The Art of Memoir: Write Your Memories

The monthly meetings of the Hughson Historical Society are regularly marked on my calendar. The first time I attended, local author Sandy Stark-McGinnis presented her middle-grade novel, Extraordinary Birds, set in a place inspired by Hughson’s small-town atmosphere. Now, with the recent release of my memoir, Historical Society President Janet Camagna asked me to speak at their August meeting.

But how to tie a memoir about medical motherhood, hospital life, and coping with grief to a historical society charged with preserving Hughson’s past for future generations?

I thought of the nature of the story I wrote, a memoir. I said, “An autobiography, shares that person’s entire life, but a memoir shares just a snapshot. I’m obviously very young to have written a book about my life. They’re so much of it left.” Thus What God Had Emptied shares about those two years from my son’s diagnosis, until a few months after my daughter birth.

Cover of What God Had Emptied, a mother's memoir

Our earlier examples of autobiography come from St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland. They both titled theirs “Confessions.”

“And in that in looking at the different pieces, both of those men sought for a way to find to understand where was the meaning? Where was that string going all throughout the narrative, that connects it all together and that is again the power of memoir the power of autobiography,” I explained.

Looking back, as our season of life changed from those two years in the memoir, “I was then in a position to be able to look back and be able to see what all happened. And I began to put together those pieces of our stories that I had written that I published on my blog, that I written personally, through emails, with friends and piece it together. And found that there are so many things I learned through that experience of being able to embrace the moment that’s in front of us, at being able to look for meaning,” I shared.

I told the audience about Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist survived a concentration camp and emerged with the theory that we are not driven by power, as Nietzsche said, or sex, as Freud said, but by meaning. “When we can feel that there’s some meaning to what we’re doing that, there’s some purpose to what we’re doing. We can get through incredibly difficult times and memoir in taking this snapshot of a person’s life,” I said.

I started to write again

That was why I wrote. “I had to find a way forward, and as I was in and out of the hospital with Peter in the silence of that hospital room, I started to write again. I was writing out my reflections and I was writing about what I did that day, and I was sharing it with the world because that’s what you do when you’re my age. You blog. I was sharing all that information but I was also wrestling with how do I face this situation?”

We ended with a discussion of the importance and value of committing our memories to paper and leaving them for another person to treasure, “Even if you only have a the briefest part of that moment or that person’s life. That one snapshot with words is so powerful because it helps connect us to the history and to those people, even long after they’re gone.”

“Once we get some distance, we think, ‘Oh wow. They did that, they were involved in that?’ We can begin to think that what we have been through is somewhat less momentous. But, you know, when I heard here about the shoe store [in Hughson] letting people who worked in the fields buy shoes on credit, with the hope that they could pay it back but if they couldn’t, it was fine, as long as they had good shoes to wear. That was profound.”

The stories that make us

Those are the stories that make us, that form the culture of our families for generations to come. I extend my encouragement to you. Write your memories. It does not need to be perfect. It does not need to polished. It can be written as straight as a police report or as flowery as a Medieval abbesses’ reflection. When you write it in your own way, you leave a piece of yourself with it. In this way those who may never have met you in person, know you. The encounter the stories you valued, the thoughts and loves that lived inside you. The written word never dies. It can only be hidden for a little while.

So with that, I say, write!

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

Get to Know Your Neighbors

Meet my neighbors

As I prepared to go to work, my husband announced he threw out his back. He hobbled to the couch. After learning my mother would not be available for another hour, I ran down Tully Road to ask my neighbor if she could stay with the kids during the hour. She came.

When a verbal altercation with a friend left me in tears, I sat in the garage crying my eyes out while the kids went indoors. After texting a neighbor in a different direction, I took the kids down the street and unloaded my heart while our children played together. She listened.

In the evenings, the kids played in the front yard and welcomed home our next-door neighbors with stories of the day and facts about whales. The neighbors prepared bags of Halloween treats each year. They knew my children’s names.

When we moved

I asked the librarian to talk to her church. No less than 30 Mormon missionaries and volunteers helped us unload the moving truck. They back for additional trips, and set up our bed so we would have a place to sleep that night. We neighbors that day. They showed up.

