Making Time for What Matters

night driveMom has been visiting with my sister in New Hampshire for the past two weeks, and yesterday was the day Sarah and I drove to Toledo (which Kathy insisted was the most convenient meeting place … it involved twelve hours of driving for her, two and a half for me, but … well, okay.)

While we waited for my sister to arrive, Sarah and I hit the movies and took in Mama Mia 2: Here We Go Again. In this movie, the mother (played by Meryl Streep) has died and the daughter (Amanda Seyfried) is about to have a grand re-opening party for the hotel that she has remodeled as a memorial. The movie itself is a series of flashbacks and forwards, showing how the daughter is following in her mother’s footsteps all along the way (except for the crazy gal pals, I guess). Each generation in turn sets a goal, makes a plan, and rallies those near and dear to help pull it off with single-minded ferocity.

And everything is beautifully color coordinated in Elysian Blue.

Late last night, my sister and I talked for a long time about our respective lives, how things have changed since mom has joined us (and they have). Their two weeks were replete with quilt shops, swimming holes, and homemade sweet potato pie. By contrast, mine is full of laundry, getting kids to do their chores, and pill counting. At the end of the day I collapse and either heat or ice my shoulder in an effort to get the ache to go away long enough for the Tylenol PM to kick in so I can sleep.

No twinkly lights. No spontaneous bursts of song. Unless you count the fifteen minutes I spent forcing my daughter to go over her choir music. Although she has an amazing voice, she doesn’t like people to look at her, and so getting her to sing in the new youth choir required a minor miracle. I told her I didn’t want a birthday present if she would just sing for one performance. Mama Mia, here we go again…

Then, unexpectedly, my mom wandered into the room and sat in her recliner, fixed her gaze on Sarah, and smiled. And if by magic, Sarah started to sing Panis Angelicus. A little breathy at first, then with greater confidence. I tried to reinforce the Latin pronunciations and got the stink eye … but as long as Mammy was watching, all was well.

So glad you made it home, Mama Mia.

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The Drop Box: A Movie for Lent!

TheDropBox_SlideThe story is told of a small boy who walks along the beach, tossing starfish that have washed up on shore back into the great expanse of blue. “What are you doing?” demands a stranger walking by. “Don’t you see how many there are? What does it matter if you save just a few?”

Bending down to retrieve another sea creature, the boy responds, “It matters to this one.”

Korea has always had a special place in my heart. For about a year in my twenties I studied the language and cultivated a taste for kim chi, having been invited to work at a blind mission in Seoul. In the end, I did not go — I was unable to get the needed visa to work as a short-term missionary. But I had heard about the sad fate that awaited even young children who are disabled. Many are abandoned by their families, who cannot or will not care for them. Many are turned out or abandoned on the streets.

It is this sad fact that makes this remarkable documentary doubly inspiring. The Drop Box, a limited engagement documentary about Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak, tells the story of a man who has dedicated his life to saving children, many of them with special needs, who were abandoned by their parents who were unwilling or unable to care for them. He created a special “box” outside his church, where desperate women could leave their infants rather than expose them to die on the streets. Over time, Pastor Lee adopted a dozen such children, and found homes for hundreds more.

And each one has touched his heart.

You would think a movie like this would be depressing. Thousands of children without parents, many of them destined to live out their short lives separated from their families, never able to know where they came from or to whom they belonged.

But watching this movie, you can’t help but be moved by the joy. The joy of the children. The joy of the pastor and the “God’s Love Community.” Although the joy is often through tears. “My heart drops,” says Pastor Lee. “When I hear that sound [of the drop box], . .We installed the baby box with God’s heart. At the top of the box, it reads, ‘For my father and mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.’ (Ps 27:10). God loves life more than the world. He sent life to the earth for his glory.”

Go and see this movie. Click here for viewing locations and times.

“Heidi,” Revisited

This weekend we watched the 1993 version of Heidi, starring winsome little Noley Thornton, Jason Robards (as Grandfather, known by the villagers as the “Alm Uncle”) and Jane Seymour (in an atypically severe role for the actress, the tight-lipped Frauline Rottenmeier).

I didn’t enjoy this movie nearly as much as I enjoyed the classic novel when I was a girl (my mother named me after the title character, the orphan girl who is sent to live with her curmudgeonly old grandfather). This version of the movie takes considerable liberties with the book (including the opening sequence, in which the grandfather witnesses the deaths of Heidi’s parents).

