Saturday, January 14, 2017

Sons are a heritage from the Lord


Their boutonnieres have been ordered, a new pair of shoes purchased for one of them, two new shirts, and new ties (whether they wear them or not is another story!) It’s the eve of my boys’ annual Mother / Son Dance at their school, and I find myself reflecting on how special the opportunity is to accompany these two on our “date night” tomorrow.
They say there’s no special bond than that between a mother and her son. It seems like just yesterday when I was muddling through the first few months of my oldest’ s life here on earth. Despite all the many years I’d planned for motherhood, that first season wasn’t one of my most stellar. Not even a year prior, my own mother had passed unexpectedly, making post-partum  nothing short of trying. He was a tough audience his first few months out of the womb, yet I can’t help but think that I must have been a pretty challenging host as well! Although those times back in the early days of our relationship were a bit of a struggle as we got to know one another, we bonded in a very special way, and still do to this day. We understand one another in a strange, but amazing way. I can barely believe it’s been eleven years.

Then, about two-and-a-half years after birthing my first, I was rolled out of the OR after the planned cesarean section of my second with him tightly latched onto my breast as if he had been participating in this act for months. It took him no time flat to master the skill. And, then he literally grew up before my very eyes, with skills that continue to amaze me with every passing day. I honestly feel as if I have all but blinked and he’s morphed into this too-cool-for-school second grader that’s challenging me to the core, while also teaching me more lessons than any other human being on the face of this earth has ever taught me. He’s brilliant and amazing and stubborn as a mule. And, I’m so very proud for all that he is.
We'll start getting ready for our "date night" about 3:00 tomorrow. I’m sure my oldest will gripe about his sport jacket not fitting quite right and his new shoes being uncomfortable (they are two sizes two big, but I am confident he will still complain about them being too tight!), and my youngest will be less-than-enthused about being jazzed up in a tie (his preference is a Steph Curry jersey), and I'll probably utter a few curse words under my breathe trying to get the three of us out the door on time. But, any negative energy will quickly fade away once we're on our way. It's a special night that's all ours, and there's no other place I'd rather be tomorrow evening than with my two crazy little boys at their school dancing the night away.

We’ll join some other moms and their sons at a local restaurant for an early dinner, before heading to the dance, where I may or may not get lucky enough to score a short slow song with either of them as the evening progresses. I'll take in every minute, watching these two cut the rug with their buddies – one with absolutely no rhythm whatsoever, and the other with moves that could put MC Hammer to shame back in the 90’s!

It might be the last Mother / Son Dance I’ll attend with my oldest. He’s a fifth grader this year, and is probably going to realize tomorrow evening that the majority of the boys in attendance are younger than he, but he’ll be okay with that for this moment in time, because he likes to be the "big kid" amongst  all the others and their silliness. One of his very best buddies will be there and they will break it down, and chat it up, and fill their plastic solo cups ten times with pop, and love every minute of it! He’s my old soul that’s still wrapped in a blanket of childlike innocence.

If I'm lucky, I'll get a few more years as my second grader’s “date” at this annual event, yet part of me fears he may decide to bail before his time, once his big brother is out. So, I’m going to savor him out there dancing, and laughing, and enjoying time with his little peers tomorrow night. He’s got some moves, and he’s real smooth! And, just maybe, I’ll get to steal him away for one slow dance, hopeful that it won't be the last.
Treasured times like these are numbered with my boys as they grow up before me. Many days spent as their mommy exhaust me beyond belief. And, others frustrate me to the utter core. But, special moments like the ones we will share tomorrow evening are to be cherished – such sweet, innocent, beautiful moments.

I’m their mommy. And, they're all mine – for this one night. And, if I get the chance to dance with them, I’m gonna hold them tight and wonder how I got so lucky.
"Sons are a heritage from the Lord."
Psalm 127:3

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Attention Moms: The Struggle is Real.


For better or for worse, I established a high standard for my future role as a mother at a young age. Although an involved and available stay-at-home mom when I was an adolescent, my mother left us when I was at the impressionable age of 13. As I grew into adulthood I came to better understand the reasons for what became of my family. But, as a teenage girl, I spent several years feeling nothing short of abandon by her. I endured many sleepless nights missing the woman who bore me, and aspiring about the mother I would one day become.

She and I spent most of my twenties attempting to make up for lost time. We bonded together, along with my younger sister, who now had a young child to raise on her own. A once broken family found healing as adults - her and my father even re-gained the peace and respect they had lost so many years prior. It was a season of redemption for this daughter.

And then, just about the time my family became restored, she left me again. Only this time, it was for good. My beautiful mother suffered a brain hemorrhage at 48-years-young. Six weeks later I found out I was pregnant with our first child.

The argument will always be on the table - is it nature or nurture that has the greater influence on us as we grow. I contend, however, that it's the forces of good versus evil constantly at play in the world around us battling for the upper hand in our subconscious at any given time. Our God desires nothing more for us than an utter state of peace, love, joy and contentment, yet there is always the devil lurking around the corner ready to steal the goodness right out of our heart, for he loves nothing more than to rob us of our joy. And, the struggle is real - whether we're eight-years-old or eighty.

That boy of mine is precious to me. His smile has always melted my heart. He's handsome and sweet and genuinely funny. He can truly be quite the charmer. Not to ad, he's a leader in the classroom and on the ball field. He's one of those kiddos his little peers look up to. And, as a parent, I take great pride in that. Through my rose-colored mommy shades, he's perfect...just like I always aspired to be as his mommy.

A stark reality recently brought me down a few notches. Despite the best of my intentions and genuine effort, my children are not immune to falling victim to their own free will. And, when the reality of this stared back at me this week, it was ugly.

The guilt immediately overwhelmed my heart and soul like a heatwave in the dead of summer. I began to put it all together - the little white lies, the subtle changes in behavior, the issues bubbling to the surface over the course of the last few months that we tried to handle appropriately with each given occurrence, but that I also denied were much of anything at all - it was all now undeniable.

I want nothing more than for others to adore my children as much as I do, for they are reflections of my husband and I and the love we share as a family. But, this boy of mine greatly angered me. And, for as much as I can barely stand to admit it, he humiliated me. And, worse yet, he disappointed me. I immediately began beating myself up over how it had escalated to this point.

What happened to my innocent little boy?

Where did I go wrong?

What could I have done to raise him better?

Then, something pretty amazing happened. Somewhere in between the convoluted reality of a mommy's deep -rooted love for her child, and the realization that this child is indeed flawed, God's grace was revealed to me. My child taught me that I'm no better than him at juggling the multi-faceted balls of this life. Without having an inkling of imagination beyond that he had done anything short of greatly disappointing his parents, he taught me that I'm the one that's a far cry from perfect as his mommy. In fact, I finally accepted through the eyes of my child this week that I’m very flawed as well. Just like my sweet little boy, I've given in to this world's temptations on more occasions than I'd like to admit. I've hurt others at the expense of my own pride. And, I've strayed from the path God wants for me on a regular basis.

