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Sunday, June 18, 2017

What Makes You an American?

What makes someone an American?  Is it merely American citizenship?  Or is that just a technicality?  What makes anyone associate themselves with a given nation?  I think a given country's culture is what makes that country unique.  This includes history, geography, traditions, food, clothing, religion, music, values, language.

I was born in Poland to Polish citizens.  I'm ethnically Polish (albeit about 75%, per my dna test results!)  I speak Polish and I'm Catholic (which highly correlates with Polishness). On the surface, this makes me Polish.  To boost, I hold dual citizenship, so my European Union passport likewise identifies me as Polish.

But over the years, I've struggled to put my finger on why this simplistic formula just wasn't working for me anymore.  I'm an immigrant, and as such, I'm essentially a cultural transplant.  I started my life on one trajectory, but at age 8, the trajectory of my life changed drastically.  Sadly, it was a much bigger cultural shock than my parents could've prepared me for.  They assumed a Polish-born, Polish-speaking daughter of two Polish-born, Polish-speaking parents would grow up to be - what else? - a Pole (Polka).

Whenever I did anything "Polish", I would be praised for it, in particular by my maternal grandmother.  My letters to her would always be praised, albeit with a grade attached: "You only made X grammatical mistakes, your Polish is still very good!" (Gee, thanks for judging and editing my letters instead of just reading them for pleasure, and for making me feel as though every letter "home" was a test of my Polishness.)

I hate to say it, but even though my parents adopted the United States as their new countr by virtue of moving our little family here (it was just me and my parents when I immigrated here), they never embraced it to the exclusion of our country of origin.  Unbeknownst to them, their Polish daughter was quickly becoming an American teenager, something no expat parent could possibly be prapared for.  I grasped at proverbial straws wherever I could, trying to make sense of the world I was living in, the world I was coming of age in.  My parents weren't able to prepare me for American adulthood - how could they?  They weren't American adults themselves.  Even my dad, who did become a naturalized citizen when I was 14, still only knew what he learned from colleagues and television about American culture and values.

I grew up trying desperately to please my Polish parents/family while at the same time making sense of the often contradictory values I was met with in my American school and among my American peers.  I had no Polish community to fit into, as we settled in an area without a Polish presence.  Now I know that community is crucial.  Humans are social beings.  We must feel that we belong.  One way or another, we will make it so that we feel we are a part of a community, any community.  This is why kids join gangs.  This is why people join cults.  Less extreme, this is why there are cliques, and why sports fans can be each other's mortal enemies.

So where did I belong?  We attended church, but that's just what it was - attendance.  It was not participation.  There was no fellowship.  I never made any friends through our church.  It was in and out, Sunday obligation fulfilled.

My parents worked very hard, so they were very busy.  My younger siblings were born 15 months apart when I was still a "tween", my dad worked overtime or two jobs in addition to a crazy commute, and once my siblings were in school, he and my mom started an alteration business for extra income.

I get that they were concerned about providing for us kids the economic opportunities they didn't think we could've had in Poland.  I cannot know how founded this concern is, because I only know life here.  But money was a big deal.  Making it, saving it, being very selective when it came time to spending it.  The assumption was made that the ticket to a happy life is a certain socio-economic status, and the higher one's formal education, the better one's chances at said status.

I'm a pretty literal person.  I set my sights on something and I'm not easily swayed to reconsider.  And so, having heard from my family that education is crucial, and since I was a pretty good student and - as an introvert - enjoyed studying, I took it upon myself to pursue a doctoral degree as my life's mission.  All because I simply assumed that having a PhD would mean employers would seek me out and offer me work.  It took many years of higher education - five years on top of my Master's Degree - to finally come to terms with the reality.  The truth was, there was nothing magical about a doctoral degree.  There was no guarantee of employment upon defending a dissertation, and even my own college professors were making no more annually than my dad, who did not have a college degree of any kind.

I withdrew from my doctoral program after many sleepless nights, lots of tears, and facing a total loss of identity.  Up until that point, I was the good little Polish daughter who would be "Dr. Karolina".  In fact, when we visited my grandmother and godmother in Poland shortly before I made the decision to quit my PhD program, I received gifts and congratulatory cards on account of the degree I didn't even have!  It was just assumed that I would follow this trajectory.  That was a lot of pressure, because what did I have to fall back on?  Absolutely nothing.

