Wednesday, March 30, 2011


     I took a “day off” and attended a Lenten Retreat last week. Dr. Edward Sri, theologian, author and former professor of our oldest daughter, spoke on Love and Marriage. He's a great speaker and even had Susanna and her two teenage friends laughing and thinking hard. I sat with the wife of Bruce’s former boss. We hadn't seen each other in a few years; Bruce and I have had two more children since then, so it was fun catching up. She said to me, "That's hard, managing so many children and a home! You must be so organized!"
      Uh--yes and no. Yes, it is challenging to manage so many people and things. No, I am not so well organized. I want to be! It is one of my goals in life. I told her that I was always a "fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants" kind of person. It worked with two children, but when I married Bruce and our family instantly doubled, I had to change. I am still adapting, and I am no expert. Ben’s Kindergarten teacher would laugh if she heard my friend’s remark. I think whole trees have been ripped from the Rain Forest, because of all the reminder notes she’s had to send home to me. Ben manages to get out the door some days wearing pants with holes in the knees, and shirts on backward to school. Maybe I’m his teacher’s comic relief for the day.

     I have read nearly a dozen books on time management, scheduling and organization.  I combine elements from each of the books for a system that works for me; theoretically, that is, because I’m still trying and tweaking. One book that helped a lot was recommended by my brother Al-- “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity ” by David Allen. His system and ideas helped more than any other with the mountains of mail that come into the house. He helps high powered executives and businessmen but his ideas are adaptable to any person.
      Dave Ramsey has a radio show and has authored books on financial management. He focuses on a cash-based budget, getting out of debt, being wise with purchases, and then building savings. There are seminars, "Financial Peace University," usually at local churches; Google the one nearest you. Phil Lenahan has a similar program. I highly recommend either course, especially for college age people just starting out, so that bad habits never take hold. Both men are Christians and use Biblical principles in their philosophies.
     I was really impressed with Julie Morgenstern’s “Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule—and Your Life.”   She helps with clarification of goals, permission to purge some unattainable or unrealistic goals, and the development of a “Time Map.” The latter sounds better than “schedule” and it is. It encourages you to concentrate on the top three actions per goal and to work them into your time map. The time map can be detailed or fairly unstructured depending on your style or job. I liked the book a lot.
     My Mother-in-law gave me “Organizing Plain & Simple” by Donna Smallin. This is a great quick-reference with very useful tips for every room in the house, with sections on finances and personal scheduling. I refer to it a lot and it has cute and colorful graphics that appeal to me (that may not make a difference to some, but it can encourage me to dive in more readily).
     “Eliminate Chaos: The 10-Step Process to Organize Your Home & Life” by Laura Leist is a very attractive book. It reminds me of the shows on TLC where people organize somebody’s home in a few days. There are before and after pictures with some really good explanations and ideas. I love the photography. It reminds me of a coffee-table book, but with lots of self-help information.
     Geared a bit more toward stay-at-home Moms is an older book, “Sidetracked Home Executives: From Pigpen to Paradise” by sisters Pam Young and Peggy Jones. This one’s a funny read. Their system for organizing and cleaning the home is very helpful, though somewhat antiquated. Their motto: “We Change Lives with Three-by-Five’s” needs a little updating in this new world of computer technology. Not that pen and paper doesn’t work; in fact, physical, tangible 3X5 cards may be the best solution for some. I do use them with the teens and our weekly house-cleaning. Nowadays, though, I’d imagine many people would prefer something on a computer or palm device. I finally made the switch from a paper/calendar based system to my iPhone (so far, so good, and now I’m investigating all sorts of  Productivity Apps!).  Marla Cilley, the “Fly Lady,” was inspired by these sisters and their system. She tweaked it into a portable "office-in-a-bag," a 3-ring binder in a carrier, and shares that system in her book “Sink Reflections.”  You can learn more about it on
     Six years ago I read a book by a homeschooling Mom of eight children. “Managers of Their Homes,” by Teri Maxwell is an amazing compilation of schedules of dozens of homeschooling Moms who tried Teri’s system of evaluating the goals and activities of each family member, and combining them on a wall-sized chart. I made the chart. Each person had their individual colored paper. I sticky-tacked it all up in our school room (I homeschooled Marie and Susanna at the time) and gave it a good try. I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me. We had three more babies in quick succession. Our lives did not allow for any extended maintenance period, ours was repeatedly adaption and evaluation. There were too many revisions required—or maybe just not enough colors!
     Holly Pierlot’s book, “A Mother’s Rule of Life” encourages the reader to look at the schedule in a more sacred way . Orders of religious people, like the Benedictine Monks, have a code or a “Rule” to live by. Holly helps the reader to develop a "Rule" for her family, and discern how her priorities fit in line with the goal of living a holy life centered on Christ. The family schedule becomes a beautiful dance of worship (well, maybe not quite so beautiful in our house, but I try). I have reread the book several times and attended two extended Bible Studies on it. I’m not a complete failure, though it is at times disheartening to read notes to myself dated 2005, 2007, 2009 and realize I haven’t quite gotten on top of it all yet. To perhaps feel better I tell myself that Holly had five children and I have ten…so it makes sense that it's doubly hard for me! Right?

