Saturday, March 7, 2020

Refelctions on "Theology of Home" (#3): Setting the Table with Blue-and-White Transferware

Sometimes, I have an interior battle over THINGS.

I mean, I know that we're not supposed to love things--clothes, electronics, jewelry, household furnishings, knicknacks--too much, because they are of this world.  And as the saying goes regarding all the material possessions we accumulate in our relatively short lives here on earth, when our time comes to meet our Maker and begin our eternal lives (hopefully with Him!)--"You can't take it with you!"  None of it will be the least bit important in the hereafter.  Most of our stuff, quite honestly, will end up at Goodwill after our children have taken the few items they might actually want for their own households.

I know this, I do; and I want to become completely detached when it comes to things.  I want to give up any and all feelings of attachment I feel toward the "have to have's" that I've been collecting over the course of my 60-plus years on the planet.  I'm not there yet, and I dearly hope I'll get there in time.  But I'm working on it.  For instance, I popped into TJ Maxx yesterday and during the 20 minutes I was in the store I picked up four or five different decorative items that caught my fancy and then talked myself out of them and put them back.

They had the sweetest little porcelain candy bowls, with little bunnies perched on the side, some of them frozen in the act of climbing in.  I picked up two of these bowls, thinking that when my family comes for Easter brunch, one would hold chocolate eggs and the other jelly beans.  After all, they were only $4.99 apiece!  Why shouldn't I get them?  Then I paused and thought of all the pretty candy bowls I already have at home.  (None of them have climbing bunny rabbits on them, but they will certainly do for holding Easter candy!)  And I put those adorable little bowls back on the shelf.

Lest you think I'm bragging about my ability to walk away from the home décor aisle of TJ Maxx with nothing in my shopping cart, I have to be completely honest: I'm still thinking about those bowls, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that I'll be heading back to the store soon, hoping that there are still some left.

As I said, I battle.  Sometimes I win, but often I lose.

One of my biggest weaknesses over the years has been for blue-and-white transferware dishes made in England.  My love affair with blue-and-white started back in the early 90's, when my mother-in-law (who loved dishes and tableware like nobody's business) gave me 10 dinner plates she'd gotten years earlier at of all places the grocery store, which was running a special (spend X amount of dollars and get a plate for X).  These plates purchased by Mom for a mere pittance, emblazoned with a Colonial-era scene depicting Independence Hall, are now a collector's item.

My mother-in-law got me started with 10 of these beauties.

I was hooked.  And I started keeping my eyes open for inexpensive blue-and-white pieces to add to my collection at places like TJ Maxx and thrift stores.

Over the course of a few years, I found 15 of these at TJ Maxx, each for between $3.50 and $5.
I LOVE that they depict Ireland's Blarney Castle!

More TJ Maxx treasures, collected for a few dollars apiece over a number of years.  I think it's
fun mixing and matching the different patterns.

A thrift store find.

Some years ago, I was able to accompany my husband on a working trip to Amsterdam. 
So when I found this platter with its quaint Dutch scene at a second-hand store, it was hard
to resist.  (And I didn't resist!)

I feel like blue-and-white always looks good, no matter what the occasion.  At Thanksgiving, I add orange napkins; at Christmas, I use red and green.  I so enjoy setting my dining room table with these well-loved dishes.  They are just so pretty, but also so durable and affordable.  (And I know I have a lot of plates!  But we have a lot of people in our family now!  So they are getting used.  Often.)

Not all of my blue-and-white transferware makes it onto the table; some of it is for decoration only.  We are a Notre Dame family, so when I found a transferware plate dedicated to that beautiful campus on eBay, I had to have it.  My baby sister knows about my obsession, so when she and her husband were visiting Jefferson's Monticello, she got me a souvenir plate from the gift shop.  We live in VA now, so this iconic image has even more meaning for me.  These two very special plates hang on one of the walls of our dining room.

Just when I thought I had better put the kibosh on collecting blue-and-white china--I mean how much does one gal need?--my husband surprised me this past Christmas with possibly the coolest platter in existence.

It appears to have a typical Blue Willow pattern, but look closely...

BTW: This is not a sponsored post; but if you're interested in blue-and-white dishes with
all kinds of whimsical creatures on them, check out

My husband got just the reaction he'd hoped for when I opened the box and oohed and aahed about how pretty the platter was--but then laughed and exclaimed with delight a few seconds later when I realized it had DINOSAURS on it!  It totally took me by surprise.

That guy knows me, that's for sure.  Our boys were absolutely obsessed with dinosaurs when they were little fellas (actually, they kind of still are!).  To have found a platter that combines blue-and-white transferware with images of those prehistoric beasts is to have found the perfect blend of beauty and whimsy--both of which make my heart extremely happy.

