The Man on the Bench

We have recently participated in Advent service projects with both the school and the parish to help the homeless and others in need. It is my hope that we take a few moments to really reflect on those we helped, beyond simple sending in an item or blanket to school. Perhaps for me, a drive to work that added meaning to these projects for me.

On a recent drive to work, I noticed a man sleeping on a bench on the side of the road. He was wearing torn jeans and he had plastic bags over his shoes to protect them from the morning dew. Shielding his face from the morning sunlight, was a torn winter coat, held together in several places by a few pieces of what looked like Scotch tape. I had seen him twice before, but this was the first time I was forced to stop right next to him at a red light.

My closeness to him drew me into his story. I wondered what was in the bag that he carried. I know he must have a family, but I wondered if they turned on him when his luck was down, or if they had offered him help that he refused. I wondered if he had once held a job that he recently lost. And I wondered why he did not have a warm home to return to. I decided that maybe I should go through the drive thru at Dunkin Donuts and buy him a cup of coffee, but he was resting comfortably, and I did not want to wake him.

Almost as fast as the streetlight had turned red, it was green again. As I proceeded down the street, I couldn’t help but think of this man and all the questions he left me pondering. Then I thought of all the things that I had taken for granted that very morning. I woke up to an alarm set on my iPhone, and then walked outside to pick up the morning newspapers-not one, but two. I then headed to the kitchen for a glass of ice water and a quick breakfast. Next, I opened the cabinets to take out supplies to make lunches for my children. Just about then, my youngest woke up and we snuggled on our comfortable couch for a quick story from his collection of books. I took a warm shower, brushed my teeth, dried my hair and took my clothes out of the dryer to get ready for work. I kissed each of my children goodbye, got in my car and drove to school.

Now I cannot be certain what that man had in his bag, but I was pretty sure he did not have an iPhone, daily newspaper, glass of ice water, cabinets of endless food, a comfortable couch, books, shower gel, hair dryer, toothbrush, clothes dryer, family members, or a car. This man made me realize that I take so many little things for granted. While we always seem to want the new things that we see around us, we need to stop and remind ourselves that even though we might not have as much as one person, we certainly have more than others. Do we have everything we need to survive? How can we help those who are less fortunate this winter? We can learn so much from that man on the bench.

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Instilling the Spirit of Giving

Children by nature, look forward to countless gifts during this time of year-gifts from Santa, parents, grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. It is only natural that they anticipate receiving gifts in abundance.

I remember when my oldest three children were young. We would return home from celebration Christmas with my side of the family with countless boxes of toys. We had to stop at home to unload the gifts if we wanted to have room for the next leg of the journey, Christmas with the Carden family. We would then visit my husband’s side of the family (not believers in grab bags). Each member of the family would come home with at least one big, black Hefty bag filled with more toys and gifts.

When we returned home late Christmas night, these gifts would join those from Santa that has been unwrapped in the early morning hours. Despite the joy on my children’s faces, I would feel sick to my stomach that they had received so much, knowing there were many children who had received nothing. I also worried that these early memories of Christmas, would shape their expectations for the future. I decided that one thing I would try to instill in my children at this early age was the spirit of giving.

So the next year, I decided to make a special date with each of them. We scheduled individual dates to go to the dollar store, each with a $20 bill in hand. They had premade a list of each person in our family that they wanted to buy for, including grandparents. The sky was the limit at the dollar store, and they did not have to worry about having enough money. On each of their special nights, they took a cart and headed up the aisles selecting the perfect gifts. It was on these trips that I discovered which of my children were more decisive than others. Some trips took ten minutes. Others were well over an hour!

We completed each shopping trip with dinner or a Starbuck’s hot chocolate, depending on what our schedules allowed. This was another great opportunity for me to spend some quality, focused time with each child. After stopping for a treat, we arrived home where I provided wrapping paper and…tape! Children use lots of tape when wrapping. Once the gifts were wrapped, the children placed them under the tree and counted down the days until they exchanged them with one another. This began a new tradition. We would attend our parish Christmas Eve Family Mass. Upon arriving home, the children would give their gifts. One of my favorite memories of all time will be of my son showing me a package under the tree. I can still hear him say, “Mom, you’ll never guess what got you!” Now the story is only better knowing that there was a visible wooden handle and black bristles poking out from the red and green wrapping paper. It wasn’t until after mass that I discovered I was the proud recipient of a dog brush!

