Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanks for the little things

An old movie, a glass of red wine, and a stomach full of Thanksgiving leftovers. Is there a better way to finish out Thanksgiving break? With the exception of my almost losing it at the oblivious Wash U kids who blocked my Metrolink exit this afternoon, it has been a very, very relaxing and long overdue weekend.

Normally I pull an Ebeneezer this time of year and detest premature Christmas music. For some reason this year, I am absolutely thrilled about the icicle lights and stockings that greeted me when I got back to the VSC house. Maybe it was the cookie-making and house decorating I took part in at Aunt Judy's. Maybe it's my mini vacation and the promise of Christmas break in three weeks. Whatever the reason, I say bring on the holly and light-up snowmen and umpteen different celebrity arrangements of "O Holy Night."

I can't wait to drive through the light display at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. I better go hit up the Dollar Store for gifts for my Secret Santa roomate. Best of all, I play handbells in the Cathedral Christmas concert in a week. We're mostly a supplement to the choral arrangements and opera solos, but I do get to scurry up to the balcony for an echo part. It's very lucky that I am part of the show, because it's been sold out since September and I couldn't afford a ticket anyway. Dr. Romeri has some really stupendous choral arrangements set up, with swirling harmonies and crescendos that send goosebumps not just up your spine, but also down your arms and legs and through your spleen. I can't wait to hear our chiming and ringing blend with the organ blasts and saoring voices of "I Saw Three Ships."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Tales from the Road

"Let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow." ~St. Vincent de Paul

My recent entries have featured too much of me and not enough of the people I want to help. I've been lucky enough to spend three straight days out with clients and not with a computer screen. My arms and brow were exhausted, but my soul was refreshed.

Two outings were to assist with Stay at Home Parent, a new program that features group meetings and activities for moms. Ostensibly, I was there to help with set-up and child care. Really, that just means I GOT TO PLAY WITH BABIES!! In the words of Michael Scott, "I try to hold a baby every day." Babbling crawlers are fun, but I think mewling, curled-up newborns are my favorite. Something about their trusting, untouched innocence makes me proud to be human.

So yeah, I "selflessly" held some little ones so their moms could listen to speakers on parenting or network with other moms. Sitting around the house changing diapers all day can be pretty isolating, and its our hope that SAHP can be an encouraging resource for these clients.

Tuesday I went on a different sort of errand, helping deliver Thanksgiving food collected by NFNF supporters. The office was a flutter of activity boxing up canned goods, toiletries, and toys. As I walked in the door I was enlisted to ride in nurse Treina's pickup truck and help her carry Honeybaked Hams up doorsteps.

Treina lives in the same neighborhood I do, and many the clients on her list were in our area. Our rounds opened my eyes to how hidden poverty can be. One family literally lived down the street from me. I've passed by their apartment complex dozens of times on my way to Schnuck's for groceries. That was chilling, and it made me all the more grateful for my free rent and the beans and rice in our cupboard.

At the same time, it was joyful to be able to ring doorbells and announce the good news that we had a ham and stuffing to drop off. Proud parents of cute kids, however poor, always make me smile. Like the seriously learning-disabled mom whose toddler daughter is smart as a whip. Or the father who actually lives with his baby-momma and jokes around with Treina. Or the grandmother who takes in at-risk young adults and sent us out the door laden with a bassinet and baby swing. That afternoon, the face of Christ wasn't so hard to see.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

There are turkey-eating festivities in the VSC house today, thanks to two heaping boxes of produce and canned goods one of the girls brought home from work. A couple volunteers' families came in for the occasion, and Sr. Rosalind accepted our dinner invite at the last minute. Jessica called me in a panic this morning for advice on GF/dairy free Thanksgiving cuisine for our favorite nun. Smart girls, she and Kristina had already thought to use my GF baking mix instead of flour to coat the bird's oven bag. I told them to raid my dairy-free margerine in the freezer and to heat up some green beans sans mushroom soup.

I'm a little sad to miss Sr. Ros' first visit to our home, but I happily trade it for quality time with my many relatives in Chicago. The Windy City has always held a sort of Motherland mystique for me, since my parents grew up here and most of their families remain in the area. How appropriate, since Thanksgiving is a holiday to celebrate heritage, no matter how selective or mythical that shared national memory may be. (The first Thanksgiving was technically in Virginia, but whatever. Construction paper Pilgrim hats are still fun.)