Should dishes make me happy?  Maybe not; after all, they are just things.  But maybe the reason they do make me happy is that, for me, they are so much more than just plates, cups, and platters.  They symbolize hospitality, because I use them whenever we have guests for dinner.  They symbolize serving my family whenever we gather for special occasions.  They symbolize holidays spent together with my favorite people on earth.  It is not necessarily sinful to find joy in the things we use to set a beautiful table, as long as we don't make an idol of them.

I love this quote from page 121 of Theology of Home: "A life seeking God above all else is a reflection of a deeper, more profound order within the soul, an order that frees us of distraction and attachment so that we might strive with constancy for God.  In giving us a desire to live beautifully--in the humble garden clippings adorning our tables, in items arranged on a shelf with care and consideration--even in these quiet ways, he invites us to closely participate in his very essence which is beauty itself. (Emphasis added with italics is mine.  And I would add to the part about garden clippings and items on a shelf, "in the setting of a table with blue-and-white dishes.")

On that same page of the book, the great C.S. Lewis is quoted: "These things--the beauty, the memory of our own past--are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.  For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited." 

And that right there is the theme running through Theology of Home: we create earthly homes with as much comfort, beauty, light, warmth, peace, and security within their walls as we can, and we do this to make of them a foretaste of our final home in Heaven, the home for which we are always yearning ("the country we have never visited," as Lewis calls it), whether we are aware of it or not.

When I set my table with my beloved blue-and-white, it is not really the dishes themselves that I love.  They are beautiful, indeed, and just looking at them fills me with pleasure.  But what really makes them so special to me is what I am reminded of when I see them: memories of the times that our family or friends have been gathered at our table, talking and laughing and sharing a meal.  I hope that when our children and grandchildren look at them, they have that same association.

I have just one more reference from Theology of Home before I wrap this up: on page 84, the authors quote J.R.R. Tolkein: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

Perhaps there are worse things to collect, after all, than the blue-and-white transferware dishes that have graced our table for so many food-filled, cheer-filled celebrations over the years.  I hope they have made it a merrier world for the most important people in my life--a world that is not only merrier but also gives them a glimpse of what the next one will be like, when they're back home with God.

My dear late mother-in-law had 8 kids and 32 grandkids; we have 5 kids and 16 grandkids (so far).  I wonder if the desire to amass a huge collection of dishes kind of goes along with the territory when your family is so big...just a thought.  (Or a justification?  LOL)

Happy weekend, dear readers!  I hope yours is filled with food, cheer, and song!

Friday, February 28, 2020

Speaking of Fatima...Meet Someone Who Knows a Whole Lot about the Subject!

I mentioned Fatima briefly in yesterday's post, and it got me thinking about something extraordinary that happened way back in October of 2019.  It was the kind of thing I would have blogged about the very next day if it had happened in 2012 or 2013, when I was ablaze with blogging energy and pretty much posting daily here at String of Pearls.  But I haven't been on top of my blogging game for quite some time now, so I never got a post about it written up.  I never even shared it on Instagram.  It felt too important, in a way, to share lightly.

Am I making you curious about what in the world this event could possibly have been?

Well, here's the story.  One night in October, our daughter-in-law Ginger (wife of son #2) invited my husband and me to join the two of them for dinner at a restaurant near their home, and then to see the newly released Downton Abbey movie afterward.  They were going to be treating a couple of very special women who were visiting from Portugal to a dinner-and-a-movie night out, American-style, and they wanted to include us.  Aside from the two Portuguese women who were houseguests of Ginger's folks, a kind and humorous young priest, another friend of Ginger's family, was going to come along, too.

You're not going to believe this, but the special guests were two nuns...from Fatima!  One of them, Sr. Angela de Fatima Coelho, is very close to Ginger's family, and she'd made the trip (along with a sweet young postulant from her order) in part to visit them and to be present for the Baptism of Ginger's younger brother's new baby, for whom she'd been chosen as godmother.  While in the States, Sr. Angela was also slated to give some talks; because, you see, this incredible and holy woman actually plays a very important role in spreading the message of Fatima around the world.  She was nominated in 2009 to become the postulator for the cause of the canonization of then-Blesseds Jacinta and Fransisco Marto (who were named saints on May 13, 2017 by Pope Francis).  And she is currently the vice-postulator for the cause of the beatification of the third and last Fatima visionary, Lucia de Jesus dos Santos.  As if that work--along with the ordinary work of her religious order, the Congregation of the Alliance of Holy Mary--isn't enough, this amazing woman is a practicing medical doctor as well.