Being done with higher education after 11 years of post-secondary schooling was the beginning of the end of my primary association with the nationality of my birth.  By then, I had changed my name to my mother's because it was typically Polish.  When we became parents several years later, there was never any question I would speak Polish to my kids, but even choosing a baby name included considering if Polish-speakers could spell and pronounce it.  I was going to raise Polish kids.

And then, I started parenting.  And while I do speak Polish to my kids, when it was time to name our second, I was already disillusioned enough with the Polish aspect of my identity to not let that determine what we would name our son.

What was holding me back before?  On some level, I was still trying to please my Polish parents and relatives.  I was still trying to prove that I was Polish enough.  I was still trying to live up to an impossible standard.  I could no more claim 100% Polish identity than I could claim any other nationality.  Except American.  At one point in recent years, I thought I had figured it out.  I wasn't 50/50, I was 100% Polish AND 100% American.  But now I see that this was merely wishful thinking.  The truth is, I AM 100% American.  By virtue of my citizenship.  By virtue of my English fluency.  By virtue of my having served in the US Army.  By virtue of my understanding and appreciation of various (though not all - still learning!) American traditions and passtimes.

But I am no longer any more Polish than other Polish-Americans.  I used to differentiate between Polish-Americans and Polish expats like myself.  I followed my relatives' cues in judging myself to be more Polish than them. I no longer deem my language ability as some sort of secret handshake that gives me the priviledge of Polish idetity.  Nationality is circumstantial.  There is no reason to boast of one's national identity.  No nationality is any better than any other one.  I thought I believed this when I would call myself a global citizen, but really, before I was more like a nomad with no home base.  NOW I can truly call myself a global citizen.  An American, first, but with international ties and interests.

  What makes YOU an American?

Monday, May 29, 2017

10 Commandments of Parenting


1. "I am the Lord, thy God.  You shall not have other gods before me."

Our children are not the center of the universe, although it may certainly feel like this sometimes, especially in the beginning, especially with your first or only child.  You are not only not honoring God if you allow your relationship with your kids to take precedence, but you are also not doing your kids any favors.  How can we teach our children to live a Christ-centered life if we place them at the center of our own lives?

2. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain."

When speaking about God, show the proper respect.  In our family, this meant making a conscious effort to quit talking about Jesus as if He were our buddy.  We fell into the trap of "Jesus is my homey" and would refer to him as "J.C." (short for Jesus Christ).  When I think about it now, I'm appalled on one hand at the audacity of this practice, and embarassed on the other hand. Once we started to discuss religious topics around our preschooler, it quickly became apparent that we had to stop trying to make Jesus into something He wasn't, and give Him the proper respect He deserves.

3. "Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day."

Take your kids to Mass every Sunday.  Teach them how to behave during Mass from the time they are little.  I do not like the practice of "kids' church", where the little kids are taken out of the sanctuary to be given an age-appropriate religious lesson on that day's readings.  I like the ide of the lesson, and would certainly support it before or after Mass, but Mass is Mass.  Our Eucharistic Lord is not present in the religious ed class.  In some churches, children are only taken out during the Liturgy of the Word, and brought back in time for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  But even then, there is a disconnect between the flow of the Mass.

Cry rooms, depending on how they are set up and utilized by the faithful, can be both positive and negative.  Positive because they allow young babies to be nursed or even have their diaper changed.  In churches where there are no cry rooms and a baby needs to be changed, the restroom tends to not have a speaker installed, and so the parent ends up missing part of the Mass that she or he could've still heard if there had been an appropriately set up cry room.  That said, some families take the cry room to mean a place to go hang out and let the kids play, rather than a place to still try to teach young kids proper behavior, but allow for more wiggling and noises that are natural to the young child without interrupting the larger congregation.

4. "Honor your mother and your father."

Model by example.  Honor your own parents and never speak ill of them in front of your kids.  But also, remember that respect is a two-way street.  You must respect your child as a human being, if you expect them to learn to respect you in turn.  Many parents treat their children as mere dolls, waiting for some magic day when all of a sudden (perhaps as they approach adolescence!) they can be given choices or asked for their opinion.  Of course, we are still the parents, but it doesn't mean we can't include our (even young) children in our decision-making process.