As I watched the  movie, I couldn’t help but wonder how the story would have changed, had little Heidi come under the watchful eye of social services. On the face of it, the grandfather is not exactly a “desirable” adoptive parent for Heidi, though he is related to her. The old recluse has a foul temper, and leaves Heidi to her own devices for most of her waking hours in the company of an older child. Neither of them attend school (despite the remonstrations of the village pastor), and the Alm Uncle’s cabin lacks the most basic conveniences, including refrigeration and indoor plumbing.

Heidi’s cousin, Dete, forcibly removes the little girl from her grandfather and takes her to Frankfort, where Heidi is to become the companion of a wealthy young girl in a wheelchair. (Dete is paid for the referral, casting her motives into question.) Heidi has every possible material and educational advantage, including the affection of her friend’s family.  Even so, Heidi pines for her grandfather’s home. Once again Dete is called upon to take the child back up the Alp to visit with her grandfather (again, she is paid to do so), with the understanding that Heidi would be reclaimed by the Sesemanns in a month’s time. At first reluctant to welcome Heidi back on these terms because of the emotional fallout involved, the Uncle ultimately relents. The remainder of the story is set on the alp, where the Sesemans journey to visit Heidi and regain Clara’s health.

For a long time after the credits rolled, the underlying themes of the story stayed with me. Each life she touches, Heidi transforms. A bitter old man becomes a nurturing caregiver. A sick little girl grows strong and hale. Even Fraulein Rottenmeier (the incomparable Jane Seymour) softens a bit in the mountain air. The only person who remains immune to Heidi’s charms is the person responsible for her, the cousin Dete, who consistently chooses the expedient solution over the compassionate one.

In retrospect, I should have known how the kids would respond to Heidi’s story.  “Why are they taking her away from the grandfather? Why does he say he doesn’t want her back? That’s not FAIR!” Clearly, they identified with the plucky little orphan.

Of course, “fairness” has little to do with it. It wasn’t fair that Heidi’s parents died. It wasn’t fair that Dete put her own interests ahead of the little girl’s. It wasn’t fair for the old man to be forced to take in his granddaughter — and it wasn’t fair to Heidi to leave her in the hands of someone who so clearly didn’t want her there at the beginning. It wasn’t fair to uproot the little girl … or to place her with strangers not because it is in her best interest, but because it was in theirs. 

Johanna Spyri’s classic novel (even more than this movie) explores the question of “What is family?” and celebrates the healing power of love. For adoptive and foster parents, it also provides an opportunity to explore with your children their own feelings about family.

Mother Antonia Brenner: A Story of Redemptive Love

In the next few days, I will be posting a review of a remarkable documentary entitled “La Mama” by Jody Hammond on the life of Mother Antonia.  Mother Antonia Brenner is the founder of “Servants of the Eleventh Hour,” an order for mature women (most ages 45-65) who serve the impoverished and imprisoned in Tijuana, Mexico and parts of the U.S.

One aspect that I did not address — and felt I should do so — is the fact that Mother Antonia was twice divorced prior to taking the habit. I have not yet read the biography of her life, and don’t know whether one or both of her marriages were annulled prior to taking the habit. Since her order was formally received by the bishops of Tijuana and San Diego, I would hope so.

However, I recently ran across this explanation from a Deacon John Cameron on the Catholic Answers website that offered a helpful perspective, which I thought I would share here:

While there are general requirements for novitiate and profession in institutes of conscrated life and societies of apostolic life, there are additional requirements that are imposed by the proper law of each. Should your mother pursue this, the director of novices or admissions would be in the best position to discuss the prospects of assuming vows following divorce and what would take place.

Rather than speculating about possible grounds of nullity or the prospects of a decree of nullity, these are things that would be directed to the tribunal via the parish priest if the marriage does in fact end in permanent separation. The determining error of canon 1099 about the sacramental dignity of marriage (or even as the closely related intention contra bonum sacramentalitas of canon 1101, § 2), mentioned above as a possibility, is difficult to establish, and the jurisprudence is complex. We do best to let tribunals investigate and assess the legal impact of the facts in marriage cases.

For purposes of general information though, Rome has permitted couples to remain married, dispensed them from the obligations of marriage without dissolving it, and then to enter religious life or ordained priesthood. Decrees of nullity were not involved.

One of the aspects of Mother Antonia’s story that I loved was how God has used even the painful aspects of her life — the failures and sufferings — to minister to those she met with true humility and compassion.  This is the mark of a true penitent, one who acknowledges one’s own failures without excusing them on one hand, or dodging the consequences on the other.  In a very real sense, the work Mother has done for the past thirty years are an expression of penance, of restitution — and of gratitude to God for his great mercy.

