The Only Bag I Need Today

I dug my trusty tote bag out of the closet yesterday.

I have other totes. Several of them, in all shapes and sizes. Most of them are fancy and professional-looking, and some even have a special place for my water bottle. Most of them aren’t stained in places, and their handles aren’t frayed.

But this is the tote I dug out of the closet yesterday, because today I’m going to need it.




I’m going to need my Caregiver Bag.

This bag has gone with me to medical visits for at least a decade. It has room for my water bottle. And tissues. And waiting-room snacks. And the book I’ll bring, but definitely won’t read, in the waiting room. And whatever papers we’re handed, with instructions and arrangements and marching orders.

(And a rosary, though there are already 3 of those in my handbag.)

It’s been a decade, and this bag and I are in it for the long haul. Maybe that’s why, every time I get a shiny new bag, I hang onto this one despite the stains and the frayed handle.

I’ve hung onto that handle on some very dark days. And I’ve held it on the days when we heard good news, when we walked out of hospitals breathing a sigh of relief, because this time we were sure we were done with this.

So today, I’ll pack up that bag again with the snacks and the water bottle and the tissues and the extra rosary and the book I won’t read. I’ll grab onto those fraying straps and walk confidently through that familiar parking garage and into those halls I’ve walked so many times before, and I’ll remember that this is not a burden I have to carry alone.

Copyright 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Photos copyright 2022 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.

Resolution: Keep the Feeder Full

On Friday, December 27, 2019, I filled my bird feeder for the first time in four months.

These past four months have been beyond difficult. We returned home from a blessedly relaxing vacation on August 31, and things fell apart the very next day.

This fall, my family has experienced two very serious health crises; September 1 marked the beginning of an extremely rough time. For six weeks, I spent about half my time traveling back and forth to northern New Jersey to help with things there. After that, an illness closer to home kept me here, taking care of one while simultaneously feeling guilty about leaving my family “up north” behind.

And just as things began to settle down, we emptied our entire home into the basement, the garage, and a storage pod so some long-overdue renovations could be completed; we lived in an extended-stay hotel for 2 1/2 weeks.

On Saturday, finally, I loaded my brand-new bookcases with books I hadn’t laid eyes on since early November.

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Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

All this to say: My bird feeder has been sorely neglected. I was barely keeping up with work. I took shortcut after shortcut when it came to meals, and the laundry got done, but when I sat down at 7:30 to relax with a book, I’d be snoring on the couch within 15 minutes. I had no bandwidth left for birds, or anything else.

We’re back in the house. My loved ones are still feeling the effects of those health crises, but things are improving for them all the time.

My bookshelves are full, and so is my bird feeder. I’ve missed taking those five minutes to fill that up. I’ve missed seeing the sparrows, cardinals, and house finches nibbling at the birdseed. I’ve missed hearing the birds gleefully begin to chirp when I approached the feeder with cups of seed in my hands. In all the necessary rushing around, I’ve missed those moments.

Four months is a long time to let a feeder go unfilled. That 5-star bird feeder rating that I’ve worked years to achieve is not mine to claim right now. But I hope that by the time the juncos return to herald the winter snow, the neighborhood birds will have discovered that my feeder is open for business.

This New Year, I’m resolving to keep the feeder full. Because it feeds me, too.

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Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz


Pixabay (2013), CC0/PD

I was unexpectedly home alone for dinner tonight. In between working and stressing out over packing the house for next week’s renovations (we basically have to move all our stuff out, and live someplace else for the duration of the job), I figured I’d grab some takeout for a quick dinner.

There are Chinese takeout places all over, but I chose the one around the corner, because it’s around the corner so it would be faster.

I chose poorly.

I called to place my order at 5:50. I waited at least 15 minutes before heading over there, only to find 4 people waiting ahead of me and a 10-year-old running the store. They were slammed. Her mom was doing all the cooking (there are usually two adults cooking and a teenager taking phone calls and filling orders). Two smaller boys (the bigger one was no older than 7) were running around.

The little girl told me my food would be ready in a couple of minutes.

