Monday, November 30, 2009

The Night’s Dark Shade: A Novel of the Cathars by Elena Maria Vidal

I had the pleasure of reading Elena Maria Vidals’ new historical romance, “The Night’s Dark Shade: A Novel of the Cathars”, released by Mayapple Press in November, 2009.

The Night’s Dark Shade tells the story of a young heiress, Lady Raphaelle, who is caught up in the turmoil of the Albigensian Crusade in thirteenth century France. En route to meet her betrothed in the castle in the Pyrenees that is hers by right, she is rescued from an ambush by the brave and alluring Sir Martin.

The sparks between the two are flying from the very beginning, while the readers learns of the history of the crusade as well as the mysterious Cathars, a polytheistic sect which claimed to be Christian. In the first chapter the setting, plot, and all the main characters are all well-established. The second chapter instructs us on some history as told by the sweet-smelling knight as he carries her on horseback to her castle. The novel moves on, mixing history and drama, at a good pace. Raphaelle is caught up in several major dilemmas; we can truly sympathize with what she is going through.

Raphaelle is a strong character who insists on doing what is right for her people. All that she does, including following through on her betrothal to a man she does not love, is seen as her duty to them. Even so, she is torn by the feelings she has for another man. She also chooses to harbor an evil object which results in dire consequences. Vidal shows us how even the very best of us can struggle with sin.

The book addresses some surprising delicate moral issues of the time that are seldom brought up in a Christian novel. The Cathars were against marriage because it regularized procreation, and they thought children were evil. The religious midwives used herbs to prevent conception or to abort, even killing live babies if they were not deemed fit to survive. They promoted homosexuality because it did not result in children. People were encouraged to live together without marriage because they were more likely to contracept.

These topics are intertwined through the plot; the immoral acts are alluded to but never described explicited. The historical research is well documented, and moral deductions drawn by the author are all consistent with Catholic doctrine.

The more you read about history, the more you realize that there is truly nothing new under the sun. What is going on in modern society is a rerun of what was happening in the Middle Ages. If you haven’t heard about the “dark side of being green”, many environmental groups have been saying that children are “emitters” and the best thing we can do for the environment is to stop having children! Planned Parenthood is supported by so many large and well-reputed organizations that it is hard to go shopping, go to a movie, or go to a theme park without purchasing a product that will go toward their “cause”.

I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. I was up until 3 AM reading the suspenseful ending! Justice is served (medieval style!) to the protagonists. The main characters all make turn-arounds for the better and there is forgiveness all around. The choice Raphaelle makes in the end is completely satisfying.

Elena Maria Vidal sent me a copy of the newly released book in exchange for my honest review of her book. The author studied the Cathars at SUNY Albany before receiving her Master’s Degree in European History. She also authored Trianon and Madame Royale. You can follow her blog at

The book is available from and will be available from Amazon in a few weeks.

Signed copies can also be bought directly from the author at her blog

This review also appears as a guest post at Catholic Media Review.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

First Sunday of Advent

I was filled with such great joy this morning when I woke up this morning. It is the First Sunday of Advent! Last night I put out some new Advent Bead Boxes for the children, each with one bead to start them off. The beads represent good deeds. On Christmas Eve they will place their boxes under the Christmas Tree as their gift to the Christ Child. Please read my column today, in which I tell about some great Austrian Advent traditions I learned from Maria Augusta Trapp's "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers".

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

These chocolates were made by my children today. They are girl and boy pilgrims, bats with baseballs, and turkeys. I am so thankful for them, for America, and for my readers. Happy Thanksgiving!

For flowers that bloom about our feet;
For tender grass, so fresh, so sweet;
For song of bird, and hum of bee;
For all things fair we hear or see,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee!

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, November 23, 2009

When Mommies Make Mistakes

Things could be worse. Suppose your errors were counted and published every day, like those of a baseball player. ~Author Unknown

I thought I was having a really great Mommy weekend. I managed to spend individual one-on-one time with each of my children. My 3-year-old and I planted some bulbs. I took my 8- and 10-year olds on separate library trips. I played a full-court, no-foul, no-boundaries, no-time-outs, one-on-one basketball game with my twelve-year-old and let her beat me 22-0. We all went out to Friendly’s for dinner and ice cream.

Sunday night I took my two older girls out to buy Thanksgiving outfits. We aren’t big clothes hogs in this house, but for special holidays I like to make sure everyone has something beautiful to wear. They each picked out something gorgeous and I was trying on a flattering red blouse with scarf.