5. "Thou shalt not kill."

It is so sad that we live in a world where this has to be said, but here goes.  Don't have an abortion.  You can sugar coat it all you want, but that little life growing inside you is a human baby, no question about it.  There may be secular arguments for why your life is more important than that baby's, but let's not pretend that we're dealing with "a mass of tissue" when you can clearly see movement and hear a heart beating on sonogram.  Phew.

That said, more subtle ways to follow this commandment include avoiding lashing out in anger.  Don't kill your kids' spirit.  Don't crush their dreams.  Don't stifle their imagination.  Be life-giving in your approach to parenting.

6. "Thou shall not commit adultery."

First, honor your own marital vows.  Cheating on one's spouse betrays not only the spouse's trust, but the children's as well.  It creates chaos and anxiety and resentment where there should be peace, trust, and comfort.

Also, teach your children about the proper place for sex.  Don't treat sex as a taboo subject, as that will only backfire.  Sex is good, so long as it's in the correct context.  It's your job as parents to teach your kids this fact.

7. "Thou shall not steal."

Don't steal time away from your children.  Your job, your hobbies, your social life - none of these ought to be more important than time spent with your children.  It may mean taking a pay cut.  It may mean passing on a promotion.  It may involve some creative lifestyle changes.  Also, putting your kids in so many extracurricular activities that they don't have time to relax or spend time with you is also on you.

8.  "Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

I think we can all agree that the broader meaning of "don't lie" applies here.  And if we are to not lie to our neighbor, we must realize that our children are included in this category!  Don't lie to your kids.  I'm not talking about avoiding the subject so as not to ruin a surprise birthday party.  I'm talking big stuff.  Otherwise honest people may feel perfectly justified in lying outright to their own children. A rather big and obvious example: if you adopted your kids, for instance, they deserve to know the truth.  How can you expect to raise honest children if you allow yourself to be dishonest?

9. "Thou shall not covet your neighbor's spouse."

Similar to the sixth commandment, lead by example, but also teach outright.  Your children will see if you are flirting with someone or lustfully commenting on a celebrity to a friend.  This is a good place to mention modesty of dress, also.  I recently heard modesty defined as "humility in a nice, occasion-appropriate outfit."  So teach your kids humility (including modesty, as an extension of humility as a whole), both by modeling it and explaining why certain outfits or activities are not allowed in your household. (Unchaperoned co-ed slumber parties at a house with a pool come to mind...)

10.  "Thou shall not covet anything else belonging to your neighbor."

In other words, don't entertain envy and jealousy.  Don't let your kids hear you comparing yourselves with the proverbial Joneses. And if you hear your kids doing it, nip that in the bud as well.  Practice gratitude instead.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

About the Moment of Death

Death is not scary.  The actual moment of death really is no different from falling asleep, even though that's not what we're supposed to tell kids about death, as it may confuse them about the permanency of death.  And yet... for believers, death really isn't permanent at all, is it?  It's a birth into eternal life. 
 
Three weeks ago, we had to euthenize our dog.  That day marked the end of a 9 year era for us as "pet parents".  Our dog, Bigosia, got very sick very quickly, and we didn't have much time to process what was happening or what we ought to do.  The day we had her xrays done to confirm a large growth that had been interfering with her eating and breathing, we knew that one way or another, we had to make a decision quickly, within the week.  We couldn't make her suffer any longer.

All four of us were there with her as she passed onto the other side.  I remember petting her on the bridge of her nose, softly encouraging her to lay down, saying "get comfortable, baby".  She was calm.  Just that, she was calm.  No deep penetrating looks trying to tell me something.  No trying to remove herself from the situation.  She was calm.  Peaceful.  Weather she knew her pain was about to be gone for good, I don't know.  But she certainly didn't fear dying.  And she seemed no different to me after the vet confirmed that her heart had stopped beating and she was "gone".  I was so used to seeing her just lying around, keeping to herself.  I'd approach her and pet her at my leisure, and she often wouldn't stir, so this was no different.  