     We make our choices. This is the life Bruce and I love, even with the challenges of my lack of organization. We each need to find what works for us, whether we live in an apartment or a house, a suburb or a farm, and have one child or ten!  I’ll keep at it. I joke that I’ll finally have it mastered when I’m eighty. Most importantly, our children need to know they have a Mom and Dad who love them-- even if they do get out the door with holey pants and backward shirts.

God bless us all in organizing the life we’ve been given.
The Abbey Farm

Friday, March 11, 2011

What A Hug Is Worth

     I am conscious of how much television viewing goes on in our house. We have limits. “Family Movie Night” I wouldn't sacrifice. A couple Fridays back the kids had a snow-day and to tell the truth, when Bruce walked in the door I really wanted to escape upstairs for a break with a book and a cup of tea. But like the runner who says, "I'll just make it to that tree” or mile marker or other such goal, I knew I'd get dinner finished, and then consider my quiet exit. We cleaned up the dishes after the meal. I decided to wait again, and instead had a cup of coffee with Bruce.
     I felt my legs aching, my brain was over-full. I did want to lie down. At that moment Max, who had helped me make dinner, wrapped his arms around me, smiled and said he wanted more time with me tomorrow and, “Oooh, how about a Family Movie Night?”
     I couldn’t say no. "Ponyo" was the choice. What a very sweet movie. My children love it and I have seen bits and pieces overtime to add up to at least one full viewing. Their faces were so adorable watching it, their comments so delectable. Bruce had Margaret on his lap, dipping tortilla chips into the salsa he‘d brought in. He worked hard to keep hold of the cup of coffee I spiked with Irish Mist (to his surprise and delight). Mary Pat's G-tube pump was providing her meal and her contented tummy allowed her to focus on the animation on-screen. She smiled and giggled.
     These are the moments I treasure. They will be memories all- too-soon. They sustain me in the hard times (like earlier that day when I thought I couldn't take one more tantrum or loud outburst). Parenting is hard work. Did anyone teach us it was otherwise? I read a great post on Elizabeth Scalia's blog, "The Anchoress," on how our culture has perpetuated an adolescent mindset of self-centeredness and self-justice. I have witnessed this in a few of my contemporaries. The phrases like "I've finally got my life back," as the youngest child enters college, or "As soon as they're eighteen they're outa’ here!" support my observation that we've become just too self-centered. Our children are with us for a finite amount of time. I don't wish it to be cut shorter. There will be a day when I don't have a little one in the house. It is difficult with six children under eight, one with special needs. I do at times consider the day when they'll be older and things will be a little easier and I'll be able to get more done. But truly, I don't wish these days away.
     The sweet moments I do treasure. I've had enough now with snow days and being cooped up and racking my brain to come up with one more activity, one more creative solution to a conflict. I respect my homeschooling friends. They're so well structured that all this is built into their days, and I do feel their children are remarkably "immediately-obedient." But if the snow hadn't caused the school closing, I wouldn't have been stretched a bit--and I also wouldn't have had the good moments that happened because of it. Max wouldn't have made seafood chowder with me, I wouldn't have seen his impressive drawings, we wouldn't have made oatmeal raisin cookies for Daddy, and more.
     I have suffered loss in my life. When I was five I lost a brother I desperately wanted when he was stillborn. I lost my father in early adulthood, a husband to divorce, a husband to sudden death, my mother right after, my nieces in a tragic tornado the same year as my mother, and within a decade my two fathers-in-law and beloved mother-in-law. I know very well that life is finite, sometimes very, very short. Every life is precious.
      When I whine and cry about not enough of this or too much of that, I remind myself that every day is a gift. I once had a vision of wrapping up my day in an imaginary box at night and giving it back to the Lord in prayer. It was his day to begin with; I hopefully started it with the intention in mind of pleasing him, so it seemed fitting to give it back to him. I think He even wants the crummy stuff back--even my outbursts and mistakes, my omissions and should-haves. He forgives a contrite heart. I try to remember this when I’m dealing with my children. They want to please and to do better. Max suddenly hugged me at the end of the movie when the little boy finds his mother. It was the best moment of the day.
     I forgive his mistakes and trouble listening. We’re pretty consistent with expectations, consequences and rewards, so I know he’s learning. Would I love it if he “got it” a lot sooner? Absolutely. But he will “get it” in time--as I will. We are all works in progress. Max’s hug was worth a million bucks: a special ribbon on my gift back to God. A sweet memory to sustain me throughout the more challenging times on earth. I’ll not forget it. It was better than any quiet time upstairs with a book and a cup of tea.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Love