You might assume, with her consecrated status and all the lofty positions she holds, that this lovely young nun would come across as very serious, that she would be a rather intimidating person to meet, that she might act holier-than-thou and not be all that interested in ordinary chit-chat; but I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.  I have rarely met a funnier, more engaging, more delightful person in my life.  She simply exudes joy!  We talked easily and laughed often throughout the meal.  Sr. Angela speaks accented English fluently, and she was so interested in asking my husband and me about our lives and our family.  She talked about her own life and her work (which includes an overwhelming amount of exhaustive research) with humility, passion, and humor.  She was as down-to-earth as they come, in spite of the monumentally important work she has taken on, work that is so vital to our Catholic Faith.  I just adored her from our first hello, and felt that I was in the presence of someone who is closer to God than most of us mortals.  What a privilege it was to spend that time with her!

The young postulant who accompanied Sr. Angela was shyer and did not speak much English; but she, too, seemed to be just about as good as they come.

Before we parted for the night in the parking lot of the movie theater, Sr. Angela gave my husband and me some holy cards with pictures of the Three Seers of Fatima on them.

And then I reached into my purse to show her something that I always carry around with me: a relic card with a picture of St. Jacinta on it, which was a gift many years ago from a fellow football mom at our sons' high school.  (She'd made a trip to Fatima and said that when she was there she thought of me, because she knew how much I'd have loved it. I don't believe I've ever received a better compliment--or a sweeter souvenir.)

Sr. Angela's face lit up with excitement when I showed her my holy card, as you can see in this photo.

I felt my eyes welling up with tears as my husband and I parted from the group and headed across the parking lot to our car.  As I said, I felt very much as if I'd just been in the presence of someone very close to God--a woman who will probably be a saint herself someday.  It was a very emotional experience for me.

I probably should have explained this at the beginning of this post, but the reason Sr. Angela knows Ginger's family so well is that Ginger's dad has had a deep devotion to Fatima for many years.  He plans and organizes annual trips over there, where he takes on the role of leader to groups of pilgrims.  Fatima is like a second home to him, and he knows many of the priests and nuns who live and work there.  My husband and I affectionately call him "the Mayor of Fatima," and we are in awe of  his dedication to the cause of spreading the message Mary imparted to three young children there in 1917.  In a way, he is doing the same kind of work that Sr. Angela is doing.  And I can only imagine how pleased Mary's Son is with him for his efforts.  May God bless him in this important ministry!

If you'd like to learn more about Sr. Angela and her work, you can read about her here, here, and here. (I guess you can Google her name on your own if you're interested, so I'll stop there.)

God bless dear Sr. Angela de Fatima Coelho in her work.  And Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Ashes to Ashes

Yesterday after Mass, my husband and I went to Sam's Club to stock up on some of the items we usually buy in bulk--K-cups for one, as I did NOT give up coffee for Lent (because I am a weak human and I cannot imagine going 4 days without it, much less 40).

The ashes our pastor anointed us with had been mixed with a generous amount of oil, I believe; they went on wet and dried crusty, and they did not fade or wear off one bit during the day.  We both had to scrub them off with soap and water before going to bed last night.  So our ashen crosses were very clearly visible when we went on that shopping trip.

Anyway, there we were, proudly wearing our Catholicism on our faces as we went up and down the aisles (for once not sidetracked by all the tempting sweet and salty snacks and treats we usually find in our cart at checkout time, because LENT).  I actually love Ash Wednesday for that reason: everywhere you go that day, people know at least one thing about you for sure when they see that mark on your forehead: they know you are a Catholic.  They know you are a Catholic and you're not afraid to show it.

I thought we were the only people so marked with ashes in the whole warehouse, but for the most part I didn't feel like we were on the receiving end of too many questioning stares.  Then suddenly we met up with a man coming our way down the aisle, wearing that familiar black cross on his forehead, and he absolutely beamed at us.  He wanted to chat, to know which church we'd gone to for Mass. He was so obviously thrilled to bump into a fellow believer.

This random interaction with a stranger yesterday made me realize how blessed we are to be part of this world-wide Body of Christ: to be trying with all our might to follow in His footsteps, in a world that tells us our beliefs no longer apply to the modern age; and knowing that we are not alone, even when it can often feel like it.  We may not make as much noise as the radical, sometimes violent, revolutionaries at home and abroad who are trying to eradicate all traces of God and His followers, but we are everywhere.  Running into a fellow Catholic in Sam's was a reminder that there are millions and millions of us, all over the world.