Five years ago, I approach another loved one's deceased body - my best friend Rachel, at her viewing.  It was four days after she died, so I suppose her body had been embalmed.  I noticed several things as I stood over her open casket to say my last goodbye.  One - they really caked on her makeup! Two - she had her hair straight and cut, a newer style to the one I preferred, the one I always image her with - long and curly.  Three - she was not in that casket.  Standing over Rachel's body, I remember realizing that my best friend was being housed in that body, transported in it, but she was not bound to it.  On some gut level, I knew that what made her Rachel was that je ne sais quoi that could only be described as "that which animated her body" - her spirit, her soul.  That realization gave me closure, even though her death was unexpected.

I wasn't present at the exact moment of my great-grandmother's death, but I was there just minutes before, and minutes after.  I had just stepped into the bathroom to wash my hair when she died.  I was drying my hair when I heard my grandmother talking to her mom and, upon not getting a response, starting to wail.  I knew even before she reached the bathroom door to tell me that Babcia Bronia had passed on.  I remember being very calm about it.  Sad, but calm.  Earlier in the day, I watched my great-grandmother as she lay on her bed in the large kitchen, where she had been living to ease getting to and from the one bathroom in the house.  She was on her back, and she was stretching out her arms above her, with a gentle grin on her face.  She was clearly reaching towards something - or someone - that only she could see.  As soon as I knew she had died, I knew that she had known she was dying.  Not in the prolonged illness, my time is approaching kind of way, but in the "that's my name, gotta go!" kind of way.  She was a devoted Catholic, and she died on the 8th of September, Mary's birthday.  So we suspect that she was reaching out to the birthday girl, ehem, Queen of Heaven, thrilled to have been called home on such a day.

In the hour or so following her death, before the funeral home people came to take her body, I helped my grandmother and grandfather dress her in the funeral clothes Babcia Bronia had picked out for herself ahead of time.  Before she died, her daughter/my grandmother had shown me the neatly folded outfit in her dresser.  Babcia Bronia had packed for a trip, essentially!  She packed light - she only wanted to wear a black dress with white ruffles.  She knew she didn't need anything else.  Anyway, the three of us liften her into a seating position to take off her nightgown and put on her funeral dress.  I will never forget the shock I felt when she sat up.  A gaspy noise came out of her mouth.  For a split second, I thought she was back!  Later I'd learn that it's normal for the last remnants of air to escape from the body after death, thereby making sounds.  In fact, when we were preparing for our beloved dog Bigosia's "big moment", the vet also mentioned the possibility of some unexpected - well, she actually mentioned liquids coming out, but luckily no such thing happened.

And so I'm back to my original observation.  Death itself is nothing to fear.  Instead, it's all the trauma that often leads up to death that can be scary, painful, and confusing.  And of course, the loss and grief that is felt by the loved ones left behind is the other unpleasant aspect of death.  But the actual moment of death?  Nah, that's just a transition.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Happy homecoming anniversary, Fernando!

(photos forthcoming)

A year ago, we had our fourth and last embryo transfer.  First transfer of two blastocysts on the 11th anniversary of daddy and I meeting, resulted in a week-long pregnancy followed by a chemical loss.  Second transfer of two blastocysts, about four months later, resulted in a "BFN" - big fat negative (pregnancy test). Third transfer of two blastocysts from a second batch resulted in our miracle 3 year old daughter, your genetic sister Maya. And our last transfer was also planned for two blastocysts, but only one survived the thaw.  That last little embryo was you Fernandito!

Just like with your sister three years earlier, daddy had to wait across the hall while I went in for transfer.  My bladder was bursting and I was certain that I would pee on the doctor, for which I wouldn't have felt bad since he made me drink twice the recommended amount of water and then had me wait on the transfer bed.  I walked on the wild side this time, and secretly took a photo of myself just before transfer.  (What'd you think I was going to say?  I videotaped the transfer?  I wish! Our first two transfers were videotaped, but alas that's irrelevant to you, I guess.)  Luckily this time I wasn't made to lay there for 30 minutes, so I was up and with daddy and Maya in no time.

We had made the whole trip into a family vacation.  We visited my brother and his family, Alex's grandpa and some cousins, aunts and uncles, and we managed a quick day trip to the beach the day before transfer.  I squeezed in an acupuncture session on the morning of the transfer, just in case it would help.  It certainly helped me relax and put me in the right frame of mind, if nothing else.

