40-Day Challenge: Welcome (Day 34)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment. 

Every morning, we welcome in the day with something akin to a whimper and a squabble, the unfortunate combination of one morning person in a house with three night owls. On weekends, Christopher chatters and prances around the breakfast table as the rest of us glare balefully from behind our teacups and breakfast cereal. “Christopher, have you walked the dog yet? And have you taken your medicine?”

Please, just make it stop. I had about 5.2 seconds of REM sleep last night . . .

Weekdays at Chez Saxton follow a fairly predictable schedule. At 6:30, Christopher bounces out of bed, ready to greet the world, and spends the next thirty minutes poking around, trying to find various articles of clothing that “room fairies” have mislaid during the night: pants (clean ones are worth their weight in gold), mismatched socks, empty homework folder, and shoes.

Sarah digs out of her nest between Craig and me and grumps her way to her room to get ready. Invariably it takes two or three fashion parades before she settles on the dress-code outfit that was laid out on her bed the night before.

I stumble out of bed, let out the dog, and make my way to the kitchen to whip up lunches and breakfasts, give the kids their medicine, and stumble back to the bedroom to uproot my husband from the sheets. I then dress for carpool duty. (Forget about makeup. They’re lucky to get a bra.)

On the days that I manage to get four or more hours of sleep (which can be a challenge, depending on Craig’s work schedule and Sarah’s nocturnal wanderings), the short drive to school is a pleasant one. I put on some Keith Green or Second Chapter of Acts (“Hymns”) and sing along with the kids. I talk about the cloud formations or the family of geese that has taken residence in the pond by the local women’s prison. Sometimes I just tell stories about when they were little. Everyone is happy, cooperative, and ready to greet the day.

On the days that I get less than my full quota of zzzzzzs, the mood in the car is a very different one. Kids snarl as I implore them to please not to add to my headache. Hats, gloves, and homework completely disappear. Medicine is left on the breakfast table, necessitating another run to school to deliver whatever was left behind. Those geese had better step lively as they cross the road, or someone is going to lose a tail feather.

Have you ever noticed how your family’s mood is determined in no small part by your own? Wives and mothers are the heart of the family home. We are the harbingers of beauty and grace — even with bed head and morning breath, we are the ones who either elevate the hearts of our family, or summon a dark cloud overhead.

At the end of the day, we get to do it all over again. The kitchen is Ground Zero of family life, where all the senses can feast on the aroma of dinner, the sound of music, the pretty arrangement of candles or flowers with the dishes, a nibble of something sweet or savory — this daily dose of beauty form memories that will stay with them for life. How do I know? If I close my eyes, I can still remember the feeling of coming home, the aroma of soup and bread and my father’s pipe tobacco smoke.

Is your home a place your sweetheart wants to come home to? Are you as welcoming as you were that first year of marriage.

Today’s Challenge:  Take a look at the entrance to your home. What does it say about your family? (And do you need to “tweak” the message a bit?)

Today’s Prayer:  “Holy Spirit, welcome to my home. Enter every room, every corner, every drawer and shine your perfect light upon them, that our family will be bound together in perfect love. Amen.”

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40-Day Challenge: Variety (Day 33)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

Sometimes surprises can be fun. A little variety — the spontaneous outing or present, the out-of-the-blue card or letter, the date night that he planned and arranged for the babysitter all by himself.

Other surprises are much less so. Today, for example, we think of tax returns and their orderly rows of numbers, and our fervent hope that not to receive a criptic response from the IRS, who tend to frown on unexpected deviations and variations.

Or, take an example from my college years: on Mondays, the lunch menu always featured a single descriptor: “variety.”  This was code for a surplus of a particular dish that had moved slowly the previous week. Nondescript casseroles, dried-out chicken legs, and left-over roast beef with a strange filmy rainbow “au jus.”  More than once we resorted to the only alternative — hot-air popped corn in our rooms.

In that case, “variety” was definitely not the spice of life. 

In married life, too, variation can be a source of tremendous pleasure or frustration. When it disrupts critical routine, variety can burn the roast, cause toddler meltdown, or overdraw the checking account. On the other hand, when a little variety brushes across our love lives — the “for no reason” bunch of tulips, favorite dinner, or unexpected sleep-in — it adds a little silver lining to any gray day.

Today’s Challenge:  Have you ever seen the movie, “P.S. I Love You?”  Rent it — and watch it — with your Sweetie. Talk about favorite surprises — his and yours.

Today’s Prayer:  “Lord, you created a universe with order and harmony — as well as startling and welcome variety. Please help me to reflect those attributes in my corner of the world as well.”

40-Day Challenge: Understanding (Day 32)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment. (Have you got it memorized yet?)