I hope that Catholics in America will always be able to wear their Faith visibly, to wander the aisles of Sam's with Ash Wednesday crosses on their foreheads, without being attacked either verbally or physically.  In some countries, our Christian brothers and sisters are being persecuted and even killed for their beliefs.  Thank God and all His angels that so far, we can practice our Faith openly and in peace in the United States.  We must pray that the religious freedom promised to us in our Constitution will survive what might be coming--and I'm not going to get political here, because I don't want to use this blog that way...but there are scary ideas afoot, and they are taking hold.  I just have to keep reminding myself that Our Lady warned us at Fatima that Russia would rise up and spread her errors throughout the world, and that various nations would be annihilated; but She also promised us that in the end, Her Immaculate Heart would triumph. (However, it will take lots and lots of ROSARIES!)  So we must do what we can, but not give in to despair.

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!!

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Fat Tuesday Chez Pearl and Lenten Sacrifices

I woke up early this morning without an alarm, well before 6:00, and I'm embarrassed to admit that the first thing I did was reach for my iPhone to check my Instagram notifications. There was a reason that I was especially interested in the IG goings-on this morning.  But I'll get to that.

For the past few weeks, I've been trying to decide if I should give up or at least scale back on my Instagram activity for Lent.  I knew it would be a real sacrifice for me and I would miss it.  But I am often positively affected by many of the IG people I follow when it comes to matters of Faith, so I wasn't sure if it was the best Lenten sacrifice to choose.  Well, that wake-up call this morning convinced me that I might be just a wee tad too addicted (I mean, should my first thought upon waking be, "What's happening on Instagram"?!).  So I decided then and there that I am going to limit my time on the site significantly for the next 40 days; I won't give it up completely, but I'll do a sort of intermittent fasting from it.  I'm going to try to stick to allowing myself a daily one-hour window for enjoying any social media--Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but let's be honest: I spend most of my time on the latter--and when the window opens and closes will be dependent upon whatever else is going on in my life on that particular day.  For instance, my husband and I are going to Mass this morning and then trying to get some projects done around the house; so I'm going to save my hour of screen time for later on this afternoon, when it's time to take a little siesta.

If my boys are reading this (which they probably aren't!), they'll no doubt want to tease me, because it will remind them of that Lent years ago when I didn't give up TV altogether, but gave up watching my favorite show (which was in syndication, so re-runs could be viewed every day), Everybody Loves Raymond; and I didn't give up coffee altogether, but gave up my beloved Dunkin' Donuts road coffees (which I normally ordered at the drive-through window almost daily).  "Wow, Mom, way to go all-out!"  I know, guys, but I am weak--what can I say?

Anyway, on to the reason I was so anxious to get on IG this morning: last night we had our first ever Mardi Gras party.  My husband and I always celebrate Fat Tuesday, mind you.  We always try to eat as much of what we may be giving up for Lent, to feast heartily before we fast; but we've never actually hosted a real celebration.  So of course, just before the stroke of midnight (in case I decided that I was indeed going to give up IG until Easter), I posted some pictures of our grandkids from our little family Fat Tuesday shindig, and I couldn't wait to see who'd seen them and what they'd said.

I mean, the pictures were fun.  The little ones were looking awfully cute in their party gear.

But how weird to realize that the first thing I want to do in the morning is grab my iPhone off my bedside table and log onto Instagram...yikes!

So I'm scaling back--not giving it up completely (because, you know--what the meme says).

It's obvious that I need to make time for other activities that should take priority.  My first thoughts upon waking should be about prayer and daily devotions, not checking to see who among my Instagram friends (many of them only eFriends, not IRL friends) has been in touch!  I need to make more time for prayer, to be sure; and I'd also like to make more time for reading (actual books, not IG feeds!) and for writing.  I'd like to get back to checking in more often here at String of Pearls, even though blogging seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs.  I've noticed over the past few years that as my Instagram activity has increased, my blogging output has decreased significantly.  And I feel like blogging has been good for my well-being over the past 9 years.  Writing is such a wonderful emotional and intellectual outlet for me.  Playing with words is one of my favorite activities.  So this is where I hope to spend the bulk of my online time for the Lenten season.

Okay then, until next time, God bless you, dear readers!  And whether you've decided to make a small sacrifice or a heroic one to unite yourself to Our Lord and His suffering this Lent, remember: you're not perfect, but you're awesome.

Oh...and would you like to see a few more photos from Fat Tuesday Chez Pearl?   I'm going to assume that would be a yes.  :)

Postscript: We were getting ready to leave for Mass this morning and I saw a text notification from one of our daughters-in-law; so I opened my phone and just out of ingrained habit, I hit the Instagram icon!  Day one, and I already know it's going to be hard.  I exited the site immediately, but reprogramming myself is going to be challenging.  I think it's going to be even harder than giving up desserts, which I'm going to try to do as well.  Please pray for me!!