In Titus 3 we read . . .

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

You have only to look at the face of Mother Antonia — and at the faces of her “sons” to see this mercy at work in a powerful way.  Watch the movie, and you’ll see.  This is not the story of a woman who is “trying to make it up to God.” It is the story of a weary soul who has drunk deep from the well of mercy, and is intent on showering that water of life on other parched souls as well. Not the empty gestures of “works righteousness,” but the fruitful labors of one whose life has been transformed by love.

Not all of us are called to “make amends” by spending decades inside a Mexican prison.  But each of us are given opportunities every day to model mercy to those who need it.  Are you ready?

“The Pregnancy Pact” — a Lifetime Movie

Tonight I watched “The Pregnancy Pact” on Lifetime Television. With one in six teenage girls becoming pregnant before age 20, the main premise of the movie — that the expectations of pregnant teenagers seldom turn out the way they thought, and that teens need more information from their parents in order to make informed choices — is a solid one.

This fictitious account, which has elements of a true story that TIME magazine covered in 2008, “The Pregnancy Pact” is difficult, but necessary, viewing for families with teenagers — especially those whose teens are dating.

I started watching the movie just waiting for the current wisdom: “They’re gonna do it no matter what, so give ‘em condoms so they don’t ruin their lives.” And for the first hour, that did seem to be the way the movie was going.

Fortunately, the Lorraine Dougan character (Nancy Davis), offered a sympathetic — and credible — middle road, a woman who passionately believed in abstinence before marriage, and the danger of offering contraception, and finds herself on the horns of a dilemma when her own daughter becomes pregnant. And the reporter — whose own pregnancy has clearly had lifelong affects on her own journey — provides a point of view that provides additional conversation points. (The outcome of that pregnancy isn’t revealed until the last five minutes, and I don’t want to address that here and spoil the movie….)

What I liked about this movie is that it reminds families of the importance of talking — really talking — with their teens, long before the proverbial crap hits the fan. Most parents I know hold themselves (and their children) to high moral standards. In truth, we often expect our children’s moral boundaries to exceed what we observed at their age because NOW we see the dangers of youthful impulses. And yet, wishing doesn’t make those impulses go away. Our kids need to know how to cope with those impulses in a real, adult way — with a full appreciation of how short-term actions can have long-term consequences.

Our job as parents is to help our kids form long-term plans for their future, and to understand how their present actions can help or dash those plans. Our daughters and sons, both. They need to understand how our own dreams were helped or hindered because of the choices we made early in life.

Our daughters need to understand the difference between infatuation (based on strong feelings that pass with time) and true love (based on a lifetime of sacrifice) — in order to understand WHY sex is a gift that is best expressed within marriage. They must understand that the gift of sex, misused, makes it difficult or impossible to think clearly about whether the young man they are dating is the best choice for a lifetime partner. (I thought the children’s book “The Princess and the Kiss” was a wonderful introduction to this message.)

The idea that these messages should be impressed on our daughters in a unique way will raise some eyebrows. Shouldn’t the message be stressed equally with boys and girls? Although boys are responsible for their sexual choices, the lion’s share of the consequences of misused sexuality usually falls squarely on young women. Therefore, the girl must set the pace of the relationship, knowing that their ability to bring life into the world carries a singular responsibility. Only she can choose — a choice that begins not with whether to become a parent, but whether to become sexually active.

And it is up to us, their mothers, to give them ALL the information they need so they have a full understanding of why these choices are so critical. Simply saying, “Don’t” isn’t enough. The challenges of engaging our daughters in dialogue are real. While God’s law is absolute, human nature is frail. Our daughters need to understand in concrete, practical terms the nature of both our hopes and our fears for their lives — based on our own experience. They need guidance, acceptance, and love. Above all, they need to be heard if we want them to listen.

If sex feels good, and makes you feel connected to the one you love … why does God want us to save it for marriage? Why not get closer to the one you love right now, and let that love grow INTO marriage? And if all I ever want to be is a mother, why not start now? And if he says he loves me, why shouldn’t I?

Let the conversation begin there.

Miracle Monday: The Story of Michael Oher in “Blind Side”

This weekend Craig and I slipped away on Saturday afternoon to take in a matinee.  Blind Side is a movie I NEVER would have picked in a million years . . . if I hadn’t already known the remarkable back story. As it was, it was so compelling I scarcely noticed the football.