If you’ve been waiting to see what I was going to do with my original keyword (“underwear”), perhaps you are disappointed to see that the keyword has changed. Quite frankly, it occurred to me that — however true my original thought, that the state of our underwear drawer reveals something about how we regard marital intimacy — I still have a bit of work to do in this department, myself. So … I changed the keyword to understanding.

In the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13:3-9), a farmer strides along, scattering seed haphazardly along his freshly plowed field. Some seeds fall on hard-packed ground, others on the rocks, still others choked by weeds. Only a fraction hits fertile soil, and grows into a desirable crop. Jesus thoughtfully unpacks the meaning of the parable for his disciples a little later in the chapter (vv. 18-23).

Much of what the Lord was teaching about effective evangelization, can also be applied with benefit to marriage, particularly in the communication habits between spouses.

How often, for example, does a “discussion” devolve into a familiar argument, so that we wind up dancing around each other, packing the soil beneath our feet? And the next time the subject is broached, how easy it becomes to tune out rather than to listen?

And how often do we barely tolerate — rather than share enthusiastically — the things that our spouse loves most, whether alternative rock or computer programming or camping or spicy foods? Does our unwillingness to try (or learn about) these things keep us from growing in understanding of who they are, and how they think — such that the roots of our love become shallow and easily uprooted?

By contrast, the woman who seeks to know the man she married is not content for long to simply go through the motions of marriage, or to allow other things — even other people — to distract her from her first calling . . . not as mother (our husbands already have one of those), but as wife.  This requires a level of empathy and understanding so deep, the two become in a very real way . . . one.

Today’s Challenge:  Pick one of your husband’s favorite passtimes, for which you do not have a natural affinity, and find a way to share it with him. Pick up a book on the subject, or get a little outside “tutoring” or “coaching.” Then, the next time your husband engages in it, be ready to join in!

Today’s Prayer:  “Lord Jesus, send your Spirit into our hearts, to make them pure and holy.  When our husbands look at us, may they understand more perfectly the depths of your love for your Bride.”

40-Day Challenge: Trouble (Day 31)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

This season of “Army Wives” is hard to watch. Jeremy, the soldier son of one of the military wives, is killed while on deployment in Afghanistan. He had never seen his baby sister, and left behind a fiance — he was taken in the full bloom of youth.

The storyline reminds me of my friend Johnnette, whose son was killed in a car accident shortly after returning from deployment in Iraq; her husband Tony died about a year later of a brain tumor.  Other, less traumatic but no less serious, crisis transpired between these two events, and more than once I wondered how on earth she got out of bed from one day to the next.  She would have been the first to say it was by grace alone that she got through it all.

If I’ve learned one thing through this Challenge, it is that Archbishop Sheen was correct: Every marriage goes through a moment of crisis, a moment that transforms honeymoon bliss into a deeper, more satisfying kind of love. While I’ve never endured anything like the loss of a son and husband, I do  know what it’s like to be so overwhelmed that I wanted nothing so much as to crawl in bed and stay there until life took a better turn. Or at least a different one. Over and over that “Simon and Garfunkle” classic would play in my head:

When you’re weary, feeling small.
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.
I’m on your side when times get rough and pain is all around,
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.

This song became a lifeline for me during that dark time … In Art Garfunkle’s pure, high tenor, I heard the voice of God.

In all likelihood, this approach wouldn’t work for you.  When trouble strikes at the heart, the healing balm takes a unique form from one person to the next. A Bible verse. A soothing cup of tea in a favorite porcelein teacup. The embrace of a loved one — which, in an ideal world would be one’s husband.

But what if he is just as embroiled in the trouble? Or what if he is the cause of it all — unwittingly or deliberately? What if the trouble you are facing is painful precisely because he is the one in trouble, and there is nothing you can do to change the circumstances or fix the problem?

Even so, the crisis is not the end of love … but only the beginning, so long as you both hold on, trusting that it is not the end of the story, but only a chapter in the book of your lives.

Today’s challenge:  Do you know someone who is struggling in their marriage today? Drop a card in the mail for her, to let her know you are thinking of her today. If she lives nearby, invite her for a cup of tea or a walk. Sometimes those small breaks from reality can be a tremendous help.

Today’s prayer:  The Memorare:  “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thin intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.

40-Day Challenge: Thoughtfulness (Day 30)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

“A gracious wife delights her husband, her thoughtfulness puts flesh on his bones” (Sirach 26:13).

In her book By Love Refined (p.113), Alice von Hildebrand has this to say to the young woman whose husband did not spontaneously offer to help her put away some holiday decorations. “Might there be a subtle stubbornness in you that prefers to suffer rather than to ask for assistance? If so, that’s unfortunate, because it keeps you from tapping one of the great resources in the hands of women: an appeal to that sense of chivalry that is found deep within the hearts of most men (though it’s often hidden by a thick crust of selfishness).” 

