Thursday, November 5, 2020

A Shout Out to Families During COVID


Praying while mommy waits in line for Confession.

I don't know about you, but I have found the COVID pandemic exhausting. 

Since school started in August, our family has been tested twice because we had nebulous symptoms. Like everyone else, we have had to quarantine while waiting for results, which were negative each time. With a college student, high school student, middle school student, elementary student, and a preschooler, that's a lot of kids whose lives get disrupted for sniffles and coughs. (My 19 year old is not here; he joined the Army this summer. He is doing all those infamous drills and obstacles with a mask. He often quips during his phone calls, repeating back to me my mantra of his growing up years: "It's okay, Mom. It builds character!")

And then of course, my husband and I have to work from home, somehow trying to keep everyone on track with schoolwork and keep them from destroying the house with arts and crafts accoutrements or wrestling matches.

Someone is upset that I won't let my six year old play with her daughter more often. Although I feel it's important that my daughter has friends outside of school, I also feel the weight of trying to keep everyone healthy. So I limit their time together outside. 

Trying to balance mental health and physical health, using prudent but not overzealous decisions, has resulted in getting criticism from some for not being cautious enough and from others that I am too cautious. But c'est la vie . . . especially in this time of COVID. 

I am doing research on depression, anxiety, and suicide for some future articles. (This is where I put in a shameless plug for the Idaho Catholic Register. Keep me employed and subscribe! This is also where I remind you that my views are not necessarily those of my employer— see disclaimer at upper right of the blog page.)

Without giving any spoilers, all that research has made me keenly aware of how us human beings are meant for community. The human race has been through numerous plagues over the millennia, and people reacted then much as they do now. Some don't give a rip and risk their lives and the lives of others for a party, and because of varying immune systems and odds, some of these survive while many die. Some are frightened and die anyway in loneliness, or survive the plague to find they have lost their connections. Others try to walk the fine line of being a good neighbor yet using caution, and not all in this group survive, despite charity and wisdom. 

Plagues have a way of bringing fatalism and destiny into the forefront of ideological discussions, formal and informal, as people have trouble coping with the seemingly arbitrary nature of pandemics. Plagues wear out people's hearts and minds, so that decisions become more and more difficult. Plagues have a way of exposing the frailty of humans: our inability to be perfect and to control everything that comes our way.

In a society that has built its economic and social structure for families with two kids, this COVID plague is even more of a pain in the neck for larger families. I'm not saying that quarantine rules are not necessary. I am saying that the likelihood rises for larger families to need to quarantine, for parents to need to work from home, and for kids to need to do virtual classes. The odds are in our favor to need to be tested more often, and the odds are in our favor for our lives to be disrupted more frequently. 

While all families, large and small, are dealing with economic upheavals and changes to routines, large families seem to be more vulnerable to this. In a society that touts that parents should choose to beget only two children, three years apart in age, this pandemic has widened the gulf between those who think large families are great (even if they don’t have a large family themselves) and those who think large families are foolish, perhaps even a detriment to society and the earth. 

That said, even parents with one or two kids are still finding this pandemic almost impossible to cope with as they try to work, while educating and caring for their kids. 

If ever a time was needed to uphold the value of parents in the workforce, it is this time. For years before the pandemic, I encountered articles and stories of parents struggling to make headway in their careers because they couldn't compete with those who had no children and could give corporations 60 hour work weeks without sacrificing family. With the pandemic, parents are struggling even more to keep up.

Whether parents of large or small families, with one or a dozen (or more) kids, moms and dads bring a life experience to employment that should be valued. 

My husband and I are grateful that we both can work from home and that our employers have been understanding and supportive. This is not the experience for everyone though. And so for those parents, those families who are facing extra sacrifices because they have kids (whether it's one child or many), I especially want to say: Hang in there! Don't give up!