Being in Chicago reminds me that I'm part of a larger family tradition. Aunts marvel over how I resemble my father. My cousins observe that I twirl my hair just like them. My Grandmum chats for hours over the kitchen table, and suddenly I realize where my mom got that habit. Tomorrow we're going to make Grandma Cookies, the secret, labor intensive biscotti recipe from a distant Italian matriarch in my dad's family. I was glad that my own Grandma waxed nostalgic about our immigrant forbears over dinner. Little cousin Greg got squirmy, but maybe one day he'll appreciate the rare chance to hear how we got to sit here in a comfy suburb pigging out on sweet potatoes and turkey gravy. Those milk-delivering Italians and garment sewing Russian Jews would be pleased to see that their descendants have college educations and pumpkin pie readily available.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Catholic humor alert

Life in the convent continues to roll along as we find new ways to have fun together. Last weekend was out first Renewal Weekend at a cozy Franciscan retreat center about an hour west of the city. Il Retiro met all the usual retreat location descriptions in my head. When I go on retreat, I expect to drive a long time to some place I have never heard of on a two lane road that is winding and confusing. I expect to stay in a house covered in wood paneling and sit on a worn-out 70's era couch. And I expect to snack myself silly. Yup, we had all that this weekend. The cook outdid herself with gluten-free cookies, fudge cake, and even pancakes! It's a good thing we only stayed 48 hours, or I would have gained about 10 pounds.
The focus of the weekend was the results from our Myers-Briggs tests (I'm an INTJ, apparently.) Seeing our similarities and differences mapped out really helped foster some discussion and understanding. Just because people don't do what you would do doesn't mean they are crazy, they just process things differently.

For instance, no one else seemed to be thinking the same retreat-center monologue I was. As we drove through the trees past a run-down barn, everyone else's minds turned to .... horror movies! "Just wait, tonight we'll all get the urge to scatter in separate directions and then get picked off one by one." So, we spend a good part of our first night at Il Retiro hiding in dark corners trying to scare each other. It's not what I would have thought up, but hey, it was pretty fun. Different can be good.

I'm glad we didn't think to bring any DVD's, because it forced us to get creative. Besides the usual marathon Trivial Pursuit sessions, we played Sardines in the nooks and stairways of Sr. T's bunkhouse. (She was busy writing thank you notes on her Daughters of Charity notecards.) Nothing forces you together like being trapped in a closet in a spooky house.

Random songs lyrics have become another hallmark of VSC bonding. Jessica and I are the main offenders usually. She'll launch into something, and then I'll finish when she forgets the words. There is one song, though, that has lodged itself in everyone's brain. At least once a day, one VSC girl must turn to another and inform her:
"Girl, you can have whatever you like...YEAH" or
"I want your body(body), need your body(body) gather for group prayer."

It got so bad that Jess and I had to stop ourselves from singing the song on the way to visit the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Israel's Hope. Yeah, T.I. would not go over well in a real convent.
Our visit was great, and the real convent had the feeling of a calm spiritual oasis. I was touched when Sr. Rosalind ecstatically showed us their little chapel which had contained the Blessed Sacrament for three whole days. "Jesus is in there!" she giddily whispered before we peeked in. Over lunch, she revealed that she's also celiac, but has miraculously been able to receive a communion host ever since she visited Lourdes. Sr. Ros' unabashed love for the Eucharist reminded me not to take our own chapel for granted.

Shouldn't we all look toward our tabernacle and hunger for the Bread of Life? Shouldn't we say

"I want Your Body
Need Your Body
As long I got You I don't need nobody."


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Church Militant

The strife is o'er, the battle done.
Now is the Victor's triumph won.
Oh let the song of praise be sung.

After the Breakfast Bus this Sunday, Caryne and I headed to noon mass at the Old Cathedral, a modest centuries old building that sits practically beneath the Arch. It was the Feast of All Souls. As the cantor and organ intoned the above hymn, my gaze fell on a statue of St. Louis the King, and it all made such perfect sense.

Oh Louis - such a good man, plunging into battle for holy causes that never really succeeded. He led his Crusading armies so nobly, famously preferring leprosy or death to mortal sin. But all his efforts to win back the Holy Land were undone by military disadvantages and the odd bout of dysentery. Strife and battle were frequent characteristics of his life.

I pictured the pious Frenchman running into battle, wielding his white plaster sword at God's enemies. Was all that in vain? If his dedication glorified the ultimate victor, maybe not. Since he won the battle for his salvation, Louis now enjoys the ultimate triumph.

I knew I could count on Louis, to whom I have felt particularly close ever since I read medieval accounts of his intestinal distress during a sea voyage. We volunteers are fighting battles of our own, although less dramatically. Even if we lose more clients than we save, or we only stay at our agencies for a year, the fight is still worth fighting. We've got the Victor backing us up.