Monday, February 10, 2020

Social Media and the Thief of Joy

In my last post, I discussed how dangerous the comparison game can be: how it can rob us of peace and tranquility, making us feel inadequate and unlovable; how it can make us forget that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, with an immortal soul that is unique and beautiful and worthy of love; how we were all made exactly as we are meant to be, warts and all (yes, we all have them--and that's okay!).  Why do we look at others around us and feel like we don't stack up?  Why do we think, If I was just [prettier, smarter, thinner, more talented, more outgoing--you fill in the blank] than I am, I would be [happier, more successful, more confident, a better mother, more beloved--fill in the blank again]?  Maybe you don't do this, but every now and then I do, and I know it's a terrible habit that I need to break.

I've struggled with this off and on throughout my life.  For instance, in this 1978 photo of my husband and me, taken at a friend's wedding when we were going into our junior year of college, I can remember comparing myself to the other females at the reception and wishing I looked like anyone but me.  I'd gained the freshman 10 and then added another 10 my sophomore year, decided to cut my hair short and regretted the change, and was wearing an extremely unflattering dress.  And there he was, my matinee idol boyfriend, so handsome I could hardly look at him without becoming breathless.  What did he see in me, anyway? I wondered.  I could be so hard on myself!  And why?  This guy loved me!  He could have discarded his high school girlfriend for someone "better" when we went off to college in different parts of the country, but our long-distance relationship was still going strong after two years of mostly being apart.  (We had no Facetime, but wrote lots of letters!)  2020 Laura, 39 years into an extremely happy marriage to the good-looking guy in this picture, wishes she could tell 1978 Laura to lift up her head and smile with confidence, secure in the knowledge that he wanted her just the way she was.

At the end of that last post, I hinted that I would be back to explore the topic of comparison further, focusing on how social media has made the habit of comparing ourselves to others even more of a problem than ever before.  So here it is, another post just days after the last one!  (Is blogging back?!  Maybe not, but I am.  And thanks to all the nice readers who left sweet and encouraging comments for me last time I was here.  I was feeling the love--and I finally got around to replying to all of you wonderful people.)

I don't know about you, but I find that I am sometimes left feeling a bit blue after too much time spent scrolling through Facebook feeds.  It's not just that Facebook has become a popular platform for uncomfortable discussions about politics and countless nasty anti-religion/anti-life memes; it has, but there is also plenty of positive news, daily, about family and friends, some of them long-lost before the advent of social media--not to mention all those wonderful photos of loved ones that you might not otherwise see.  There is so much good to be found there, no doubt about it.  But there is also so much bad.  And some of what is bad comes from looking at all the good and worrying that in comparison to what you're seeing, you or your life is "less than."

Jenny Uebbing, one of my favorite Catholic wordsmiths of all time, touched on this topic in her recent Instagram stories, admitting that sometimes after ingesting too much social media she comes away asking herself questions like Why can't I get up early and work out? or Why aren't my kids X,Y, or Z? or Why doesn't my house look like that?  She went on to talk about the danger in this--how social media is really just two-dimensional, and how it gives us a 40,000-foot view of other people's lives (I'm paraphrasing here, trying to remember exactly how she put things), so we're not really seeing the whole picture. I realize that deep down, everyone probably knows this about social media; they know that people usually only post the good and the beautiful, the uplifting aspects of their lives, not the dark struggles they might be going through at the time. (Because I don't care how blessed you are, let's face it: no life is ever lived without trials and tribulations, without sadness, fear, and loss.)  I mean, there's nothing wrong with wanting to share mostly the best portions of your life with the online world.  But this can also lead people to compare, and then to feel down because their lives don't seem nearly as bright and sparkly as those light-filled images and upbeat captions they see--even though they know in their heart of hearts that these images and captions don't tell the whole story.

The other danger about comparing our lives to the Facebook and Instagram feeds of others, Uebbing observed, is that we're not all at the same point in life at the same time, and it's harmful to compare our lives to those of people going through completely different stages than we're going through.  How true is this?!  You might feel like you're drowning right now, with a houseful of crazy toddlers and demanding babies, or a couple of angsty teens, and find yourself worrying about how your children are going to turn out and wondering how things will look 10 or 20 years from now.  Then you'll see a picture of a family you know, showing the kids all grown-up, happy, and successful; and without even knowing you're doing it, you might start to feel like  maybe you're a failure as a parent, even though you're not seeing all the many difficult stages that family went through as they traveled the bumpy road you're currently on to get to where they are now.

