The season of emptiness.

IMG_0424I love Advent. I always have.  As a child lighting the candles of the advent wreath in the darkness of our kitchen table every evening before dinner was the first ritual of my memory that filled me with a sense of meaning and reaching out to something “other”.  As I have grown older it seems that this “otherness” is the elusive and hidden quality of God that we always seek sometimes even unconsciously and very occasionally are lucky enough to find. But even in those moments when we touch otherness,  afterward we seem to only sense our utter solitude and are left with a renewed sense of longing. I’m not sure we’ll ever satisfy that in this world.   However, this quality of God  is no less delightful for its unpredictability and frustration.  Children know this best. They  love seeking.  They never tire of games involving a treasure hunt, hide and seek , or scavenger hunt.  And once they have found something, or even if they don’t , they seldom seem to tire of playing the same game and searching again. Children understand, as we do not, that the most fun we can hope for in this world is searching; that most of the finding will have to wait.  It is perhaps why Christians say of children that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”.


It is this quality of searching for me that constitutes the very essence of the inheritor life.  Prayer is itself a searching.  Adults are not the best seekers.  There are days where we tire of seeking, where the search seems futile, where in our search the only things we seem to find are our own emptiness and insufficiency.  And even in those lucky moments when we do not feel empty and we are filled with an awareness that the whole cosmos  seems to be inside of us, we find we must look outward to even begin to understand it. The search is never easy.


Advent is a season of searching, of expectancy and longing.  During Advent the world is empty and bare. It is  the womb that is full.  One of my favorite lines of veneration to the Theotokos (Mary) states “He whom the whole world could not hold, is now enclosed within your womb”.  The womb is a symbol of hiddenness. At Christmas we watch with awe at transformation, a reversal,  and for a quick instant the world is full and the womb emptied.  Christmas is a celebration of the seekers, of unexpected findings.

And who could not find comfort in that, true comfort. Comfort that doesn’t pretend that the darkness isn’t real, but rather that there are lights that occasionally pierce it and sometimes for a few fleeting moments, we find them.



Goodbyes are better at night. . .

Every summer my Dad’s cousin Carlo drives from Milan to Gravagna to live in his childhood home for a couple of months.  He plants a garden, hikes more miles daily than most men half his age would but  as soon as it is dark, his real work begins.  He hauls out  a telescope (that probably costs more than my house) from a garage made out of cheap corrugated metal and looks at the stars.

blue universe

This summer I went over three times to stargaze with him.  Once under the church wall where he sets up his telescope and once in a field above Gravagna where he had hauled his telescope to get a better view of the lunar eclipse.

The third time was the night before we were leaving.  We looked at globular clusters, dying stars and meteorites–and at the end of the evening we hugged goodbye under the starlight.

Goodbyes are always hard in Gravagna–many of our friends there are in their seventies and eighties and the goodbyes are always a reminder of our own mortality.  I went to the bottega to last day to say goodbye to Teresa, who runs the village shop and without whom we could not get our daily bread, eggs, and milk.   She keeps the village running on every level.   As I walked into her courtyard I found Carlo there. As I went to hug him one last time he whispered in my ear.   “We really said goodbye under the stars”  and slipped away.

I was so grateful.  Long goodbyes have always been difficult for me.  Probably part of this is my choleric future oriented personality.  But part of it is that short goodbyes are the sweetest in my experience.  Its better to leave a little something undone. . . . .

I suppose that goodbyes under the stars feel more authentic. . . slipping away into the darkness,  somehow feels more honest–the night both hides us and makes us vulnerable–there is apart of ourself we must reserve in a goodbye–we are taking it away with us and a part of ourselves we make available–vulnerable–our sadness at departure.

Of course one can’t plan goodbyes but when you have a particularly good one–its nice to reflect on why.




Oh Hello there. . .

Life in Gravagna in August is at its most hectic— bustling as the village swells with summer folk–many returning to their family homes–others escaping the heat of the Italian cities.  Its a marathon of visits–albeit rewarding on many levels.   And amidst the bustle– there is always the joy of hiking and many hours of walking free the mind for reflection.   Even when hiking in a group I love how conversation flags at a certain point– when we have used up our momentary store of  delightful conversation and run out of words–this happens quite naturally and with no prompting—-silence settles when it is ready and our brains begin to listen to our feet.

