My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Letting the Chips Fall

Against my garage wall, is a little contained garden, set like a semicircle against the siding. How it got there is amusing. A decade or so back, we needed a tree taken down in our back yard, and we asked the yard men to go ahead and leave the chips for us in the driveway. We liked the idea of free wood chips for our landscaping.

I will never forget watching the truck as it started to release its wood chip load. The three kids and I stood to watch, noses to the window in anticipation, as the chips started to form a mound, a hill, and then...our jaws dropped as the truck dumped its entire load of wood chips into a sizable mountain that measured a good twelve feet in diameter and at least five feet tall!

The driver waved cheerily and went on his way, leaving us to run outside and examine this new geographical feature. It didn’t take long for the kids to discover that a plastic winter toboggan slides well down a wood chip mountain. 

My husband took one look when he got home from work, and laughed at the ridiculous sight of enough wood chips to open a garden center. All summer we shoveled. Every tree on the property, flower bed, hidden nook and cranny -- all received a nice, thick decorative blanket of wood chips. We offered wood chips to neighbors. But still, that pile grew smaller only infinitesimally.
Every imaginable spot in our yard received
a blanket of wood chips!

One day, we drove into the yard to see smoke emanating from the middle of the pile! It was in the process of internally combusting under that summer sun. We grabbed the rakes, spread the chips some more, and sprayed them down with water, so that no real fire could incubate.

We reached the end of ideas, as to what to do with all that mulch. When the pile had finally shrunk to a somewhat manageable size, we shoved it against the exterior wall of the garage into a shallow flower bed, contained by bricks. I found a damaged statue of St. Francis that needed rescuing at Hobby Lobby. Three feet tall, the resin statue had a hole in the top of his head and another in his knee. But arranged strategically, St. Francis filled the space beautifully. 

Hostas took up residence and flaming orange day lilies. A garden trellace backed St. Francis, and then a decorative black iron grillwork of grapes and leaves. A sundial came to perch on the bricks, a good reminder of time’s passing and of keeping perspective and priorities in order.

Later, a local lady needed a new home for her lovely concrete grotto of Mary. It was so heavy, it took four of us to put the shrine in our car. Back home, we placed it next to the St. Francis garden. Her corner was unattractive, so this summer, I got to work. Sept the area clean and positioned a nice garden stepping stone in front, creating a lovely surface for candles. 

I replanted some of flourishing, fragrant mint into pots to flank the shrine, and found a waist-high trellace of cast iron, drastically reduced at a neighborhood store. A bell hangs from the trellace. It makes a nice, mellow clang, like a call to prayer. The top of the trellace is shaped like a crown. I placed the trellace in just such a way, that this little outdoor area for Our Lady is now an enclosed little nook that looks like it was designed carefully. I placed a chair there, and have started praying Rosaries in that peaceful spot.

I just sat out there a moment ago, and this thought came to me: this corner of the garage, was once one of the least attractive and  most abandoned spots in the yard. But now I love it. It all started with that surprising wood chip pile. Whoever had the idea of creating a planting bed from those remaining chips, set up a situation that evolved into a lovely prayer spot years down the road. Every day this summer, I’ve been raking that spot, tending it, placing plants and candles there. And now the spot is loving me back! It beckons to me daily.

This sort of intentional care, nurtures friendships and family ties, too, as well as our intimacy with God. If we long for eternity and love Our Creator intentionally, each day, through prayer, Mass, and seeking God’s Will in everything, than our relationship to Him will begin to bloom in all sorts of creative, surprising and wonderful ways.

When I visited remote missionaries across our nation for Catholic home mission EXTENSION Magazine, I saw priests, religious and lay people acting just like earnest gardeners, in tending their mission outposts, and their personal friendship with God and their people. In impoverished spots, I saw literal gardens, that, in their blooming, seemed emblematic of all the great things happening in the spiritual and material realm through God's promptings. I saw grottoes tended and humble, yet lovely churches. I also saw practical outreaches blooming, in the form of clean and efficient soup kitchens and resale shops, so the poor could buy what they needed.

We have our own missionary outreach in our daily lives, right within the four walls of our home, and outside, too, in our neighborhoods. And if things get tough, we can be inspired by our missionaries and their people. They encounter some of the toughest situations amidst poor and often desolate locations. They go toward areas others flee, and then mindfully and prayerfully allow God to work, causing wonderful things to manifest  -- and souls and personalities -- to bloom. May we, too, be open to the ideas and promptings given to us through the Holy Spirit, so we can be agents of beauty and change in our suffering world. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Live Hopefully in 2016