“Maybe I’ll wear this to my son’s Thanksgiving play,” I thought to myself, “When is that again? Friday? Wait, we have off this Friday, which…OMG…OMG…OMG…”

I got home and ran to my son before my daughters could open their big mouths. He was playing Battleship with my husband. “Did you already have your Thanksgiving play?” I burst out. “Yeah,” he said, nonchalantly. The look of horror on my face told all to my husband. I ran upstairs to have a good cry.

I pride myself on keeping our complicated schedules in order. I have my little book in my pocketbook, which gets written on a large dry erase calendar in the laundry room. Around that are corkboards where the important flyers hang. But something went wrong with my system in this one particular case, and I was never going get back the chance to attend my son’s Thanksgiving play.

I emailed an apology to the teacher, asking if she knew of any parents who had videotaped the play. She wrote me back a nice note saying not to beat myself up over it and gave me a name. I emailed the person, who sent me a nice picture and promised to copy the video for me. So I will eventually get the chance to sit and watch the play with my son. In the meantime, I will be taking him out for lots and lots of ice cream.

I woke up still feeling bad, and was glad to find this quote by Henry David Thoreau : “One cannot too soon forget his errors and misdemeanors; for to dwell upon them is to add to the offense.”

I also liked Sophia Loren’s “Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.” And how about F. Wikzek’s “If you don't make mistakes, you're not working on hard enough problems. And that's a big mistake.”

I was thinking that I couldn’t go on writing this blog when I couldn’t do something really basic like attend a school play. Then I read Niels Bohr’s quote, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

And finally, from Alexander Pope, in Swift, Miscellanies, “A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying... that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”

We are responsible for so much as mothers, and when we mess up the best thing to do is say “I’m sorry”, take a look at our priority list, and move forward.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Everlasting Summer

“Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own; and from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, it is but a succession of changes so gentle and easy that we can scarcely mark their progress.” - Charles Dickens

Reluctantly, my three-year-old and I pulled out the faded marigolds that have lined my driveway since August. She and I deadheaded the plants, putting the seeds away for safe-keeping until the spring. I was sad to see the color go, but happy to see the clean look of the driveway once the leaves and dead flowers were gone.

Usually, the seasons don’t come and go without warning. They ease in and out, and with relatively predictable timing. Still you hear people exclaiming their shock at the “sudden change” in weather.

Children and the elderly are like that too. People are always telling me it seemed like “yesterday” that their children were little. They say it happens when you “blink”.

When the kids went back to school in the fall, the school nurse remarked about how many inches my eldest daughter had shot up over the summer. I measured her and realized that she is taller than me. When did that happen?

An older friend or relative, after suffering through an illness for several months, passes away “suddenly”. From the outside, this is easy to see. From the inside, it is harder to be objective about the time as it passes.

I think of the seasons translating to human development as spring for birth, summer for young to middle-aged adult, fall for the elderly, and winter for death. There is no birth or dying in Heaven. Everyone will have new, perfect bodies and be in the prime of their development. When the universe is renewed at the time of Jesus’ coming, it will be like a one-time spring that turns into an everlasting summer.

Flowers will bloom and never fade! Leaves will bud and never fall off! There will be no weeding, for no plant will be deemed undesirable. We will walk around the garden of life praising God for ever for His Glory.

We will not be sad to watch our little ones grow up, or to watch our elderly die. We will not hesitate to form human bonds, for friendship will never die and neither will our friends.

In the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church entitled “The Hope of the New Heaven and the New Earth” (section 1042), drawing on sacred scripture, we read:

“At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed:
The Church…will receive her perfection only in the flory of heaven, when will come the time of the renewal of all things. At that time, together with the human race, the universe itself, which is so closely related to man and which attains its destiny through him, will be perfectly re-established in Christ.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Send your old Christmas cards to St. Jude's Ranch for Children

Every year I take out the Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. Tucked neatly into one of the boxes I will find last year's Christmas cards, tied neatly with satin ribbon. I don't know what to do with them, but I am too sentimental to throw them out. So I put them in a box full of cards from previous years, and place the box back in the garage, along with old, broken, homemade ornaments that I still hold onto.

I always knew I would find a good use for them one day, and now I have...

For the rest of this article published on please click here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Igneous Rocks, Farmville, and the Horses of Death

“So, what’s new in the virtual world?” my husband asks on Saturday evening, kissing me hello.

“Nothing much. What’s new in the real world?”

Dinner has been ready but I have been keeping the meatballs warm in the oven for the past half hour. I take them out and mumble an apology.

“They look like igneous rocks,” he comments.

“You’ll just have to use my sauce then,” I say, “It’s been simmering for the past three hours.” To prove that, the house is filled with the glorious smell of olive oil, garlic, onions, tomato, and basil, with just a touch of White Zinfandel.