One of the more useful pieces of dating advice that I got from my mother was this sure-fire way to get a young man’s attention:  “Ask him to help you. Reward with homemade cookies.” 

So often in married life, we forget the power of the well-timed appeal to their manliness. Not a long-as-your-arm “Honey-do” list tacked to the refrigerator, but a batting-the-eyelashes, sweet-as-honey purr. “Sweetie, I just can’t manage to get the roaster down from on top of the pantry. Could you reach up with those long arms of yours and get it?”

Try it. You might be surprised at the response.

Today’s challenge:  “Damsel in distress” act is much easier to pull off if you look nice and smell good — and possibly have something baking in the oven. (Like a pan of cookies.) If you don’t need the roaster, trya jar in need of opening, a box you need lifting, or a minor repair to an appliance. If he’s a techie, something computer-related is always a good bet.

Today’s prayer:  Dear God, thank you for making me a woman, and for making my sweetheart a man. Help me to appreciate him for all his manly qualities, as only a woman can. Amen!

40-Day Challenge: Talk! (Day 29)

In her lovely book on marriage, By Love Refined (p. 187), Dr. Alice von Hildebrand observes with characteristic candor: 

“In too many marriages, the husband is so absorbed in his career that he pays less and less attention to his wife . . . . In such marriages, one unfortunate consequence is that the only time the husbands look at their wives is in the bedroom. They view physical intimacy as a relaxation which enables them to work better the next day. Finally, the relationship between such spouses is reduced to watching TV and sleeping together. What a tragic impoverishment of human life and a maiming of marriage! . . . Tenderness, loving interest, and profound spiritual concern must characterize all your relations.”

I confess her observation struck closer to home than I would have liked.  He spent so much time either actually working or talking about work, it was hard not to resent his preoccupation. Of course, you can imagine how this attitude worked against me — why should he come home and engage me, when the dog greeted him at the door with more enthusiasm than his wife?

Does it seem like your husband doesn’t know how to leave his work at the door?  You can’t expect your home to be an entirely “work free” zone — your husband needs you to provide a sounding board when he hits a rough patch. But then, he may also need you to “turn the tables” a bit, to redirect the conversation and help him transition back to the comforts of home.

I like to clip “Dilbert” cartoons and keep them handy for the days he needs a chuckle. On the days I know he has a rough patch ahead of him, I drop him an e-mail in the middle of the day, with a little joke or lighthearted quip, letting him know how much I’m looking forward to seeing him at night.

Today’s challenge:  This article, “10 Things Happy Couples Talk About” might give you some ideas for fresh conversation starters. Or get a good joke book, and find one to share after dinner!

Today’s prayer:  Heavenly Father, thank you for your love and compassion. Help me to be a compassionate wife to my husband today.

40-Day Challenge: Sabbath (Day 28)

    “Six days thou shalt work and do all thy labor . . . “ (Exodus 34:21)

   “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

   Growing up, I always thought Sundays were something of an ordeal. Church in the morning, church in the evening, and a  fancy dinner inbetween that invariably involved washing every dish in the house … twice.

   After dinner, everyone would lay down for what seemed to be Dad’s favorite hour of the whole week: NAPTIME! Once I had kids of my own, I found that I needed to recharge my batteries as much as my father did. And just like I used to, my kids protested that they didn’t NEED a nap, that they weren’t the least bit sleepy!  But they soon learned that a quiet hour in their room makes the rest of the day go much better! (And since there aren’t more church services later in the day, they look forward to game night or movie night with Mom and Dad.)

    My Sunday dinners, I confess, are much simpler than the elaborate dinners my mom made.  I don’t spend hours baking rolls or chopping vegetables. Quite often, Craig will cook something on the grill. A couple times a month, I’ll bake a pie — but my family is just as happy with ice cream.

Even with all the changes, though, some things remain the same. In particular, the pace of the day, which is deliberately slower and more home-bound. We don’t always succeed in shutting out the world entirely … as I write this, my husband and I are seated side by side, me composing these meditations and he working on homework. Even so, the togetherness of our work feels good. And after an hour in their rooms, the kids forget to squabble the rest of the afternoon!

Today’s challenge:  Tomorrow the “Sabbath” returns.  What can you do to set the day apart? What would please your husband — a special snack to enjoy with his game? His favorite pie? (I just found my very favorite recipe for pie crust:  3 C flour, 1-1/2C shortening, 1 tsp salt. Stir together. In a mixing cup, combine 5 Tbls cold water, 1 egg, and 1 tsp vinegar.  Stir in to the flour mixture. Makes 3 one-crust pies — pie dough keeps nicely in refrigerator.)

Today’s prayer:  Lord of the Sabbath, lead me and my family into your blessed rest. Amen!