I have been thinking about many things.  Among them, I have experienced mounting frustrations about the limits of social media for certain forms of communication.  I love it for what it does well, keeping up with my family in particular is joyful–I love the pictures of my nieces and nephews and loved ones.   I will always enjoy Maggie’s tree tops of the day. . . but there is more I want to share and think about and it is perhaps unfair to expect social media to accommodate this.  While no virtual interaction is a worthy substitute for a bottle of cheap (or expensive) wine on a porch or by a fireside with bright minds, I do miss the more discursive nature of blogging. I thought it might be refreshing to return to it or a while.  I have no idea what that will look like when my homeschooling year starts.   We have only a few weeks left here in Italy,  until our return and we will indeed hit the ground running.   There is no way of getting around the reality that family life is at its most hectic at this stage of life and that things will change rapidly over the course of the next few years as my children move into the older grades. . . .and so I am filled with thoughts of the future and what seeds I need to plant now. . .

One of my favorite books last year was Deep Work by Cal Newport.  The crux of this book was that work of value is the result of engaged concentration where our cognitive abilities are pushed to their limit – work away from the distractions of social media, email and the like—that work of value can be created in these moments of deep focus which need to be cultivated by what we let in and what we hold at bay.   It helped me to realize why certain habits in my life were working toward this kind of focus— others are in need of adjustment.  I find that with each passing year of homeschooling I am called to narrow my focus and address the areas I naturally neglect while at the same time continuing to pursue learning alongside my children.   Striking this balance is key–but its not easy.

I also feel the call to create running deeply within me.  I am sitting on a pile of poems I want to try and clean up and get into a manageable mini-collection –and this summer I immersed myself in watercoloring. I want to keep painting as a thread in my life next year and find a way to let it continue to develop wherever it is going….

So there it is .. .the top layer of my brain musings —working its way upward into a blog post. As the poet, David Jones puts it, “Whats under, works up”.

I hope to be popping in here from time to time to roll over ideas in my brain and if you enjoy reading them feel free to stay for a moment.  Its not my porch or the fireside but bring a glass of wine if you can.

A Grand Day Out

Just last week my friend and I consoled a younger girlfriend in the midst of romantic heartbreak and possible break up. Another friend of Ben’s had a break up too. And then there is all the sickness, money troubles and car problems that go around at this time of year. I ask you, “Is anyone surprised?” The world looks pretty bleak right now. It’s freaking FE-bruary!


Every year, I tell myself that February can’t be that bad. I tell myself that, it’s a short month and March is practically spring here in Virginia so, come on girl, don’t be down. Then it comes. It is awful and cold and grey and my brain turns into a muddle of mush, and I start to live off of espresso, because nothing seems even remotely appetizing.

I just want garden-fresh salad and strawberries, hot and dusty from sitting in May sunshine . Also it would be nice for my skin to resemble any other tone than that of a pasty creature David Attenborough finds at the bottom of the sea. Okay, okay you get the picture.

Now I love the country, love it ,LOVE it, in virtually every other time of the year. It offers a bountiful variety of plant and animal life. I love to walk the dirt roads around my house, to watch the sunset on the mountains and the pink mornings full of birdsong. Something interesting or new is always going on with the animals. My neighbors are out in their yards and we holler to eachother and chat over the mailbox and there is always something to gather for harvest or mess around with in the yard. Who needs clothing stores or bakeries when nature is open 24/7?

But this is the time of year I find I desire most strongly the delights of the city. The country landscape is bleak and I am ready to take in nature’s diversity in her human dimension. I want the bustle of people, and to sit at the National Gallery and take in the beauty of a painting or sculpture and to drink espresso in a real cofee shop full of the scent of a flowering diversity of pastries. Lest I forget, beauty is more than just flowers and sunshine. It is there in human civilization. We can bottle up sunshine in a jar of jam and bake it into a croissant. The light and warmth of summer are frozen in time and space by human hands on a canvas for all to see. And if the sun is weak and cold in winter, one can bathe in the warmth of human companionship sipping coffee with a friend. In winter the city reminds us that nature has another dimension and that dimension is us.