Our neighbor drove across the busy Whitmore Ave with his children to feed our sheep and chickens, collect eggs, and water gardens. All so we could have a family vacation for the first time in ages. They helped.

On our part

We hosted parties, opening our doors and fences to invite others in, making music, playing games, and bonding with other families. They weren’t from our neighborhood, but they needed people. They accepted our invitation.

The next-door neighbor of our new home calls me to say he has not seen the kids out lately and offered us a harvest of watermelon. My children dashed over to visit the man who is another grandfather to them.

Across another street lives a busy family with school activities, work commitments and family commitments. They called and apologized for not coming to see us sooner. They brought brownies. A year can pass between visits, but we know them. And they know us.

I call to say “someone is stealing your cherries.” He calls to say “they’ll be sweeping almonds” so I might not want to line-dry my laundry that day.

Good fences make good neighbors, so the saying goes.

That is to say, good boundaries help when you live near one another. It’s ever so easy to take it too far, to come and go from our homes, to base our lives on outside activities, and when we are home, to take our leisure in our more private, more secluded spots. It is easy to live in this world without knowing our neighbors. Maybe you have friends. Maybe you have a family. Maybe you have a lawn service and really do not need any additional help.

But they might.

I interviewed Noelia Martinez while she hosted a block party for National Night Out. “You have to go up and above when it comes to elders. I love my elders,” she said with a laugh, “because one day I’m going to be there and I want people to do the same for me.”

In graduate school at an evening lecture on friendship, Dr. Michael Pakaluk rambled on, “You scratch my back and I scratch your back and everybody’s back gets scratched.”

Then you know, the other saying, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

We are born with an instinct to preserve our lives, to love ourselves, so to speak. From there we can learn by asking ourselves what it would be like for us in that situation. Would we want someone to reach out? Would we rather be alone?

Martinez said, “Maybe they are shy or scared to get involved or scared to be the one the neighbor calls on.”

Maybe.

Maybe we feel like it is not our business. That to inquire into someone’s well-being or why the homicide unit was at their house in the middle of the night will feel like prying.

Your neighbors know you are there. When you reach out, you communicate with your actions that not only are you there, but you are there for them.

And that feels good all around.

Try it out. Get to know your neighbors.

Heart drawn on a neighbor's fence
Photo by Jamez Picard on Unsplash

Make Space for Unscheduled Activities

Activities.

Everything seems activities based. It feels as though everything exists as a class or a workshop. Free time has become a precious commodity. Physical activity is now scheduled through organized sports or gym memberships. Music classes begin for toddlers as Mommy-and-me style events. Art class workshops fill the void for those less athletically inclined. I’ve taken them myself and loved them.

We’ve gone from a generational or neighborhood way of learning these things to something wholly organized, packaged up, purchased, paid for and delivered. The home arts are now a consumer item for consumption. We attend paint nights because painting socially is fun; we’re pleased with what we produce; and we could not otherwise have produced it.

Or perhaps because we otherwise would not have tried.

These continuing education opportunities may also give us a chance to try something we never would have otherwise encountered.

The growth in organized and paid activities for children has many causes, but I suspect one cause probably comes from the realization that this model works for us adults to get them there. More and more we must schedule it and pay for it to make sure it happens. Otherwise, we may neglect it. Something more important or more profitable will come up to fill in the free time that belongs to the adult. We spend our leisure time shopping and enjoying the goods we purchased. These days, we have more time than ever, just like advertisers said we would if we bought this or that gadget. So we filled in the void with more running around. We rarely know how to just be, even after two years of semi-lockdown.

So then, since the culture measures worth by how much money it brings me or how much money I put into it, if I require myself to learn this skill or attend this paint session because I paid for it, I’m more likely to do it.

Ballet for children, a common activity
Photo by Kazuo ota on Unsplash

Children are so different.

They would do it on their own without us. They would kick the can, run the relay, shoot hoops without adults telling them the proper technique. They would do it for the sake of the thing if they could be left long enough to be bored.