I may be more than three decades older than he, but I am truly no better at discerning the difference between good and evil than he. I am his mommy, and certainly have periods of adult-like clarity, and, God-willing, a bit more wisdom. But, when it comes down to it, I am a child of God just like he is, and I make just as many mistakes - often times quite grander than his transgressions. So, who am I to be angry at this child for his lack of better judgement? Obviously it is the role of both myself and his daddy to school him in the differences between right and wrong, and to punish appropriately. But, I realized that his transgressions lent themselves to something far greater than that. And, it's only by the grace of God that my eyes and heart were vulnerable to the truth at that very moment.  

This discouraged mommy had the fortunate opportunity to bring myself to his level this week, and it's at this place that the epitome of clarity nearly plowed me over. I stared into he and his sweet little friend's innocent eyes as we sat "crisscross-applesauce" together with her mommy, and just talked - with no condemnation, or judgment, or fear. We were all four as real as real can be in that moment. And, it's at this place that I fully began to comprehend the fact that I am a terrifyingly blemished mommy who is just doing her best to raise this little boy and his big brother, and that I too fail. And, that it's okay to fail. We all make mistakes and we're all flawed, but we all also serve a God that's always willing to forgive, so long as we admit our wrongdoings and ask for that forgiveness.

With tears welled up in his eyes, and red blotches popping up on his cheeks, my child looked into the eyes of his dear friend, whom he had hurt, and said he was sorry. And, my heart grew in that moment as I witnessed innocence finding its way back to a little heart that knew he had failed those around him.  I too found myself on my knees asking for forgiveness (and help) a little more than usual this week - pleading for guidance in this world of sin where failure can capture our heart and soul and drag us into a perpetual pit of darkness.

When we remain rooted in the viscous cycle of our past sin and regret, we become a product of it, and it's hard to escape. So we just fall victim over and over again, because it's easier to just keep doing what we've always done. When we feel unworthy for a period of time, the tendency is to just stay right there within the sin in order to punish ourselves (and sometimes even those around us) without even realizing that we're doing it.

Something special was laid on my heart this week through the innocent filter of my child. I truly grasped the fact that it's often times during our greatest failures in life that we experience our greatest growth. Thanks to a little something amazing called grace, we are able to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and move beyond the sin and shame, and into a place of redemption. I just wish my mom was here this week so I could share with her this grace-filled breakthrough. She would have completely understood, smiled, and hugged us both.

Romans 5:3-5
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.




Sunday, January 24, 2016

Prettier

My mother, Melinda Lane Stranko Goodman, was a beautiful woman.
An overweight teenager who got pregnant with me at 19 and my sister at 24, she became heavier with both pregnancies, and disliked who stared back at her in the mirror every day for the first thirty-some years of her life. She longed for outward beauty. Then, her season came. Mom found a way to gain control of her life through a nearly 100 pound weight loss, make-up...and, really big hair!

Despite how she may have felt about herself on the outside, my mother was always beautiful on the inside. Her glass was perpetually half full, instead of half empty. The weather forecast was always partly sunny in her mind, versus partly cloudy. She never longed for many material items, for she appreciated the little things in life. And, I never knew her to truly sweat the small stuff. She had a positive perspective on most days, and embraced her situation, no matter how gloomy the outlook may have appeared. That large smile of hers lit up a room, and her laughter was utterly contagious.  She was the epitome of pretty.

For those who knew my mother in her thirties and forties, they recognized a tall, slender woman who seemed to be in good shape. She strived to be healthy and strong. And, most of all, she always looked pretty. She was not vain, but her outward appearance was very important to her. She exercised for at least an hour to two a day and utilized at least another nearly two hours on her hair and face. Deep down, even at her prettiest, I’m confident my mom didn’t think the woman who peered back at her was pretty.

I spent many years longing for her attention and priority, especially in those few years when she made herself the priority for the first time in her life…those few years before she left us. As a "tween," I witnessed my mother's transition into a stronger, more confidant woman, but the impact was not-so-positive on me as her young daughter.  She got up enough courage to say enough was enough. She wanted a new life, free from the chains of her past. My family was broken, and my heart ached with hurt and resentment over the mom I watched walk out the door with only the clothes on her back.

Hurt and resentment. That’s that kind of stuff that makes the soul ugly.  Resentment over her absence in my life manifested jealousy, greed, negativity and anger in my soul that festered for many years. And, I let it block us from the genuine love our hearts could have experienced as adult mother and daughter.

Although we had several years in my early adulthood to make up for some lost time, the pain from the past hung over our relationship like a sort-of-fog. The cloud didn’t completely overtake us, but it certainly prevented me from genuinely letting her back in to my heart. Sadly enough, my God took her home long before I had the chance to completely appreciate her inner and outer beauty all wrapped up into one fantastic person. For now as a wife and mother, I not only understand how important it is to prioritize the time to do things that make me look and feel pretty, but more importantly, I long to be pretty on the inside, just like she was.

During daily mass this past week, I sat in a center pew in plain view of Jesus hanging on the wooden cross of St. Bernadette Parish. And, it struck me how much more joy there is to be had, and that My God wants me to find it through his son, Jesus Chris. As I sat gazing up at His son’s body hanging on the cross above me, a deep longing to just be prettier over-took me…and not an external beauty.  I finally realized how badly my soul just longs to be joyfully-pretty.

My God always has a plan. And, I’ve never doubted that. But, his adversary, the ugliest of them all, can meet us in places we never knew he existed, and take us for a ride we don’t even know we are on, until we’re deep into his pit of darkness. And, although My God is always there right beside me, I have my own free will. And, that freewill chose to be ugly for quite some time, despite my faith and the love I am blessed to have all around me.

This journey called life can get messy. But, thank goodness we have a Savior to bring us out of those ugly places. I want to be pretty. I want my husband to feel love when I’m in his presence. I want my children to think of joy when they think of their mommy. I want my friends to know HIS peace when they know me. This seems so simple. And, it truly is. A content soul breeds peace, love and joy, and that’s what I long for these days, because that’s what makes a human being genuinely pretty.  And, that’s the kind of woman I long to be.

My God, make me prettier. For, as the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you (Psalm 42).

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

I resolve to just Be Inspired

The holiday hamster wheel we’ve all been riding at a fierce pace for more than a month has changed speeds in the last day or two, and will hopefully come to a screeching halt after this upcoming New Year’s weekend. We will all settle into 2016, and with it an opportunity to start fresh.

New Year’s resolutions can be a bit of a cliché, albeit they’re on the minds of many seeking a greater peace-of-mind, body and/or soul in the coming year. Most of us make them, only to be discouraged within weeks by our lack of inspiration. There’s not any bad excuse for our slacking ways. We get distracted with life, and its demands…work, kids (and their homework, their sports, their events and commitments), church, house work, etc., etc. And then, someone goes and gets sick, which inevitably always blows mommy’s priorities to pot! Or, perhaps we set our sights too high to begin with? No matter the reason, most years, we start out January with a bang, and end it in a worse place than we were before it started.