This is where I find the first hope of spring, in the darkest hours of winter, in my winter pilgrimage to the city. I get my shot of culture in the arm and it gets me thru this most bleakest of months. Once again, winter, you lose.


Pope Francis, and Breastfeeding, and Reclaiming Normalcy.

So as usual, I am a good mile or so behind the curve of current events. What can I say? I spend most of my time listening to people try to read i-g-h-t words, flipping pancakes and chasing laundry around. But this week I noticed rather belatedly a picture that has been circulating the internet, a picture that made me literally cry with joy when I saw it. And here it is.


The current pope , in his former diocese, kissing a baby next to a woman breastfeeding. Not breastfeeding under an enormous blanket, not discreetly lifting a baggy t-shirt. Nope, full on, blouse unbuttoned, breastfeeding her infant. She is not some screaming angry topless activist, and yet here she is showing her breast in public in front of a bishop and she is glowing with beauty and confidence. This picture I should also note appeared next to an article on how Pope Francis encouraged mothers to feed their infants in the Sistine chapel.

We live in the great age of the image. Of seeing the unseen. We have seen things that our great-grandparents never even thought possible: landscapes of Mars, MRI scans of our brains, developing embryos, the andromeda galaxy, our favorite celebrities dressed like chickens, and yet for some the image of a woman breastfeeding openly is somehow something that still shocks us, and this is very very bad.

So why I am so exited for this photo is because it incarnates for us the answer that the theology of the body is giving to the void of normalcy in our culture. The reminder that bodies are normal, so get the heck over it, pray for chastity, and move on with your life.

This photo has further raised again the disturbing debate as to wether it is appropriate to breastfeed in church. Seriously? If we are asking ourselves this question, it is a symptom of how deeply the pornography of our culture hurts us. I recently realized this while discussing this issue, with another woman. Pornography has entered the language of our culture so much that women call into question the “appropriateness” of one of their most beautiful and womanly gifts, lactating.

This is why pornography is so sinister. Viewing those images for a man changes all women in his eyes, but perhaps, even more disturbingly, changes the way women view themselves. They become afraid of their own bodies, even of the breast in its most natural and more primary function, feeding a baby. I also sincerely think pornography and formula feeding are two sides of the same industry. If we can keep women’s breasts totally covered except in a sexual way than their visibility becomes a commodity that only the porn industry can deliver.

Furthermore, women nervous and stressed out by the overly sexualized idea of the breast are inhibited from nursing in public places. Let’s face it , nobody wants to be a social outcast, especially mothers of small babies. They get out precious little as it is. And so formula companies picks up the profits neatly on the other end.

Okay, so I got derailed on my formula rant there. . . . But back to the issue, healing certainly takes time. Is every women confident enough to be that woman in the photo? Probably not. But I think we need to admit that we are wounded by our culture and admitting that is a good first step. We should see this woman not as the ideal, but as the norm. How she is nursing is NORMAL. Hiding under a blanket to nurse,unless it is to provide warmth, quiet, less distraction or security for the infant, is not. If we are nursing under a blanket for no other reason than “modesty” it is a silent affirmation that breasts are primarily sexual. Period.

I breath a silent prayer of relief that our pope, our gay-hugging, atheist loving, foot washing, audacity of a pope (to quote Stephen Colbert) has, in his own way addressed this issue. Because babies matter, dammit, and if we call ourselves pro-life, but force mother nurse on toilet seats then we have some serous hypocrisy issues. Okay, okay, I am done ranting now. I’d better go flip some pancakes to blow off steam.

Christmas In January


(Written on Sunday, Jan. 13th). This is the first year I can ever remember still enjoying the lights, the tree , and the Christmas music so late in the season. Normally I am sick of pine needles on the floor, wandering ornaments and the clutter of decor by this point and relish restoring order. I told myself I was going to bring down the tree today as it is usually the day we do it. After all, it is the last day of Christmas in the church calendar.