You can do this in reverse, too, which is what I sometimes do; I see all the wonderful things young Catholic Instagram mamas are doing with their children, how they're creatively celebrating the different liturgical seasons and the feast days of the saints, and I'll worry that I didn't do enough to help instill the Faith in our boys back when I had the chance. When I do this, I'm comparing a grandmother who is now at a stage decades ahead of these moms, a mother who did her very best at the time and shouldn't waste her time on regrets, and it seriously makes no sense.  Especially because although my husband and I had to deal with our share of challenges and certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way, we somehow managed to raise five terrific sons who are still practicing Catholics, are in sacramental marriages with lovely young women, and have given themselves over to the will of God as far as how many children they will have.  Somewhere along the way, I guess, we must have done a few things right.  (Or maybe we're just incredibly lucky.)  So looking back and wishing to change anything that we did is an exercise in futility.  As my late mother-in-law (who quite successfully raised four sons and four daughters) used to say, "If you change one thing, you change everything."

Who would change this?

Or this?

As a mother, you can't help panicking just a little when your kids grow up and leave the nest for the first time, wondering if you've done all you could to prepare them for life; this certainly happened with me.  Danielle Bean describes those feelings better than I ever could in this Instagram post I stumbled upon recently, written as her daughter was getting ready to leave for college:

"We tend to pause and doubt...Did we say all the things?  Teach all the lessons?  Read all the stories?  Say all the prayers?  Did we do all the stuff?...Was it enough?  I can look back now and see that we did a lot of things, but it was not enough.  It is never enough.   We always fall short.  But God knows what he is about...We all fall short, but the gaps leave room for God.  And he fills them with grace."

I love that!  God fills in the gaps!

It's hard enough to think you're doing a good enough job raising your kids without the added pressure of seeing how everyone else is doing it, all the time, all over social media. I am so, so thankful that there wasn't that kind of added pressure when we were raising our boys!  I think it must be tougher for my daughters-in-law to feel they are "enough" (and believe me, they are MORE than enough!), when everyone is online, over-sharing, presenting a picture that makes it look like they have it all together, all the time.  Some young moms can handle it just fine, taking it for what it is and not letting it affect their confidence and peace of mind; if I was just starting out now in the motherhood game, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be one of them.

I think this post has gone on long enough, so I'll just wrap it up by saying that even when I catch myself succumbing to the dangerous practice of comparison, I simultaneously feel like the luckiest and most blessed woman on God's green earth and know that I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's.  So why do I ever waste even a single moment of this precious time allotted to me wishing for even one aspect of it to be different?  My mother-in-law was spot-on: if you change one thing, you change everything.  If I had been a different sort of person, or if even one thing had happened differently along the way, I might not be where I am today.  And that is the LAST thing I would want.

So here is what I'm going to strive to remind myself, whenever I start to compare myself to others and feel "less than": You are God's precious child.  You are perfect as you are--which is not to say that you are perfect, because the only human being for whom that adjective is true is the Blessed Mother; but you are the person God meant you to be, with the looks, talents, and temperament He gave you to use to use wisely and well, in order to make your way back to Him and become a saint in Heaven.

Teddy Roosevelt's famous quote bears repeating: "Comparison is the thief of joy."  Truer words were never spoken.  If checking Facebook or Instagram too often leads you to let that cruel and conniving thief rob you of your joy, take a break from social media for a bit.  Instagram is a mostly positive force in my life; but even so, I'm thinking of doing just that for Lent.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Mary's Beauty is the Standard

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my husband on a four-day working trip to Rome.  We flew (or rather he flew, I rode) over on Sunday, January 19, had the 20th and the 21st to explore bella Roma, and then we made the return trip across the Atlantic on the Wednesday the 22nd.  It was a wonderful whirlwind trip, and I suppose I should have blogged about it. But like just about every other blogger under the sun, these days I seem to spend more time over on Instagram than I do here.  (Mea culpa!  But it's just so easy posting something quickly on my phone, no matter where I might be at the time, rather than finding an opportunity to sit in the office at my laptop.  That must be why so many others have made the transition from blogger to 'grammer.)

But just when I thought it might be time to close up shop at String of Pearls, a funny thing happened: a few days ago, I was talking to one of my daughters-in-law about how I never make the time to blog anymore, saying that I was pretty sure no one is missing my blogging presence, and she surprised me by saying that she checks all the time to see if I've posted something new.  I hate to let any of my girls down--so thanks for the motivation, Preciosa.  This one's for you.

Anyway, I'm not going to post pictures from that short but very sweet recent trip here right now (you can see those if you visit my Instagram page, by clicking on the icon over on the sidebar there); well, actually that's not completely true, because I am going to post just one.