The gentle giant (played by Quinton Aaron), found wandering in the frigid Memphis air, is picked up by the Tuohy family (Tim McGraw, Sandra Bullock) who proceed to take him home, feed and clothe him, pay for a private tutor, and teach him the business end of a football. Out of the thousands of kids who languish in the system, or worse, this kid gets a chance . . . and, despite all odds, he makes the most of it. Today he is offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens (NFL).

Perhaps not surprisingly — the issue is raised for us in the first few seconds of the movie — not everyone see the “rescue” as a good thing. Some even hint that the “poor black jock” is simply being exploited by his adoptive family, who only want to offer him up to their alma mater.  What other reason could a wealthy white couple have for taking in a poor black homeless kid?  This kind of cold-blooded generalization is articulated all too well in the following article by Steve Sailer entitled “The Next Liberal Fad: A ‘Stolen Generation’ of Black Children?”

Reviewing Blind Side and Precious, Steve Sailer observes, “These two films help us understand the common denominator of the demands increasingly heard in the media for mandatory preschool, longer school days, shorter summer vacations, and universal post-high school education. They flow from the inevitable logic of the following syllogism:

What isn’t clear to me is what, exactly, is the preferred PC alternative. Leave Michael on the streets to find his way back to the Projects, so he can die like the rest? Sure, the Tuohy’s offered Michael opportunities he wouldn’t have had if he had stayed with another family in the projects — and in many ways, I’m sure his life would have been easier had he been able to stay with the family friends who’d originally had him placed in Briarcrest. We’ll never know, since that option was not available to him.

Ultimately the standard has to be “best interests of the child.” And sadly, those interests must sometimes be prioritized because there are simply no options to cover them all. Had the black family in the beginning of the movie continued to raise Michael in their home, it is likely he would never have been drafted to the NFL . . . although he could have.

And yet, the reality was that Michael’s choice was not between a black family and a white family. It was between a white family and NO family, since neither his father (who had disappeared) or his mother (who by her own admission could not care for him and did not even want to see him) could care for him.

Can anyone seriously argue that being raised by the Tuohy’s was less desirable than returning him to the gang in the projects, to be devoured by gangs and drug peddlers, not much better than animals themselves? Of course not.

Nuture vs. nature. In the world of adoption, it’s never an either-or proposition. To thrive and reach his full potential, a child must have both. Invariably, it involves the kind of support for which Michael Oher became famous: an instinctively protective “I’ve got your back.” And from that position, it’s very easy to turn a “blind side” to everything else.

Wee Cook Wednesday: “Julie and Julia”: A Review

julieandjuliaWe’ve been spending (the kids and I) a few days in Poughkeepsie with my dear friend Elizabeth. She was my matron of honor, and is godmother to Sarah. She is also the homeschooling Catholic mother of four beautiful children. Oh, and she speaks five languages and holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from U of M. She’s several years younger than me, but when I get caught in a stickyish mother place, I stop and say to myself, “Okay, what would Elizabeth do?”

The only thing wrong with her, in fact, is that she lives too darn far away. Bah! 

Last night, we slipped out of the house after putting the kids down, leaving them in the care of Uncle Paul, and went to see “Julie and Julia.” Meryl Streep plays Julia Child, who brought French cuisine to American kitchens through her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

It’s also the story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a down-on-her-luck writer who reinvented her life by blogging her way through Child’s cookbook from cover to cover. When nothing else about her life was going well — she hated her job, hated her home, and was none too contented with her marriage — she reached out for some kind of connection (as many bloggers do) through her readers. And (as bloggers sometimes do) she sometimes got so caught up in her virtual community, she began to neglect — benignly but truly — the people in her life that she needed most.

The juxtaposition of these two women’s stories shows how much things have changed — and yet, not really. Julia fussed with her editors and co-authors in pen, or with carbon copies; Julie’s dragons were fought via phone and WiFi. And yet, each of them — childless and searching for a sense of purpose — ultimately found that purpose in relationship to the men who loved them and supported them in good times and bad.

It isn’t often that you get such a moving, honest portrayal of not one but two marriages, both of them happy in their own way. It’s refreshing to see a couple face the dragons together instead of turning them on one another. And I found it interesting that each of these women — though presumably they never met one another — became a kind of nurturing mentor through their literary “children,” and through giving of themselves to friends and family through the simple tools of domesticity: the saucepan, the roaster, and a really good bottle of wine.

When was the last time you made your husband’s taste buds sing?