I suppose I should be thankful that the old calendar had the wisdom to stretch it out to Candlemas, in February, because this year I find myself still full of Christmas. It is still with me with its quiet joy. Looking at our tree and manger, I still feel it’s presence in the house. I do not want to hasten its leaving. I find myself thinking , “Why lengthen that stretch of winter between the taking down of the tree and the first crocus showing its head?”

Christmas is a funny thing, you cannot force it. You cannot look for it. It comes when it wants to and stays where it will. It is after all, a birth, something for the most part outside of our control.

Of course we are told not told that. Our culture has us convinced that we make it happen. But perhaps that is also the reason there is the rush to to bring down the ornaments right after the opening of gifts. We feel cheated, because we know we did not really make Christmas come. And we are only too glad to see Christmas go. It is the con man who has left us with an empty wallet and a false promises.

But, if Christmas is not a conman but a birth, then we are freed. We don’t have to be responsible for it. If Christmas is a birth all we can do is try to be ready. But birth is messy, unexpected, and it is different every time. And it is certainly not something we have any control over, as much as we would like to convince ourselves otherwise. “If only thus and such would happen, or so and so were here, or we bought thus and such, then it would be the ‘perfect Christmas’.”

We tell ourselves this every year and it is a lie. The perfect Christmas, like the perfect birth can only be seen in retrospect, but I think one factor in it is the letting go. Any midwife will tell you that a woman must be relaxed and not stressed out if she is to give birth. And what is more stressful that the feeling that something is expected of us and we might not measure up?

Christmas, like birth, cannot be planned or controlled and it can only happen if we step back and let it. To put conditions on Christmas is the opposite of Christmas. (After all, we put no conditions on a sunset, or a snowfall.).

So this year, certainly through no virtue of my own, Christmas has decided to stay with us longer. I am still feeling it daily in the true gifts to brought me. The gift of learning to cut an onion better (my father ). And in the beef in our freezer that is feeding and nourishing these growing girls daily that my father in law traveled like a wise man to bring us. It is the tiny tree that an old man in an overgrown Virginia farmhouse gave me for half price because he was kind. In the boxwood wreath that my neighbor invited me up to gather. And of course the greatest gift of all, that tiny silver baby Jesus that Ronia is still carrying all over the house and I find greeting me in the funniest places. None of these happened because of me. They were all Christmas, coming on its own terms.

And I cannot pack it her all up onto a plastic tub and shove her into a dark closet, not yet.


On Emptiness, Advent and The Meditations on the Tarot


Remember when I was told I had the flu? I ended up getting knocked down a week later with what felt and looked just like strep. After a few days in bed I finally started to feel better but still had this lingering exhaustion. I finally took myself to the doctor and found out it was mono, the whole darn month of it. I was relieved that I knew what it was and also happy that I hadn’t run in and gotten an antibiotic right away, since it would have done absolutely nothing anyway.
This place looked like a three ring circus had been living in my closets afterward and Ben did an amazing job of staying on top of the kitchen and groceries and the kids in addition to writing stories and whatnot. But there was quite naturally a mountain of laundry greeting me at the end of it all.

Oh and thanks garlic, for helping chase away vampires and mono.

Overall though, there has been a nice feeling of emptiness after being sick, as if all the bad stuff got burned out by the fever or torched with garlic in my throat. It was in a way nice to start Advent with this empty feeling. The first couple weeks of Advent are always a season of emptiness. It is hard to bring all that Christmas joy and good cheer into our hearts if they are emotionally cluttered. Advent is my favorite liturgical season, being rich in symbols and the remembrance of our world that waited for so long for the coming of a savior.


In keeping with the interior silence of this season I started a book while sick that piqued my interest about a month ago when I discovered it online. The book, Meditations on the Tarot, a Journey to Chiristian Hermetcism is, as the title suggests,not light weekend reading. I have had to read about three pages a day and then digest it slowly.
Thus far, I have learned that the tarot actually predates it’s occultic reputation as a tool for divination. This apparently began around the eighteenth century in France. Previous to that it dates back to the Middle Ages in its use as a card game. While while not overtly Catholic, it is rich in catholic symbols and stories, since it arose from a culture that was so permeated by the faith.