The excitement on Christmas Eve was all about GIVING, not RECEIVING. The looks on their faces were priceless as they waited to pass out their gifts. This was exactly where I wanted them on the Eve of Christmas. My husband and I decided this would be a yearly tradition in our house. Many rolls of electrical tape, screwdrivers, whoopee cushions, nail files, dog brushes, spatulas, snow globes, tubes of hand cream, packs of gum, and Bic razors were carefully chosen, wrapped, and enthusiastically given away.

We have since graduated from the dollar store, but we keep this tradition alive. For this moment in time, our children enjoy giving gifts even more than they enjoy receiving them. And they always have great stories to share about why they chose each gift that they did. My father, for example, received duct tape and hand goop every year, because he once “fixed the fence.” I received Scotch tape because “teachers need lots of tape.”

I am happy that we replicate this spirit of giving on a small scale at Faith Hope. As you will soon read in FACTS, our Student Council is asking you to help by looking around the house for new or gently used items that you would like to “recycle” in an effort to GO GREEN! Please do not buy anything, or feel you need to find something to contribute. But if you have items such as gently used coffee mugs, water bottles, change purses, ties, costume jewelry, note cards, make up bag giveaways, Happy Meal toys, etc., please send them in. The collection boxes are in the front hall. Before break, our youngest students will be shopping for gifts for their families. They will do this with the assistance of older students who will help them shop, wrap and make cards. And on Christmas morning, you will see the excitement of giving on their faces.

I have heard many wonderful stories after first sharing this reflection, of families beginning the “Dollar Store” tradition with their children. It is a busy time of year, but this is time worth spent. From teaching about giving to spending quality time with your child, it is worth every minute. I am happy to say that at ages 21, 20, 17, 14, 14, and 8, this tradition of shopping and giving still holds strong. It remains one of our children’s best memories, and has helped them to view Christmas as a time of giving, not receiving. And like that Christmas Eve night fourteen years ago, they still look more forward to giving than receiving!

This season, take some time to slow down and experience the true beauty of the Christmas with your families.

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The Gift of Time

One of the greatest yet most overlooked gifts we receive is the gift of time. Each day, God gives us 24 hours to spend as we wish. Some days, this time seems hardly enough. Other days, we are happy to see come to an end. How often, in the midst of the hectic pace of life, do we remember to say thank you for each precious day?

Sometimes, we feel as if we have run a marathon by the time the children get off to school. How will we have enough time to get everything accomplished? Perhaps we then head off to work, or run a few errands, pick up the house and schedule some appointments before it is time to head back to the pick-up line. The after school hours come quickly and pose another race against the clock. Homework, lessons, sports, dinner, dishes, showers and laundry. As the last child is tucked into bed, we may also be ready to close the chapter on that day. However, there is still much left to accomplish. How do we make time to reflect, to slow down, to be thankful, for at the stroke of midnight, this time will be lost forever? We will never get it back.

Other times, we are faced with great challenges, and sometimes just facing the day can seem like an uphill climb. We may get out of bed, after several snooze cycles, but secretly count the hours until we can crawl back in again. Every little challenge seems like a major setback because we struggle to tackle them one at a time. We arrive at the bookstore to find that the book our child needed yesterday is on backorder. The form that we need our doctor to fill out today cannot be done until he returns from vacation next week. We arrive at the gas station with an empty tank and realize our debit card is at home. Our child announces that he has a project due tomorrow and needs a poster board. It is 9:00 pm. How do we make time to reflect, to slow down, to be thankful, for at the stroke of midnight, this time will be lost forever? We will never get it back.

I recall visiting my former principal as she began the transition from life on Earth to life in Heaven. A figure that once appeared larger than life to me, not in stature but in her ability to make a difference in the lives of others, now looked weak, confined to a hospice bed. Immediately upon seeing her this way, tears filled my eyes. She extended her frail hand and said, “Honey, do not be sad. I lived a good life, a really, really good and full life. I have no regrets. I spent my minutes wisely.”

