The youth director at our parish, Mr. C., periodically calls a meeting of confirmation team leaders to touch base, make sure all the teams are on track with preparation, and to give us a chance to share ideas on spiritual and corporal works of mercy to perform with the kids. At one meeting he showed us a short film that really stuck with me. The story is told of a little boy who went to the beach with his family. He ran up and down the beach, collecting little shells and shell pieces and filled his hands with them. Suddenly he spotted a starfish floating in the surf. When he ran out into the water to grab the starfish, he stopped short and ran back onto the sand. After repeating this several times, he lamented, "I can't pick up the starfish, because my hands are full of shells!" The moral? Sometimes we're carrying so many shell fragments in our lives we don't have room for the starfish. (To see a preview of this film, click here.)
This got me thinking about my own life and how I'm spending my time and energy. A starfish has five arms, right? I asked myself, what are the five arms of my own starfish? What do I need to focus my time and energy on, and what things (shells) do I need to let go of in order to grasp my starfish? Most importantly, is Jesus the center of my starfish, the place the arms connect to and extend from and lead back to? I came up with five things that are (or should be) the most important in my life and to the Kingdom of God.
First arm: Home. My husband and children. Taking care of the house. And the car, and the dog. Making sure everyone has clean clothes and food to eat. Helping with homework and volunteering at school. Spending time with my husband, even if it's to watch TV or a movie together. Now that the kids are older, we can occasionally leave them home for a little while and go out to a restaurant together without having to hire a babysitter. Loving and encouraging and nurturing my children. Keeping the clutter at bay (this is where I could use some improvement) so that when my husband comes home at night he doesn't see shoes and socks and backpacks in the doorway or scattered papers on the dining room table that is his at-home workspace. Making sure the kids keep their room clean (which they don't--another area which needs some extra attention).
In her book, The Handbook for Catholic Moms, Lisa Hendey divides mothers' lives into four categories: Heart, Mind, Body, and Soul. Family falls into the "Heart" category. The little pilgrimage we took to the site of our wedding was a fun way to honor our marriage and share that joy with our children. I am also, as Lisa suggests, trying to pray more with and for my children--although I need to focus more on the "with" part. Starting with grace before meals--which we always do when we're all sitting down together, but when we're eating at different times and everyone is going different directions, typically we don't. The other day when Moe and I sat down to eat sandwiches together, we prayed. It's a start.
Second Arm: Extended Family and Friendship. Parents, in-laws, my and my husband's brothers and our sisters-in-law, our niece and nephew. Our aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives. My friends old and new, far and near. Growing up, we would spend every Sunday at my grandparents' home, and I saw my aunts, uncles, and cousins frequently. Every Thanksgiving, my aunt would host a big Thanksgiving dinner, and all my relatives on my father's side would come. At Christmas it was my mother's turn, and our house would be packed with people. The numbers would change from year to year as people grew up and married, and had kids of their own; some relatives (like me) would start spending some holidays with in-laws, so we might not see some people every year, but there were always new faces as husbands and wives were added and children were born. And when I was a teenager, my mother's mother moved from Nashville to my hometown, and I think I probably had a closer relationship with her than my other grandparents; even my dad's dad, who I loved and respected probably more than he knew. (I wrote a little bit about him in Part 2 of my conversion story; you can see this post here.)
Nowadays we don't spend as much time with our extended family, simply because we all live further away from each other than most of us did when I was a girl. These relationships are just as important to me now as ever--even though I really should call my parents and my in-laws and my brother and my sisters-in-law more often than I do. I have some relatives who live as close as an hour's drive away from me, and unfortunately we don't visit them as often as we should. We use the busy-ness of our lives as an excuse, but growing up we lived an hour away from my grandparents and we saw them every week. (Getting together with my brother once a week might not be realistic, but I'm sure if we worked together we could figure out ways to see each other more often than we do!) Just last night I was talking with my sister-in-law in Atlanta, and she remarked, "You guys need to move closer! We could see each other all the time! We have great schools in our neighborhood!" I told her I would move there in a heartbeat. I would love for my children to see their two cousins all the time and be as close to them as I was to mine. I'd love to be able to hang out with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and their kids anytime I wanted. (Of course, that would mean moving farther away from my own family, and the friends I've made in the 13 years I've lived in my little town; and we'd be farther away from my in-laws, too. I like where I'm living.) And of course I want to continue to nurture my friendships--the ones close by, as well as the ones far away. (This summer I got to visit a friend from high school I hadn't seen in four years; you can read my post about that here.)