The back door to the restaurant was open; the whole family was working with coats on. I don’t know what kind of crazy had happened today, but it was definitely not business as usual. I slid into a small booth to wait for my lo mein.

I waited.

And waited.

It was after 7 PM and I still didn’t have my food. Other people left. Some politely canceled their orders before leaving, at least, so that overworked mom didn’t have to try to figure out whose food she was cooking for no reason at all.

I texted my husband and told him what was happening, concluding that if I ever got my food, I was leaving a big tip for that kid.

Because really, it was not her fault. She was working hard: running around taking orders, filling orders, going to the freezer for her mom, and manning the deep fryer (except for the time the 7-year-old did that. YIKES.). And her mom was handling multiple woks and answering the phone and keeping the two little boys in line.

Maybe I’ve used up all my anger at situations I cannot control by directing it at other situations I cannot control. I don’t know. I was cold (my feet are still not warm, and I’ve been back home for an hour now) and was working on a hunger headache but I figured that it would be worse to abandon ship and leave that mom and her little girl to try to figure out what other order to cancel, and with one fewer dinner check for the night.

So I stayed, and commiserated with a couple of other customers and expressed my admiration for the poise this kid was showing.

And at 7:25 when they finally called me up to get my food, 95 minutes after I’d ordered, I left $5 in the tip jar after paying for my $7 bowl of lo mein and a spring roll.

I can only hope that the customers behind me did the same.

Copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz

“Kick Me: Clinging to the hurt”

Last night when we were on our way home from dinner, we stopped to let some people cross in front of us in a parking lot. Hubs recognized them and said, “Isn’t that …” but couldn’t think of their names.

“The people who didn’t call you back when you volunteered,” I shot back, as he tooted his horn and waved in greeting.

My comment came from a place of hurt, but that doesn’t mean it was warranted. I could just as easily have reminded Hubs of their names. But, as I always do, I let that old grudge take over.

My superpower is hanging on to grudges. I’m really good at it. I could write a long essay detailing the many offenses behind my retort, but where would that get me?

Fact is, we’re not part of the in crowd. We don’t belong to the clique. We’re not rich enough or stylish enough or fit enough or beautiful enough. We don’t drink enough or travel enough or own a shore home. And we’ve discovered that in certain settings, people who volunteer but don’t belong to the clique don’t get called upon to help.

That hurts. Deeply. You’d think that now that I’m solidly in middle age, it wouldn’t bother me so much, but you’d be wrong. I’m hurt, and I’m steadily crossing the line into bitter.

Worse, I’ve passed along that bitterness to my kids — I’ve heard echoes of my own pain in their words.

Honestly, hanging on to all that hurt is exhausting. I hold tight to it, thinking that will help. I’m not sure what I think it will help me do.

It won’t make me rich enough or stylish enough or fit enough or beautiful enough.

It won’t get me into a clique that I don’t belong in anyway.

It won’t take away the very real fear that I’ll get hurt again.

I cling to the hurt like it’s a security blanket, hoping it will become a protective armor (or, at the very least, an invisibility cloak.)

But in reality, it’s more like that “kick me” sign the third-grade bully pins on the back of your T-shirt.

Closing myself off from the people who shut me out doesn’t prevent me from getting hurt.

Maybe it’s time to try something new. Anni Harry writes:

At the end of the day, my response to the “cool moms” is what is most important. I can lambaste them, throw shade toward them, or think bad things of them. And, I have to admit, I struggled this past weekend to not give in to excoriating them – both in thought and word.

Yet, every time I began to get angry, there was a calm voice running under the current – pray for them.

I have learned through the past five years that prayer is an amazing thing. When I pray for someone I don’t get along with, or someone who has hurt me, I find myself changing. I am strengthened and given a different perspective. I stop finding fault with the other individual/s, and rather, focus on the contributions I can bring to the world – I focus on being the change I would like to see. So, if you are struggling with another person, I encourage you to join me in praying for them.

Via Pixabay (2014), CC0 Public Domain

Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Not so holy: How did your Lent go?

March has been a busy month — all the more so because I’ve been getting ready for what I’m calling “Crazy April.”

