He started out with Thanksgiving. We were all so sick with the stomach flu we had to postpone the holiday until Friday. It was nice, but not quite the same. My mom was still feeling badly when we left Ohio. We just assumed it was the virus. At the same time, back in Pittsburgh, my father in law had spent Thanksgiving in the hospital.

Over the past few weeks, my mom has not gotten better, but has undergone multiple tests and doctor visits. For the first time ever, she doesn't have any Christmas decorations up yet. (And, in case you were wondering, she's the one who cultivated in me my love for all things Christmas by setting the perfect example.) She suffers from multiple health issues, and it's hard for anyone--doctors included--to quickly pinpoint what exactly is wrong at a given time and come up with a quick course of treatment, but we are all optimistic that she'll get this flare or attack or event under control soon. We're saying lots of prayers.

My father in law ended up having surgery a little over a week ago. He's hanging in there. The surgery was necessary, and hopefully will get his condition under control, once he heals, but it will be a process. He's still in a lot of pain. We are saying many prayers.

We're also working through some other issues within our family--and we're just at the beginning of a long road to change. If you can imagine, it has been a serious November/December. My husband and I take refuge in the joy our kids bring, and we've been keeping up with the demands of everyday life, as we all must do, even in the face of sadness, or change, or even tragedy.

But, these things take their toll, and I've been feeling a bit down (which I hear is quite normal during the holidays; it's just never been the case for me before). You might think I'm leading up to say that I'm down because the events swirling around our families have conspired to put me behind in my holiday merry-making, but, somehow, they haven't. The house is decorated fully; the cards out; the carols and movies cranked full volume; the cookies begun.

But the price? No personal devotions, no blog posts (pretty silly that a Christian-themed blog has been silent during the first three Sundays in Advent), no down time.

As usual, my best friend and husband have to swoop in to remind me: Do you NEED to do this, or that, or that? Can't you simplify? Get help. Take a break. So I'm quieting down, calming down--asking myself with each little thing I pick up--do I really need to do this? Usually the answer is No. It's hard for the perfectionist in me. Really hard.

Ironically, I'm trying to slow down and be more thoughtful during the busiest time of the year. I have two different Advent devotionals that I'll talk about in my next post that are helping me. They're teaching me about waiting--a most appropriate attitude for Advent. Waiting for family members' health to improve, waiting for God's resolution to some weighty problems, waiting for the day we can rejoice in our Savior's birth--no matter what happens with our earthly concerns.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thinking of Thankfulness


In a month that we often find ourselves thinking of thankfulness, I've been thinking about un-thankfulness too. Putting a spotlight on thankfulness has shown me the flaws that often lurk in the dark corners of my heart. Selfishness. Discontent. Jealousy.

I typically put Bible verses at the end of my posts, but this scripture really hit home, so I'd like to put it front and center:

"Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened." 
Romans 1:21, NKJV

Oh, God, how you know me!  

I believe in God, but all too often I do not glorify Him as I ought. And, that's when it happens. I become selfish, negative, sharp with my kids and husband, and envious of others.

Or, as the verse more eloquently puts it: I become futile in my thoughts, and my foolish heart is darkened.

Thanksgiving day is almost here, and while it may be all too easy for us--flawed humans that we are--to get wrapped up in the stress of preparing a big meal, traveling, or thinking ahead to Christmas to-dos, we need to know God.

To remember God in the midst of it all. To seek Him without ceasing. Now more than ever.

Dear Lord: Please shine your light into our hearts, souls, and minds. Illuminate our flaws so we may see them and learn to live better. Bless us and our families with a safe, nourishing, and joyful Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Finding Beauty in Unlikely Places

All Photos Copyright Elizabeth May, 2010

My last post talked about November, a quiet, little, modest month that often seems to get lost in the mad shuffle from Halloween straight to Christmas.

I also talked about simple joys, like a winter's walk, and how keen observation rewards its viewer. I thought I'd share a few images from just such a stroll. 

While my husband and I were blessed with sun and a vibrant blue sky when we took this walk in late 2009 at my parents' Ohio farm, the landscape didn't look like it would yield much in terms of visual interest. I took along my new camera anyway, and was rewarded richly.



Can't our spiritual relationships often be like a winter's walk? Giving forth surprising treasures when we take some quiet moments to delve into our Bible or pray?



God teaches us that beauty can be found anywhere, if only we take the time to look deeper.



Out in nature, my mind takes a deep breath and forgets the trappings and noise of our modern world. When it's just me (and my dogs!) out on a walk in the woods, there's only the crunch of my boots and the rustle of leaves...blessed, utter calm...


... and God. Not surprisingly, it's blessedly easy to connect with our Creator in the midst of the natural world.


Looking heavenward--both figuratively, and literally--rewards me with a new view. If only I'd look up more often...
 

At the end of my walk, I'm refreshed, inspired, soothed by the beauty of God's creation. I've learned that He provides even in these increasingly cold, dark days. 

