Friday, December 30, 2011

a cough, a fever, and a smile

My one and a half year old granddaughter has been ill with a virus.  She spent most of today in my lap, at times nestling close to me as if she wanted to burrow inside.  Certainly she didn't want me to leave her, even for a moment.  We didn't talk, we didn't play; we just sat all day in a chair together.  For three hours at one stretch, "Doodlebug" did nothing but sit with me and sleep.  I claim to be a "homeschooled grandma," and today my littlest tutor taught some powerful lessons.

For one thing, Doodlebug (being good natured) has spent this week with "a cough, a fever, and a smile."  I would have understood if she'd been fussy; after all, she surely feels rotten.  I would have held her regardless, for I love her and want to comfort her.  However, I will admit that a child who grins broadly even when bleary-eyed with fever is a child who makes life easier for those around her.  It can be pure pleasure to care for such a one.

When I have "a cough and a fever" ... or a leg ache or a headache ... can people describing me add the words "and a smile?"  Hmm.  Highly unlikely.  So - lesson one:  even though I don't have Doodlebug's easygoing nature, I'm certainly old enough to exercise my free will and MAKE THE DECISION to smile even when I don't feel like doing so.  It would surely make life easier for those around me.  It would be an act of charity.

The other major thing I learned more deeply today was the value of being with God even without words.  Sometimes there just aren't words for prayer, or sometimes they don't seem necessary, or sometimes my mind is distracted.  I was touched just knowing that Doodlebug was comforted by my presence....that she wanted to be as close to me as possible.  It gave me, perhaps, the tiniest glimpse of how it must touch the Heart of Our Lord when we want to linger close to Him.  Doodlebug would look up at me sometimes, as if remembering I was there, and she'd touch my face with her hand.  And she would smile.

I admit to being tired and physically drained from my day of comforting and being tutored.  I think it appropriate, therefore, that my bedtime prayer be to simply sit with Jesus, letting Him "hold me" in my tiredness.  I have a feeling He is pleased every time I take a second to remember that He's here, and that I'm being held by Him.

I have a feeling He's pleased every time I reach out for Him with a word, with my presence, with my smile.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

the tragedy of warm frogs

While on a recent "breadbox excavation," I came across the following letter from several years ago....

Dear Father Andrew, Have you heard the analogy of the frog in hot water?  The story goes that if you place a live frog in a pan of boiling water, he will jump right out.  But if you put him in water that's his own temperature, he'll happily stay there while you place the pan on the stove and slowly turn up the fire under it.  The frog, it is said, will cook to death without even noticing that the water is getting hotter.  Lately I've been reading about how partial birth abortions are done, and about such things as goddess worship in church services, and I think 'are we really so blind?!'  Can it be that people are not aware that the water all around us is almost boiling already?  It can feel pretty lonely to notice that the water is steadily growing hotter while so many around seem to be saying that this is exactly how the water should be and 'isn't it good that finally there is a bit of a warming trend'.... Nancy 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sowing Peace

"Peace begins with a smile.
 Smile five times a day
 at someone you really
 don't want to smile at... 
 do it for peace."   
                                    (Blessed Teresa of Calcutta)

(photo N Shuman)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


One word we hear at this time of year is "joy."  It sings to us from carols, calls to us from cards, marches across banners in the mall.

Someone once said that JOY is found by putting one’s focus and priorities in the proper order: 
J   esus

O  thers

Y  ourself

Is this "priority of focus" how St. Paul could write, in the face of persecutions, "I am filled with consolation, and despite my many afflictions my joy knows no bounds." (2 Corinthians 7:4)..?

Is this "priority of focus" what enabled some of the Church's greatest saints to endure adversities with joy? 

May we all burst forth with "the joy of right priorities" at this holy time of year. “Rejoice in the Lord always!  I say it again: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Great Expectation

"Like a secret
told by angels,
getting known
upon the earth,  is the Mother's
of Messiah's 
speedy birth." 