Monday morning, bright and early, I’m headed to the airport so I can travel to Cincinnati and represent Today’s Catholic Teacher magazine at the NCEA convention and help host a banquet for the Innovations in Catholic Education Awards.

(Related: I had to buy a fancy dress. And shoes that, I hope, will allow me to stand for the better part of the day on a trade-show floor and walk a few blocks each way to the hotel. Tendonitis in both feet and an old stress fracture in one isn’t a good combination when this is on the agenda.)

After four days of travel this week, I’ll have about 10 days at home before I drive to Worcester, MA, for editorial meetings for the magazine.

So I’ve been prescheduling as much content as I can at and, working on final edits for the coming summer issue, and, well, generally neglecting things around the house. On Wednesday it occurred to me that while I’d finished most of the work projects, I had no Easter-basket treats for my family and no idea what I’d be serving for Easter Sunday dinner.

Meanwhile, in the course of my routine correspondence with the authors I work with in both of my jobs, I’ve been getting some variation on the theme of, “How was your Lent?” I’ve even been editing articles along that line.

When you work in Catholic media, you can’t help being bombarded, this time of year, with recaps of people’s holy Lents. And, well, my Lent hasn’t been so very holy. It’s not that I’m not keeping my eyes on my own paper, so much that other people’s papers are being shoved right under my eyes in the course of my job.

I bought this beautiful Lenten spiritual workbook, Above All, from Take Up and Read. I haven’t touched it in weeks. If I’ve completed 1/5 of it, that’s a lot. I just haven’t made the time.

I did manage to give up espresso beverages … whoop-de-do.

But honestly, it’s all been about time management. I love the work I get to do: I have terrific and supportive colleagues at both my jobs, and the writers I work with are wonderful. I call many of them my friends, and I look forward to meeting several more of them this summer at the Catholic Writers Guild Conference. My problem is, in an occupation where there is always new content to prepare, I can get swamped under that and let it spill over into the time I should be allotting for other things.

So I’m packing my copy of When the Timer Dings, and a blank bullet journal, into my tote bag for the airplane trip. I find that when I’m in a different place, I can get out of my head and think more creatively. I have some daydreaming to do about my goals and wishes for next year’s magazines, but I need to do some daydreaming about the way I manage my time (or, more accurately, don’t manage it.)

Lent this year just hasn’t been so holy. Beating myself up about it isn’t going to help. So while the business trips I’m taking this April are taking me way out of my comfort zone (and my comfortable sweatpants) I’m beginning to feel grateful for the opportunity to reboot the way I schedule my work.

After all, Lent isn’t the only season of the liturgical year in which you can grow in holiness. Maybe with improved time management, I’ll be better able to nurture my spiritual life during the Easter season and beyond.

How did your Lent go? If it wasn’t so holy, what can you do about that during the Easter season?

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Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz
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Fresh Start

My cooking energy evaporated yesterday after our trip to CHOP for an afternoon of diabetes education. dexcom g4This is not an iPod; it’s a continuous glucose monitor that tests Little Brother’s blood sugar every 5 minutes. He’s been using one for several weeks, and we had the chance to ask questions and learn interpretation techniques yesterday.

But when I came back, I was tired. And Hubs had to go pick up Middle Sister, who was at the shore for a few days. There was a series of 3 car snafus involved in that pickup–culminating in a flat tire that he had about 20 miles from home. In the rain. On the interstate.

He just got new tires 2 weeks ago.

The refrigerator that Hubs and the kids picked up at his mom’s house on Friday is still on the back porch–dead center, not neatly parked in the corner where it will live. That’s because the old refrigerator is still in the corner, still full of food. That’s because we didn’t have the part for the “new” one until Tuesday. That means we’re going to have a fridge transfer in the middle of today’s cooking frenzy, and I’m probably going to have to flip out before someone finds a place to stow the old one, because you can’t just put these things on the curb the night before a party.

And there are 90+ people coming here tomorrow and I’m hoping the weather clears up as promised because my house cannot hold that many people. I certainly don’t want the little kids in here playing on the Wii when there’s a perfectly good pool outside for them to swim in. Double that if the little kids are wet from the pool and decide they want to come in.