It is a matter of intrinsic value verses extrinsic value.

When we find something intrinsically valuable, we do it for the sake of the thing. When it is extrinsically valuable, we do it for the sake of some external reward. A child naturally draws because it delights him. We push the time card for the paycheck.

We live in a society that undervalues things that are intrinsically valuable. This is because the external reward, money, becomes the center of how we decide what is worth doing. If it cost this much, I will apply myself. If I earn this much, I will apply myself. We seem to need the structure to help us do it, the commitment of some financial resources. And it helps us ensure it for our kids, too.

I know these are blanket statements and not always the case, but allow me to explore this thought a little more.

Time commitments are taxing, running from one thing to another, having to be on time, prepped with a full water bottle and the correct shoes.

I have to think there is a tax we pay to do it like this.

How strange and different for us adults to stop and simply, draw a picture because you feel like it, and, only after, go wash the dishes. Or to play a sport in the wrong kind of attire.

It’s easy for it all to become so rigid and compartmentalized that we lose some of the beauty of spontaneity.

Isn’t that what makes vacations and holidays so delicious? I read about these sudden games of basketball, going out to fish, or play cards, or pick a random restaurant to eat at. It sounds so free and creative, curious and willing to explore and try new things. How wonderful.

The people are coming back from vacation. They are coming back and returning to their potentially overscheduled days.

Is there a way to bring the good of both lives together just a little bit more?

Do we even need to?

Of course it’s case by case, family by family, season by season. But as we enter into the new season, the change of schedule is an opportunity to assess. Will we protect the down time, leisure time, unstructured time to allow for the possibility of spontaneous creativity or conversation? Will we make space in our lives and our children’s lives for the intrinsically rewarding things?

Do we think it matters?

child painting
Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

A County Fair Recipe for Summer Nostalgia

The five senses are sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell.

Where are those senses activated more fully than at the Stanislaus County Fair?

My husband opened a bag of cotton candy I purchased for the kids. We cannot afford to feed them all $7 corn dogs. After taking the school tour during the antemeridian hours, we stopped by Target, purchased a pack of brat wursts. My husband breaded them with cornmeal, skewered them, and deep-friend them along with waffle-cut French fries and string cheese. After indulging in this fare, he opened the bag of cotton candy. “It smells like the fair,” he said.

 When the clock hit noon, outside the 4-H Barnyard, he declared, “It’s noon! Time to start the deep fryers. I can smell that Fair smell.”

As we walked back to the car, he pointed to a grassy patch where vendors parked their goods. “That was where I was supposed to go if I got lost,” he indicated. It was once the “Lost Tot” zone now found on the other side of the fairgrounds.

After the Rodeo, I took my eldest child through the Shopping Pavilion. We walked right and then left when I said, “it was pretty much this boring when I was a kid, too.”

Coming to the end, we happened upon the red and white checkered table clothes set on an even number of folding tables in front of a counter. “But the pie!” I remembered the delight, as a child and young adult, having gotten through the demonstrations of the pavilion, to beholding that beautiful sight of where pie we could afford was sold.

Memories here and there, alert our senses.

As my daughter and I finished touring the garden installations of the floriculture center, I heard a sound that took me back 23 years. Sugar Ray sang “Fly” on the Coors Light Variety Free Stage. The year was 1999. I was 14 and spent my afternoon hours “emoting” along to the tunes of B93.1. Sugar Ray was part of that light, don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously, Summer-fun style songs, when you told parents it’s “Alternative Music” they said, “alternative to what?”

Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray at the Stanislaus County Fair
Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray at the Stanislaus County Fair, 2022

Attending the County Fair was not an annual event in my childhood.

I did not participate in FFA or 4-H. My parents did not know you could enter an exhibit in the competition and get free admittance. They disliked the crowds, the noise, and the deep-fried foods. But my father took me to the Rodeo on my birthday when I was horse crazy and so this year, I took my horse-crazy daughter.