So, in an attempt to not be discouraged a month from now, I resolve to not set any established resolutions this year. No weight loss goals. No resolutions to be tidier, or healthier. No high expectations set for the type of wife and mother I need to be in 2016. No New Year’s lists are being made or being checked twice before midnight on Thursday by this harried full-time working wife and mother-of-two. Just a simple resolution to do my best each day to simply Be Inspired.

It’s a directive that will surely entail a re-evaluation each and every day, based upon the course my life takes. It will, in and of itself, entail a more conscious effort to pull myself up by my bootstraps on a daily basis. And, on days when I can’t muster the strength to do that, I had better make sure I’m not far from my parish’s chapel, where I can meet My God and quiet myself in his presence. Whatever the case on any given day, I will feed my soul. For this place deep within is where the inspiration lies. And, I’m confident if I resolve to just Be Inspired in 2016, my whole self and family will benefit in ways I never imagined possible a year from now. Simple inspiration fosters far greater action on its own that impacts every aspect of my body, mind and soul.

In the coming days I will close this chapter of my life entitled “2015” feeling encouraged by the peace one can acquire by being “10% Happier” (Dan Harris, 2014). Just like millions of other Americans, I will spend a bit of time these next few days pondering where I’ve been this past year, and where I’m headed.  I look back and remember discouraging moments. I recall words said that I wish I could re-tract. I am disappointed by particular opportunities where I may not have selected the high road, and was led down paths I wish I hadn’t traveled. At times this past year, my life journey stripped me of my character, and even of my dignity. I was knocked down a notch or two. But, I’ve discovered that when I’m down is always when I’m more inclined to let My God in. And, it’s here that he taught me the value of having a humbler, more peaceful heart.

This past April (not even a week after we celebrated his death and resurrection at Easter), I narrowly escaped a black wall cloud headed straight towards me at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. I had just completed one of the most inspiring conferences I’d ever attended and was anxious to get home to my family when the storm hit. More scared than I can recall being in my adult life, I was literally brought to my knees during that severe storm outbreak that occurred just moments before I was due to board my plane. I was alone, and I was scared. It was just me…and My God.

Later that April night, he met me in my St. Louis hotel room. He woke me in the dead of night with the charge to bring up a certain Matt Maher song on You Tube. I wept as the words to “Hold Us Together” were sang. Then, he inspired me to meditate for the very first time in my life, which introduced me to a whole new dimension of personal peace I’ve not ever known. Little did I realize he was preparing me for challenges that lie ahead. But, then again, that’s often how My God operates. It’s in these challenges that we can choose to either wither or grow.

Mindful meditation brought a far better peace to my mind and soul in 2015 than I’ve ever known, and I’m eager for more of it. I resolve to continue to work on quieting my active mind, and finding “my center” on a regular basis. I have an inner voice that seems to never shut up. However, I have discovered that the more I consciously quiet my mind through meditation, the more peaceful I become on the outside. I am more inclined to respond versus react when I’m “present” and not focused on the past or the future. This year taught me just how much my soul actually craves the peace, love and joy of the present moment. I resolve to continue feeding my soul in the New Year with daily inspiration.

It’s so ironic that I find it most difficult to be the best version of myself to the ones I love the most. My husband and two boys are my heart and soul, yet they are the ones who see the ugliest version of me on a regular basis. They see me tired and grouchy and impatient. They listen to my rants and react to my regular barking out of perpetual daily chores to keep the household running like a well-oiled machine.  But, how much peace, love and joy do they actually receive from me? I’ve struggled with this question in recent weeks, and have resolved to make it a little more evident to these precious people in 2016. Inevitably, if I follow through with the personal resolution to just Be Inspired, the ones I love the most will reap the positive benefits of this more “present” wife and mommy.

As I look back, I can whole-heartedly attest that my faith and prayer life strengthened greatly over the course of this past year. I've gained a bit more patience and far more perspective. I've learned to shut up a little quicker, and I do a better job these days of just responding versus reacting. For the first time in a long time, my year is concluding on a much more encouraging note than it began. But, there's far more work to be done.

At midnight this Thursday night we will hear the famous Scottish folk song, “Auld Lang Syne.” The hymn begins by posing a rhetorical question as to whether it is right that old times be forgotten. I say absolutely not. Never forget, as our pasts encourages pronounced inspiration. But, always forgive…ourselves and others…for that’s where the liberation lies. Freedom from our own personal chains fosters peace, and in centered peace we find boundless love and joy. So, here’s to an inspired 2016, full of peace, love and joy.

Auld Lang Syne
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

CHORUS:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

CHORUS

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

tra·di·tion * trəˈdiSH(ə)n/

Tradition is a word we hear a lot this time of year. According to Merriam-Webster, its definition stems from the Latin word traditio, which means “the action of handing over.” In twenty-first century America, it’s termed as “a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time.” Traditions often provide a source of identity to those who participate, strengthen family bonds and offer comfort and security.
 
No matter the struggles and strife that may occur within our families throughout the year, Christmas traditions always bring us back to center. These are what create that joy we feel in our hearts as adults when recalling the holidays we experienced as children. They’re what make our souls warm and our faces smile when we think about Christmas.
 
I remember our annual Christmas Eve trip downtown in the early 80’s to see the festive displays at Pogue’s and Shilito’s, and the CG&E train display, and Fountain Square adorned with twinkling lights. My dad still occasionally mentions the year one of the talking reindeer told me I “might be a little greedy!” Thankfully I don’t recall that episode! Santa would always drop off one gift for my sister and I on Christmas Eve morning that would accompany us downtown later that day. I particularly remember the year Rainbow Bright was in her heyday, and she joined us on our holiday city visit later that afternoon.

Chris and I took our boys downtown this season to ice skate at Fountain Square, and they were over-the-moon excited! We attended Cincinnati Reds’ Fan Fest down at the Duke Energy Convention Center first on that Friday evening in early December, and then walked the several blocks up to Fountain Square to the holiday ice rink. After about a half hour in line, and then the Zamboni’s inopportune cleaning right as we were fitted for our horribly uncomfortable ice skates, we finally checked into the rink about 10 pm that night. After a little more than an hour on the ice, we shut the place down well after 11. And, on the way home stopped by United Dairy Farmers for a midnight ice cream treat.  Our boys are certainly at a prime age to remember all the exciting details of our downtown holiday experience this year. Thankfully there were no mishaps on the ice!



The Murray's in downtown Cincinnati for a fun ice skating adventure.

I recall decorating my grandma and grandpa Stranko’s Christmas tree each year as a young girl with all the women in our family, and that memory warms my heart to this day. My grandma would leave that tree up until Valentine’s Day nearly every year if she could! And, who could forget my father’s silly Christmas tapes he would unbury each holiday season that included carols that no one else on this earth has ever heard. My sister and I still twitch when we hear Barbara Streisand’s version of Jingle Bells! 

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has also been a great family tradition that began when my family saw it in the theater on New Year’s Eve the year it came out – 1989! We would watch it on VHS (and later, DVD) at least a dozen times during the Christmas season every year, beginning with Thanksgiving weekend, and always culminating with a viewing during our Christmas Eve celebration with Dad’s side of the family, before heading to midnight mass. The one-liners from that movie are thrown out all year long in The Goodman Family! “Oh, Eddie... If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn't be more surprised than I am now.”