I was absently scratching my left arm last night when I realized I had hives. Well, more accurately, hive. When I’m stressed, I get one hive.

That’s when I bailed. I washed the last few dishes in the sink and just gave up. My list for today is ready. It’s a new day and I’m about to hit the ground running.

Making Sense of It All

Yesterday was an extraordinarily difficult day.

I already knew I’d be spending the evening attending a wake service for one of the Secular Franciscans who’d passed away after a long illness. Much as we are relieved that her suffering has ended, we mourn her loss and grieve with her family.

When I stopped at the parish office for a Mass card, the secretary was mourning for one of her own family members who’d passed away. All I could do was squeeze her hand across the counter as she wept…I’ve been praying for her since then.

One of the other Secular Franciscans has a birthday today. She will spend it at a funeral for her longtime friend and neighbor.

Little Brother had a half day, so he got home around 1, and in the middle of arguing with him about what constitutes a “clean” family room, I started seeing news reports about the horrible events in Newtown, CT. People on social media were saying, “hug your kids” and my 10-year-old is accusing me of not loving him because I wouldn’t let him play a video game before he’d finished his chore.

28 people died in Connecticut yesterday. The story just kept getting worse and worse. The media interviewed traumatized little kids and mis-identified the shooter.

And the parents of 20 little children will have to get through Christmas without those children. They will be wishing for the opportunity to tell their child to clean up his toys.

After dinner I went to the funeral home for the wake, where the deacon wisely began the prayer service with a prayer for the New England community that had suffered such a tragedy. And we all agreed that Mary M, a mom of 6 and grandmother of 9, was probably welcoming those little children to Heaven yesterday.

I was glad, last night, to have all my kids under the same roof when I went to sleep. I hope that they know every day that I love them. Even when I take away their video games, make them clean up their own messes, and enforce curfews. Someday they will realize that I do these things BECAUSE I love them, that I wouldn’t be loving them very much at all if I didn’t.

Today, when they wake up, I will hug them all just a little harder. There is just no way to understand this. All I can do is try to be better at loving my family. And I pray for Mary, for the people of Newtown, CT, and for our parish secretary, Mary’s family, our Franciscan community and all others who grieve.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

And may the Lord comfort those who mourn.

Updated to add:  I was asked in the comments how to get to the point of praying for the shooter. I don’t know. I just don’t. But Friar Charles has a good starting point here.

Tiber River Review: Style, Sex and Substance

Don’t let your pride get in the way of your reading this encouraging book. I’ll admit that mine did, for a while; I’m pretty sure that most of the 10 contributors are a good bit younger than I am. But after reading several excerpts of Style, Sex and Substance online, I was convinced that while the women whose essays are featured in this book may be younger than me, they’ve got plenty of wisdom to share. The writing is honest and real, and by the end of each chapter you’ll feel that its author is a new, trusted friend.

Don’t let the title fool you; I found that this book is a whole lot more about “substance” than sex. Yes, there are humorous, real-life stories (and I loved those!) There are also reflection questions at the end of each chapter that would work as well for small-group study as they do for individual reflection and journaling. A small sampling of these include:

  • sins vs. quirks
  • nurturing yourself
  • putting your schedule in order
  • fostering intimacy in marriage
  • personal holiness for single women
  • making rash judgements
  • healthy friendship
  • building your marriage
  • goals for motherhood
  • the Christian life and popular culture
Not all chapters are for every woman at every time, but this book doesn’t need to be read start-to-finish to be appreciated. Start with the introduction and chapter 1, then pick and choose as the Spirit moves you. You’ll be hooked, and you’ll want to keep this book around for encouragement in the various seasons of your life as a Catholic woman.
Style, Sex and Substance would be a great gift for a young woman just starting out on her own, a bride-to-be, a new mom or even a “woman of a certain age” like myself who’s in need of a new perspective.
After all, there’s always something new to be learned–even from women who are younger than you.

My compliments to editor Hallie Lord and all the contributors to this excellent book.

You can purchase this book here.