Bull riding at the Stanislaus County Fair, PCRA Rodeo
PCRA Rodeo at the Stanislaus County Fair, 2022

My father bought me a piece of pie. Years later, friends and I parked ridiculously far away to avoid parking fees. We wandered the lanes of the fair, enjoying ourselves in the free spirit of adolescence when this is the thing you do.

The memories are all wrapped up in my mind with a feeling of nostalgia. Sense memories trigger the brain’s limbic system running all along the sections that activate those five senses. It’s a good feeling even if it might not reflect how everything happened in those days or how happy we actually were.

I like the experience of nostalgia.

To me, it’s delightful to get that whiff of memories running through my heart. I treasure the moment to save something more lasting, something that speaks to the spirit of the thing. It’s the thing I hold onto. My children listen to with rapt attention as their parents tell stories of when they were young. They sit, marveling at how young their parents look in the telling, as if the parent has been transported back somehow to the magic of youth.

The parent’s eye sparkles, inspiring the child to love the thing too. It’s that nostalgic sigh that inspires a child to make memories too. We connect to the past and the present, sitting in both through the memory, in a way we will be able to do so for generations to come if only we tell our stories.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Summer Living

Can it really only be the beginning of July?

It is remarkable when I consider an entire month remains plus two weeks for our summer vacation.

Our summer break began early in May. As a homeschooling family, we can end as soon as the syllabi are completed. Their education is not confined to set hours of the day or a set building but I utilize the experiences of life to augment what they learn at their desks. As summer begins extracurriculars fill the calendar.

Baking class

That they may all have a level of comfort in the kitchen. Teaching them a recipe at this stage will not mean they know that recipe five years from now, or a year from now, but they will know they can look at a recipe card, follow it, and see something turn out.

Sewing class

That they may all feel it is possible to sew, create, and mend. Many of these home arts are lost on my generation because we feel we lack the competence. It is the work of professionals. We will screw it up. And it hurts us when our daily duties call on us to master these arts.

Soccer class

For those not in organized sports, that they may learn how to pick up a game with friends whenever the opportunity arises. I’m thinking of adding a class, aka playdate, of old-time games: kick-the-can, red light-green light, red rover, and so on. It’s amazing what a generation can take for granted when they grow up in a neighborhood of kids and then when those kids take those games into their careers as teachers.

Horseback riding

For physical education that involves navigating the personality of an animal and teaching multiple skills in one lesson.

Art class

Like the home arts, that they may know these are skills that are within their reach. Beyond the organized craft project, we bring in an artist to walk them through. My favorite approach is to have the students bring an object or pick a flower and paint from life, learning the skills of observation. Science and art in one.

Then, there are the outings.

The Hughson Arboretum, extended visits to the library, the local historical museums, and blueberry picking.

Less locally, finally, a trip to the coast. We spent two hours on the beach, then two hours in the redwoods then two hours with family, who also live in the redwoods. To see the children’s pure joy among the waves, all bickering and squabbles left behind, nothing but excitement remained. In the redwoods, the marvel of their height, the joy at seeing a deer, approaching a squirrel, identifying birds. A half-day trail ride in the Sierra Nevada came next at Kennedy Meadows.

Next, we go to Southern California to reconnect with a family of friends, stay with a cousin and wonder how different are the worlds between southern and northern California.

I took a writer’s retreat and came back with a contract for a third book. My husband will attend a conference on sacred liturgy next week. And that’s only June.

Now comes July with more classes, more outings, and more adventures.

We’ll switch from Westerns to Adventure films like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Up,” and “Jason and the Argonauts,” only more and more it seems we have little time to watch them. There’s a camp for the girls, our wedding anniversary, birthdays, and the Stanislaus County Fair.

We’re making memories with events capsulated in a season.

Summer Vacation

The school year was hard, but vacation is sweet, like life. My work punctuates all these events with set hours Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for the newspaper but publicity and bookwork pour into the cracks of a brimming-over day-to-day. It’s wonderful. It’s joyful and free and, surprisingly, still structured with chores and the things we must do to maintain a home and little farm.

We have all we need in the beauty and joy and tiredness of summer.