(F. Faber, "Our Lady's Expectations")  

Monday, December 12, 2011

unpacking worlds

The Christmas tree is a place where all my worlds converge.  Long forgotten worlds, ones scented with cedar and eggnog and juniper and pine;  I’m always surprised to find them.  I open a box of ornaments and out the years tumble, jumbled together world upon world, as if some unknown weaver has been working to string them together in the dark.  A dough reindeer unrolls and suddenly I’m in bell bottoms, flour in my hair as I bake and paint.  A paper chain plops a blonde haired son back in my lap, with his proud announcement that this is “for you, Mommy!”  There are needlepoint squares made by a relative.  Vintage glass artifacts from my husband’s parents.  Treasured ornaments from my childhood trees:  bells and stars and my favorite blue ball with the painted word “Noel.” 

Things around the tree have come and gone through the years.  Gifts left under the tree have come and gone; the trees themselves have come and gone.  Even the people hanging ornaments have changed.  But I can sit in front of the Christmas tree and, in effect, watch all the phases of my life flash before me.  It is not a bad source for meditation, and certainly it can be an opportunity for prayer.  “Thank You, Lord, for coming.  Thank You for family.  Thank you for everyone I'm remembering; I pray for grace upon them.  I ask for the repose of souls...

"O come O come Emmanuel.  How greatly Your world needs You.  Touch us with Your mercy and Your love....."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

They're starting to arrive:  the cards, the notes, the updates from friends who cannot visit.  "I can't pop in for a quick cup of tea," the cards imply; "so I'm sending this in my stead.  Here's what's happening with us..."

It's one of my favorite things about Christmastime.  Hearing from people who take a few minutes to remember those who've been part of their lives.  Perhaps the years have separated us, maybe responsibilities have called us apart; in some cases we're victims of the "tyranny of distance."  But during the weeks surrounding Christmas Day, we reach out to one another almost as if time has stopped.  For me it does stop, if only for a few seconds, as I sit in the "lettered presence" of a friend.... 

"The accidents of life separate us from our dearest friends, but let us not despair.  God is like a looking glass in which souls see each other.  The more we are united to Him by love, the nearer we are to those who belong to Him."  (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Behind Each Light, the Reason

Advent has only begun, and already Christmas decorations surround us.  In the Church, it's time for purple and pink.  We watch quietly, our spirits hushed, as light dawns slowly with the softness of sunrise.

It is quite a different story in the red and green clamor of the world.

I once spoke about this to a friend.  So much hubbub, and so soon!  Carols blaring, shoppers rushing... and already so many lights.

My friend looked at me with a wisdom born (I suspect) of having lived 25 years longer than I. "Did you ever think," he asked gently, "that every one of those lights is because Jesus came to us?"

Well, yeah, I said.  "But not everyone putting lights on their houses is doing it specifically to honor Jesus."  I was being very logical.  "Some may not even believe in Him." 

"Whether they believe in Him or not," said my friend, "they would not be putting up lights right now if Jesus had not come to the world."  There would be no Christmas, no decorations, no special songs, no shoppers and gifters, no strings of lights on trees and houses - if Jesus had not come.

My friend went on to say that he prayed when he saw Christmas lights.  He thanked Jesus for coming to us.  I'm sure he seldom forgot this practice, for he was a man of prayer.  This friend has now gone Home to God; he needs no more reminders.  I, meanwhile, think every Christmas of his simple wisdom.  I think of it with every display I see.. "This would not be here if Jesus had not come."  The decorations, the cards, the lights - all trumpet out the news that Something Really Important happened on this earth over 2000 years ago.

O come O come, Emmanuel, for the world is dark and in need of you.  O come, Emmanuel, and flood us with Your Light.   

(thanks to Linda M for the photo... and thank you to RG for the lesson of the lights)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

what happens next...

The trees are now bare.  We feel like burrowing down into blankets and resting by a fireplace.  After all, the whole earth has fallen asleep.  Nights are long, and one morning we awaken to a covering of white on ground and trees, and on that day even the dingiest parts of a city seem somehow touched with beauty.  We look one night into ice covered branches under moonlight or streetlight and the whole world has gone magic!  The ground sparkles and we think of jewels...
(thanks to L Maran for the use of her "Snowy Pumpkin" photo)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

fresh bread

I feel a change coming on for these letters.  Not a major one, but maybe a return to the original idea.  I’m feeling drawn away from breadbox “excavations” and more toward FRESH letters, written today.  Written to YOU. 