"Each moment of the year has its own beauty." 
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Dear Lord: It's easy to get stressed this time of year, to get caught up in our holiday to-do lists. It's just as easy to feel a little down, as we deal with colder temps, shorter days, less sunlight. Help us as we adjust to this new season. Comfort us with your light and beauty in the midst of the cold and dark. Give us wisdom to take our to-do's one thing at a time and surrender our worries to you. Help us to see with new eyes and find beauty everywhere--even where we least expect it. Amen.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

November: The Humble Month

Photo Credit
Copyright 2010, Elizabeth May

November can be austere. Stripped of October's flash and all the Halloween hype, it's pensive, thoughtful--like a bookish cousin to the previous month's party mentality.

The former exclamation points of vivid leaves dotting our Pennsylvania hills have died down. Now it's just bare bark and the few last burnished brown oak leaves stubbornly clinging to their branches. Days are short, and mornings bring thick, robust frosts.

My decorations echo November's sensibility. I stow away the bold orange and black Halloween gear, and leave out garlands of muted fall leaves, gourds, Indian corn. I bring out wheat sheaf candle holders, wooden turkeys, and the ever modest Pilgrims figurines. I make hot tea. I sit in my front room and watch the world outside my picture window.

I've come to enjoy this quiet, unassuming month--sandwiched between the two biggest commercial holidays of the year--for what it is. A respite. A time to slow down. While I've met folks who go right from Halloween to decorating for Christmas and buying for Christmas and planning for Christmas, that's not November for me.

November walks--or most winter walks, for that matter--reward only the observant. I've had to learn to look with new eyes, in order to see beauty where I previously saw nothing. Now I can appreciate the etched look of black branches against the sky. A few vivid red rose hips on an otherwise barren bush. Scallop-edged pale green lichen patches on extravagantly textured tree trunks.

If I had to guess what November's defining personality trait was, I'd have to say humility.

Humility is not something we think much of much these days. "If you have it, flaunt it," seems to be the motto of the 21st century--certainly not "pride comes before the fall," or " the meek shall inherit the earth."

If you think humility seems like a quaint, old-fashioned concept that doesn't have much place in today's society, take a moment to consider what a few of the world's preeminent thinkers and scholars have said about humility.

Humility is the solid foundation of all the virtues. ~
Confucius 
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility. ~
William Shakespeare 

Humility makes great men twice honorable. ~
Benjamin Franklin 
Humility, like darkness, reveals the heavenly lights. ~
Henry David Thoreau 
Then, of course, there's the Biblical perspective:

Humility is the fear of the LORD; its wages are riches and honor and life. ~
Proverbs 22:4, NIV

But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.
Psalm 37:11, KJV

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. ~
Philippians 2:3
 
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. ~
Proverbs 11:2
Dear Lord: This November, help us to slow down and enjoy the quiet beauty of the world around us. Guide us as we seek humility in a world that seems to prize vanity and ostentation. Teach us how to value others above ourselves; help us learn to serve you with love and joy. Amen.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding Ways to Connect with God: Writing Prayers



"Rumor is you got some kind a power prayer, gets better results than just the regular variety," says Minny to Aibileen in the best-selling novel, "The Help."

"But that ain't me," modest Aibileen says. "That's just prayer."

"You got a better connection than most," Minny persists. "We all on a party line to God, but you, you setting right in his ear."

"The Help" follows the lives of three women in 1962-era Jackson, Mississippi--a young white woman and two black maids. Author Kathryn Stockett chronicles the way their lives become intertwined, and how they end up challenging the prevailing racial boundaries of their time and place, while also forging personal ties.

You might be wondering what the secret to Aibileen's power prayer was. It's pretty simple.

She wrote her prayers out. Every night.

It's easy for me to get distracted during silent internal prayer. Like Aibileen, I enjoy writing out my prayers. (Though, sadly, I'm not nearly as devoted as she.)

Writing my prayers has been an excellent way for me to focus and draw closer to God. (After all, it feels strange to start a sentence about my desire to be a more patient mother and then end it writing out a grocery list--though this is the kind of thing I do in my head all the time when I'm trying to pray.)

While writing my prayers helps me feel like I truly connect to God, the prayers themselves on the pages of my journal live on beyond the purpose of the moment. I find that I enjoy reading my prayers weeks, months, or even years later. I write in a stream-of-consciousness style when I'm prayer-writing (which is a real treat for me, as a professional writer--when I'm on assignment, I can never take such a laid-back approach). But, I'm often a little surprised by what I wrote. In a good way.

It's as if God moved me to be wiser or more eloquent than I usually am. And, I'm sure he has.

When I take time to write with God, he gives me that coveted "connection"; he also gives me a feeling of peace and contentment, a sense of release after I give my cares over to him, and inspiration. My journal pages have played host to book ideas, article pitches, poem drafts.

He gives more than I, in my all-too-human selfishness, deserve. He gives me hope. He makes me feel like anything is possible when I send my writing heavenward.
  

Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

Psalm 16: 11, KJV


Dear Lord: Please help all of us who seek a closer, clearer connection to you. Help to clear the static from our prayer lines. Guide us to the best way we can draw near to you--whether it's written prayer, spoken prayer, praying with friends or family, or some other creative form of worship. Amen.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Celebrating Halloween: A Christian Take on a Non-Christian Holiday

Photo Copyright Elizabeth May, 2010

A few months back, my daughters (5 and 7 years old) and I were talking about holidays, including Halloween.