The kids come to the table and answer his original question with an explanation of all the new developments in Farmville. My children have never spent much time on the computer, but since they were introduced to online games and it has been raining quite a bit lately, this online game has become a household obsession.

After dinner, I tell them that I want them to stay off the computer on Sunday because it is going to be a nice day.

“But Mom, I just planted $15,000 worth of watermelon seeds! If I don’t harvest them when they ripen, they will wither and die.”

“Don’t worry about your virtual plants, honey. I’ll check on them from my computer and make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“No Farmville for you, either,” my husband teases me.

On Sunday morning we were treated to a reading about the end times. The deacon tells us that this really is about the present times. We are always to be ready, for no man knows the hour at which Christ will come. I think to myself: Would I want to be caught playing Farmville when Jesus returns?

On the way home, I am chastising them for their treatment of each other. During the Lord‘s Prayer my two middle children had been squirming around and not letting the other hold hands. “If Jesus came back right now, would you want Him to catch you mistreating each other?

I am still working my way through The Catechism of the Catholic Church, from front to back, one section at a time. After lunch I pick it up and read:

“Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience…Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away form death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow…”

[quoted in section 1014 in The Catechism; from The Imitation of Christ, 1, 23, 1]

I thought again of the Horses of Death in the recent version of A Christmas Carol. My ten-year-old had wanted to know what they represented. I had explained then that we should have no fear of death if we are in a State of Grace. Scrooge was afraid because he was not.

We went out to set up a new pitching net and spent the afternoon raking leaves and working on softball skills. It was time well spent. Dinner was a hodgepodge of leftovers from the previous three nights. Then we turned on our computers to check on our farms.

Painting by William Blake: “Death on a Pale Horse”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs" by Jeni Stepanek

"Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs”, is written by Jeni Stepanek, mother of the hero of the book, with Larry Lindner. It includes a foreword by Maya Angelou. It was released on November 3, 2009, by Dutton, a division of Penguin Books.

Mattie J.T. Stepanek was this amazing kid who just happened to suffer from a rare disorder that later came to be known as Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy. His three siblings all died by the age of four of the same disorder, and his mother was diagnosed with the adult onset form after having given birth to them. They are the only five people ever diagnosed with this particular form of the disorder.

Told from the first person, Jeni is one of the main characters of the book, as the mother who cared for her son and supported his efforts, yet Mattie is the focus. She sees him as a gift from God and is thankful for the time she was able to share with him and her other children on this earth.

From the beginning you know that he is going to die at the age of thirteen, and the suspense of the reader in seeing how he is going to live his life in between crises, and when he is going to die, is a faint echo of what you know Jeni and Mattie lived through in real life time. Jeni is very descriptive of all that they went through, but the book is much larger than that.

From an early age, Mattie defied the doctors’ predictions, so that eventually they gave up saying there was no hope and just let him go the course. He taught himself to read and write, and was so far ahead of his age peers in school that homeschooling became the best option for him. By middle school he was attending a local college for his coursework.

By the age of three he was writing poetry, and became a bestselling author. He published six collections of Heartsongs poetry and one collection of peace essays. “Heartsong” is a word he coined for a person’s essence. He believed that everyone should share their heartsongs with each other to make the world a better place. His poetry and his life work were all for the purpose of spreading the message of peace and hope.

He was the National Goodwill Ambassador for Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Association for three years in a row, traveling along with his all his life support equipment to give inspirational talks to large audiences and appear on television programs such as Larry King Live and Oprah Winfrey. His final project was assisting Jimmy Carter in the writing of the book “Just Peace”.

The book features never-before-published essays and poems from Mattie’s journals, as well as e-mail exchanges between him and one of his best friends, Oprah Winfrey.

I had a few reservations about the book that I feel I must disclose to the Catholic reading audience. Jeni, herself a Catholic, chose to leave an abusive marriage; divorce is mentioned but not an annulment. Mattie’s best friends are also some of the more liberal celebrities. If you are not a fan of Oprah, you might get tired of reading all of her supportive emails to Mattie. You may not agree with the choices of books and movies Mattie enjoys.

There is one story on p. 203 that gave me pause. Someone asks Mattie if they can put a “Celebrate Diversity” sticker on the back of his wheelchair. When a nurse and close friend explains to him and Jeni that it is a “gay pride” sticker and that people might think he is gay, he chooses to leave it because “God’s love includes all people”. I understand his point of view, but Jeni goes further in stating in the book, “So many people who are antigay point to the Bible to support the opinion that homosexuality is a sin. But Mattie understood that the Bible had to be read with an eye toward historical and cultural context.”