Special holiday traditions would certainly become a part of our Murray Family Christmas season. Some began before our boys were even born, like our Travel Tree. Some we incorporated into our household once the boys came along, like St. Nick and “Elfy.” And, others were just born this year – like our journey out to the tree farm for a real tree, and our Advent wreath centerpieces on the dining room table. The boys love this stuff, and all of it makes my soul smile from the inside out!

The Travel Tree
I brought home an ornament from Santa Cruz, CA during our honeymoon up and down the California Coast in July of 2000. I honestly didn’t think much about it, other than it being a cute little keepsake from our honeymoon that would adorn our family Christmas tree for years to come. Then, the following year we took several vacations, and I picked up an ornament from each locale – Key West & Key Largo, Cancun, etc. And, the following year we ventured down to Florida – Jacksonville and Amelia Island and then on over to Tampa, Clearwater and the like. At each destination, I picked up an ornament. By the time we built our new home in 2004, I had accumulated quite the collection of destination-based ornaments from our travels, and the idea occurred to me to buy a Christmas tree for our bedroom that holiday season. The Travel Tree was born!
The Travel Tree is a 5' artificial tree that is placed in our bedroom each year, and is adorned with
memories from all our many travels since 2000.
 
Truth-be-known, the Travel Tree is Chris’s favorite Murray tradition. It’s entertaining to re-visit all the great places we’ve traveled through the years – be it a family vacation, a work trip or just something fun we experienced regionally together on our boat. The newly-added ornaments of that year are always the first to be hung each year, and then we continue on hanging each of them, one at a time, recalling something fun about that location. Sometimes I’ve had to be creative – like when we went to Cabo San Lucas and I was unsuccessful with finding an ornament, so I converted a magnet into one that Christmas. Or, when we ventured down to Lake Cumberland a few years back…there’s an unsinkable keychain in the shape of a red life jacket hanging on my tree from that getaway. 

Our Lake Cumberland "ornament" is actually a floating key chain.
 
The boys’ favorites are the Disney ornaments - I'm sure for all the "magical" memories the destination conjures up in their little minds from our family vacation there in 2013. They are now old enough to remember the origins of many of the ornaments that cover our Travel Tree, like Hilton Head, The Outer Banks, and The Smoky Mountains. But, I love fielding the many questions that arise each year as they hang up ornaments from destinations they have not visited. One of my favorites is that round, red Las Vegas ornament. Little does Connor know he was our most treasured Vegas souvenir from our vacation to Sin City in 2005!



 
Ornaments from Disney, Hilton Head and Vegas are just a few of the many highlights of The Travel Tree. 
 
St. Nick
Santa Claus found his way to America, thanks to the rich tradition of St. Nick in European countries. In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is December 6, which falls early in the Advent season. In some European countries, he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. Other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children's wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come. It’s a tradition that has been passed down from generation-to-generation from Europe over to America.

The celebration of St. Nick is popular among Catholic families in the United States. I was raised Catholic although, I didn’t attend Catholic school, and my household was certainly not engrained in Catholic tradition. I attended CCD (now known as PRP), and often times it was my Papa who brought me to church on Sundays. I spent a lot of time at my maternal grandparent’s house when I was young and befriended two neighbor girls, Holly and Lisa, who ironically attended church and school where my household now attends – St. Bernadette. These friends were who first taught me about St. Nick – primarily because they always received fun little treats from this visitor the first week of December every year. I often wondered why this guy didn’t stop by my house too, and assumed it was a “Catholic school thing.”

My paternal grandparents immigrated to America from Holland (The Netherlands) after World War II. I was blessed to have known my Dutch family overseas for many years, the last living family member of which passed away this past year – Aunt Reik. My dad’s aunt, Aunt Reik, adored her American family, and would often send little trinkets to us around the holidays. When Connor was born, she sent him a pair of wooden shoes (“clumpers”). When these arrived, the wheels immediately began to turn regarding how I could weave his Dutch heritage into these shoes. And, the Murray St. Nick tradition was born. Owen also received a pair of wooden shoes from Aunt Reik when he was born a few years later, and she even sent a treasured picture of herself in the Amstelveen market when she purchased them!
Aunt Reik in the Amstelveen market where she purchased Owen's wooden shoes in 2008.
 
Every December 5th, the boys set their clumpers outside their bedroom doors. This past year, after I read a brief story to them that evening about the history of St. Nick, Connor got the idea to cut up some apples (since we didn’t have any carrots) and leave them in their shoes for St. Nick’s horse (tradition has it that he makes his rounds on a horse or donkey instead of a reindeer). And, even though St. Nick brings my boys pretty much the same thing every single year, a gingerbread kit and two wooden clumpers full of candy treats, they still get excited. We’ve made this tradition not only something they treasure as Catholic children, but one that keeps their Dutch roots alive and well in their hearts. 

The boys in their "clumpers" on St. Nick Eve.
 
“Elfy”
My mother-in-law discovered The Elf on the Shelf in 2009 shortly after this holiday tradition hit the market. She was so excited to bring him and his book over to the house. I hid it that first night in late November on the shelf in our entry way, and my oldest, only four at the time, got such a kick out of this jolly little elf. At only 18-months-old, Owen was too small to really get the gist of it, but enjoyed the hunt every morning with his big brother.

Since then, “Elfy” has made his annual appearance the weekend our first tree of the house goes up – generally the weekend after Thanksgiving (this year he arrived a weekend late, since we were a bit delayed getting our trees up). He is a mischievous little character, hiding in places that are sometimes more obvious than others. The boys’ favorites include the toilet paper party he has every year in the bathroom, and when he ends up dragging out their toys for his own nighttime amusement. This year that silly little elf even took a little poo and left behind some remnants on the toilet bowl! “Elfy” always gets into the cookies when we bake our annual holiday batch, and the night before that this year, he was hanging from the oven door in great anticipation!
"Elfy" makes a lot of mischief during our Christmas season!
 
What I love most about this holiday tradition is the boys’ excitement. My ten-year-old still barrels down the steps each morning in December wondering where Santa’s helper could be hiding. They leave him notes, and stare at him magically. I know the dynamic of this tradition in our home will probably change in the next year or so, but I’m confident we will morph it into a family hunt as they get older. What a fun way to celebrate the “magic” this season holds.

A new tradition
Shortly after Connor was born in November of 2005, Chris and I bought a beautiful 10’ artificial tree for our great room. We knew the next few years of having little ones toddling around would make for mayhem during the holidays, and an artificial would be far more practical. Me being the perfectionist that I am love to be able to mold and shape the branches of an artificial tree around each ornament. I also like being able to keep my tree up well into January if I wish. I can drag it up the basement steps on Thanksgiving weekend, and then back down whenever I please. I’m a Type A personality, and us Type A’s love an artificial tree! However, last year was the final year we could muster out of that beautiful artificial tree. We ditched it after the holidays.

Back in November I suggested to my husband that we take the boys out on a tree hunt this year. I didn’t want to purchase a new artificial tree, because we plan to move in another year or two and I don’t want to invest in another artificial tree not knowing if our next house will have high ceilings or not. He agreed. This would be a fun family outing, seeing as though our boys have never experienced a real tree in our home at Christmastime.