My husband read that some people are doing extraordinarily well during the pandemic, while others are suffering severe economic hardship. The divide in our nation is growing between the haves and the have nots. This time of social distance has created a deep need for community support. 

This is not to say we shouldn't support the childless. I just wanted to add to the voices of parents with children still at home. I have read that parents tend to be more stoic about sacrificing their careers for their children, but now faced with survival in an acute way, parents are feeling the crushing weight to perform at work despite all the odds. The stress is enormous.

To all families during COVID, you are seen. You are loved. You can do this. 

God loves all, the small families, the large families, every individual. And He really does have a plan for your life and the lives of your children. My mom used to quote often that God has no grandchildren, each of us is loved in an individual way with a unique witness, because of each of us is His very own child. 

(Although this post is meant for families, I want my readers who have no children to know that God loves you deeply, too. I have friends from all walks of life, and I feel compelled to not leave anyone out.)

Through the millennia, He has proven time and time again that He really will turn even the deepest pain and calamity into something good. He will turn this into good too. Don't give up.

©2020 Emily Woodham

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Hello, Dear Friend! (Five Years After Becoming Catholic)

A lot of us get a good laugh at this little meme going around the internet:

I certainly didn't get the answer right!

Five years ago, when we became Catholic, I thought I'd still be homeschooling, teaching more in the co-op, and starting a few classes toward a masters in education. To say I got my vision wrong for 2020, is an understatement.

I knew that, God willing, my two eldest children would graduate from high school, but I didn't know I would have another child to take the title of "the youngest"— a happy surprise for sure! I figured we'd have rough spots— there are no smooth roads on this earthly pilgrimage. But I didn't foresee the trials and sifting that would start almost as soon as we walked through the church doors and out into the world as freshly anointed Catholics.

"Do you regret your choice?" asked a friend one day.

"Not at all," I said with complete truth. 

I was most at home in church when I was a child. My mother was always volunteering in the Episcopal Church, no matter where we lived— and we moved often! I loved going into the sanctuary to try and catch an angel guarding the altar or to see if I could get a glimpse of God Himself.

My mother consistently taught me that God loves me and Jesus is my Best Friend. "I'm not perfect," she'd say. "But God is and He loves you." I would cling to that love and sit on the altar steps with complete faith, while my mother was in the sacristy, and ask God to hold me in His lap.

My heart would soar with joy every time we visited Catholic churches with their statues, candles, and holy water. When I was a teenager, we lived in a small town in Kansas, and I would walk a few miles to the old Catholic church. The heavy wooden doors were never locked, but I would still hold my breath when I walked in, fearing that someone would stop me. Then seeing that it was empty, I would go up to the front to light a candle and pray. Sometimes I would just sit in a pew and admire its ornate windows and paintings.

As an adult, I would continue to go to Catholic churches to pray, still holding my breath when I opened the doors. I wanted to talk to God with simple childlike faith, reaching back to my days when choices were simple and the day's joy held enough satisfaction without worrying about tomorrow. 

"Hello, Jesus. There's so much going on, but I know You love us. And I know You reign," I'd whisper in prayer. All the drama of life would melt away in peace, and I would walk out of the doors with renewed strength and clarity.

It's not that I didn't pray outside of church buildings. My mother also taught me that God is with me everywhere. She prayed constantly, and she taught me and my siblings to do the same. 

But there was always a transcendent presence when I walked into a church.

I still go into churches when things feel heavy. When I can, I go to the Adoration Chapel to be in uninterrupted silence. Just me and my Best Friend.

One of my fears about becoming Catholic was that the Church would get in the way with my friendship with Jesus. Catholics talk a lot about the importance of community, that Christianity is more than the feel-good theology of just "Jesus and me." And there is a lot of truth in that. 

My life has been so enriched by the Catholic community of our parish and diocese. Christianity done solo, with its self-gratifying tendencies, has a lot of sinkholes. I am grateful for the people in my life who keep me going toward the Truth, even when it's hard and uncomfortable.