As we were leaving the hospital after transfer, we had someone take a lovely photo of us - first photo of us as a family of four!  I knew that no matter what, this was the last time I was undergoing any sort of fertility treatment, and all that was left was to find out what the good Lord had in mind for the future of our family.

I'm not sure what to think of the embryo that didn't get transferred.  All of the other embryos we "adopted" were in my body for however brief a moment in time.  I sort of thought of them as little angel companions for each other, especially for my Maya.  But Fernando, you were in there all alone.  So silly how the mind can weave crazy stories out of nothing.

Your batch of four embryos, I called the Franciscans, after the newly elected Pope Francis.  Maya's companion embryo I named Raquelita after my late best friend, Rachel.  We called Maya "Dee or Dino", alternating months during the pregnancy, since we weren't finding out her sex until after birth.  Your would-be companion embryo I named Francis.  We found out you were a boy in mid-pregnancy, at which point we started to think of names.  We had decided not to name you the boy names we had prepared three years earlier when expecting Maya. You were not some fantasy but a real boy, our son, and everything had to be reset.  Until then, you were a "Franciscan" ;)

I'm going to go ahead and put it out there, though I went back and forth about it.... I started to suspect right after your transfer that you may receive a calling to the priesthood.  (Since we're Catholic, this also meant that I suspected you were a boy!)  You see, after your sister was born and we moved to a new state, I became distant in my faith for a long time.  I had all but given up being able to recapture that sense of spirituality going into your embryo transfer.  Literally within days, I felt something spiritual.  I cannot explain what it was, because it wasn't anything concrete.  I just felt God's presence, I guess.  For the first time in years, I felt hope that I may one day truly "be Catholic" again.

I had a terrible first trimester as far as nausea and prenatal depression.  It was so bad that I had to request prescription medication, because the ginger root tea that finally helped when I was pregnant with Maya only made things worse this time!  I was thinking all sorts of nonesense about my lack of worth and I dreaded the idea of being responsible for two small children. I tried to sleep most of the time to avoid facing these thoughts.  But two Sundays in a row, before and after we moved into the house where you were born, the nausea and depression let up, to the point that I felt well enough to pack and move some of our stuff the first time it happened, and to unpack and put some things away the second time it happened.

Because these were Sundays, I again thought this was a sign of a possible religious vocation for you.  Whether or not the Lord calls you to the priesthood or not, He clearly called you to help bring me back to the faith!  I went on a spiritual retreat while pregnant with you, which helped tremendously in edging me in the right direction (namely, towards God).  As I write this, I am in my third week of spiritual direction, and I have started to call Jesus my friend.

In one of your sonograms, you resemble your sister Maya.  It is most uncanny, the lip and chin area in particular.  With Maya, I didn't think she looked anything like her sonos, but with you, wow!  I hope that you and Maya will be very close friends and are able to find comfort in each other's shared journey as donor conceived adoptees.  I have been working on locating your genetic family, in case you or Maya ever want more information about your genetic roots.  The Lord even put in my life a lady at our church who loves doing geneology and who has been working on your genetic family tree for many months.  I was also able to get a little more information from the clinic where your and Maya's embryos were stored, which has been a great joy to me, and I'm hoping it can help us locate your and Maya's three older genetic siblings, if not your donors as well.

So Fernando, thank you for showing me that just when I thought my heart couldn't possibly grow to accomodate loving another child as much as I love Maya, you proved me wrong!  My heart has been cloned, and each of you have their own mommy-heart in my chest.  I don't know how else to describe it.  I love you, and I'm so very happy that you're here and we're all together as a family now!


Friday, January 6, 2017

Affirmative Ten Commandments

I don't know about you, but I always find it easier to apply affirmative directives instead of negative ones.  For one thing, when we hear "don't do X", we still hear the forbidden "X", and subconsciously we nonetheless focus on that which we are supposed to be avoiding.  Also, abstaining from doing something is not the same as doing the opposite.

When it comes to the 10 Commandments, I've always thought that perhaps linguistics is where Moses went wrong.  (I know, it'd be way too easy if all it took for world peace is to change the focus of how the 10 Commandments are written.)  At any rate, I've decided to give it a try myself, so that when I'm going over them in preparation for the sacrament of reconciliation, for instance, I'm better challenged to grow in character instead of just checking off all the ways I'm not failing God!