In this books, Von Tomberg, a Catholic convert,attempts to unpack the rich symbols of the tarot as a series of spiritual exercises and I have to say there are gems here. His theology is beautiful and at the same time very mystical, hardly suprising considering his Russian background. The book has an afterward by Von Balthazar. He admits that there are some problems with the work (among them Von Tomberg’s hazily friendly assessment of reincarnation–) but the good stuff far outweighs the bad. Von Balthazar assures us to be patient with the work and I am inclined thus far to agree, (though I feel like if someone could give it an overhaul and make it more accessible it could reach a broader range of readers, perhaps more people less familiar with obscure french esoteric writers, haha.)

There has for a long time been an unfair and at times unilateral focus on apologetics, the hard tacks moral theology and doctrine and Thomisitc syllogisms in American Catholic culture. I value these things deeply and am thankful for the formation they have given but at the same time for all their wonderful usefulness, this focus tends to neglect some of the more mysterious aspects of our faith . Certainly a solitary focus on these things, can, in time, make us forget how strange and beautiful the faith is. Also it tends to alienate us from what I feel is a potentially rich territory for evangelization, people who are open to beauty and mystery but perhaps searching for them in the wrong places, as well as perpetuating the church’s unfortunate public image as solely preoccupied with moral theology. ( Pope Francis I think would agree with this in his latest exhortation where he challenges us to be more missionary.)

Von Tomberg paints for me the faith afresh reminding me as he loves to that “that which is below is like which is above”. Of course that being said, this book is not for the faint of heart. It will probably inspire song in the Franciscan and give the Dominican a heart attack. There is also a bit of rambling to deal with from time to time and at times I will admit I got a bit lost, but it is well worth the occasional confusion or disagreement I have with the work for the immensely beautiful insights into myth, symbol, story, and faith that Tomberg reads in the cards. He reads not the future, but the living Christ, and the story of humanity and it’s pilgrim path toward redemption.


Posing for paintings



An iconographer and a painter recently contacted Ben and I to see if we would pose for a series of photos so that they could submit some mock ups for a series of paintings for the interior of a chapel in Northern Va. She sent them to me and I was very taken with the one shot we managed to get with Ronia as Baby Jesus. she was tired which helped. Ben was posing as an angel.

Lice and LOTR


Well so much for October this year. It is absolutely my most favorite month of the year and it is always piercingly beautiful here in Virginia.

Of course there was a bit of a damper on our October this year as my kids got head lice, well three of them did. Apparently they don’t like Ronia, or Ben or myself( thanks God! ). It was a pain in the neck, mind you, not nearly so gross as some things (pinworms) or as much cleaning as some things(fleas). Those were both way worse in terms of cleaning, believe me. But lice is, well, time consuming.

The best way to get rid of them is to comb, comb, comb. I was happy not to have to douse the kids with pesticides (though if it had been bad, believe me, I would have done it.). But we did all smell like tea tree oil and oil of thyme for a few weeks there and part of our daily routine was sitting on the front porch combing out nits. I think my children consumed more lollipops in those three weeks then in their entire lives to date and Ronia got lollipops just to keep her out of my way while I combed so even though she never had the lice she is now completely addicted.

It was a great learning experience for me. I learned that dirty kids are less likely to get lice than clean kids. Lice lay these eggs that are totally glued to the hair shaft so all the hullabaloo about not sharing brushes, while well meaning, seems a bit overblown. Really kids get them from touching heads. Period.

So after three weeks of lice, I began to look forward to all the amazing things I would do with my time now that I didn’t have to comb my children’s hair for hours a day. It was like a great gift of freedom was coming my way. . . and I immediately got the flu. I have to confess, I almost enjoyed it. I have not laid in bed all day in almost three years (when I was post partum with Ronia).