Other than that, the book is profoundly pro-life. The doctors all begged her to get an abortion; she would not. They told her to put Mattie in an institution; she chose to be his mother. She chose to let him live his life as much as he could, and went to great lengths to allow him to see his vision through. When it came to the end of his life, she allowed him the dignity to take part in the decisions about heroic life-saving measures. She and others made sure that all of his wishes were carried out when he was buried. They honored his life through continuing to carry on his message to the world.

Dutton sent me a preview copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. I have to admit that, when I read the description, I was not too excited about it. It sounded like a depressing topic, and I usually like to read to escape reality for a while. But I took the assignment and was glad I did. Other than the reservations I have mentioned, I recommend this book as a tribute to a great young soul with a message of hope and peace.

This article appears as a guest post at Catholic Mothers Online.

For more about Mattie and his life see his tribute website.

For ordering information see Dutton Publishing at Penguin Books.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Disney's "A Christmas Carol"

If you are wondering whether A Christmas Carol is too scary for your child, please read my review over at my Examiner column.
Leticia Velasquez also has an excellent review at MercatorNet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Teaching kids historical perspective through the movies

On Friday I took the kids to see the new Disney’s Christmas Carol. It was amazing technically, and filled with real Christian messages. Musical selections included “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World”. The message front and center was that you gain happiness by helping others.

After the movie, my ten-year-old was filled with questions. Why were the horses of death chasing him? Why was the Ghost of Christmas Present keeping two children called Want and Ignorance under his skirts? Did people really have to go to jail because they were poor? I was so glad that I had been able to take them to a quality movie that offered the opportunity to discuss such deep questions.

On Saturday my twelve-year-old surprised me by requesting that we watch Gone With the Wind. This is my favorite movie of all time. Why the sudden interest? She has been studying the Civil War in school and they have been watching Glory, which is told from the Northern perspective.

So we sat and watched the whole thing. We paused the movie many times so I could explain what was going on culturally. The difficulties of those times made me so thankful for the modern conveniences we take for granted. What was chloroform and why did they have to cut off solidiers’ legs without it? Why did they have to boil the soldiers’ clothing?

There were also some tricky moral questions. Why was Belle Watkins considered a bad woman? Why were Scarlett and Ashley kissing when they were married to other people? Why was Scarlett marrying her sisters’ beaus?

I also got to give them a little movie history. I recited for them the names of the actors, the awards the movie and the book had reaped, and why the sunset kiss between Scarlett and Rhett was controversial for its time.

Not only do true classics never go out of style; they offer great opportunities to share your knowledge and make it relevant to the world that your children are familiar with.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

10 steps to planting bulbs with your kids in the fall

Planting bulbs is such a great activity to do with your kids, and they are fully capable of performing all of the steps from the age of 2. Please click here to see my article on 10 steps to planting bulbs in the fall with your kids.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

10 reasons to get your kids to rake leaves

If you have kids, and you have leaves, it should be obvious you should put them together and make both disappear for a while. For those who need some convincing, I have written 10 reasons to get your kids to rake leaves in today's Examiner column.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Where’s the water? It’s in the fax machine.

“We’re going to vote,” I told my three-year-old as we walked out the door.

We drove the mile to the nearest school and parked.

“Where’s the water?” she asked me.

“I don’t have any water,” I said.

“But where’s the water? There’s no boat.”

“No, not boat. VOTE. You’ll see.”

We went in and voted.

Next stop was Staples, a long overdue trip.

Last summer, while dusting some shelves, I knocked a small water globe onto our fax machine. This is one of the necessary pieces of office equipment for my husband’s process serving business.

While the perfumy smell of the water fill the room, I tried to rescue the machine from the ravages of the water and broken glass.

It was still able to send, but not receive or copy.

Due to a combination of my dislike of shopping and not wanting to spend the money on a new machine, we have gone for months receiving PDF files from clients via email in lieu of faxes. The problem with this is that my husband does not know how to use the computer. So every time he needs to retrieve a file, I need to be home, download the file, and print it out. Sometimes clients use a program that is incompatible with my computer, causing more frustration.

We also have a weird combination of programs that work on one computer and not another, and printer problems, which result in my having to email files from one computer to another in order to print out a simple document.

The other problem with faxing, which was present before the actual machine broke, was that I had to be home in order to manually switch the line to receive a fax.

All my problems related to faxing were solved today!

I found a display unit on clearance, as well as a machine that automatically switches to receive a fax, without requiring a second line.

Ah, freedom! Freedom from having to retrieve documents online, freedom from having to pick up business calls during the day, freedom from picking up the phone to hear the annoying BEEP BEEP BEEP of a fax machine.

It is so amazing what a simple piece of technology can do to change your life.