So without further ado, here are the 10 Commandments, as I understand them, that go beyond just what not to do, and instead note what we are to do instead.

1. Remember Who made you; therefore worship God alone, prioritizing Him above all else.  (Two ways to do this follow.)
2. When you speak about God, do so with respect.
3. Every week, set aside time to honor God.
4. Honor our parents as God's co-creators; know your place and hence be humble.
5. Safeguard life; be a steward of it.
6. Be chaste.
7. Share what you have with others.
8. Be honest and trustworthy.
9. Be modest.
10. Be content with what you've got.

A bit of commentary on the above.  The first three commandments I think are self-explanatory, as they already appear in the affirmative on the original templates.  The only observation I've made here is that commandments 2 & 3 are examples of 1.

The fourth commandment is also in the affirmative, but I've always found it confusing how to apply it to my life as an adult child of my parents.  I think when looking at my parents in the grand scheme of things, I'm reminded of my place in the pecking order, which should lead to an attitude of humility in life in general.

The fifth commandment I found a bit passe.  I mean, don't murder, really?  I would think in this day and age, this sort of goes without saying.  People of course ignore it, but not because they're confused about whether they should or shouldn't take life.  I am always tempted to skim right over this one as I do my examination of conscience, bc of course I haven't killed anyone.  But when looked at through a life-affirming lense, ah, now I'm a lot more challenged.  Do I build people up or shut them down? And what about other creatures of God?  I do not give life, not to animals or plants, and not to people (even my own children); I merely assist at best.  So it should go without saying that I can't take that life.  But do I look the other way when others take life into their own hands?  Or do I stand on the side of God, trying to safeguard it?

The sixth and ninth commandments always confused me because I didn't understand why there needed to be two commandments that essentially say the same thing.  Do not commit adultery, and do not covet your neighbor's wife (or husband, though if you want to be a literalist, us women appear to be getting a free pass on this one ;) ).  I get that one is physical action and the other is thought, but is that really sufficient enough difference?  But when looked at as what we ought to be doing instead - being chaste and modest, all of a sudden I understand the difference.  Chastity has to do with our actions when it comes to our sexuality.  We are to keep sexual intimacy inside the marriage covenant.  That is the definition of chastity.  So if we're not married, no sex.  If we are married, sex only with our spouse.  Easy enough.  But then modesty is a lot more nuanced.  It's in our dress, our demeanor, in our sense of humor, our entertainment, our words.  Do we tempt others towards unchastity by our immodesty?  Or do we do our part to safeguard marital sexuality?

The seventh and tenth commandments also gave me trouble over the years.  Again, I thought they were saying the same thing.  Don't steal, and don't covet.  Instead, go beyond merely not taking what doesn't belong to you (because sometimes this is actually up for debate), and share whatever you do have.   That way, there's no question that you're not stealing because your focus is on how you can share what you have instead of how others ought to share with you.  And then there's the coveting. That leads to envy, jealousy, and all around a nasty selfish attitude, as you think about all the things you don't have instead of counting your blessings.  Instead, be content, ie. count your blessings!

Finally, the eight commandment has to do with honesty, and here too I think we can grow so much more if we live our lives focusing on integrity and authenticity instead of just not telling any lies.  We lie with much more than our words.  Omissions can be lies.  Disingeniousness can be lies.  The way we present ourselves in life can be a lie - putting on a facade to try to impress others.  There's no truth in that.  But we can still glaze over this commandment and say we don't technically tell any lies, so we're all good.  No, we're not.  That's just not good enough.  Be honest and trustworthy.  There's the goal of this commandment.

So I plan on looking to this version of the 10 commandments from now on as I try to improve as a human being.  Maybe it can help someone else as well.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Theme for New Year 2017: Self-Improvement

I used to make a laundry list of New Year's resolutions.  After keeping and reviewing my sheets of paper, I realized that all I was doing was listing what I wish I were accomplishing, and just rolling it over from year to year whenever it didn't happen the previous year.  I didn't actually have any specific plan in place to bring my "resolutions" to fruitition.  So I stopped making resolutions.