My seven-year-old floored me when she said, "What's the real meaning of Halloween?"

I quickly realized the real meaning of Halloween wasn't something I wanted to get into with a little girl who was thrown into a fear spiral two years ago from seeing pictures of too-scary Halloween decorations.

She went on.

"Doesn't it have something to do with God?"

I guess she really was listening when I told her and her sister to remember the true meaning of Christmas and Easter. But, now I was in a bind. How to explain Halloween. I muttered something unintelligible and changed the subject.

But, I thought then, as now--there must be a better way for Christians to explain Halloween to kids.

I started with some research on the origins of Halloween.

Here are some links, if you want to bone up (no pun intended!) on your Halloween history.

Christian Broadcast Network's site has an entire Halloween "resource" section. Here's a link to a general article on Halloween and Christianity.

History.com provides a comprehensive, secular overview of the holiday's roots here.

What I learned in my research is that Halloween, as we celebrate it today, has many influences--ranging from the ancient Druids to the Catholic Church. And, most of the traditions prior to the 20th- and 21st-century did involve the supernatural, with people believing that spirits (either bad or good) returned at this time to roam the earth. Today, Halloween has become the second largest commercial holiday, with Americans spending an estimated $6.9 billion annually (history.com). A growing sector of the commercial side of Halloween is the gory and gruesome--a particular bane to those with young and/or sensitive children (like mine) who can literally get nightmares from just driving around their own neighborhood, seeing severed heads hanging from trees and all-too-realistic skeletons clawing up through the ground.

While I can't change the way the rest of the world celebrates Halloween--grotesque decor included--I can choose how to present the holiday to my kids.

So, here's what I've come up with:

You know how you asked me about the real meaning of Halloween? Well, Halloween is an old, old holiday. It started many years when people thought that the end of summer and beginning of longer, darker days in the fall meant that scary spirits would come out and play tricks on them. So, they'd dress up in costume, thinking the spirits wouldn't know who they were. Halloween has changed over the years to what it is now: getting dressed up, trick or treating for candy, carving Jack O' Lanterns, putting up decorations. 


But, remember how the really scary decorations bother us, and we don't like them? Well, that's a good reaction to have. I think some people get too interested in the darker, spookier side of Halloween, and that's not what we want to do. That's not what God would want us to do. Remember how you also asked if Halloween had to do with God? Well, in some ways, it does, because God is everywhere, and he is especially with us in dark or scary times. Halloween is a good time to remember that. 


I like to think of Halloween as a time to gather close with family, celebrate warm homes and glowing jack o lanterns, and eat good food like warm spiced apple cider, caramel apples, and homemade soup. We can remember that in these longer, darker days of fall and winter, God cozies up with us too.


Dear Lord: Please be with us all this Halloween season. Help us to remember that in the midst of what can be dark in the world, that You are light; You fight the bad in this world. Give those of us with children the wisdom to answer tough questions about Halloween and other holidays truthfully, but appropriately. Help us to find You at all times, and in all places, even in those unlikely spots.


This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

1 John 1:5


Friday, October 15, 2010

When The World Turns Upside Down

Photo Credit: Elizabeth May, Copyright 2010

October 2001. My world turned upside down. A miscarriage, a husband without a job and no good prospects in sight, and a mom with an illness no-one could seem to diagnose. Despite the riot of fall color surrounding me, the world seemed dark. 

As the days grew shorter, and the weather colder, I drew closer to God.

You've heard of fair-weather fans--I'm a foul-weather worshiper. I don't turn to God as often as I should, especially when things are going well, but when the going gets tough, He is my solace. I slow down and contemplate. I write in my journal. I read my Bible. I find specific comfort in verses that seem tailored to me and my situation.

Sickness, loss of a loved one, marriage problems, financial stresses--there are many heart-breaking situations we all face at some time in our lives, times that our world is turned on its end, and all we want is for some gentle giant to right it. Now.

I was impatient that fall, nine years ago. I wanted my husband to find a job. Now. I wanted my mom to get better. Now. I wanted to get pregnant. Now. And, I prayed for all those things, earnestly, daily.

God said, in time.

By Christmas, my husband had consulting work (which eventually turned into a full-time job). Around that time, too, my mother was able to come to Pittsburgh to see a new doctor who was able to diagnose and start treatment for her condition. And, finally, by July, I found out I was pregnant again.

Today, I'm stealing a bit of quiet time to write this, as my six-month-old naps upstairs and my girls are off at kindergarten and second grade. My concerns these days are typically what to make for dinner, or how I'm going to fit a work assignment into between school and activities and caring for my family.

I too often forget how lucky I am to have these "lite" concerns.

I too often forget the fall my world tipped over.

I too often forget to get on my knees and thank God for how lucky I am.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. 
Jeremiah 31:13

Dear Lord: Thank you for being there for me, and for all those who seek you when times are tough. When we face worries and concerns and sorrows so huge they threaten to engulf us, you fold us into your arms. You listen to our cries; you feel our distress; you minister to our wounds. Please comfort those who are hurting now, help them to find you in their time of need. And, for those of us who aren't facing troubles today, help us  to praise you earnestly for all we have. Amen.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Getting off the Wheel


I was spinning the other day. And I don't mean that in the sense of the workout class.