The night we got back from Rome, we said our daily Rosary and other novena prayers in our living room (fondly nicknamed "the Rosary Room"), and then we sat on the couch and talked for a while, reminiscing about our little Roman holiday.  My husband started scrolling through his iPhone pictures from the trip, stopping at one to show me and say, "I love this picture.  Now that's a beautiful face."

I looked over to see which picture he was talking about.  "THAT one?" I said, incredulous.  "You actually like that picture?"

"I love it.  You don't?" he said, equally incredulous.

"NO!"  (I might have grimaced.)

"You're nuts," he replied.

I'd asked him to take this picture during our al fresco dinner at a restaurant in the Piazza Navona, after I'd taken one of his handsome mug as he sat across the table from me.  When he'd shown it to me right after he snapped it, my immediate reaction was a silent, "Ugh!  Why am I so unphotogenic?  No filter can fix that one!"  I ticked off the flaws: too-squinty eyes, too-fat cheeks, too-limp and scraggly hair--and too-big glasses.  If only I could have the big wide-set eyes (20/20 vision eyes, without bags under them!), sculpted cheekbones, and voluminous hair of a supermodel, THEN maybe I could see myself as beautiful--in his eyes or anyone's.   So it truly astounded me that he could look at this photo and see beauty there.

This was not a healthy reaction, I realize; why would I want a different face than the one my husband loves?  Why would I think he would want a different--a "better"--face?  I was playing that dangerous comparison game--you know, the one you always lose, because we all know (or should know) that Teddy Roosevelt was absolutely right when he famously said, "Comparison is the thief of joy."

But it can be a struggle sometimes, because we women do long to be seen as beautiful; as Carrie Gress says in The Anti-Mary Exposed (which should be essential reading for all women, I believe!), "The desire to be beautiful is deeply embedded in a woman's soul...Even the smallest girl will tell you she wants to be as beautiful as a princess.  This isn't cultural conditioning; it is something universal that sits squarely in the feminine heart."

The trouble is that the world bombards us constantly with images of feminine beauty that few earthly mortals will ever have, images that focus on the merely physical.  So we get stressed out about our weight, we spend too much on cosmetics, we bemoan the appearance of gray hairs and wrinkles. We all give lip service to the idea that "inner beauty is what counts," but then judge ourselves harshly when our outward beauty doesn't live up to accepted (and mostly unattainable) standards.  Gress points out that every visionary throughout history who has had the privilege of seeing the Blessed Mother has reported that She was "the most beautiful woman he or she had ever seen."  But it's essential to understand why She was so beautiful: "Mary's beauty is important because it is the outward expression of her complete perfection emanating from God's beauty. We can never be as beautiful as Mary, who was conceived without sin; but we can strive to be as much like Mary as humanly possible.  She sets the standard.

My husband loves my face--because he loves ME, all of me (even when I'm occasionally nuts), and he sees glimpses (infinitesimal ones, but glimpses nonetheless) of God's beauty emanating from it. So it is with God; this kind of unconditional love from my husband is a reflection of the Father's love for me, for all of us.  Despite our sins.  Despite our flaws and failings.  He loves us, body and soul, and wants us for His own. He made me exactly the way He wanted me to be, with these eyes, these cheeks, this hair, but most importantly, this soul.  I am an unrepeatable soul, with inestimable worth, God's very own beloved child.  Whenever I cringe at a photo of myself, I need to remember that in His eyes, I am beautiful. This, then, is the reason my husband sees beauty where I see only physical flaws and features I would make more "perfect" if I could.  He sees his loving wife of 39 years, with whom he shares a sacramental bond that will hopefully help us both become saints; he sees the devoted mother of his five sons, the five precious souls God entrusted to our care; he sees the doting Grammy of the 16 grandchildren he absolutely adores; he sees the woman he is growing old with and whose presence--incredibly--he never seems to tire of.

I will probably never think that this photo from our Rome trip is particularly flattering.  But I’ll always be grateful for the guy who took it and the way he loves me.

I have a lot more to say about that sneaky thief of joy and the way social media has made it almost impossible not to succumb to the temptation to compare ourselves to others, but this post has gone on long enough.  So perhaps I will be back tomorrow--or if not tomorrow, very soon!  (Keep checking, Preciosa!)

Friday, January 10, 2020

One Last Book Signing

Back in mid-December, I was given the opportunity to do a book signing at our [relatively] new parish in VA, along with a much better-known and more commercially successful Catholic author, Steven R. Hemler, who has had several non-fiction works published by Tan Books.  Steve is a fellow parishioner, and he was going to be selling and signing copies of his books after Masses that weekend; the lovely woman who manages the church office had been made aware that I had written a couple of Catholic novels when I set up a table to sell them at the parish's annual Christmas craft fair/thrift sale the first winter we lived here, so she very kindly extended an invitation for me to join Steve.