We picked the boys up from school the Thursday after Thanksgiving and headed out to Corsi's Tree Farm in the neighboring county east of ours. Chris and I had purchased several trees from Corsi’s when we were DINKs (dual-income-no-kids), but hadn’t ventured out to the multi-acre farm in many years. We were delighted to find only one other car in the parking light when we arrived around 3:30. We stepped inside the large heated barn that also poses as a small gift shop that offers customers holiday music, hot chocolate, and other festive treats. There was even the family’s large yellow lab lying next to the wood burning stove…an added extra for the boys! We told the owners what we were looking for – a 10’ Frasier Fir, and he advised where on the farm we should look. And, so we ventured down a long trail with our hot chocolate and Chris’s hand saw. The big trees were in the far back lots. About 45 minutes later, Chris found it – a beautiful Fraser tucked in between a couple of other large trees.
"Family Selfie" at the tree farm!
 
After about 30 minutes of sawing, I placed a call to the owner for “reinforcements” in the form of a chain saw and a John Deer Gator. They hauled our monster tree (and our boys) back up to command central on The Gator. After another cup of hot chocolate, and some friendly conversation with the farm owners, we loaded up our new tree into the back of our Ford F250 and headed for the house. 

Our boys and their tree.
 
We spent the next four days decorating our new holiday treasure. This tree is lit with more than 1200 white lights! Sufficed to say, the ladder stayed in our living room for nearly a week as this anal-retentive mother tweaked and re-tweaked her branches, but it was worth it. What memories this real tree brought to our family this season! The boys will never forget seeing half of daddy’s body stuck under that tree at the tree farm as he attempted to saw it down. Or, Owen’s little Charlie Brown tree he found that day (it was the top of another tree that had been sawed off, but they hauled it for him nonetheless, just the same as our big one, and even wrapped it for the ride home). His little tree sits in our living room with virtually no needles left, adorned with all his favorite little ornaments. And, Connor will never forget the moment he did the honors of cutting the rope that held up the branches once we got her stable in the stand…it was like a scene from National Lampoons Christmas Vacation! This tree is HUGE, and it’s perfect for us, and the memories it has brought us this Christmas season will leave a lasting impression for years to come. And, after this first experience of a real tree from the tree farm, we’re now confident this has become a new Murray family tradition. 
 
"Before" and "after."
 
This year we also incorporated two Advent wreaths to the mix of our festive home (one wreath for one child, and one for the other, so we would not have a fight on our hands each week when it came time to light the wreath!). Our boys learn about Advent each year during the Christmas season at their school, but we had never committed family time to celebrating the season with this Catholic tradition. Our parish conducted an Advent wreath event the first Sunday of Advent where families could make a small wreath and learn a little more about what this symbol stands for in the Catholic Church. Each Sunday evening during December, we spent a few minutes in reflection at our dining room table discussing what the Advent wreath symbolizes, and then we would light the candles for the week. The boys enjoyed the weekly lighting…especially Connor, who is oddly enamored with fire right now! I hope to carry this tradition through the years in our home, as it not only re-iterates important traditions the boys learn during the holiday season at school, but helps them to understand that Christmas traditions can be very simple and basic, and are not always centered around such pomp and circumstance.

Our family's advent wreaths.
 
What I love most about these traditions Chris and I have created for our own family are the smiles I get to experience on our boys’ faces that will hopefully be transformed into joy in their hearts as they grow older, just as our own childhood holiday traditions left an indelible footprint in our minds of what the season brings. I can only hope they will experience this joy well into adulthood whenever they think back on the season of Christmas and recall how they experienced it in our household. And, maybe they will even carry some of these traditions into their own families. I firmly believe this sense of childlike joy is what Jesus wants us to experience, as this season is all about families and love, just like it was more than 2,000 years ago in that little town of Bethlehem.



Monday, December 14, 2015

December 14: Not Just Another Day.


Mornings in the Murray household are pretty chaotic, especially the last half hour before heading out the door. Mommy is finishing up getting ready, all the while coaxing the boys off the couch and upstairs to get dressed and to brush their teeth. It’s a mad dash to get out the door by 7:35, and more often than not it generally involves me yelling, the two of them poking one another incessantly and then being sassy, and me yelling some more. By the time I drop them off at school, I feel like l have ran a half marathon. I anxiously rush them into their school building, and then take a deep breath once back in the car. At last…peace and quiet!

I visit our parish chapel most mornings after drop-off for 10 or 15 minutes of quiet time with My God, always praying for the safety and protection of my boys right next door, as well as the opportunity to be more patient with them later in the day. Most Mondays I light a candle for our week, praying for specific needs our family may have. It’s my time with My God. It quiets my soul and prepares me for my day, while also settles me from the craziness experienced just a few moments earlier.

I’m confident a similar morning experience is shared by many young families. The hurried frenzy…the "listening ears" turned to their OFF position…the words of frustration sometimes spoken to start our day that we wish we could take back once we drop them off. A deep breath, a few prayers, and some peace and quiet later, we think of our children and smile. But, 30 minutes prior to that, we are pulling our hair out!

On December 14, 2012, I’m confident there were many young families going through the same maddening morning routine. They dropped their kiddos off at school, or pushed them along onto their busses, thankful for the peace and quiet that occurred once their little darlings were gone. But, a few dozen mommies and daddies in Newtown, Connecticut didn’t have the chance to make it right later that day. Three years ago today 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and 6 adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary. Prior to driving to the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home.  As first responders arrived at the scene, Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Every parent’s worst nightmare occurred in Newtown, CT that dreadful morning three years ago today.

My December 14, 2012 was a day like most. A crazy morning trying to get my then-first grader and pre-schooler out the door. They weren’t quite as sassy as they are now as fourth and first graders, but our mornings were still chaotic! I went about my day, working as a Marketing Manager for Panera Bread. We had just opened the downtown Cincinnati / Fountain Square bakery-cafe, and if my memory serves me correct, I was downtown that day to support those post opening efforts.  After work, I went straight over to my Oma’s house to pick her up for our annual holiday shopping outing. I would load her and her wheelchair into my Toyota Highlander, and we would venture out for dinner at Bob Evan’s, and then hit a few stores that she needed holiday odds-and-ends from, like Kohl’s, Meijer, etc. It was hard for Oma to get in and out of the car at that point – she was 87, and when it was cold, her “wooden leg” got stiff…as did the rest of her body. So, other than dinner and a stroll through Kohl’s in her wheelchair, she would stay in the car while I ran in and out picking up the various items she needed for her family members and friends. She would stay in the car and listen to Christmas carols on my radio.

During our holiday journey around Highland Heights, KY that evening Oma asked if I’d heard about the horrible school shooting in Connecticut that day. I had not. Although I am field based, I often go about my day with the radio off. I either pray, or just take in the peace and quiet within the confines of my vehicle. I hadn’t watched any TV that day or listened to the radio until I tuned in the Christmas carols for her that evening. She told me a bit about what she’d watched on the TV earlier that day, and I just shook my head – yet another school shooting, I thought.