Sacrifices are made to make this possible. We cannot live a high life. We cannot travel abroad. We cannot buy prepackaged snacks. We gratefully glean from neighbors’ crops with permission to supply our children with produce. But those sacrifices which make life simpler so that we are essentially a single-income household, enable us to make life fuller, according to our preferences, values, and our family’s needs.

It is a good life and I am grateful to live it.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

The First Small Steps to Make a Difference

A young woman approached me as I fiddled with stacks of books at my vendor table before the Magnify Women’s Conference at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oakdale. Her hair was a deep shade of pink, curled and full of personality. As she approached me there was that look of familiarity in her eyes. We knew each other, but I did not know from where or when.

She asked if I used to volunteer with the high school youth group at St. Stanislaus in Modesto. I did.

“I’m Genesis,” she said. And I knew her immediately. I remembered her when so many, many memories or names or faces from those days almost twenty years ago have begun to blur together and fade. I remembered her.

She was the type of sixteen-year-old with an old soul, a penchant for deep thoughts, the kind who sees beyond the present circumstances and wonders about the big things of life. She was a poet. Whether or not she wrote any of the words down, I recognized in her that we were kindred spirits, only one doesn’t say that in small talk.

She told me what my presence and our conversations meant to her in those days, that it made a difference.

It made a difference.

Yesterday I listened as a priest described my work as a mother as a bridge. The work of motherhood is to make our children, not the persons we want them to be, but the persons they are meant to become. We are the bridge to help them get there.

Build a bridge. Make a difference.
Photo by Andre Amaral Xavier on Unsplash

A group of mothers sat around with stacks of books beside us for an informal gathering of book club members to share what we were reading. The conversation veered, as it naturally does with women, with decades-old friendships and no formal program. We talked about age differences in friendships now that we are old, how little recognizable those differences are outside of youth and how valuable they are.

  • One friend brings meals whenever a new baby comes along or has an illness or a period of grief.
  • Friends of different life stages can be there for each other in ways not otherwise possible.
  • The woman whose children are grown knows how to cook for a crowd, but does not have a crowd to cook for, so she delivers a party-size lasagna to the new mom.
  • The woman with a large brood hardly notices one more child added to the mix, but for the only child, the playdates are everything.
  • The single, unmarried woman steps in, refreshed from sleeping uninterrupted, to give an extra dose of attention to the children who may not have aunties nearby.
  • Children learn to lead from the old children in the group. Younger children attach to that ten-year-old with a mysterious love for toddlers and babies.
  • Pre-teen girls learn the art of babysitting when the parents want to chat, training them for the day when they earn their bread with an hourly wage.

Mentors, teachers, and parents come in all ages, all occasions, all types of communities.

But they only come when we approach our days with that good advice I heard as a child, “try to learn at least one thing from every person you meet” and then find ways to generously and prudently share the lessons we ourselves learned.

How do we know when to share and when to keep it to ourselves?

First, by being who are you in all your authenticity.

It doesn’t mean presenting an autobiography to every person you meet, but perhaps, sharing a little more in a unique way. If someone asks about your weekend plans, include the specific hobby or the garden weeding or the trip you’re taking plus one or two details. This little bit of openness invites more questions if the other person has them.

Second, by asking others those small talk questions and really listening to the answer.

“How are you?”

“Any weekend plans?”

“What have you been up to?”

Then, and this is the trick, as a follow-up question.

“Where do you usually go fishing?”

“What type of plants do you grow?”

“Have you read any other books by that author?”

Taking the time to learn from others and open ourselves up to being asked a few questions is how we begin to build that bridge. The person with whom we are speaking may have always dreamed of that profession or that hobby but never known anyone who actually did it. You clear the way with your openness.

You make a difference.

Preserving History

In the bygone days of my youth, I listened to my father’s stories of his childhood and how his parents worked to provide for him and his siblings. I took in the expressions he passed on to me from his mother, whose family came from Minnesota. There was pride in this history, how long some of our ancestors lived here and pride in those more recently come and the stories they brought with them. 

Storytelling around the campfire
Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash

There were not many stories though.