I mean it in the sense of bouncing around aimlessly from task to task, feeling overwhelmed--like I was going 100 MPH, but getting nowhere fast.

I have to admit, this happens to me all too often. I start fixating on my to-do list. I start getting stressed. I start wondering how I'll fit everything I need to do (or want to do) in the day. And, I stop talking to God.

Just a quick email check, then I'll take time to pray.

Just one more load of laundry, and I'll sit down with my Bible.

Just a short phone call, and I'll write in my prayer journal.

I happen to have what some may think are unrealistic expectations for myself. I have a six-month-old infant and girls in kindergarten and second grade. I think I should be caring for them, completing my at-home freelance writing assignments, working out, keeping a tidy home, making home-cooked meals, decorating for fall, scrapbooking, learning how to use my DSLR camera, working on sewing projects...and the list goes on.

Yes, I'm a little nuts.

I look longingly at our local library's list of classes and groups, wistfully thinking I'd like to join The Go Green Club, The Writer's Group, and The Crochet Club (I don't even crochet--well, yet). I'm already in both a book club and an amateur photography class.

I know that my ratio of interests to time available is way out of whack. But, sometimes, I just can't help it, and I overextend myself.

That's where God comes in--when I let him.

He gently reigns me in. He grounds me. He reminds me that if I'm right with Him, nothing else matters. He helps me get off the manic hamster wheel of useless activity and gives me purpose.


 Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.

Proverbs 19:21 

Dear Lord: Thank you for being there for me no matter how many times I carelessly toss aside our relationship in favor of the next thing on my never-ending to-do list. Please soften my stubborn heart and help me put aside those daily tasks to talk to you. Imbue me with a sense of your divine purpose, so I don't feel like I'm aimlessly spinning through my days. Amen.



Tuesday, September 21, 2010

God Stretches Us


It's a stretch, me writing a blog. I'm just not a blog type of gal.

I'm not as networked as I should be. I'm not online constantly. I'm not the person with hundreds of Facebook friends. I don't post product reviews or rarely join online forums. I love to read blogs, but rarely comment.

So, what am I doing writing a blog?

It's pretty simple, actually. The big guy called. More than once, in fact. Oddly enough, each time, "blog" was in His call for me.

I'm not sure why. I'd just as soon minimize my Internet browser and create digital scrapbook pages in Photoshop. Or, better yet, I'd prefer to push my laptop aside and go for a jog or a hike, or cook something, or work on a sewing project, or try to figure out my DSLR, or read a book, or call my mom. (Yes, I have a too-many-hobbies problem, but that's another post.)

The thing is: God likes to stretch us. Grow us. Push us out of our comfort zone.

It's kind of like one of those intense yoga stretches you really have to settle into and breathe through. I still remember the first time I tried pigeon. (WARNING: Yoga types, avert your eyes as I try to inexpertly explain pigeon.) You end up with one leg bent underneath you, your heel settled into the opposite side of your pelvis and your other leg stretched straight out behind you. You cross your arms out in front of you on the floor and put your head down. You're face down, totally prone.

Now, you breathe.

The first time I did this stretch, I didn't think I was going to make it through the amount of breaths the instructor had allotted. I'm not a flexible person.

But, I did make it. And, pigeon ended up being one of my favorite poses.

Though I've never been "good" at yoga in terms of having the natural constitution that allows me to pretzel up, yoga is good for me. It stretches me--literally and physically.

God never said doing the right thing is easy. He never said following His will for our lives was supposed to be painless.

So, I'm working hard to look at this blog like the ultimate God stretch. Challenging, but ultimately, fulfilling.

I'm trying to remember to take it one post at a time and to focus on my overall goal (honoring Him), rather than getting sidetracked by the feeling of posting in a vacuum. (Is there anyone really out there?)

I'm working to settle into the stretch, not fight it. And, when all else fails, and I feel panicky, I take a cue from yoga.

I just breathe.



For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.

Ephesians 5: 8-10, NIV


Dear Lord: Thank you for pushing us, calling us to grow and change in wondrous ways. Help lead us as we accept new challenges and enter new phases in our lives. Encourage us to lean on you for support during these sometimes rocky transitions; hold our hands and guide us through, letting us know that you never give us more than we can handle. Amen.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Even Mommies Have Tantrums Too


The carpet of the spare room rose up to meet me as I threw myself down, and wet it with lavish tears of anger and frustration. My toddlers, three and one, were alternately perplexed and upset by my outburst. Even my husband was brought upstairs that morning from his basement office by my roars. He calmed the girls while I tried to pull it together.

"It's just so hard," I said. "They're driving me crazy. I can't take this anymore."

My "tantrums" were happening more and more often. I was ashamed of my behavior, but I felt powerless to change it. The demands of mothering two very needy toddlers had totally undone me.

I wasn't in any kind of meaningful relationship with God then, so it's no surprise I didn't have any reserves to draw on.

No heavenly shoulder to cry on.

No wisdom of the scriptures to lean on.

No bond of prayer to connect me to a sympathetic divine ear.

Not long after that outburst, my neighbor invited me to a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) meeting at a local church. I went, joined, and have been a MOPS member ever since. My girls are now 5 and 7, and they're joined by a five-month-old little brother.