My intrepid 82-year-old Mom,
Virginia Robin, on a recent
pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Why not write about hope? Mom suggested, when I mentioned my Worldview Wednesday deadline for A couple days passed, then she asked again, “What will you write about?”
These are tough times, she said. “Tell people they have to keep hope. We owe it to the younger generations.” Our children need that example, to live hopeful lives themselves.
“Send me your reflections, Mom,” I invited. “Here’s your homework: set the timer for 15 minutes and write about the theme of hope.”
Within hours, a bundle of memories awaited me in an email from my 82-year-old mother. A hopeful post seems a lovely way to start 2016, so here we go, courtesy of my mother, Virginia Robin.
“Hope was instilled in me at a very young age,” she reflected. “When I was 8 years old, my brothers went to help win World War II. They were gone for about four years and we missed them very much. I always felt that they would return and they did for furloughs at times, but it was four years before the war was over in 1945.
“All that time, my parents never expressed fear to me or my 6-year-old sister and 2-year-old brother. We knew that the war was going to end and that the United States would win. Life, as we young ones knew it, was routine and we helped with the war effort as much as we could. We helped with the vegetable garden and with the chickens that we were raising so we could have meat, as all meat at the butcher was rationed.
“We saved all cans, took the labels off and flattened them for the scrap as every can saved made a bullet. (So they told us back then). My brother soaked strips of paper and fashioned them into softball-size balls to dry behind our furnace. These were used as fuel to save on coal.
“We did without the ordinary things that we take for granted now but were hard to come by at that time, such as chocolate, butter, soap, toys made of rubber, and for the adult women nylon stockings were scarce.
“We survived. My brothers came home and went on to raise families. Through it all we remained hopeful.”
How did people keep hope alive? They did “what they could and observed a routine in their lives as much as possible,” Mom wrote. “I feel that it is the obligation of every adult to pass hope down to the next generation. In order for us to do that in a compelling manner, we need to keep hope alive in our hearts.”
I would say Mom is an expert on this theme, having survived tumultuous times through more than eight decades! She told of how many of her young friends went to fight in the Korean War in the 1950s, and how “our hope for the future was tested during the missile crisis when I was a young mother in the 60’s.
“There was a lot of fear going around at that time as we were engaged in a cold war with Russia. People in our area had built bomb shelters and we had stashed extra bottled water and canned goods, first aid items, etc., in case we had to take shelter in our crawl space. My husband (Joe) and I knew that was not going to be total protection against an atomic bomb dropped in Chicago, but we had to do something.
“The night that Russia placed missiles in Cuba, 90 miles off our coast, and were testing the nerve of our young president, John F. Kennedy, we were frightened. It happened on our regular square dancing night. The children were very young and we decided to carry on as usual and go dancing. Everyone came and we had a great time. We did not stay home and scare our children with how hopeless it could all be. Things turned out all right as Khrushchev decided to remove the missiles.
“Now we are dealing with more threats and passing hope to our children is even more of a challenge,” wrote Mom, a 5’2” Irish-German powerhouse from Chicago’s South Side. She married Joseph Robin, an eternally optimistic man of French Canadian heritage from the tough Chicago Stock Yards neighborhood, who had studied his way to become a mechanical engineer. He always spoke of the grammar school nun that challenged him to excellence, and the full tuition-paid scholarship he was awarded to Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School. He always knew from a young age that he wanted to be a good Catholic family man, and lead his children to heaven. And no matter what, they always clung to this reality, wrote Mom: “Faith was key.”
Mom was aged 24 and a registered nurse when she married Joe, a widow with four young children. She carried on to have three more (I’m the youngest), in the face of all threats and difficulties of the times, while pursuing and obtaining an advanced degree in Piano Performance. Even after stepping my father through many years of cancer treatments and medical crises, and losing him to cancer a year and a half ago, Mom still teaches piano. She just accomplished a first-ever pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This is not a woman who lets tough times defeat her.
“We believed God would help us through any situation,” concluded Mom, giving credit to her own parents. “My Mom and Dad lived their faith and were great role models. Now that I am alone, I don’t know how I would manage without my faith. I believe that I am being guided in this phase of my life by God.”
What a hopeful story! Mom faced great adversity in life, and many naysayers, but held strong. She has grieved and struggled, and raising seven kids through the tumultuous 1960s and beyond has been no cake walk, but she continues to triumph.
I have a lifetime of memories of attending Sunday Mass with Mom and Dad, and of observing holy days with great family traditions. How I loved our Advent wreath and carol singing, little homegrown drama productions and Midnight Mass, and writing resolutions and seeing the New Year in, as a family. So as we head into 2016, let’s give a little round of applause to and lift up a prayer for our elders, who have kept faith and model to us the virtue of hope. Hope really does spring eternal. And judging by one of the best photos ever from several weeks ago, of my mother riding a camel on her first-ever pilgrimage to the Holy Land, hope seems to renew youth and vitality by the day!
Thanks, Mom…and may God bless us all with courageous hope into the New Year.
Copyright 2016 Marianna BartholomewPhoto courtesy of Virginia Robin. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Post also appeared at and can be heard in the author's Missionary Moments podcast at the SQPN-affiliated Catholic Vitamins show "R-- for Rebirth."