"Life is fragile," the saying goes, "handle with prayer." Though I still can't wrap my mind around the mystery of prayer, I am grateful for all the friends who pray for me and who let me pray for them.

I have found that as my friendship grows with the saints, earthly and heavenly, my friendship with Him has grown, too. Mother Mary and the communion of saints are not hindrances, but are a constant source of help. 

As for the Sacraments, they don't detract, as I feared they would. They reinforce my faith. Confession is not an obstacle to intimacy with God; it is a venue of a deeper relationship. Communion is not a mere ritual, a box to mark off on a to-do list. Communion brings a deep connection with Christ that before I was Catholic, I had not known.

And trust me, everything I've said in this post has been tested. Ad. Nauseum. 

The last five years, even before ye ole coronavirus plague, have looked pretty askew, like the pictures in the photo above. The lessons of perseverance, fortitude, and "pressing-in" were impressed upon me as a Protestant, and they haven't been less needed as a Catholic.

With it said that community and the Sacraments are of undeniable importance, I have found that nothing takes the place of Him.

Someone told me five years ago that being Catholic meant never walking alone. I knew there was some truth in what she said, but I also knew enough about the saints to know that loneliness on the path is par for the course. 

Whether Protestant or Catholic, all Christians face, at one time or another, long nights and cumbersome days when you struggle with your Best Friend. Though all the angels and saints walk with you through it, that struggle is intimate. There are some places in the heart only He can know; He alone is God.

He struggled in Gethsemane, and we all have our own seasons of struggling in that thorny garden.

But the night doesn't stay. The desert eventually makes its way to greener terrain. Although the night is cold and the desert is hellish, those heart-to-heart exchanges with your Maker and Friend in those harsh places are unmatched treasure.

What I have found, though, is that no matter where I am on the path, in blissful ease or heartbroken trudging, there is still an unspeakable joy when I go into the church. There is transforming love at every Mass; unbridled Hope beckons each time the Host is elevated. 

And when I go into the Adoration Chapel, my heart always leaps. Because no matter what is going on in the outside world or in the ups and downs of my heart, there He is. The longer I'm Catholic, the more dear Adoration is to me.

Five years ago, I did not think Adoration would become so important to me.

The Blessed Sacrament is the physical appearance of the grace of His True Presence. Yes, He was with me in my errands, during my chores, and as I worked, but what a mercy it is for my human, physical self to be able to kneel and adore with all my senses. 

I can't help but smile when I go in and say (silently) in my heart, "Hello, dear Friend!" And all the burdens, all the disappointments, get laid down. All the blessings become easier to see, and sweet thanksgiving overflows with joy. In that silence, His voice overcomes the voices of the world.

 Listening to my true Shepherd, my Best Friend, speak to my soul in the little chapel, helps me recognize His voice, His prodding, better in the rush and busyness of the day.

I didn't see what was coming five years ago, and I don't know what will happen in the next five years. I know Him, though. 

And despite my insufficiency, He is more than enough.

©2020 Emily Woodham

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Finding God in Joy

While researching for an article, I came across a lament from a Jesuit author that Catholics talk a lot about finding God in suffering, but not so much about finding God in joy. I think this is because it's a surprise to us humans when we find God in our misery, making it truly remarkable. So we can't help but write and speak about it. 

However, finding God in joy seems natural, expected— making it easy to take for granted without taking note. It's so easy to find God in joy that us mortals often forget that He's the Giver. How many times do people find joy in the things they think they deserve in life: accomplishments, rewards, wealth, fame, and power. 

Who doesn't love a good bonus check or a pat on the back? And those are indeed good things which should be delighted in and enjoyed! But when we forget who the ultimate Giver is, the Giver of our talents, the Giver of our very lives, then we shift from humble acceptance to prideful entitlement. 

Entitlement leads to despair. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.             