Since I joined MOPS, I started praying and cultivating a relationship with God again. I joined a gym and lost 10 pounds. (Well, ok, I need to lose that 10 pounds again, but this time it's baby weight.) I discovered new hobbies. (I learned how to sew and how to do both traditional and digital scrapbooking.) I completed the First Place for Health Bible Study. I ran in the Pittsburgh Marathon (ok, the marathon relay). I co-directed our church's Vacation Bible School for two years.

And I was blessed to be able to continue my freelance writing career, carefully balancing incoming projects with babysitting, cobbled together from high-school students after school hours, in-laws during the day, and my husband on nights and weekends.

This fall, for the first time, I don't plan to sign up for MOPS. I do have mixed feelings. MOPS was a life-saver for me in the beginning, but, after four years, I was starting to feel like the "old-timer" in the room. Though I do have a baby again, I don't feel that intense need to bond with others over the early years' details that I once did, simply because I've done it twice before. (Don't get me wrong, though: I know that doesn't qualify me as an expert. And, don't be surprised, MOPS members, if you find me slinking back through your doors with my tail between my legs, at some point. I know babies get infinitely harder once they become mobile, and I reserve the right to change my mind!)

What I could definitely use is a support group for mothers of elementary-schoolers. MOEs, anyone?

But, I am signed up for a new Bible study--and I'm getting into my newest hobby, DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) photography, with a course at the local community college. I can't wait.

I have to admit, though, I still do the mommy monster roar every now and again. But, I'm not ready to throw in the maternal towel again. To give up. Like I was once. I know God has my back.

In my distress I called to the LORD; I called out to my God. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came to his ears.

2 Samuel 22:7

Dear Lord: I pray for mothers, the world over. Please give us strength and wisdom, patience and compassion. Help us to know that our work matters. Remind us to lean on you when we are weak or tired and be nurtured, but also inspire us to take on new challenges that invigorate us. I also ask that you bless the many MOPS groups preparing for their new "year." May the women there form new friendships, learn more about your love, and feel refreshed and renewed after each meeting. Amen.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Freezer Fiasco: A Lesson in Patience

It was not a pretty sight--or smell. I must have neglected to fully shut our standing freezer days ago. The stench of rotten meat alerted us something was wrong. We opened the freezer to find oozing, thawed pork and beef.

We'd just walked in the door after being gone for 5 hours, running errands with the kids. The girls were cranky and tired, and the baby just wanted some quality play time after being cooped up in his car seat all afternoon. But, we had Emergency #1 to attend to.

As I tried to hold the baby and take stock of what to toss and what to keep--and where to put the non-spoiled meat while we cleaned and defrosted the freezer--my five-year-old poked her head into the basement, crying. "There's no paper to draw on!" (She has a lovely habit of crying for no apparent reason, multiple times a day, which would test pretty much any parent's patience reserves.) After asking if she'd looked in the usual spots, we determined there was no more paper around, and I decided to go upstairs to the craft closet to see what I could find.

I didn't find the paper. I did find that the dog had thoroughly christened the cream carpet--evidently, his intestinal "bug" wasn't all better, as we had hoped. Enter Emergency #2. I walked back downstairs, still toting the baby, to break the bad news to my husband, who was barely started on the freezer fiasco. "How bad is it?" he asked.

"Ummm, I'm not sure," I hedged, not wanting to stress him more.

In the meantime, our five-year-old had escalated into full-on wailing about the paper for her drawing. That was the straw that broke my usually calm husband's back. "Go to your room!" he bellowed.

I have to admit it. It's usually me that loses my cool, but I'm pretty good in crisis mode. I whisked the kids away for a while and got them settled, while checking in periodically on my husband and doing what I could to help.

My patience isn't typically tested in so dramatic a fashion, but it is tugged on a daily basis by little hands. A  baby who sometimes seems to go from one messy diaper to a feeding to just wanting attention--all while his older sisters are needy and dinner somehow has to get on the table. A project deadline and a morning blocked off for work when a child gets sick. A full to-do list barely touched at the end of the day--and though I hardly sat down, I can't remember what I've done, much less why I didn't get around to most of the things on the list.

But the worst thing I can do is feel sorry for myself. Corinthians 6 (emphasis below, mine) helps puts it all into perspective. Paul's hardships make mine look pathetically minuscule; his determination is a source of inspiration.

We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

2 Corinthians 6: 3-10

Dear Lord, please give me patience. Help me to keep going even when the going is tough. I know you test me; you wear away at the hard edges of ego and jagged terrain of selfishness; you smooth and polish my soul with each hardship I endure and each difficulty I surmount. Allow me to accept the bumps in the road with grace and determination and help me to put it all into perspective, knowing what is truly important and what is not. Amen.




Image: Maggie Smith / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Friday, September 3, 2010

Crunch Time


It's that time of year around here. Crunch time. But, not in the sense you may think.

The grass is crunchy. The flowers are crispy. The hanging baskets, deep-fried. One of our trees is starting to drop little brown crumbly leaves all over the deck like no one's business.