I wrote this review of Style, Sex and Substance for the Tiber River Blogger Review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods. For more information and to purchase, please visit Aquinas and More Catholic Goods. Tiber River is the first Catholic book review site, started in 2000 to help you make informed decisions about Catholic book purchases.

A review copy of the book was provided to me. I did not receive other compensation for this review.

Upside Down

I spent the morning yesterday in a hospital waiting room. My husband was there for same-day, minor surgery. I drank a lot of coffee, prayed the Rosary, and tried to ignore the overly-loud, overly-large TVs. I was nervous, of course, but not very worried, because we’d been told so many times that it was ” probably nothing.”

I should have known that my uncharacteristic optimism was misplaced.

I kept thinking to myself that it would be No Big Deal, all the while in denial of just how easily No Big Deal can turn into a Very Big Deal Indeed. Minor can go to major in less time than it takes to spell my last name. And your whole world turns upside down as the surgeon says those 3 words nobody wants to hear.

As we try to let it all sink in, as we think of how to find the words to make the kids understand, we simultaneously scribble down specialists’ phone numbers on Post-It notes and assemble folders full of referrals, test results and form after form after form after form.

It is all these details, I think, that will make me crazy and at the same time keep me from going crazy. If I concentrate on the details, I won’t have to think about the big picture. I don’t want to see the forest for the trees.

We will have to wait more than a week before the next step can be taken, before all the results are in and appointments can be made with just the right doctors. And all those other minor-league problems we’ve been dealing with? We’re not feeling the need to deal with those just now. Can we please just put that stuff on the back burner for a while?

One thing at a time, Lord. It’s hard to turn this over when I want to take the ball myself and run with it. I’m a ball-hog in that regard, just as much as some of the hotshots on Little Brother’s soccer team. It’s hard to turn it over because if I abandon it, if I relinquish the control I try to hard to maintain, I might just go to pieces when it is least convenient.

Mom doesn’t get to fall apart, you know. That’s a rule. And if nothing else, I’m a rule-follower.

Even–perhaps especially–when our world has just been turned upside down.

Pray for my husband, if you would; for his doctors; for the kids and for me as we negotiate this new and scary road.

And thank you to Barbara for the beautiful Rosary!

Fat Police

This morning, Little Brother and I went grocery shopping. Everything went well for the first 3/4 of the trip. We got nectarines, cucumbers, melon, bananas, celery, Cheerios, peanut butter, cookies (I had a coupon) and EVOO. Then we got to the dairy aisle, and that’s where things got ugly.

I reached for a gallon of milk, the kind with the red top that screams, “Full fat!” at the casual observer, and my skinny 10-year-old took me to task.

It’s got to be the propaganda that’s behind it. First of all, the kid doesn’t even drink milk–hasn’t in more than 8 years. I am the main consumer of that weekly gallon of milk, and I like my milk whole, thankyouverymuch. But boy, was I in trouble. “Why don’t you buy 2%, Mom?”

“Because I don’t like 2%. I like Real Milk.” We went along this way for a while, as I wheeled the cart along and picked up a pound of Real Butter and 18 Real Eggs and then headed toward the Coffee Nirvana section, where I once again bemoaned the fact that ShopRite never has quarts of light cream anymore.

“Half-and-half is just as good, Mom,” said my young Food Policeman.

“No, believe me, half-and-half is not just as good,” I sighed as I placed a quart of half-and-half in the cart sadly.

“Mom, I agree with that governor of New York about this,” he commented. (I think he meant “mayor,” but whatever. I was arguing for my Real Milk, not accuracy regarding government officials.)

Kid, I’m all for healthy, which is why I bought nectarines, cucumbers, melon, bananas, celery, Cheerios and peanut butter, and also the EVOO. But when it comes to dairy, I’m a full-fat kind of girl. And no one, not any governor or mayor or president or surgeon general or doctor on TV is going to tell me not to have my nice big glass of milk with dinner every night.

Real milk. With the red top. Ice cold. It’s the only way. I’m willing to sit down with the Fat Police over a cold one and discuss this, and I will not back down.