Recently I read about an alternative that piqued my interest.  In lieu of specific things to check off a list, some people think of a term or phrase to help them guide their overall approach to the year.  A theme, so to speak.  Almost immediatly I knew 1) that I wanted to try this, and 2) that my theme for 2017 would be "self-improvement".  This idea probably appeals to me in large part because of its minimalistic approach.  The goal is not what follows; the goal is "self-improvement".  It's a very subjective goal, but then, I'm only accountable to myself, so why not?

I have several areas of my life where I have specific action plans in mind to reach the overall goal of self-improvement.

Spirituality.
In February, I hope to start meeting with a spiritual director.  I'm waiting for February because a couple of women from my church are being certified in January, and I hope to start meeting with one of them.

Since August, I've been going to monthly Confession.  Similar to broken resolutions, I've noticed that I tend to confess the same sins over and over again, which has helped me isolate some underlying problems that need to be addressed.

Daily prayer and Scripture reading. I was doing pretty well until my son was born.  As could be expected, having a newborn and a preschooler has thrown me off my game.  First thing in the morning was working well for me, but I'm squeezing in as much sleep as I can right now to help ward off postpartum depression and anxiety, which debilitated me for months after my daughter's birth.  And when I get some alone time in the evenings, I'll be honest, I feel like I should use at least some of that time to pray, but I don't.  So this is definitely an area in need of improvement for 2017.

We do pray together every bedtime as a family, and I've tried to pray the Guardian Angel prayer in the mornings with my daughter, and the Angelus at noon.  So we'll want to solidify these practices.

On a positive note, though, when the PTSD-style thoughts creep into my mind, I immediately call on the name of Jesus to push the enemy away.  And you know what?  It works!  So I suppose these count as spontaneous prayers, scattered throughout the day.

Retreat.  I'm not sure I'll be able to swing an overnight weekend retreat this year, as Fernando will only be 9 months old for the women's retreat through my church, and a year old for the silent retreat through my alma mater, and I'm not sure what our nursing status will be by then.  Though I am certainly hoping to not be nursing at night by then, but we'll see.

Beauty
I've been slowly revamping my wardrobe.  With minimalism as my guiding light, and keeping femininity and modesty at the forefront. The idea is to have only items that I love, that fit me, and that go with more than one other thing.  My color scheme is neutral, so black, white, gray, brown, beige.  I am on a mission to find some solid colored tunics, or mini-dresses that I'd wear as tops, as well as a couple more maxi skirts.

My skin routine seems to have to change as I no longer have oily skin but rather combination.  So I'm in need of a new cleanser.  I think for moisturizer I will stick with the shea butter I got for my daughter last year.

I do want to have a bit of makeup on hand for going out, as eye liner in particular makes me feel more confident and, well, pretty :)  So I'll need to find something with natural ingredients.

I'm due for a new pair of glasses, and I think I'm done trying to get frames that are as inconspicuous as possible.  I think I want to go bold for a change! All around red frames, maybe?  This may end up less expensive as well, since I've been paying for the glass to be treated so as not to be as visible on the bottom, where I don't have a frame.

Exercise.  I suppose this should be in a category of health, but I'm being real here.  I want to lose the rest of my pregnancy weight and get my pre-pregnancy abs back, not because it'll mean I'm healthy, but because it'll make me feel confident and, well, pretty again ;)

Emotional Health.
Basically, I want to deal with my mommy issues with the help of a therapist so I can be a better mom to my kids.

But also, as mentioned above, I'm actively warding off postpartum depression and anxiety.  I refuse to succumb to it again.


I think that covers what I think of when I'm thinking of self-improvement.  So there it is, out there in the virtual world, hopefully to keep me accountable, so that this time next year, I can post about my successes :)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Holiness, Not Perfection

I have been spending my time on my parenting blog lately because I felt I had said all there was to say for now about my spiritual journey, because I was much more vested in my parenting, and because I had considered merging the two blogs together.  This last point remains unresolved.

As for the other two points, I have come to realize that my spiritual drama, as recorded in the posts on this blog, was in no small way affected by my serious postpartum anxiety and depression.  As it turns out, I had several risk factors for PPD, but due to the early breastfeeding... challenges, shall we say, it went undiagnosed during my postpartum midwife visits.