I like to think of it as God's way of gently easing us out of summer. By this point--September, dry as a bone, and 92 degrees, we are ready for a change. Ready for crisp mornings and a veil of fog draped low on the hills, ready for jeans and jackets, ready for the vibrancy of leaf-shades in red, orange, and yellow.

So, instead of bemoaning the dying season, I see it for what it is. Divine preparation. God is saying: Just wait. Better things are on the horizon.


Dear Lord: Thank you for your abundance, but also for scarcity. Without rain, I could not appreciate sunshine; without heat, I could not savor coolness; without dark, I would not love the light. Help me to see the blessings in every season, and in every situation, knowing that you care for us and have fashioned this world and its seasons fearfully and wonderfully.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A New Poem

More

We like it big
and cheap, bright
and brash.

We like it
mega, super, ultra,
but somehow
low, lite, free.

We demand
more for less,
and get it
every time.

“Don’t run on empty”
the sign showing
donuts, hot dogs,
and cheesy nachos
says.

Irony escapes us.

Copyright 2010, Elizabeth May

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Green Cleaning Tips and Resources


So, you're interested in natural cleaning? Here's the lowdown: what you'll need to get started, where to get it, and how to find more information.

Supplies

1. Empty Spray Bottles--various sizes (dollar stores are good for this)
2. Baking Soda--the BIG box!
3. Borax (often found in your local grocery's laundry aisle)
4. White vinegar--the MEGA bottle!
5. Distilled water (I've also started using filtered water from my fridge for ease)
6. Various essential oils
7. Liquid castile soap, such as Dr. Bronner's

Sources

The good news is, there are only two kinds of supplies that may take a little hunting for--essential oils and liquid castile soap. I can find a wide selection of both at my local health food store. GNC (yes, the vitamin store) sells both as well. And, of course, there are tons of online retailers like Amazon that offer these supplies. My personal favorite is Lucky Vitamin. I can get Dr. Bronner's, essential oils, and other things I use regularly (like organic and natural skin care products, coconut oil and even organic maple syrup in bulk).

Recommended Books

Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond
Clean House, Clean Planet by Karen Logan

I own both of these books, and would recommend them to anyone starting out. Logan’s book is shorter and focuses just on cleaning, while Berthold-Bond’s is much more comprehensive and includes everything from housekeeping to skin care to gardening, pets, and pest control. Both books include good basic info on the cons of chemical-based cleaning and recipes for natural alternatives.

Tips

Start small. Try one new cleaner at a time. See how easy it is to make. Test it out and see if you like how it works. (You won't necessarily love every green cleaning recipe or technique--what works for one person or situation, might not work for you.)

Take it slow. Gradually phase in more and more green cleaners, while phasing out commercial cleaners.

Learn to adjust your expectations. Green cleaners work differently than harsh commercial cleaners. They don't have harsh foaming agents like sodium laurel sulfate, so you probably won't notice the same kind of foaming action (this doesn't mean they're not working, though). Using vinegar and water or plain club soda for mirrors take a different approach than Windex--wipe and let it dry a bit on its own (it doesn't evaporate as quickly as the blue stuff), then buff it dry and shiny with a clean rag.

Wing it when you can. Sprinkle baking soda anywhere you need something a bit abrasive and scrub with a brush or scrubbie. Add a few drops of castile soap for added cleaning power. Mix vinegar and water and essential oils in a roughly 1 to 3 ratio of vinegar to water and add oils as desired. The more you clean using natural methods, the quicker your routine and the more comfortable you'll be ad-libbing.

Have fun. Realize the benefits of natural cleaning... Less money. Less fumes. Less toxicity. More peace of mind.

(You can also read my posts Making Your Own Cleaning Supplies, Part I and Part 2 for simple green cleaning recipes.)



Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

All Creatures Great and Small

Monarch caterpillars on butterfly weed bush in my parents' backyard

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset, and the morning,
That brightens up the sky;

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
We gather every day;--

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

Maker of Heaven and Earth (All Things Bright and Beautiful), Cecil Frances Alexander 


Ladybug, left, and ladybug larvae, right

I spent a great deal of time this past weekend staring at a bush outside my parents' house. It was a large butterfly weed, and from the first glance, it didn't appear to be in great shape. The leaves were turning a sickly yellowish color, and it was cloaked in tiny orange aphids. However, it was hosting a fascinating variety of life, all interdependent on each other and/or in the plant in various combinations.

First of all, there were the monarch caterpillars--we counted as many as 12 at once. They're a striking caterpillar to begin with, and we enjoyed seeing them in sizes ranging from two inches long (about ready to make a chrysalis) to tiny (about the size of the tip of my pinkie fingernail). They ate ravenously, especially the larger specimens. I was mesmerized just by the speed at which they devoured the leaves. (Eric Carle had to have been talking about a monarch caterpillar when he wrote "The Very Hungry Caterpillar.")

Then, I noticed the ladybugs--not the orangish imported versions that are such pests in some areas of the country, but "real" red ladybugs--the kind I remember from my youth. I also noticed another type of critter or two--a grayish larvae and a red and black larvae. This was ringing a bell from a book I'd read to my 7-year-old. I asked her if these were different stages of ladybug larva (something I'd never seen before in person). She assured me it was--and, trust me, she'd know on this type of thing.

