.,  mental health,  motherhood,  prayer

The space between

Lately I’ve been making use of a previously overlooked and formerly unavailable slot of time in my life: the very early morning. I was lamenting to my best friend at the beginning of January my very slow progress towards accomplishing anything outside my ordinary stream of productivity: laundry, the blog posts I compose for CNA every week, the meals I cook, the uniforms I wash, the floors I mop, any freelance work I take on, etc.

I can get more done than the bare minimum across all fields, but everything else seems to suffer when I do. I do know it’s only a season, and a brief one at that. My oldest is 8, next fall everyone but the baby will be in school all day, at least on Mondays and Tuesdays.

It’s wild to think in the span of 4 years I’ll have gone from 4 kids under 5 needing me every second of every day to, well, whatever the fall will look like. I remember acutely the bittersweet passage out of the season of all-together-all-the-time, and wondering if I would be able to withstand the heartache of separation from my oldest, and then his brother, and so on.

Spoiler alert: we withstood. And we flourished. And I have come to deeply love the rhythm of school year life. It has afforded me an occasion for intimacy with my younger kids that I would not otherwise have enjoyed, something approximating the life their older brothers led, but with a slightly older and wiser mom who is really much more relaxed and, I’d wager, more pleasant to be around. I’m not quite as bouncy on the playground as I once was, but I’m much more likely to let you keep eating that sucker you dropped on the ground.

Anyway, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: God blessed us with a miraculously good baby. All babies are good babies, but this baby is an especially good baby, and sleep is her top performing skill.

So I can get up early. And the time I have always marked out as sacred and necessary for sleep (and will do so again as future babies come, no doubt) is suddenly available.

For more than a month now I’ve been creeping downstairs in the still dark hours before 6 am, hopping in a weird pattern from across the painted linoleum kitchen floor because the squeaky subfloor is sufficient to wake early birds (ask me how I know). I flip the espresso machine on and make my way to the couch or the kitchen table, depending on the temperature. The couch is warmer, but it’s hard to type there, sitting hunched over my laptop with an overstuffed pleather pillow cranking my neck forward in what I can only assume is a definite ergo-no-no position.

It’s hard to focus on prayer early in the morning. It’s hard to focus on prayer any time, honestly, when you’re human. When you’ve been lax about it or you’ve got a bunch of urgent tasks – however mundane – jockeying for your attention. I love my little people but they are nothing if not urgent. And I know God wants to grow in intimacy with me now, not 20 years in the future when I have uninterrupted time for Adoration and meditation and daily Mass.

Anyway, back to this morning. It was almost 6 now and the kids were starting to trickle downstairs one by one. I pulled the baby off the cat for the second time in as many minutes, (wondered briefly about feline brain damage caused by lack of oxygen from toddler Evie’s having smothered her as a kitten, because the cat, she does not move. She has no survival instincts.) and moved into the productivity portion of my pray + produce hour of power.

I didn’t get a ton of writing done, but I was satisfied to have another page, at least, Five paragraphs in need of polish but there on the screen, and better than the five I hadn’t written before this morning.

Later in the shower I lathered my hair with real shampoo, scrubbing away at the vestiges of a week’s worth of the dry kind. I’d set my phone down on the counter reluctantly to finally step into the steamy spray only reluctantly, wanting to keep…what?

It occured to me that on some level, I’ve become uncomfortable being alone with my thoughts, uncomfortable being in a “non-producing” state.

A state like, well, the shower. Which explains why I’d briefly considered launching a podcast episode to play in the background for those 8 otherwise fallow minutes, ultimately deciding no, it might drown out my ability to hear Luke wreaking havoc in the kitchen downstairs.

Dressing with a firefighter’s speed, eager to check in on Luke the destructor lest too much time pass without adult supervision, I flung piles of clean clothes from the floor up to the bed, mentally composing yet another task list for the day ahead. And in my restless, striving stream of though, the Lord bumped His way in, lobbing a football towards me that I reflexively stopped to catch. What He said was this:

“Remember to fill the space between your ribs before you fill the space between your ears.”  