Our family was not given to talking much generally. The next stories came from books. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a newly-made mother seeks advice from her mother.

“You must tell the child the legends I told you-as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those, not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people-fairies, elves, dwarfs and such. You must tell of the great ghosts that haunted your father’s people and of the evil eye which a hex put on your aunt. You must teach the child of the signs that come to the women of our family when there is trouble and death to be. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus, His Only Son.”

“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”

“Because, explained Mary Rommely simply, the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

And like this practice in imagination, when we know the stories of on our ancestors and pass them on to our children and future generations, this oral history stays with us as something we remember from time to time, something we fall back on, something that can powerfully shape how we respond to the trials and tribulations that come our way. 

The oral history could be the stories of the who lived the faith we now practice, the religious or secular heroes. It must be approached delicately in some cases. Most heroes were not saints, and the wrong they may have done must be approached appropriately at the right age. Some mistakes ought to reshape the standing of historical figures, but not all mistakes have or should have that power.

We can tell the stories. We tell them again and again, adding their color as the years go by, like moving from board books to picture books to chapter books, all telling the tales of the same person. 

Do we have that option for our family stories?

As a child, I attended St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hughson. In looking for information regarding its founding 100 years ago in Hughson, I learned Portuguese and Italian immigrants built the parish, naming it under the patronage of St. Anthony, a Portuguese saint beloved in Italy. 

But the parish does not have a record of the personal stories, and neither does the Hughson Historical Society. We do not have that oral history.  

In college, we partnered with a non-profit organization that coordinated the meeting of the students with volunteers who founded the organization. We interviewed them, recorded the interviews, transcribed the interviews, and turned them in, to be preserved by the organization. 

The Hughson Historical Society meet monthly to share their remanences.

I have the honor of sharing some of these stories with the community. The more I attend, the more this practice makes sense. It is not for the gratification of the storyteller, but to allow the heroes to live onward in their legacy. When it is personal, the everyday events do not seem nearly so small to those who love them.

While the historical record might begin with the plain dates of when things happened and where, but it’s the stories, the personal testimonies, that give it life and light. 

Do you have a story passed down to you of the founding of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hughson 100 years ago or of the new church building 55 years ago?

Email it to me at writer@kathrynannecasey.com and I’ll make sure it finds its way home. 

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Horse Crazy and Other Passions

My daughter is horse crazy.

It came at about the right time developmentally. It is her first passion. There is something about 11-year-old girls that makes them lean towards such a state. Perhaps it is the precursor to the later romantic loves. I do not know. But I do know that it seems to usher in the period of adolescence in which one goes looking for who she will be, what she will love. It is the perfect, safe bridge between childhood and adolescence.

Photo by Mikayla Storms on Unsplash

For my daughter, it is the first thing she has been truly passionate about. We’ve had very few obsessions in this house until my two-year-old came along. We are all obsessed with her and she is all obsessed with horses.

I was horse crazy, too, at one time.

It came with weekly riding lessons in 5th grade and reading The Saddle Club books, which my daughter now reads, regularly through junior high.

By 7th  grade, my passions transitioned to friends, and of course, boys. I wrote poems and attended poetry readings.

By 8th grade, the focus was on the faith, which anchored all the other loves that were to come. I began writing stories, typing them out on a clunky old Macintosh in my room before we had the internet in our home. If I got to 100 pages, I considered it done because to my mind, a book that was 100 pages long in a Word doc. was a full-length book.

Those characters kept me company until I got my driver’s license when my gaze turned outward to the world. My next dream was to study photography. I stopped thinking of careers per se. I could focus only on the next step, not two or three steps beyond. After senior year and hauling my SLR camera and rolls of film around Europe while on pilgrimage, even the passion for photography began to fade.

I studied psychology at undergraduate and graduate levels. I loved the nonprofit I worked for after college. Throughout college, I was deeply and madly in love with the man I married at 24. Then came the babies.

But, if we continue to keep our eyes open, passions never cease.