Eight years ago, I discovered through a commentary that the word "fruit," in the "Fruit of the Spirit" of Galatians 5, is singular, not plural. I also discovered that in the Greek, Galatians 5:22-23 can be rendered with the singular fruit as love and then all the other virtues as manifestations (or traits) of that love. Written more like this in the English:

 "Now the fruit of the Spirit is love:  joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."  

This discovery has stayed with me through the years and is a frequent meditation.

It doesn't take long in the Christian walk to realize that this love, and its joy, cannot be manufactured on our own. However, too many Christians still use these verses, and others like it, as an excuse to deny the bereaved of mourning, the brokenhearted of weeping, and the victims of injustice of crying out.

When I research and write about the saints for the Idaho Catholic Register, I get to see the Fruit of the Spirit in so many aspects of the saints' lives. The saints seem to testify that it is truly a singular, multifaceted fruit, that can only come through an intimate relationship, a true friendship, with Jesus. 

I believe each saint would be happy to tell you the Fruit of the Spirit cannot be forced. Although it can be (and should be) cultivated through cooperation with the Holy Spirit, it is a process of growth, and attempts to fake it only hinder growth in oneself. I think they would also say that false expectations of perfection in yourself or others is merciless— a denial of love and the sin of pride. It is humility to be real with yourself and others.

That said,  the saints consistently find God in their joy, just as they find their joy in God. And this is seen in their thankfulness. They truly see "every good and perfect gift"as coming from above (James 1:17). Their childlike faith rejoices in the little blessings as much as in the big ones. 

I believe this is also key to their joy in God even when they suffer. They may be hard-pressed on every side, but still they see God's love for them in the little gifts of truth, goodness, and beauty that they encounter throughout the day. 

It was this faith-filled sight to see God's love in the ordinary and to rejoice in it that made them seem a bit crazy, a bane to those who hated God yet irresistible to those who longed for Him. 

Love brings irrational, frivolous joy. Joy and love are inseparable, along with peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Joy that is unloving, hostile, impatient, unkind, stingy, unfaithful, harsh, or self-indulgent is not true joy.

Searching for joy in sin is like eating ice cream with arsenic: it may seem harmless and be delightful to the senses, but at the end is pain and death. If you find joy in your anger or in controlling others, or in any of the "works of the flesh" in Galatians 5:19-21, then you're on a blind death march.

We only find God in joy when it is part of the Fruit of the Spirit. All other joy is an impostor of His grace. 

©2020 Emily Woodham

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Where do we go from here?

One of my favorite bedtime stories was told by my maternal grandmother. In her lyrical Southern accent, softened by decades in New York and New Mexico, she shared a time when she and her sister Lanier were walking along the road, going home from school in rural Louisiana. I don't remember her saying how old they were, but I imagined her as being 12 and her sister being 10, sometime around 1930.

On that day, they came upon two White boys beating up a Black boy. My Great Aunt Lanier jumped into the ditch, grabbed a big stick, then yelled at the boys, "You leave that boy alone or I'm gonna knock your heads clean off!" The terrified White boys immediately stopped their abuse and ran away.

I was impressed with their heroism when I was a little girl. As I grew older and understood the context of that time better, my appreciation multiplied for the valor of my Great Aunt and my grandmother, who stood beside her.

I'm sure their ability to scare away bullies had some roots in their father being a large landowner, a man of great importance in the community. However, their story speaks the truth that it is necessary to do what is right, especially within our sphere of influence.

My grandparents above and wedding guests at the Little Church Around the Corner, NYC, 1948.
My Southern grandmother, whose family line goes back to some of the first colonists of Virginia in the 1600s, married a first generation American, who grew up with the hard knocks of being a kid of immigrants on the streets of NY.

So here I am, with my little blog and a Facebook post trying to do my part by acknowledging the racial injustice in our country, knowing that the matters at stake are far more complicated and integrated than a blog post can convey. Also, I am aware of how much I don't know, and I feel inadequate in my ability to express myself on the topic.