I had this cardigan embroidered--with a Claddagh design and the title of my second book, 
Erin's Ring--back in 2014, to wear at book signings.  It has not been worn very often!

I did not sell a lot of copies of my books that weekend (#parforthecourse), but I had a wonderful time getting to know Steve (who also travels around to speak to groups about the Faith) and having in-depth conversations with him about all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the process of writing books and getting them published.  He was so kind to me, an unknown greenhorn author, and gave me lots of tips and advice about how I might go about having my books republished (now that they have been discontinued by Bezalel Books, due to poor sales) so that they might reach a larger audience.  He encouraged me to think about breaking up my epic-length novel, Finding Grace, and making it into a two or three book series.  Because while I personally happen to love, love, love long books that don't end too soon, the vast majority of the reading public likes to consume fiction in easier to digest portions.  (The word count for Finding Grace is about 200,000, whereas the popular number of words for a novel is about 50,000, I believe.)

Someone snapped a picture of Steve and me sitting together at this table, which I would love to share here, 
but they forgot to send it to me.  Oh well...

Anyway, Steve gave me a contact at a well-known Catholic publishing house, a friend of his who both works for the company and is a fiction author himself, and encouraged me to get in touch with him.  I did send this person an email inquiring about the possibility of republishing, and I received the most thoughtful, surprisingly long response from this kind gentleman.  I can't even tell you how much it meant to me that he would take the time to write it.

For the past five years, I have felt a bit guilty that Erin's Ring, a book for which I was given an advance and a real author's contract from Cheryl Dickow at Bezalel Books, has not done better.  I've worried that I haven't worked hard enough to figure out how to make it sell, because I really wanted it to have been a good investment for Cheryl, who went out on a limb for me.  She believed that Erin's Ring might find an audience, at least among Catholic homeschoolers, but it has not.

HOWEVER, for the first time in a long time, I feel as if a giant burden has been lifted off my shoulders, because I realize that there really is little I could have done differently that would have made my books commercially successful.  The fellow from the big-name Catholic publishing house told me, "For whatever reason, fiction doesn't sell that well in our market...We don't publish many fiction books but the ones we do are lucky to sell several hundred, while we expect our non-fiction books, whatever the subject matter, to sell between 1K-5K in the first year and continue to sell after that."  So obviously, no publisher is going to want to republish a work of Catholic fiction that has already been discontinued by another publisher because it has failed to sell well after years on the market.  His advice was to "put those other books to rest and focus on something new."

These words sound like they might make an author feel like a terrible failure, but they had the opposite effect on me.  I have been trying to keep promoting my books here and there, over on Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitter, and here on my blog--because as I said, I felt I owed it to my very generous publisher to try to make them sell.  I joined Goodreads and LinkedIn as well, thinking that all those social media platforms might help to get them some exposure.  My marketing and promotion skills are very weak, to put it mildly, but I've tried the best I know how--without much success.  So that email yesterday was a gift!  Knowing now that even if my novels had been published by a bigger company with more name recognition than Bezalel, and even if I had been less shy about promoting them, it's doubtful they would have done any better than they have, I finally feel free of guilt and light of heart--freer and lighter than I've felt in years.  I can, as this helpful insider advised, put those books to rest.

Focusing on something new might be great advice...but I don't seem to have the time and/or passion required to start a third novel these days.  Every life has its definite seasons, and I am in the Grammy season right now, so my career as a fiction author may be coming to an end.  And that book signing at our new parish may be my last ever.  But I am totally at peace with that.

I still have in my possession a fairly large number of copies of both of my novels, which I purchased for book signings, gift-giving, promotional giveaways, or sending to reviewers--and even offering for sale here at the blog.  I don't expect a lot of blog sales will transpire, but that's okay!  I intend to keep whatever copies I have to pass down to the next generation of my ever-growing family, my ever-lengthening string of Pearls.  I would love for these books to be an inspiration to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren; if they have a dream, I want them to reach for it, no matter how unattainable it seems.  And if in the eyes of the world they appear to have failed, I want them to know that they can still consider themselves successful in the only way that matters--if the work they've done has given glory to God, from Whom all blessings flow.

God has a plan; I believe that with all my heart, and I trust that He knows what is best for me and for the state of my soul. He didn't think I'd need a lot of book sales or writing accolades...but He thought I'd need a lot of grandchildren.

You know, I like the way He thinks.