Gardening, literature, San Francisco, championing the arts or community efforts, each passion seems to have its time. To feed my daughter’s passion, we watched National Velvet in honor of this miniature season of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. In it, Mrs. Brown says to her daughter,

“Things come suitable to the time, Velvet. Enjoy each thing, then forget it and go on to the next. There’s a time for everything. There’s a time for having a horse in the Grand National, being in love, having children; yes, even for dying. All in proper order at the proper time.”

There is a great deal is wisdom in this. In San Francisco, this week, I sat with Jane at the Infusion Center next to Benioff Children’s Hospital. Six years ago, Jane taught me how to perform a sterile dressing change and draw labs. The days of San Francisco feel far away to me when I felt scared and vulnerable and my son was very small and very vulnerable. There were people I trusted, relied on, who coached me and believed in me that I could learn to give him what he needed. People with whom a visit buoyed me up for the next round. Now some are retiring, some are moving into different roles at the hospital, and for some of those relationships, it is we who have changed or graduated or moved on.

Thus each time we go for his monthly appointment, those days move further and further into the past.

It is right for it to be so. The connection remains even if the season has changed. The treasure still holds. The goodness of all those relationships still exists even if the season for those relationships has passed.

All these passions, even if they pass, should be fed, indulged a little, not too extravagantly, but enough to allow our hearts to expand. Thus they become part of the tapestry of our personalities and the stories we’ll tell one day about how we came to be the person we are today.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

What we can learn from motherhood

The potential of motherhood is a remarkable thing.

We can learn a great deal from it, whether we are mothers or not.

A woman carries a child inside her, slowly over time becoming more and more aware of its movements, its hiccups, its wakefulness, its tendency to kick in the middle of the night. Her days are divided between the work in front of her and the work happening inside her, but outside her control. Perhaps she worries. Perhaps she glows with joy. Perhaps she suffers from physical ailments, uncertainty, or instability.

expectant mother awaiting motherhood

Yet still, she goes on. The child grows and grows until the time comes to meet face to face.

Mothers whose children have died through miscarriage or stillbirth or who have received a prenatal diagnosis, integrate within them the understanding that there is so little they have power over in the process. They may try, but to have any peace, they must accept this unique circumstance.

All this awareness primes the mother’s brain to meet her child

to be deeply aware of his presence, to read the little signs in his face and behavior that he is hungry, tired, or uncomfortable. As he grows, her awareness grows as well. She quickly takes in the dangers of a room, the number of objects within reach, the hazards and the thrills that await the adventuresome little gentleman. As the child grows older, he begins to go beyond her reach and she learns to let go even more than she did during pregnancy, even more than she did when she knew now was the time for him to learn to climb that tree. But still, she keeps a steady awareness of him in her heart.

That is the natural and ideal path of motherhood, supported by a loving and attentive spouse who shares in the trials and joys of parenting. This awareness of the other person, able to take in the immediate information and the whole picture, able to see things concretely and yet take in the broad ramifications of the child’s personhood, is what Pope John Paul II referred to as the feminine genius. The feminine genius refers to this capacity in the woman. It starts as only a capacity. It must be developed to flourish. We see it naturally through the lived experience of motherhood, but many women will attest to its development in other ways. Many men may as well.

Although we see its potential, this path must be chosen and chosen all the more intentionally in today’s world where distractions abound. Internet, email, text messages, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, and so on, continue to ping, designed to draw and keep our intention. For those with freelance work, the changing algorithm demands even more attention if we are to “get ahead” or even “stay on track.” For students, the work of education is wrapped up in the same devices designed to entertain us.

Nowadays, we have to choose to stop, look, listen and focus.

scene from a library

Consider Betty Smith’s description in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind.”

In Tales of San Francisco, Samuel Dickson tells the story of poet Ina Coolbrith, “One day, a small boy came to the librarian, Miss Coolbrith. He was twelve years old, a dirty, small boy. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm; he was poor, shabby, uncared-for. And he said, please, Miss, could he have something to read? Something to read! That small boy was Jack London, and Ina Coolbrith gave him something to read. For months and years, she gave him something to read; she guided him, inspired him, and won his undying adoration.”