I am far better at dealing with problems with theology than with politics, but the problems of racism seem to need more than just telling people to love each other. We need some concrete solutions. I confess to being at a loss to know what will work.

I can only write as a White woman, a wife for 24 years and a mother for 21. Though it hasn't always been easy, it's been a life far more stable than most. I have too much to be grateful for to complain. I have friends and extended family members who have faced travesties that I never will.

At 46 years old, I have lived long enough to see policies tried and found wanting, political correctness taken too far and backfiring, and politics in general stuffing the pockets of the overindulged across the spectrum of platforms. For all my love of international cultures, my skepticism, I have been told, makes me very American.

As a registered Independent, I am an irritating "issues voter" because I don't trust anyone's blanket agendas. When I took a world politics class way back in 1994, I was fascinated and disheartened all at the same time— with so many agendas and issues, how on earth can politics actually work?

World history, of which I am an avid lover, has only served to prove that humans are finicky, bandwagons are dangerous, and few things are cut and dry.

But for all the quandaries of politics, there really is a problem with racial injustice. There is a dearth of belief, in general, in the sanctity of human life, and the history of eugenics in America is evidence that this dearth has had a particular slant against people of color.

Was George Floyd's murder premeditated? Was it done for reasons other than the color of his skin? Time will tell. Can we blame people for assuming that his murder was racially motivated? I don't think we can. Does this mean all cops are bad? No, it doesn't. Do the reactions to his death indicate that there is a massive problem in our country? Absolutely.

Whenever someone survives a tragedy, one of the most constructive things to ask is: Where do we go from here? Analyzing the "whys" of a problem is helpful, but to truly make progress, one has to put the past behind, if only for a season, so that one can move on. Analysis alone, looking for the perfect solution, can cause paralysis and leave people stuck in the remnants of a broken life, instead of moving on in hope.

So, where do we go from here? We start with that sphere of influence, which seems dissatisfying in all its ordinariness. And I edit this a few hours later to add, we need to listen and to listen with openness and respect.

Pray; vote; protest; "be the change you want to see in the world." Be friends to one another, for friends who disagree can accomplish much, because they are willing to see the good in one another. Enemies accomplish nothing.

Maybe instead of dividing our nation, fighting racism could unite us? Maybe Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have something to rally behind and work together toward?

Above all, be who you were meant to be.

This may seem too vague to have any real power for progress. In my research on saints, though, it is a truth that I see over and over: The saints hear their call from God, and they answer it. Whether powerful and wealthy or poor and homeless, all of them were uniquely themselves. All of them changed their sphere of influence and beyond.

Some of us are more political; others are more faith-based. Both approaches are needed. Not one of us can do all the things necessary for change. The saints often had seasons of loneliness, but they also had friends with whom they worked and carried out their calling— even the hermits.

We need each other to work together, like the Body we were meant to be.

And we do need to collaborate, because there really is a problem.

©2020 Emily Woodham

Monday, March 30, 2020

Chasing Sunsets

I came home from cantoring the Saturday evening Mass. As I looked back toward the street from the front door, I gasped at the beauty of the sky. My eldest was reading in the front room and looked up to see it, too. Then I grabbed my Canon and away we ran— she with bare feet and I in high heels. We dashed across the street to the sports park that is nothing but baseball and soccer fields, hills, and trees. We took turns snapping pictures with the Canon, racing to get to the top of a large hill so that we could take it all in before it disappeared.

We knew there would be other glorious sunsets, but we also knew there would never be one exactly like the one we were chasing.

It's easy to recognize a moment of glory.

It should be no problem to acquiesce to the demands of beauty.

That day, how easily my daughter and I abandoned ourselves to what was so obviously a Providential gift of color and light. 