Ladybug, top left, and ladybug larvae, bottom


But that wasn't the only life the plant was hosting. There were bees coming to the plant's orange flowers, flies and gnats buzzing about, and the occasional little spider. Every time I came out of the house, I had to check out the veritable menagerie on the butterfly weed.

It struck me how wonderfully God has created this world and the myriad life forms in it. How everything on this planet has a purpose--even aphid-infested butterfly weed plants that at first glance look like they're destined for the compost heap!

Ladybug pupa


Dear Lord: Help me to see with open eyes the beauty of the world around me. Help me to observe with the wonder of a child and praise your glory to the heavens. Teach me that if you can use something as humble as a weed to bring forth life, you can use me too, as imperfect as I am. 

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom, hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.

Psalm 104: 24-25

Saturday, August 28, 2010

An Old Poem: In Season


Here's a poem I wrote for our middle child (now five!) when she was four months old. I hadn't written any poetry in years, but the idea for this poem came to me in the middle of the night, while nursing. I couldn't go back to sleep until I had jotted a few lines down; by the next afternoon, it was finished.

In Season
for Julianne Elizabeth

By the time we discovered you
you were a comma of possibility,
microscopic but mighty,
a miracle of inattention.

By the time we met you
you were wrinkled and wriggling,
a parched bud of need and longing.

Now we know you, lush, plump, fully realized.
A soft, round belly, milky and cool,
perfect as a pitcher of cream.
Hair, a delicate fuzz.
Eyes, a shock of delphinium blue.

She’s a peach, a friend told us.
ripe, melting
ready to be devoured.



Copyright 2010, Elizabeth May

Friday, August 27, 2010

Clean and Green: Making Your Own Cleaning Products, Part 2


My commitment to green cleaning began by chance. I was looking for essential oils to purchase to make a homemade air spray and happened upon a "recipe" for an easy all-purpose spray cleaner. It was made of things I already had around my house. It took two minutes to mix. It worked. It smelled good. I didn’t have to warn my kids: “Don’t touch! It has chemicals on it!”

I was hooked.

It will be a year this fall since I started cleaning naturally,and I'm still going strong! It’s easy to mix up a new batch of All-Purpose Spray Cleaner (see recipe below) if I need to, and takes only a few minutes. But, I also try make things as simple as possible. I clean tubs by sprinkling in some baking soda and a few drops of liquid castile soap  that I keep in a nearby closet, and then lather it up with a scrub brush. I clean and deodorize toilets by sprinkling in a few tablespoons of borax and squirting in a few drops of tea tree oil . I let it sit for a little while--you can even let it “work” overnight--and then scrub with a toilet brush. My mirrors sparkle when I spray on club soda and wipe dry with a clean rag.

I know I’m saving money with DIY cleaning, but, best of all, I feel good about what I’m using in my home. And, I’m discovering another nice side effect of green cleaning too: When your cleaning regimen smells like aromatherapy, you actually clean more!

All-Purpose Cleaning Spray

This is the first cleaning recipe I made. I like it because it only has three ingredients. I use it on my laminate kitchen countertops, bathroom sinks, toilet seats, showers and tubs; it can also be used on stainless steel, mirrors, and glass. That’s a lot for one little cleaner!

12 ounces distilled or filtered water
4 ounces distilled white vinegar
10-20 drops essential oil, or to your preference (I like tea tree oil for my bathrooms and a citrus scent like orange, lemon, or lime for my kitchen.)

Pour all ingredients into an empty spray bottle. Shake before each use to distribute essential oils.

Antiseptic Soap Spray 

This is good for you antibacterial buffs out there. It’s a nice, natural alternative to commercial sanitizers and draws on the naturally antiseptic cleansing qualities of both soap and tea tree oil. Great for bathrooms, wiping down toys and doorknobs to kill germs, and more. 

3 tbsp. Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap
20-30 drops tea tree essential oil
16 ounces distilled or filtered water

Fill a 16-ounce spray or squirt bottle almost full of water. Add liquid soap and tea tree oil. Shake to mix.

Furniture Polish Spray

There are two options for this simple furniture cleaner. Both use nearly the same ingredients, but in different proportions. I use spray #1 for my vintage and antique furniture—these older pieces with a more porous finish just “drink” up the oil. Spray #2 is great for painted furniture or pieces with a harder finish.

Olive oil
Distilled white vinegar
Lemon essential oil or fresh lemon juice
Distilled or filtered water (for spray #1)

For spray #1, put ¾ cup olive oil, ¼ cup vinegar, and 40 or so drops lemon oil or ¼ tsp. fresh lemon juice in bottle. (This only makes about 8 ounces, so you may want to get a smaller bottle. Since it’s largely oil-based, you don’t need to use a lot; I usually squirt a little on a clean rag and buff it in.)

For spray #2, put two tsp. olive oil in 16-ounce bottle, add 20 or more drops lemon essential oil (or 1 to 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice) and ¼ cup vinegar. Fill the rest of the bottle with water. Shake well before each use.

If you are using fresh lemon juice, most experts recommending keeping your spray in the fridge so the lemon juice doesn’t go rancid.