A bit like fresh baked bread?  One likes to hope so.  Half baked?  Oh, you can count on it.  But maybe that’s part of the adventure of blogging.  I find out what I’m thinking as I write it.  On my other blog (, I have at least a sense of where things are going.  I like doing that blog, but I enjoy this one too. I like being surprised to find myself talking about nature, and letters, and "four dwarf colds." I would like to write of winter, and autumn, and wind….

Autumn came in fast this year, just as I’d settled in to summer.  I sat outside to enjoy July fireworks and three hours later (slight exaggeration, but it felt that way) there was a sudden freshness in the wind.  Now the air is tinged with woodsmoke, leaves crunch underfoot, and nights are long and deep and brisk.  Candles against a darkened window seem somehow cozy and necessary, and my oldest grandchild checks our supply of hot chocolate.  I don’t know why I’m surprised that the trees are all bare. 

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving, with Advent just after.  It's a time for writing cards, and updates, and letters.  It's a time to sit inside (when possible) and write of the season's treasures.  I once heard that writing is a “kind of double living.” During this time of holy anticipation, I would like to doubly live.

(photo © Nancy Shuman)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I sorry

Some breadbox finds are uncovered at the moment I need them.  Like this one, written by me several years ago.  I rediscovered it just as I was realizing I’ve been much too complacent about gifts God has given me: 

    “A few days ago I was putting a bowl of soup on my two year old granddaughter's high chair tray and she (having decided that she wanted nothing to eat) yelled ‘NO!!’  She slammed the bowl off onto the floor.  Then I knelt and proceeded to silently clean up the mess as she sat there in silence.  It took me several trips up and down to get more towels.  I worked matter-of-factly.  She sat very, very STILL.  She tried giving a little giggle, and I did not respond or look up.  Then she said, very meekly, ‘I sorry.’  I stood up and kissed her swiftly on the forehead and said ‘I forgive you.’  She watched me very soberly as I got her down, and we went on about our evening as always and all was well. 
    I keep thinking of that very sweet ‘I sorry,’ and it touches my heart.”

As I read this, I can almost imagine my heavenly Father saying, when I come to Him in repentance:  “I forgive you.  I have heard your ‘I sorry.’  And it touches My Heart.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

fighting fit and full of beans

I went on another breadbox dig and discovered something.  That is:  adventures in communicating bring smiles just when I need them.

Dear Leena, 
   You said Minnie was ‘fighting fit,’ and I’m afraid this is an expression I do not know.  Oh dear.  Does this mean she’s not well? - Nancy

Dear Nancy,
   I am sorry I did not allow for the fact that you might not know what ‘fighting fit’ means.  It means very well and ‘full of beans.’ Full of beans does not mean that one has devoured a can of Baked Beans for dinner, but it means that one is ‘on top of the world,’ which doesn’t mean one is sitting on the North Pole, but means that one feels as if one is ‘sparking on all fours,’ which doesn’t mean that one is a dog, a kangaroo, a squirrel or a chipmunk, but that one finds there are not enough hours in the day to achieve all one wants to achieve, so one becomes so frustrated that she goes in search of a toy to play with and discovers a yo-yo which is a thing on a string that one has to learn to ‘kinda bounce.’ Kinda bounce is a bit like ‘kinda dumb,’ which is what a favourite husband (namely yours) says when a car turns into his path and visiting Aussies gasp with ‘American fright.’ American fright is what Leena looks like when she gets out of bed every morning while visiting friends in the USA.
    I had better go and slam up a sandwich for lunch - Leena

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The 4-Dwarf Cold

Today I noticed that I have a cold.  Not just any cold, mind you, but a genuine four-dwarfer.