Whether the children in our house, the neighbor in need, the unvisited person at a retirement home, or the ones we encounter in our work, we can make a choice. When we choose to attend to the person, to be aware, to take into our minds and hearts the condition of the whole person before us and not merely the transactions, we have a great potential for good, for a life-giving, soul-filling good.

And that we can learn from motherhood.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

A Humble To-Do List with a Mighty Purpose

“If you know your purpose in life, you will live in a radically different way than if you don’t know it. And this sense of purpose will certainly impact how you perform basic life tasks, including paying your bills,” Julia Marie Hogan Werner writes in A Work in Progress: Embracing the Life God Gave You, published by Our Sunday Visitor, 2022. 

Purpose in life sounds so grandiose.

We may be tempted to think, how can anyone know their purpose in life? We have too many demands each day to think about such a big, abstract concept. 

Werner explains, those demands can help us discover and keep in mind the bigger picture, our purpose in life, even as our purpose reminds us why we’re doing these mundane tasks anyway. 

Do you have a to-do list?

I have

  • scribbled on a scraps paper
  • tracked events on Excel
  • used weekly checklists
  • relied on fancy note pads labeled as such
  • entered my tasks on Google Calendar

and am now embarking on regular meetings with my husband to discuss our communal list saved electronically. 

Write things down, I say. It’s too much to keep in one’s mind. When it pops into your head, write it down or enter it into your digital list, then move on. At the beginning of the day, assess what you have time for. Ask what is urgent? What is important? What needs preparing? and so on. The list helps us focus. It frees us from the weight of holding it. It helps us fulfill our commitments by helping us not forget what we said we’d do.

All those tasks add up.

How we live determines how much or little that living helps us move towards or away from our purpose in life. We cannot know where we stand unless we have a sense of what this purpose might be. Without knowing that, it’s easy to come to a place in life when we ask, “What’s the point of all this?”

The understanding we have of our purpose is grounded in knowing what we value. She writes, “Values are things that are most important to us. Values also signify to us — and this is very important to note — what qualities we use to measure our own worth and the worth of others.” The day-to-day may be what presses on our minds most, but we can shape what our lists look like best when they are written against the backdrop of a clear articulation of our values.

Values point us to our purpose.

What we prioritize, where we spend our time, reveals what we value. “When something is a true priority, we make time for it,” Werner writes.

According to Werner, expectations also influence what we think we should do. We must consider whether our expectations are realistic or unrealistic. Werner warns, “A general rule of thumb is that unhealthy and unrealistic expectations tend to be strict, rigid, and difficult or impossible to achieve…For many of us, our guiding expectation in life is an impossible standard of perfection. This is called perfectionism.”

Your list may have too many things, more than you can possibly accomplish if you mean to also uphold less measurable values like “quality time with family” or “talking to my spouse” or “be kind to others.”

It can be disappointing to admit we cannot complete all the things on our list, that we need to delegate or, possibly let people down. Werner reminds us, “By honoring our priorities we are saying “yes” to the fulfilling and authentic life we are meant to live.”

Maybe perfectionism isn’t the issue.

Maybe the to-do list tasks make us feel the burden more than we’d like. For this, values come in again, animating our work and reminding us why they are on the list at all. Werner describes it, “Priorities are the ‘how,’ and your values are your ‘why’.” You clear the drain, tighten the sink faucet, reset the sprinkler timer or schedule the doctor’s appointment because there is an overarching reason why these are important. 

Ultimately, it most likely points back to love.

Love of one’s duty, of family, of spouse, of community, or God. We are most motivated to do these things best when we remember we do them for sake of another. Mother Teresa once wrote,

“Wash the dishes not because it is dirty nor because you are told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next.”

Washing the dishes becomes a moment to show love. If we focus in on the tasks on the list and at the end of the day, we have a better sense the purpose of what we are doing.

That is our purpose in life.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.
Disclosure: I received a copy of A Work in Progress: Embracing the Life God Gave You in order to provide an honest review. You can read my first take here. The content of this book is so good that rather an a one-and-done read, I find myself referencing it frequently. I cannot recommend it enough.