I whipped thru half of The Fellowship of the Ring ,which I had started in September, and was only about half way thru and then stumbled out of bed to the living room in a feverish haze to grab The Two Towers and then finished that and grabbed The Return of the King.
I remember enjoying these books when I read them as a young adult. I think I was eighteen or nineteen when I first read the Trilogy of the Ring. The movies were just about to come out and I had grown up amongst Tolkien fanatics and even acted in a play of The Lord of the Rings as a spry lass of thirteen (Man of Gondor #4– highly coveted role. Yes, only so many female parts to go round and I couldn’t believe that nobody wanted a short underdeveloped brown haired kid to play Galadriel or Eowyn) I figured I had better squarely read them cover to cover even though I knew the entire story backwards and forwards and had even had the pleasure of seeing the fourth grade teacher frothing at the mouth and jumping around as the Balrog in Khazad-dum. Whatever delights Peter Jackson had in store for me, few could compare with that. But still, I had my pride and plowed thru the books, enjoying them thoroughly and even going on to read The Silmarillion. I was ready to see the film. Ben and I got ourselves all pumped up, made costumes. I was a wood-elf of Lothlorien, he Strider. We went to see the movie and, well, came home a bit deflated. It just wasn’t what we had expected.

Poor Peter Jackson. Making movies for Tolkien fans must be a tricky business, and, well, they are all bound to be disappointed on some level. But I think there is something that grabs at your heart in these books. Something deeper than a good story and great characters. It brings you into the heart of myth and awakens in your counciousness a deep longing for things that are past and things to come. Somehow when I remember my six grade teacher who wrote and directed that LOTR play, there was a feverish excitement in his eyes and a special zeal in his gaze as he directed us. He was awakened to the mystery of these stories and wanted so desperately for us all to share that.
I think that there on that stage, with orcs running on at the wrong time, two kids using a wine glass full of water offstage as sound effect for the ring, and a bunch of pubescent girls with swords as the brave host of Gondor, we were transported. Mr. Jackson I am sure shared much of Mr. Kerstings’ zeal and love for LOTR. But who was more successful? As I am reading these books again, with the eyes of an adult, I have to say, the latter.


Milk and School

Normally my Friday mornings are always hectic. My milk arrives at the church parking lot at 8:30 and I have an hour to go and grab it. Add into the mix that I barter a loaf of bread with our dairyman in exchange for some of the milk and I have to get up extra early to bake a loaf of bread and toss it into a tea towel to bring along. Now in my greater moments I manage to actually do all this and attend the daily mass that is the entire reason my milk happens to be in the church parking lot. In one day that I record in infamy I actually managed to not only swing bread, mass and milk but confessions afterwards as well!
In reality I am usually grabbing my milk in a mad dash at the last possible moment before the car drives away. This morning I am enjoying a lucky break since my neighbor down the road is getting the milk and in exchange I am picking up his teenage daughters from their homeschool co-op later in the day.

I am hoping that things will be less hurried this year. I have been working on organization and I am still a long way off but there have been little milestones these past few months that make me feel like progress is possible. I have come full circle with my homeschooling this year to go back to the Charlotte Mason curriculum that I started Angelica on.
We have done loads of different styles of learning over the last few years and while I had a brief affair with a classical curriculum, a frolic in the fields with Waldorf, and am thankful for the exposure we have had to Montessori via their Atrium, I have realized that of all the methods and curriculums available, the best argument for something is, it works and my kids like it. (They do complain about copywork and math, which, lets face it, are the dishes and laundry of all schoolwork.)
Oh and I like it too. I like reading living stories to my kids and taking them for nature walks. I like having beauty alongside truth and goodness and not collecting dust is closet. I like letting them make connections themselves slowly. Yes, my kids will probably always be “behind” in math. But the beauty of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is in its approach to the whole child and that it is very much a “little way” of learning.
Which brings me to my quote for the year which when I discovered it, I wrote it on my planner’s front cover.

Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible,
And suddenly you are doing the impossible.

St. Francis. Of Assisi

Alright fellow homeschoolers Here is too a good years. We can reconvene over cocktails when we hit burnout come February! 😉