I think He meant this, that in my mad rush for productivity and achievement and results, it’s very easy to operate under my own power. I used to go hours and days without really stopping to pray. Still do, sometimes. I forget what the system runs on, so to speak. Until I come up against something that is bigger than I can handle, that is. Then I’m right back on my knees, yessir, pleading for help I didn’t think I needed when I was “competent.”

I have a bad habit of filling up on head stuff, to the detriment of heart stuff. I’ll read some spiritual writings or theological content, maybe recite a rosary while driving to school. And I should do those things! But I can easily forget that thinking about God isn’t the same as communing with Him in my heart. Isn’t the kind of intimacy human beings were made to run on. Not solely, anyway.

Yesterday we had a confusing doctor’s appointment for one of the kids. Afterwards, my head whirling, I spent hours messaging with friends, talking with my mom, Googling things, reading reviews of different providers. When night came and I was still wrestling with some anxiety about the situation, I realized I hadn’t once prayed about it. And look, I know God knows and sees everything we’re up against, is with us in every moment, but gosh do I spend a lot of time filling up that space between my ears, believing on some level that I can research or call my mom or crowd-source my way out of most any problem.

I also spend an awful lot of time filling my day to the brimful, overflowing with information and sensory input. A book in my car, my Kindle in my purse, my laptop on the counter, my phone in my hand…there is almost no need for me to ever sit idle, alone with my thoughts, or in conversation with God. And it shows. And I don’t think I’m unique in living in this manner that is almost a fleeing from silence.

Fill up the essential space first.

Fill the space between your ribs before you fill the space between your ears.


  • Andrea

    I could hear Dave Matthews’ voice as I read the title of this post 🙂

    This is something that’s been on my mind lately, esp. as I have a tendency to listen to podcasts while washing dishes at night after the kids are in bed. But I’ve felt a nudge to forgo that more often than not and let the silence in. As much as I resist it and think it will be boring, I know it is good for my soul. Still working on liking it!

  • jeanette

    Having been a contemplative person most of my life, having gone down the path of discovering how to be silent and recollected, I can just say it takes practice and self-discipline to change from living in constant “noise” of the world and interiorly. One has to carve out a space and then allow that space to grow within you. It is very countercultural, to say the least.

    I started to read “The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise” (Cdl Sarah) the other night, and I was very much thinking of you and a post you wrote not that long ago about how you are able to fit so much reading into your life. Well, it made me think about the corresponding need to fit silence into our life. I think Cdl. Sarah has something to speak to your heart, so if you haven’t read his book yet, get a copy. And don’t read it quickly. It is written in numbered paragraphs, suitable for one paragraph at a time to guide you towards understanding and facilitating the silence that is requisite to a relationship of intimacy with God.

    Sometimes there are surprising places to find silence in our daily life. There was a time when I had to do a lot of travel by air, and it really surprised me how in the midst of all the noise and activity in an airport, I was actually able to experience silence and solitude with God. But it was only because I was able to be recollected, I was experienced at it, and I was drawn to it because I was drawn to be in intimate contact with God, and if not there, then where? We have to carve out those places in our life. They won’t drop into our lap.

    So, I’m happy to read this account from you of your understanding of how God calls you to nourish yourself in this way. God bless you in your efforts.

  • Dan

    For thousands of years we talked to whomever was within a day’s walking distance. That’s it. We all somehow believe we can handle so much more than that. I offer we cannot. Because for those same thousands of years anyone seen trying to handle as many tasks and obligations, without merit or meaning most of the time, as the modern human does would be said to be experiencing “an episode” of some sort. Today if you’re plate isn’t overloaded and spilling off the sides you will quickly be considered, and/or feel like you’re not doing enough. No ma’am not here. I actively seek to take things off my plate and replace them with nothing. Decide when I get there.

    I think myself and many others can relate to your post. There isn’t much time for bonding with others or reflecting in prayer when we add all the potential things we can accomplish, into the mix. My main task should be earned serenity.

    “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
    -Thomas Merton

    Between the ribs first, I like that. Amen

  • Kristen

    “But I can easily forget that thinking about God isn’t the same as communing with Him in my heart.” — Totally my struggle! I love learning about God and the Church, reading blogs like yours, etc… but it’s really hard for me to “know” him on a heart level.

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