As we close the chapter on today, let’s reflect on how we used our minutes. Did we encourage a child, a spouse or other family member, a co-worker, a neighbor or friend? Did our words or actions spread positivity or negativity to others? Did the minutes we spent fulfill us? Minutes spent with and on our children are never minutes wasted. Feel fulfilled in giving them all the time they need. Soon they will not need so much. How can we use our gift of time today and tomorrow and the next day? How do we make time to reflect, to slow down, to be thankful, for at the stroke of midnight, this time will be lost forever? We will never get it back.

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Today, I am going to be an encourager

I find myself saying on many occasions, that I am fortunate in my role to be able to witness the goodness of children every day. Recently, we had an all-school talk about sportsmanship after some recess observations. In that conversation, I described characteristics of good teammates and I challenged students to work a bit harder to be good sports in the classroom and on the field. I challenged them to be encouragers and not discouragers, to be a little more accepting of the strengths and weaknesses of each other in working together. And then I got to see this play out. I witnessed it in the wise words of a first grader named Declan and his friend Patrick heading out to recess, “Today, I am going to be an encourager.” And when a goalie missed a ball, they led the charge in encouraging and empowering him. That simple action prevented teammates from abandoning him and switching sides mid-game. And that simple action was contagious—with other students being empowered to be “encouragers” in the classroom and at recess. And I witnessed this again with our 8th grade girls at their championship volleyball game. Whether in the FHC gym or in this exciting, competitive match, these girls continuously worked together as a unit–as a team. If someone missed a ball, no one criticized, pouted or made note. Instead, they picked each other up, encouraged each other, and moved as a team into the next play. This quality, this expectation that has been instilled in their coaches over the years, is part of the equation of their success. They have a lot to be proud of, including the message their teamwork showed to the countless fans, young and old, who followed their season. How great would it be if we could all take the time to be encouragers and not discouragers? Can we be encouragers to our children, spouses, parents, siblings, friends and co-workers? Perhaps the world needs more Andrews, Patricks, and Lady Bulldogs to show us the way.

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The new approach to Sundays

Have you ever felt as if your weekend is over when you wake up on Sunday morning, even though in reality it is only half-gone? Do you feel on a Friday afternoon, that you have the weekend in the palm of your hand, but then something changes abruptly on Sunday morning?

Often,  not even out of the church parking lot, I am asked the dreaded question by my four boys who remain at home. “What’s for lunch?” This question is perplexing for all, as after a long work week and busy Friday and Saturday, the answer is almost surely, “There is really nothing, but I’ll run to the store.” That poses another issue—do I run to the store to get something to make for lunch, or do I just do the weekly shopping to avoid a second trip to the grocery store? This of course would greatly delay the lunch of hungry, growing men as I plan meals and create list of lunch and breakfast items necessary to get us through the week.  I have done it both ways, and somehow we all survived.

I wish I could say, however, that this is the only Sunday chore. But what happens when we add other things to that list–looking for missing uniform pieces, transitioning from summer to winter uniforms at various schools and realizing your freshman does not have khakis that fit, filing out registrations and forms that are due, noticing the hole in your son’s only pair of gym shoes with rain in the forecast, tackling piles of laundry , and not to mention glancing at the upcoming extracurricular schedule that has you in three places at once on at least four of the days in the week? No wonder the weekend feels pulled out from under you. Half of it is already accounted for with necessary tasks. While many of these cannot be avoided, looking ahead at the upcoming week can also rob you of an enjoyable Sunday.

What if we tackle Sundays in a different way? Instead of looking at all the things we HAVE to do during the upcoming week and feeling tired before it begins, why don’t we make a list of things that we look forward to doing -taking out a good book, making lunch or dinner plans with a good friend, making time for an uninterrupted phone call with a family member or spouse, taking a walk with a friend in need, attending a class or speaker series that sounds interesting if we had more time? We might not get that closet cleaned, or the summer and winter clothing switched out and that just might be okay.   Perhaps on Sundays, we do the necessary things, like grocery shopping and forms and registrations with deadlines, and then instead of only looking at the impossible week ahead, we look at the things that build relationships and give us peace. For long after this hectic phase our parenting lives are over, these are the things that will have really made a difference. If it takes 6 weeks to form a habit, we have 6 weeks until Thanksgiving and then perhaps we can enter into the Christmas season with a sense of serenity and peacefulness.





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