For starters, I had an awful time getting breastfeeding started with my daughter.  Painful latch due to her being small (5#10oz) and having a low palate (read: I'd have to get the nipple down her throat to avoid it being munched on), resulting nipple damage (as in, piece of skin hanging off and blood trickling down), resulting in mastisis and yeast and breast abscesses needing drainage (twice), leading to the need to supplement with formula, which my idealistic personality did not take lightly ("I'm such a failure for not being able to fully nourish my child!")

Once breastfeeding finally started to get better, we sold our house and moved out of state.  Not only was the move itself stressful (just because that comes with the territory, not because of anything in particular), but also because it meant a new place and environment (I hate change and am very slow to adapt and adjust), and social isolation (because I didn't know anyone, but also because I was exhausted from pouring myself into my new role as mother, unable to tolerate my daughter's cries.)

As I look back, this went on for months - six or seven, to be exact - before life started to gain a new normal and I finally began to have tiny pockets of time for myself that allowed me to think.  And when this happened, I realized that I hadn't been nourshing my relationship with God, and I just lost any sort of connection to the strong faith I thought I had when my daughter was born.

I have met a friend who has experienced something similar.  She used to be religious, or at least spiritual, but after the birth of her son, she has been completely blase about the whole thing.  There's so much talk about people turning TO God after having a child, but to this day I can't find much information about the opposite phenomenon.

Long story short, I now see that my loss of faith was one of the casualties of my postpartum depression and anxiety.  My daughter is now 3 years old, and it's only been about 4 months that I've felt at home again calling myself a practicing Catholic.  The final push in the right direction happened at a spiritual retreat.  I have received the Sacrament of Reconciliation every month since the retreat.  I prayed daily until about 6 weeks ago, when my son was born, at which time prayer became much more sporadic, but is slowly finding its way back into my routine.  I started enjoying the emailed readings of the day associated with daily mass (I had been signed up for years, but had been ignoring them).  Mass stopped being a routine and became a joy again.

The thing I feared most during my "spiritually independent/Deist/Quaker-Reform Jew-wannabe" time is challenging my faith in a good way, it seems.  I'm having to start explaining the basics of our Catholic faith to my daughter, and it's forcing me to truly consider what I believe - as a Catholic - and why, and how to best articulate it to her.

Am I back to where I was three years ago, spiritually?  No.  But interestingly, we went to our old Franciscan parish for Christmas Eve Mass last night, and both Alex and I agreed that we missed our current church!  I was adamant when we moved that we'd never find another church community like Saint Francis, where our daughter was baptized.  I have very fond memories of our time there.  But now I see we have both grown in interesting ways and no longer thrive in a church that focuses on community fellowship.  Instead, at our current church (OLPH), there's the community, but there's something much more meaningful at the center of it - a holy priest who sets the stage for a reverent Mass.  It's a New Order Mass, and yet Fr. Erik manages to keep the occasion solemn yet joyful.  His entire demeanor  points to Our Lord in the Eucharist.  He comments on the Mass, going off script.  He pauses  and kneels in front of the Tabernacle after Communion as the choir sings a "Communion Medidation".  He speaks directly to us, the people, about what the Lord is revealing to him in his private prayer time.  You can tell that this man spends time with the Lord, that he takes his calling seriously, and that he has a genuine love for the people God has entrusted him with.  I love Fr. Erik, and I credit "his Masses" to keeping my interest piqued while I attended merely out of obligation or tradition.

At any rate, I am Catholic, but it doesn't mean I necessarily agree with everything that is taught "top-down".  Nonetheless, I respect the reasons behind all the church teachings, and I certainly take them into consideration.  What's more, I wrestle with things I disagree with and try to challenge myself as to why I disagree.  Why do I give more credit to societal views over church teaching?  Am I that much of the world that I value what's "PC" over what's being faithful to the church of God?  Perhaps there are things I don't need to agree with, or undersand.  I try to focus on those areas of Catholicism that bring me joy, that help me grow into a better person, and figure the rest may be there for others.  Because there's something for everyone in the Catholic church.

Turns out that the Catholic church - like me - may be striving for holiness, not perfection.