After getting Oma settled into her condo with all her holiday flare that night, I started home. I hadn’t been back to the house since before school and work that day. My aunt Kathy had picked up the boys from school, and hung with them until their daddy got home, since I had an evening with Oma planned right after work. I merged onto Interstate 275 and settled in for my 20-minute drive home and thought I would catch up on the school shooting details on Cincinnati’s am station, 700 WLW.

It was far more horrific than I’d even imagined.  A young monster walked into an unassuming elementary school in a small Connecticut town and opened fire. Twenty innocent first graders were murdered that morning, along with six teachers / administrators in a senseless act of evil. My mind immediately went to my first grader, Connor. Our school is a small private Catholic school in Amelia, OH. It’s totally inconspicuous, tucked into middle-class suburbia, with kids who are taught morals and values and how to love their God, and parents who are invested in the academics of their children. But, Sandy Hook Elementary seemed much the same in many ways.

Twenty little first graders went off to school that morning, probably some of which experienced the mad-dash craziness (just like mine do most mornings), but never lived to see their mommy and daddy that evening. They had hopes of Santa coming in 11 days, and thoughts of playing in the snow during their upcoming Christmas break, and all the hopes and dreams that little six and seven year olds can hold. All of this was stolen by the devil in disguise carrying a semi-automatic weapon.

The radio station spent a few minutes talking about this senseless act, and then proceeded to play one of those montage songs that combines a heart-wrenching tune with words spoken from the event. I could barely stand what I heard. First responders speaking of the horror they encountered that day; teachers crying tears of fear for what occurred at their place of employment; neighbors recounting the moments they saw unfolding in front of them at the neighboring school…all set to Silent Night.

I got home in tears and hugged my boys that night, thankful to be in their presence, as did probably millions of American parents the night of December 14, 2012.

I recently completed the book Choosing Hope, an inspirational memoir by Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary who saved her entire class of first graders on that horrific morning by piling all sixteen of them (and herself) into a single-occupancy bathroom within her classroom, only feet from the massacre taking place outside the door. The first grade class next door to them was blown to pieces. The unit in the book entitled MY DARKEST HOUR is hard to read – nearly 80 pages outlining the gripping way this tragedy occurred for her and her little “friends.”

First comes the initial blast of gunfire, then the sound of shattering glass. The hair on my arms stands up. I know right away what I’m hearing. Columbine is happening in the place we call Pleasantville. How can it be? Someone with a weapon is shooting their way into our perfect school. My classroom is the first in the building. We are in grave danger. Sitting targets. I jump up, run to the door, pull it closed, and switch off the lights. Thanks God for the dark blue construction paper I taped to the door for a lockdown drill and forgot to take it down. I can’t lock the door. My keys are clear across the room, on top of my desk, and there’s no time to fetch them. For what? A locked door is no match for a magazine of bullets. If we’re going to live, we have to find a hiding place. Fast. I look around the classroom. My students don’t seem to understand what is happening. One, the little girl I call our fashionista, because she wears things like leopard prints and leggings, stands there smiling. I can’t tell if she is somehow oblivious to the sounds or frozen scared. The windows don’t open wide enough for a first-grader to climb through, and who knows what or who is waiting outside. Evil is coming for us and there’s nowhere to go.

Where can we hide? Where can we hide? There’s only one place. The bathroom – a tiny first-grade-sized lavatory with only a toilet and a toilet-paper dispenser inside. Its dimensions are about the size of two first-grade desks pushed together. Maybe three feet by four feet. There is so little space that the sink is on the outside, in the classroom. I have never been inside of the bathroom before. An adult wouldn’t fit comfortably. How in God’s name will I get sixteen of us in there? It is our only chance. The impossible will have to become possible.

This heroic, twenty-six-year-old teacher crammed 16 little first graders and herself into that tiny space where they hunkered down for nearly an hour until the SWAT team coaxed them out (she was leery at first to open the door…partially in shock, but primarily just terrified). “Mrs. Roig” saved 16 little lives that day, yet felt lost in body, mind and spirit for quite some time after the tragedy. She couldn’t get the sight of the blood-stained hallways her class had to walk through in order to exit the building that day, or the shrieks she heard from students next door to her classroom as they uttered their last words on this earth before being murdered. She had lost colleagues, and her school community had lost 20 other first graders…it very well likely could have been her class. Her and her students came closer to death than any of us would dare to imagine, and it stunned her for a while. But, she didn’t let it define her, and soon committed herself to making this mess her message of hope. She now travels the country as an inspirational speaker for teachers and academic organizations, and is the Executive Director of Classes 4 Classes, Inc., an organization whose mission is to connect classrooms to care and to teach every child in our nation that our lives are not separate but very connected.

A November 2013 report issued by the Connecticut State Attorney's office concluded that Adam Lanza acted alone and planned his actions on that December 14 morning in 2012 when he opened fire on an innocent school, but no evidence collected provided any indication as to why he performed this horrific act, or why he targeted this particular school. Case in point – it could happen anywhere. Evil knows no boundaries.

Most mornings are crazy for my household, and I admit to being one of those mommies who flies off the handle more often than not in our early-morning frenzies. But, since reading “Miss Roig’s” book these past few weeks, I’ve been a little calmer in the mornings. I try to take the the time to not only give my boys a kiss before sending them on their way, but look them in their eyes and hug them tight (even if I don’t get a warm embrace in return!).

Today, after dropping them off I headed over to the parish chapel and asked God’s grace on the twenty-six angels who lost their lives in that senseless act of violence three years ago – only 11 days from the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. My heart felt heavy for the families of those 20 little innocent first graders (my youngest is now in first grade), who would now be in the fourth grade (just like my oldest is today).

I get to spend the next 11 days among the frenzied holiday countdown of dealing with Christmas tantrums, and wrapping their presents in preparation for the big celebration, and somewhat dreading the two weeks they will be off school and home pulling one another’s hair out each and every day. How blessed I am to have these worries. And, may God bless those Sandy Hook mommies and daddies who don’t have their fourth graders to hold this holiday season, for the fourth Christmas in a row. I pray a peace that surpasses understanding is upon their hearts on this day, and I thank God I still have my baby boys to hold this Christmas.
 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

THANKFUL

We’re upon one of my favorite weeks of the year – Thanksgiving Week! It’s a short school and work week, there’s a plethora of delicious food and quality family time to be had, my birthday is generally thrown into the mix (depending on where the 24th falls in regards to Thanksgiving), as well as a traditional day of shopping with my mother- and sister-in-law on Black Friday. So, on this Thanksgiving Eve, I thought it appropriate to show a bit of gratitude for what I have and where I’ve been this year. Two-thousand-and-fifteen taught me some life lessons, as well as led me down a few rocky roads (that produced its share of tears along the way), but the journey carried me to a new destination – one of self-discovery, where peace, love and joy are present more in my life than ever before. And, I feel truly blessed.