Soft Scrubber

I use this when I need some extra scrubbing power; to scour my kitchen sink, to get at the bathtub and the texturized bottom of my shower. One note: Baking soda will leave a residue, so try not to use it on glass shower doors or metal fixtures, unless you don’t mind following with a vinegar spray cleaner to make things shine.

Baking soda
Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap

Homemade soft scrubbers can tend to dry out, so I mix this on the fly. I put baking soda in a shaker container (dollar-store confectioner’s sugar shakers work well), shake out as needed on the surface to be cleaned, and add a few drops of Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap. I then lather it up with a wet scrub brush, rinse, and repeat as needed.




Image: graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Clean and Green: Making Your Own Cleaning Products, Part 1

Everyone’s “going green” these days. Recycling bins show up in nearly every business and home; schools and workplaces go “paperless”; hip boutiques carry purses and accessories made of everything from old license plates to juice boxes to recycled newspapers; and, families everywhere toss their harsh commercial cleaners in favor of natural, homemade concoctions that save the planet--and their pocketbook.

Well, I may be stretching it a bit with the last one, but we could all benefit from considering how we can “green” up our cleanup. If you’re like I was, you probably haven’t thought too much about what’s lurking under your kitchen sink or in your bathroom cupboard. But what if you could replace the plethora of commercial cleaning products—many harboring caustic, or even potentially toxic, chemicals—with a few simple, time-tested basic cleaning supplies that are all-natural?

Think pantry staples like baking soda, lemon juice, olive oil, and white distilled vinegar. Add in the aromatic world of essential oils for heavenly scents and extra disinfecting power. Mix. Repeat.

That’s just about how complex homemade, green cleaners are. In fact, for earlier generations this won’t be big news. Just ask your grandma. She probably didn’t buy a different cleaner for every day of the week; many of today’s products weren’t even on the market when she was young. She knows that mildly-abrasive baking soda is safe enough to eat but also can clean your oven, tub, and more. No doubt, she could tell you that vinegar and water mixed in a spray bottle (or club soda) will make your glass, mirrors, and metal shine like never before.

I began making my own cleaning products nearly 10 months ago, and haven't looked back. Tune in for Part 2 tomorrow when I share my tried and tested tips and homemade cleaning recipes.

Image: Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Create An Herbal Bouquet

One of my favorite things to do this time of year is  create a bouquet of herbs.

It's pretty, smells fragrant, and inspires you to pluck a few leaves or stems to enliven your meals.

The bouquet pictured here includes herbs from my own garden (rosemary, dill, oregano, parsley, and chives), though you could certainly purchase the herbs at your local farmer's market or grocery.

I simply wash the herbs, so they're ready to use, and put them on my kitchen countertop where I can't miss them come mealtime.

Here are some of my favorite, quick and easy uses for fresh herbs:

1. Chop fresh chives and use them to top baked potatoes, or toss boiled potato chunks with real butter and chives.

2. Place a fresh tomato slice on a piece of bread and sprinkle with fresh minced basil. Top with a slice of cheese and broil for a delicious and easy sandwich or snack.

3. Slice fresh cucumbers and toss with yogurt, sour cream or mayo, and season with sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh dill weed.

4. Make a homemade herb vinagrette by mixing two parts olive oil to one part balsamic vinegar or lemon juice. Season with sea salt, fresh ground pepper, fresh garlic (pressed through a garlic press or minced) and a variety of fresh herbs, finely chopped.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A New Poem: Elemental

 
Elemental

I thought I saw you the other day.
You were shimmering
in the wake of rain.
You were dancing
in dappled leaf-light.
I felt you thudding
through my veins.

I searched you thrumming
in springtime thunder,
and found you
vibrating into my bones--
sensed you in
every taste touch smell,
but most of all
you felt like home.

I touched you 
in creek-smooth pebbles,
sounded you out
in river moans,
tasted you in every season
and never felt alone.

I sighted you flying
in the moonlight under
darkened silken wings,
Felt you tingle into my every nerve,
saw heard knew
you in everything.

Elemental as iron,
essential as air,
simple as a drop of dew,
yet, how often
I forget
You're there.

Copyright 2010, Elizabeth May


Monday, August 23, 2010

The Cracked Laundry Basket

Have you ever been on a shopping mission? I know I have. Maybe it's for some key bit of home decor, or for a hard-to-find piece of clothing to match something you already have. We can invest a lot of time and money searching out that perfect item, and the ironic thing is, we often don't really need it.

On the other hand, I often neglect the essential--the everyday items that get alot of wear and tear and wouldn't be all that difficult to find or all that expensive to replace.

Take the cracked laundry basket.

I recently realized we use two laundry baskets in our household--and that they're the same ones my husband and I had in college. (Let's just say they're pretty old, without getting into revealing details about exactly how old we're getting too...)

One just cracked in several places. It's time for a new one, but I haven't gotten around to it.

It's kind of like my spiritual life. The thing that really matters, but that I don't invest enough time in.

Just as I can easily fill my shopping cart with frivolous impulse buys, I can also fill my mind with distractions that crowd out God.

Dear Lord: Please help me to take a foundational approach to spending my time and money, focusing on what's truly important, like my relationship with you. Help me to clear away the clutter and distractions of daily life to reveal your face.

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.

1 Chronicles 16:11