My husband and I began long ago to weigh our colds on the dwarfiness-scale.  Snow White (we decided) was not the only one who spent time with seven little guys.   Sneezy arrived at my house this very morning.  Sleepy is here as well, and throughout the day I’ve been more and more aware of Dopey.  And lo and behold, even as I write this, I’m feeling Grumpy pounding on the door.  Yep, I have a four dwarf-cold, all right.  I just hope it doesn’t go into a five-dwarfer, meaning I’ve had to call in the Doc.  But of course, it will all be over in a few weeks; then I should be Happy enough.  

And I really should be Bashful admitting this to you.  

In a letter from (the real) Paul, I read:  “We even boast of our afflictions!  We know that affliction makes for endurance, and endurance for tested virtue, and tested virtue for hope.”  (Romans 5:3-4)  Now, a cold is usually no huge deal in the grand scheme of things – not like the afflictions Paul had to endure.  But sometimes, when the throat burns and the head pounds and muscles cry out for rest, the tasks of daily life can feel a bit…. challenging.  I am helped in times of physical hassles when I remember the behavior of Paul and Silas in prison.  They’d been dragged, beaten, thrown into chains.  Their muscles must have throbbed with pain, their skin would have been scraped and burned.  Then, “about midnight…Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” (Acts 16:25).  Chained, imprisoned, sore, they were praying and singing hymns.  Their fellow prisoners listened, and an earthquake opened the doors and shook off everyone’s chains.  

I think of this tonight and realize I have a challenge before me.  I have a cold and various “aches and pains.”  Am I letting Grumpy get the upper hand?

Sneezy, Dopey and Sleepy come whether I want them to or not.  Grumpy knocks, but he can’t settle in for a visit unless I open the door.  As grumpy as I may FEEL, I can make the choice to be as kind (or at least as silent!) as I am able.  I can pray, and in my heart I can sing hymns of praise to God.  

If I do this, I have a feeling Grumpy might just limp on away…..

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Several of my breadbox treasures speak of what a friend calls the "gift of noticing."  This woman and I are both nature lovers, and we've learned that we don't have to flee to woods or seashore or mountains to find touches of God's amazing handiwork.  A marvel might be right before our eyes, if we only look out a window and notice what is there.  Raindrops shimmering on a leaf.  The coo of a dove nearby.  Crisp autumn leaves blowing across a city sidewalk....

One autumn when I was in a time of sadness, this friend wrote: “You notice the way the sun sets earlier these days and how it reflects nicely on a window at a certain hour.  You and I, we are fortunate to have this gift of observing the constant giving of nature, because in a way it sustains us.  I often think that God gives us nature to observe so as to learn from it.  How things bounce back… how spring always returns after winter, how there is always something beautiful even in the midst of the coldest winter day, like a sparkling icicle, the quiet glimmer of a winter moon, or holly berries covered in snow.  Even in our suffering, it seems that we tend to ‘see’ some beauty in life; it is part of who we are.  It is a great gift.”  

A great gift, indeed.  It is my belief that we all have this gift, a present from our God Who gave us a colorful, ringing, singing world.... and senses with which to notice. I hope to take a moment, today, to notice and be thankful for something God has made.  

Photo  © 2010 N Shuman, all rights reserved

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

some breadbox excavations

Going through “the breadbox” these last few days, I’ve been touched all over again by correspondence I’ve received.

Some letters illustrate truths.  “During the earthquake, a friend’s crucifix fell off the wall over her bed as she was sleeping.  She just grabbed it and held on.  I thought ‘and that’s how it is to be.’  During all the upheavals of our lives, we must hold on to HIM.” 

Some sweep me away to faraway places“G’day from the windswept, rain drenched north of the capes.  We’ve been out to the rocks, and watched the beach disappear under the hiss, froth and bubble of unrepentant waves…”  

Some bring a laugh.  “Our local government decided to override the people regarding time change.  Some of the objections to daylight savings time were:  Curtains fade with the longer hours of daylight.  Cows get confused about the time to come in for milking.  Now, I ask you…?!?”

In days to come, I’d like to share some rediscovered treasures.  I hope you’ll come along!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

bigger than a breadbox

"If I ever write an autobiography," I said to my husband one day, "I should call it 'Bigger than A Breadbox.'"  He smiled in agreement, having known for years about my childhood breadbox letters.  He'd also witnessed the widening of my world when a 1993 magazine article brought me mail, introduced me to people in unexpected places, and took us both (eventually) to the other side of the earth.