My love
First, and foremost, I have a God that loves me despite my daily flaws, and a family that loves me nearly just as much as My God does! It’s hard to fathom being absolved of my daily shortcomings over and over again, and yet still being blessed with enormous grace, but that’s the God I serve. This year brought me face-to-face with some eye-opening moments of personal failure, yet My God knows my intentions, and he knows those are genuine, and for that, I am thankful. He loves me despite how many times I mess up, and he even sent his own son to the cross so I could live a life of liberty here on this earth he created. Pretty amazing stuff!


What makes me equally amazed is that My God loves and trusts me so much he gifted me a man that truly is my soul mate, and two boys that our love created together. We aren’t “perfect”, but my family-of-four is pretty fantastic. I have two children that believe in God, and know where to find him. They pray every day at their school, and at home, and are becoming good Christian beings. They are two boys who would rather be home hanging with their mommy and daddy on any given day than anywhere else. They know where their heart is most content, and where they are always safe and sound.

I have a husband who is my very best friend, and that makes me the center of his universe on most days, including on my birthday, when, every year, he plans a little something special that includes family and close friends. Yesterday was no exception! In addition to a new car stereo for my Toyota Highlander that is approaching 160,000 miles (me and my Highlander are “tight”…I will be driving her until she kicks the bucket!), he arranged dinner downtown at Joe’s Crab Shack for my family and our “besties”. It was a festive night of celebration. Jack Sparrow serenaded me to “The Birthday Song.” I’m one lucky girl.
All my "little friends" with Jack Sparrow at Joe's Crab Shack on my 39th birthday celebration.

My discovery
This year, I’m thankful to have discovered a peace of mind, body, heart and soul through meditation. I’d heard of the term meditation from many in Hollywood-and-beyond, who touted its therapeutic abilities. I had even known a few people through the years that gave it a whirl, but it was never in my realm of consideration. I was far too busy and harried with life’s daily demands to take time out for something like that each day, which in and of itself turns out to be counter-intuitive!

The basic act of meditation involves becoming present and aware of the now, and nothing else, which entails shutting down the constant chatter of the mind. Our minds truly can be our very worst enemies. I can attest that my mind has kept me vehemently stuck in the muck of the past, or has drawn me into a cycle of perpetual worry of the future, while my present continued to coast right on by without me.

I was first exposed to this our-mind-is-not-“us” way of thinking back in 2010 when I read Eckhart Tolle’s Practicing the Power of Now.  Although Tolle and his writings were reinforced by Oprah and her acclaimed book club, his teachings were far too “zen” for me. Not to add, how on earth do you achieve that type of awareness when you’re a full-time working mom of a few real high-maintenance off-spring? And, so I continued on with my multi-tasking ways in the counter-productive existence I was leading.

In 2012, during a time in my life when the pain of the past had truly taken hold of my entire household, The Untethered Soul drew me back to this mindset of finding enlightenment through the path of spiritual consciousness, by reminding me of that adversary I had deep within - “my mind.” By tapping into traditions of meditation and mindfulness, this read was powerful at a time when I truly needed something to just carry me away, like an old Calgon commercial. It proposed a practical perspective that made complete sense to me – it clarified how the development of consciousness can enable us to become present, allowing one to let go of painful thoughts and memories that keep us from achieving happiness and self-realization. I read it and completely agreed with so much of what the author (and spiritual teacher), Michael Singer, suggested. But, again, life continued to “happen,” keeping me trapped within the grips of the constant chatter within. I knew who I wanted to be, but had such trouble finding her and staying within that moment.

Then, 2015 happened with one sign after another that led me into the grips of this mindful awareness thing and the acceptance of my mind for what it is – my very worst enemy at times! Since harnessing the power of meditation a few months ago, I have seen firsthand some of the positive impacts it can have. Aside for a deeper sense of appreciation for life in general, and a longing to be a better version of myself each and every day, I have also experienced physiological healing I never expected from my regimen of just a few short daily twenty minutes of spiritual meditation. After only about a month of meditation each day, I discontinued my daily 50 mg dose of Zoloft (for anxiety and depression) that’s been in my system for the better part of the last ten years (except for during my pregnancies); I am  back on a consistent workout regimen a few days a week that includes a combination of strength training at my gym and consistent 5k runs (often times without “my tunes”…I instead take in the natural beauty around me and focus on my breathing for three miles); and, I have less chronic aches and pains. But most importantly, thanks to the power of mindful meditation, I am currently far more focused and committed to daily prayer time with My God than I’ve ever been in my life. Additionally, I am far more aware of the patience I need to put forth in the presence of my boys and am trying harder with each day to be more available to them in mind, heart and soul. Talk about some Amazing Grace!

Jesus is My Peace mediation
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-zt0KwhlqQ

My travels
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have partaken in God’s great earth in several awesome ways this past year. I visited St. Louis a few times for work (one of those visits included a “VIP” dinner on the field at Busch Stadium!), as well as one of my favorite states in our beautiful country – Colorado. I also enjoyed weekly excursions with my family aboard the Good Time’ing, where water therapy always takes firm hold of my soul and immediately drops my blood pressure in an instant! But, the greatest getaway of 2015 for The Murray’s actually occurred by happenstance.


This year was the celebration of 15 years of wedded bliss for Chris and I and we had that “once-in-a-lifetime,” all-inclusive family vacation planned to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. However, this over-committed mother failed to get the boys’ passport registrations into our government in time for our July departure. But, in God’s perfect way, he made it all up to us with a trip we will never forget down to Florida’s southwestern Gulf Coast. We rented a Hurricane deck boat and traveled out into The Gulf from our home base in Cape Coral, and up to Sanibel Island and Captiva. We experienced dolphins, horseshoe crab and manatees in their natural habitat at several uninhabited islands along the way, and at the end of our days, docked the boat right up to our “borrowed” condo that some good friends lent us in the wake of my absentmindedness.  Although Chris and I have been all over The Sunshine State, this was our first visit to the southwest corner of Florida, and it turned out to be one of our most treasured vacations to-date! Yet another fantastic opportunity God proved to us that he works in very mysterious ways…when we least expect it!
Me floating in The Gulf right off the coast of Sanibel Island, FL aboard our rented Hurricane deck boat.

My works
I am genuinely thankful for the blessing of gainful employment and fulfilling careers for both Chris and I. As Senior Marketing Manager for a Panera Bread franchise that encompasses Southwest Ohio, I have had various glimpses of how lucky I am to have a career with a company that does the right things for the right reasons
…from the top of the “food chain” all the way to the bottom. For example, Panera Bread recently launched the Food As It Should Be campaign that emphasizes “clean food,” a transparent menu, and a positive impact in the communities we serve.

In my role with this brand, I have the opportunity to help the less fortunate through various outreach initiatives and events. Most notably, each September I direct an event called the Panerathon to Fight Hunger. This 5k / 10k event raises more than $30,000 in one day from the motivational deeds of nearly 1,300 others in the community, and is nothing less than inspiring! For as much effort as I put into this event each year, I gain all that much more back from the impact I know The Panerathon has on my local community's hunger outreach.