     I love March. It's the month of my birthday. Jim will turn 3(!) and I will turn 48(!!). My brother plays poker with some old friends from our high school; they knew me as a little tomboy in pigtails. He tells me they wryly ask him from time to time, "Your sister pregnant yet?" I really don't mind their kidding. Gosh, I'm still worth a thought in their day! And regarding all our children, I feel amazingly blessed.
     Bruce and I have heard acquaintances say that they wanted to stop having children because they'd be too old a Dad or Mom. We do feel older and we're not as active as we were when we were younger. It is harder in some ways.  I've mentioned before that I wish we had more one-on-one time with each child. But really, even if their parents are in their sixties when they graduate from high school, I don't think Jim or Margaret would consider the alternative: their lack of existence.
     I will support, or defend if you will, what I believe in when questioned. We need to in order to understand each other. My friend Bev visited a few years ago when I was pregnant with Jim. Mary Pat was less than a year old. Our family had gone through a lot with her hospitalizations and surgeries and lack of concrete answers about her prognosis. Bev understandably was concerned and asked if I was thinking things through well enough. Was this wise to be bringing another child into an already stressed situation? Was it fair to the other children? Were my decisions imposing a type of life on my family that maybe they wouldn't want and would have no say in? All were valid questions borne out of love for me. We had a great few days together. Bev and I don't necessarily agree on all aspects of religion and politics but we have a bond that I can't explain. I love her like my flesh and blood. She is my friend.
 "Iron sharpens iron, and so a friend sharpens the countenance of a friend."
     A true friend does not avoid the tough questions, or tiptoe around difficult issues. By the end of her visit Bev said something beautiful. "You know, Suz, I don't necessarily agree with what you believe, but spending this time with you I understand why you do, and I won't worry about you." I do call it beautiful, because I know Bev loves me, and she showed it. She flew a thousand miles to be at my side, to help me, and to take the time to understand. We need more of that in the world. We may not agree with each other, but we can treat each other with love and dignity. If Bev truly believed there was moral flaw in what I was doing, she would have pointed it out, but would still have continued to love me.
      I am surprised at times with the non-Christian comments I hear regarding others, on the basis of morality. The comments do not reflect Christian love. Let me say here I am not a moral relativist. I do believe in natural law and morality and God and the Bible. I don't believe in "affirming everyone in their okay-ness." God's example of love was to give totally, even to the point of coming to Earth as a baby, a man, and offering himself as a sacrifice in atonement for the sins of the whole world. Jesus taught us how to love.
      Unfortunately, we fall short far too often in modeling that love. Ghandi was once asked what he thought was the biggest obstacle to the spread of Christianity. His answer: "Christians." Many of us are familiar with the words in the hymn, "And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes they'll know we are Christians by our love." Yikes. I don't think we're always great examples. I won't go into politics ‘cause I'd be blogging for days. Suffice it to say: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." We need more politicians like Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith in the movie.
     We need to love more. We need to take the time to know each other and to understand each other. We may not convince or be convinced of a difference in beliefs, but to seek to understand is to love. To turn our backs and sneer or condescend is not love. Bruce came home the other day and at our traditional dinnertime "Highs and Highers," his "Higher" was "To find, in moral or political disagreements, a place of agreement somewhere and affirm that as the starting point for discussion." We can let our differences separate us, or we can build relationships of love. Idealistic, yes, and it gets pretty dicey on some issues. But no matter: we are called to love.
     Oh, part of me would love another baby in the house! I would. I am older and the body is weaker and the family is busy. I also love that I'm finally losing Margaret-baby-weight, becoming active again and finding just a little more time to spend with each child. I won't confuse selfish desires with purports of "God's Will." I will neither confuse selfish tendencies with the obstruction of it. Yes, I have a brain and will use it. I trust that like others, Bruce and I will pray about these things and decide what is best. Our family is our greatest earthly treasure.
     I look forward to my birthday! Life's been rough at times but it's been a very good life and I hope for many more years. I think of the sweet, diminuitive, elderly lady at our church. She is a widow now and moved from Italy long ago. I ask her how she is doing when I see her and she always answers the same. With a smile, and her thick accent she says, "What can I say? I'm eighty years old. I'm here! It's better than the alternative!" So, 48 isn't so bad. It's actually pretty cool. And when the Poker-Boys ask if this old gal is pregnant I'll laugh along with them. These kids are pretty downright amazing!

God bless you,
The Abbey Farm