Surrender (that s-word in Christianity that so easily gets bandied about) is usually not given a second thought when you're faced with the magnificent. The Hand of God is obvious; His goodness is tangible; His greatness is unquestioned. 

When times are difficult, sad, or all out tragic, it's harder to see the goodness of God.

St. Paul said he learned to be content in every situation. This kind of contentment can only come through Christ, who strengthens us (Philippians 4:11-13). Being grateful and satisfied in all things, I think, though, comes from more than a transcendent grace of God. I believe contentment comes from putting our hope into practice, and that includes embracing the grace of beauty at every opportunity.

Beauty is a balm; beauty gives strength.

When times are grim or exhausting, it is far too easy for us to dismiss beauty out of some strange sense of grown-up duty. We get weighed down. We shun fragrant flowers, roll our eyes at a child's drawing, and refuse to chase sunsets. Our thoughts cease to focus on things above, and we get weighed down by things below. When we deny our souls the sense of wonder, it gives more room for worry to choke our faith.

Bills must be paid; children must be fed. We have responsibilities, and there are unpleasant consequences when we neglect the necessary. However, I have found I must make time for awe and train my eyes to see in wonder. I must let beauty touch my heart. For it's in beauty, that we remember how intimately He knows us and how vast His love is.

©2020 Emily Woodham

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Staying Home

Through illnesses while homeschooling, I have a bit of experience with staying home with just family for days and weeks on end. Those days were full of homemade treats and reading books aloud. (My kids' favorites were The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Harry Potter series. My husband read to them The Lord of the Rings at night, which they loved, too.)

The kids played in the backyard throughout the day (rain or shine), made up languages, and had epic light saber battles.

Back then, I strictly limited screen time, and so my house was in a constant flux of puzzles and art projects and free play. Which is to say, it was also on the messy side!

Our days started with "Bible Time." We read the Bible and a devotional or a short story about virtue (our favorite readings were from Karen Santorum's Everyday Graces). We wrote prayer requests on a big white board and prayed. We also went over the catechism, and usually this led to more questions from the kids that would send me on a search for answers. Bible Time could last for an hour, but it held meaningful discussions.

After Bible Time, everyone was hungry for a snack before schoolwork. Sometimes this led to chaos that would need to be reigned in.

Ideally (and ideals have a way of being chased off by necessities or overpowering whims to just dillydally), the kids who could work independently went in another room to study in peace. Then I worked with a child who needed instruction and direction. This would last for about 30 minutes to an hour, depending how long the older kids could go without needing help. After an hour, though, we all needed a break no matter what. Then back to schoolwork.

Schoolwork with breaks usually went well until an hour after lunch. By then, everyone was tired of writing and math. So I made tea, and I read aloud to them.

After reading, unless we had a test to tackle, school was over. Believe it or not, until you get to the middle school years, this is usually all it takes to homeschool. Once you enter more difficult math and science, the task of teaching the littles while making sure the teens are still grasping subjects becomes a recipe for chaos—or at least it did in our home. (Every home is different, and all have a purpose — so don't get discouraged or uppity about your differences.)

Sometimes it works well to have older kids teach their younger siblings while you work with a child who needs individual attention.

Sometimes you've been up all night with a puking kid and homeschooling consists of watching The Lord of the Rings, Extended Edition and old episodes of Myth Busters.

Sometimes you just want to play with the kids and make the best memories you can messing around with homemade playdough, making blanket forts, and singing silly songs while eating nutella sandwiches.

My most successful days were the ones in which I was flexible with a realistic set of stubborn goals. In other words, the days I chose wisdom over being right were our best days. 

My school age kids will be home for the next two weeks, with some long distance learning, which I'm relieved will be provided by the schools!

I'm looking forward to the time with my kids. It will be different this time around because I will be working from home, but I am also eager for afternoons with tea and stories, the giggles over homemade bubbles and dirt pies, and the shared wonder of blooming flowers and butterflies.

©Emily Woodham 2020