But, it’s not just what I do that makes me feel so blessed, but more importantly, what it allows me to do that makes me most fulfilled in my life. I'm field-based, so I don't have to sit at a desk...and moreover, my job is not the same from one day to the next. Not to add, I can be at school whenever my boys need me. I work from home several days a week, where in between conference calls, I can throw in loads of laundry, and vacuum, and go out in my neighborhood and run for 30 minutes.  Each and every day, I thank My God, for what he’s given me in this career with Panera Bread. This year, my brand enabled my self-discovery to occur, and for that, I am very grateful.

Panera sent me to a life-changing seminar in April (that coincidentally happened to be the week after we celebrated the resurrection of our Lord on Easter). It's here that I came face-to-face with not only my wretched “mind” during the three-day “Mastering Performance” conference, but My God in a near-tornado at the airport as I was attempting my departure back home. I never made it out of St. Louis that scary Thursday night.

I saw the wall cloud coming straight towards me right there in the St. Louis airport terminal that April evening. There was no place to go. The airline attendant left the gate counter in a hurry once he saw it. And, many others scurried to the center of the terminal. I saw a Tornado Evacuation sign at the restroom entrance, and contemplated entering it, but opted to hunker down right outside of it. With Chris still on the phone, I slid down the wall of the bathroom entrance, and prayed for my safety and well-being. That was the first time in my life where I felt completely and utterly “alone.” I thought  if this tornado rips through here, I know no one. Granted, my director, whom took the course with me that week, was in an opposing terminal, but most importantly, the ones I held closest to my heart and soul were hundreds of miles away. I could be blown away…right here and now. Or, in the least bit, torrentially blown into a nearby ditch with debris swirling all around me.

The weather passed by the St. Louis airport that night…by a mile or two. After a few hours,  I settled in for the night over two delicious glasses of Chardonnay and room service at a posh airport Marriott. I was emotional, and exhausted. It didn't take long to fall fast asleep.I was awaken several hours later with an urgency to meditate for the first time in my life. So, I did so, in my darkened hotel room. And, during that session, God literally spoke to me right there. I was called to bring a song by Matt Maher up on You Tube immediately afterwards…a song I’d heard of, but never paid close attention to – “Hold Us Together.”
And love will hold us together
Make us a shelter to weather the storm
And I'll be my brother's keeper
So the whole world will know that we're not alone
This is the first day of the rest of your life...

This moment was what eventually broke me, in the middle of the night, alone in that hotel room. I recalled the terror I felt only a few hours earlier in that airport as I witnessed a wall cloud of darkness approaching me, only a few hours after the completion of three days that were meant to be what changed me. It was only me and My God alone in that St. Louis hotel room that April night. I felt HIS presence in the exact way he wanted me to...in a way I would NEVER forget. Life would not be the same from this moment forward.

I boarded my plane the next morning with much anticipation for who awaited me back home. I would arrive a day later than originally expected, thanks to the storms. It was Friday, and we had baseball games, and family time planned for the entire weekend. I felt so sure of the new direction my life was headed. I would be “better.” Although I always knew he was there, I truly felt My God for the first time during those few hours when I faced impending danger all alone. And, after being kept safe, HE spoke to me in the dead of night.

I was home, and safe, and in the arms of the ones who loved me most. I was ready to take on a whole new world. I turned everything "off" that weekend. No email. No voicemail. No "connection" to the outside world, because the connection I truly needed to focus on was right there in front of me. My world seemed still...and just right for a few days afterwards. Then, the devil attacked in the form of another mom, who was hurting in the same way I had hurt for so many years...from the depths of her soul. I was blind-sided, and stripped of my dignity. I was brought to my knees just as quickly as HE had lifted me up just a few days earlier. It left me utterly discouraged beyond my wildest expectations...in a way only the devil could produce. There’s no coincidence that this encounter occurred only days after my personal encounter with My God that night in St. Louis. And, I hope I can someday tell her about this time in my life, and what an amazing revelation it brought me, for it's in retrospect that we see our greatest growth. In the meantime, I pray for her every day.

Looking, back on the year, I know April was a turning point. I had the opportunity to grow both personally as well as professionally, thanks to that remarkable conference in St. Louis. I work for a company that wants me to be a better version of myself. This brand understands that if I'm happy, I am more productive, and if I am more productive, they are more productive. It's a win-win for all parties. I'm thankful for my company's "warmth" and the desire to make itself a more amazing brand with each passing year through its people that it helps be more amazing than we were the year before.

As for my husband, it’s been an exhausting career journey over the course of the nearly ten years he’s been striving to find his place. I always took his career for granted, as he was always the grounded one of the two of us. I never realized the foundation a man’s career has on his very existence until the crux of that existence was shaken in our household.

The road to this year has included three career changes for him since 2010, and much heartache and prayer. But, by the grace of God, he is back to the company he originally left Cincinnati Bell for in 2010, and his contentment in that career is what he’s been pleading to HIS GOD for many, many times over during the course of this career crisis for the last decade. He’s doing what he loves, and not only getting great accolades for his service and dedication, but getting paid more than he ever has to do something he truly enjoys. God had a plan for him this whole time. It’s amazing the road that’s brought him here…and only he can attest to that, but he’s finally “home.”

My holiday
The upcoming Advent and Christmas season is something I am looking forward to with great expectation and joy this year. There’s plenty of traditions, like shopping on Black Friday, family gatherings, and my boys’ eyes on Christmas morning, that I look forward to experiencing this year. I look back on the holidays with my family growing up, and no matter the heartache or stress we were dealing with, it tended to be put aside during the holidays, only to be replaced with good cheer and hope.

 
St. Nick is always a tradition I hold dear in my household. When both my boys were born, my Great Aunt Reik in Holland sent them their very own wooden shoes from the Amstelveen markets. Each year, St. Nick fills those shoes that they leave outside their bedroom doors with little goodies, and sets a wrapped ginger bread house kit next to those shoes. This year will be somewhat bitter-sweet, as my family not only said goodbye to Aunt Reik this past year, but her sister-in-law and best “girlfriend”, my Oma, just a few short months later. My "roots" are now all in heaven with Jesus. And, although I feel sad about this first Christmas without them here, I am thankful my boys have this tradition to once again experience on St. Nick morning that will carry their Dutch heritage far beyond the years their Great Aunt and Oma were here on this earth.

My household will light our first purple Advent candle this Sunday evening, praying for peace that surpasses all understanding this holiday season. We will give thanks for all God has given us this year with each candle we light the following few weeks, in anticipation for that day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with much celebration and hoopla in late December. For the kids it means a little something different than us adults, but it’s pretty awesome nonetheless.

My boys' 2015 Advent wreaths adorn our dining room table.

I
am hopeful for an amazing holiday this year.That’s what this season is all about – hope. Despite our struggles and heartache of the year, Our God wants us to have HOPE for what lies ahead. He wants us to wait with anxious, happy anticipation for the birth of his son, our Lord Jesus Christ on December 25th. And, that’s what Advent is all about – anticipation for the HOPE of our LORD. 

It’s been an amazing, blessed year for me and my house…and we will continue to serve Our Lord. Joshua 24:15 “If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

Happy Thanksgiving, and a joyous Christmas season to all!