Third Arm: My own physical, mental, and spiritual health. I almost feel guilty giving myself an entire arm of the starfish; but I know in my heart that if I don't nurture my own mind, body, and spirit, I won't be able to serve the other four. I'm not doing too well in the "physical" part; I haven't worked out in nearly a week, I eat too many things that are bad for me, and I've been--er--putting off certain medical checkups that are overdue. I do try to pray regularly and try to make it to daily Mass at least once a week; when my parish has adoration once a month I try to spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament; I've been reading the Bible more lately thanks to the Great Adventure Bible study I've started with our parish Mom's group--all these things help me deepen my relationship with Christ. The more I walk with God and the closer I get to Him, the more I want to know Him and spend time with Him. I'm past due for Reconciliation, though; I don't go often enough, and that's one part (among many) of my spiritual life that could use some improvement. I'd also love to develop a deeper devotion to Mary; after all, she is the way by which Jesus came to us, and she always leads us closer to Him. I do try to take time to myself to recharge my batteries, too--in fact, blogging and social networking tends to calm my spirit just about as much as a good power nap or an hour with a good book. UPDATE: Except when it keeps me up until midnight, in which case I'm exhausted the next day. Oh well, if I weren't blogging tonight I'd be up late watching a movie. I'm just getting to the section in Lisa's book about nurturing your mind, and I can't wait to read what she has to say about expanding your knowledge and stimulating your brain.
Fourth Arm: The Hungry, Hopeless, Helpless, and Homeless. Sometimes it seems that this is the skinniest arm on my starfish. We have certain charities and pro-life organizations we support, and I would say by most standards we're pretty generous, but I often find myself asking, can we give even more? Can I volunteer more of my time and talent to help others? The more time, talent, and treasure I devote to strengthening this arm might mean taking away from another--or am I holding on to a little fragment of a shell so tightly that I can't quite grab it?
Oh, that reminds me--I wanted to share with you this photo
Fifth Arm: My parish family. The priests and sisters; the teachers and students at the school; my Mother's Bible study group; the teachers, students, and parents at the preschool where I've only been working for about a month. The new directors of our Religious Education program and the students I'm entrusted to teach the Faith to once a week. The teenagers on Larry's confirmation team.
I saved this one for last, because I find that this is one I devote quite a lot of energy into, and I think it kind of overlaps with some of the others. When I volunteer at school, I'm serving my school and my children. When I'm helping to serve donuts and coffee after Mass with the women from the Mom's group (and their husbands and kids) I'm also helping to raise money for organizations like 40 Days for Life and Mary's Shelter. Lately I've been wondering if I should give my job at the preschool its own arm, since the work can sometimes be time-consuming. I do things like stay up until midnight making cookies for the Feast of the Guardian Angels, or get up early to email parents and finish up lesson plans. (I brought home some things to cut out and glue over the weekend, and I want to print some photos I took last week of the kids and get started on putting together scrapbooks for them. Chances are I will be up late on Monday getting these things done for my Tuesday morning class.) I can't have six arms, though, so here it will stay for now; BUT...I always feel that I could be doing more to support my parish. It's been years, for example, since we've had a priest come to dinner or lunch, and (I'm embarrassed to admit) even though Father R. has been our pastor almost ten years, he's never set foot in my house.
These leave me with these questions: What are my shells? What do I need to let go of in order to grasp the starfish? I should be doing a lot of other things right now instead of writing this blog post--which, by the way, I started this morning and wrote take by take, stopping in between to do other tasks: drive the kids to school, fold laundry, go to work, feed the dog, make dinner, go to First Friday Mass with the confirmation candidates, wash dishes, sweep. And where exactly should blogging (and Facebook and Twitter) fit into this puzzle? Perhaps it's a shell fragment that I'm unwilling to let go of, and maybe that's OK as long as I can still grab the starfish, As it is, I try to make Christ the center of my online world just as He is (hopefully) the center of my starfish. And the Internet can help me better grasp my starfish if I use it properly; Facebook helps me stay in touch with family and friends I don't see often, and would otherwise rarely converse with, and with blogging and Twitter I can be a prayer warrior for someone I've never met in person--like little baby Ewan, born two weeks ago with a severe heart defect and is very sick. I get to interact with some of the most fascinating people out there and read some fantastic blogs--one I recently added is Christopher's Apologies. Christopher shares his thoughts on the Catholic faith, on philosophy, and about working with RCIA. Check it out!
Lord, give me the wisdom to know the difference between a starfish and a shell. Help me to use the time that You've given me for building up the arms of Your Kingdom. Amen.
I'm planning to update my other blog this weekend, Cooking Nick's Books, with a post about the chicken dinner I cooked last Sunday, and I *might* do the next food project too. Maybe. If you don't see me here much in the next few weeks you'll know I'm holding on tightly to my starfish. I'll be around, though; you can count on that.
(At our most recent team leader meeting, Mr. C showed us another film about the name of God, the sound of breathing, and burning bushes. I'm still wrapping my head around that one, but it's definitely worth a blog post. Soon. I hope.)
These takes were anything but quick, but if you read this entire post and still want more, check out Jennifer at Conversion Diary, the founder and hostess of the Quick Takes. I'm off to check out her latest post now. Have a great weekend!