I've written many letters since the ones I penned (or more likely penciled) to "Paul." I have been blessed to receive quite a number as well.  Some of these I keep in a breadbox, one almost identical to that in which I mailed letters to long-ago-Paul.  In weeks to come I hope to share a few excerpts from these, for they are wise, often witty, and many times profound.  They make me glad I once practiced writing at a breadbox. For who knows?  Maybe it was "Paul" who actually made me love writing letters.

In that case, I suppose the breadbox has yielded a return…

(photo © Nancy Shuman; all rights reserved)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Paul and Company

Letter received? I suppose one never knows with a blog, especially in the beginning. In this, it seems that blogs may not be all that different from Paul’s breadbox.

Today I happened to read about a Paul who was quite different from my childhood letter recipient. He was actually “my” Paul’s opposite in two key ways. For one thing (this being very important), he was real. For another: if this Paul received letters, history does not appear to know about them. This Paul was a letter WRITER, one significant enough that I’ll bet you have some of his letters in your home. He wrote such important things that others have written letters about his letters. “When Paul was absent, “ I read today, “he wrote you letters. By carefully studying these letters, you can strengthen yourselves in the faith that has been given to you.” (St. Polycarp)
I have a particular fondness for this Paul: this encouraging, strengthening, challenging, inspiring, letter- writing Paul. I am continually drawn toward not only reading his letters, but living them. I’m drawn – and called – to not just read, but live, the words in other books of the Bible as well. Now THAT is a challenge! To say I fall short is putting it mildly. But I want to keep trying. Minute by minute, I want to keep trying.
“Rejoice in the Lord always! ,” wrote Paul. “I say it again. Rejoice! Everyone should see how unselfish you are. The Lord is near. “ (Philippians 4:4-5) I don’t merely want to read these words – I want to live them.
Can I remember that the Lord is near - tomorrow - even the minute I pop out of bed? Hmm. I slide that question into the breadbox, uttering a prayer that I can spend tomorrow – at least that ONE day – making a “choice to rejoice.”

("Howdy Doody" photo in US public domain)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why a Breadbox?

My writing began at a breadbox. Mother’s metal breadbox, 1950s vintage with a pull-down front door - it made a dandy mailbox. Just the right receptacle for letters to Paul.
Paul was my make-believe husband, the kind that’s appropriate for an eight year old girl. I invented him for my growing family of dolls. Paul was never around, but that was no problem… I simply enlisted him in the Air Force. Did I have envelopes on hand for his letters, or stamps? Maybe not, but again: no problem. I could always get paper, and I could fold, and color, and draw.
“Dear Paul how are you I am fine. We have a new baby her name is Babs. I will put this letter in a envalop so youll get it soon.? I will write if we get another baby.”
Letter finished – letter squeezed into crack at top of breadbox door – letter sent. Letter left waiting in the darkness, stuck between Hostess Cupcakes and loaves of white bread.

Fast forward many years and here I am again, at the breadbox. I have no idea how many recipients of my letters there have been between Paul and......

…..well: you.

Now that I think of it, this is the first letter I’ve mailed in a “Breadbox” since Harriet was serving Ozzie’s dinner on primetime TV. I’ve written so many letters in the meantime that my husband (the real one) once remarked that I could write them for a living. I’ve also written articles, a book, and a multitude of journal volumes in the years between breadbox and blog. But the thing is: I prefer letters to any other kind of writing. I like the spontaneity of a letter; I like the randomness. I like finding out what I’m thinking when I see it appear on a page.

And with that, I welcome you to check out the breadbox. I hope we can visit again in a day or two. I will tell you now that I’ll be chatting about prayer, and about what it means to live for God in the midst of a busy world. And who knows what else might be dashed into the mix?
For now, this first letter is finished. Squeezed into a tiny crack in a corner of the Internet. Left waiting in cyberspace, somewhere between a blog about cupcakes and one with a photo of white bread.
Letter sent.

(painting on this post, by Henriette Browne, is in United States public domain)