The world according to Olivia

My most recent Life Lines column:

Olivia, our middle child, is one of those kids who can’t see someone hurting without wanting to do whatever she can to make it better. It’s a quality she’s always had. Even back in preschool, I can remember her teacher sitting down at our first conference and saying, “Olivia loves everybody, and everybody loves Olivia.”

Olivia, 9, has a heart of gold. Her love for everybody and everything is the main reason she became a vegetarian almost two years ago and has never wavered. She stated it simply: She did not want an animal to die so she could eat. Where other parents may have insisted she eat what everyone else is eating, we could not. Why? Because there was no denying her decision was pure Olivia, and we weren’t going to squash that spirit.

After our dog died, we told the kids, “No more pets.” But about six months later, as Olivia trolled the website of the local humane society, our resolve began to weaken. “Never” became “maybe,” which eventually became “after vacation,” which finally became “Get your coat; we’re going to the humane society.” We headed there for one cat in particular: Fred, who was described as super friendly and able to get along with kids and general chaos. Perfect for our house. We left the shelter that day with Fred and an unrelated but incredibly cute kitten named Mirabella. Without Olivia’s caring heart and constant badgering, we would not have this feline pair that, I have to admit, adds a little bit of fun to our house despite the damage they sometimes do.

When the Haitian earthquake hit, Olivia saw images of suffering Haitian children on TV and said, “We should adopt a Haitian baby.” She said it not as if she was asking a question but as if she was making an absolute statement. It was beyond difficult to explain to her that as much as we would like to be able to do such an incredibly generous thing, we simply are not in the position to do it. “We have no room,” we said. “Chiara can share my room and we’ll give the baby her room,” Olivia responded. “Adopting a baby costs a lot of money,” we said. “You can have everything in my piggy bank and anything else I get,” she answered.

It was touching and heartbreaking to see how desperately she wanted to help those poor children. Olivia cares deeply, but does she care too deeply? Is it possible to care too deeply? I pondered that and thought about the more radical saintly people of our faith – St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day. These holy men and women would have said, “You can never care too deeply. You can never give too much.” Nevertheless, the ways of the world simply don’t allow us to give away everything when we see people in need. We have to strike a Gospel-centered balance, but that’s not easy.

As we headed to church one Sunday, Olivia and Noah loaded their pockets with allowance money for the Catholic Relief Services collection to benefit Haiti. After a quick mom-dad conference, we sent them back to their rooms and helped them come up with a more reasonable amount. We were trying to honor their generosity while teaching them how to give intelligently and carefully. And they, in turn, were reminding us that we are called to give more with our hearts than with our heads.

I look into Olivia’s eyes and see an ideal, the way we all could be if we lived according to God’s ways and not the world’s ways. And I have a feeling that she’s going to grow up and show me and everyone else that it is possible to live that ideal because Olivia is not going to let a little thing like the world get in her way.

To read previous Life Lines columns, visit my website at

Signs of spring, both spiritual and physical

In the nine years that we have lived here, the one thing that has always been a herald of impending springtime has been that little snow drop in the photo above. No matter what kind of winter we’ve had, no matter how battered and bruised the ground, that hardy little blossom fights its way through the hard earth and offers us hope. In the muddy, brown backyard, it stands as a reminder of what is to come. New life is around the corner, and before we know it we will be surrounded by the bright greens of spring.

How fitting that the little snow blossom would arrive at this time, just as we are trudging through the dusty days of Lent, longing for the resurrection that we know is in the offing. I, for one, have been feeling a bit dusty and dried up spiritually these days. My Lent has not gone as I would have liked. Then again, it never does. Maybe I set my sights too high. Maybe I’m just not disciplined enough. I managed to come through on some of my Lenten promises, but not the big ones. Or at least the big ones in my eyes. Fasting and abstinence are relatively easy compared to deep prayer and true charity. I’m not talking about a quick vocal shout out to God and a check tossed into a collection. I was hoping for intense contemplative prayer and the kind of charity that focuses on love, the kind of love that transforms. That’s a tall order, I suppose, and the fasting and abstinence certainly help because they provide the physical reminders of what we are working toward. Still, two critical parts of the three-part Lenten equation have been sorely lacking in my life.

As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t posted much about spiritual life this Lent. Recipes and columns, yes. Insights into the spirit? Not so much. And that is due, in part, to the state of my own spiritual life. I always say that this blog is like a window into my soul. When it is stagnant or inactive, it’s probably a sign that my prayer life is stagnant and inactive. Because when my prayer life is rich and full — or even when I’m struggling but still in the midst of it — I can’t help but share it. It’s only in those fallow times, the times when I don’t feel much of anything that things get quiet here too. When that happens during Lent, it’s like a double whammy for me. I find it even harder to pull myself out because I want so much from this season.

And maybe that’s the problem. I’m expecting to make up for an entire year’s worth of neglected prayer in forty days. The reality is that Lent is not some magical season where everything I’ve done wrong or ignored the rest of the year suddenly drops away and I am left with a pure, shining spiritual life. Like that little snow drop, I need to be doing unseen work day after day. Diligent, prayerful work beneath the surface. You cannot get the blossom without the slow, quiet and difficult work that prepares the plant for that shining moment when it bursts through the ground and fills the world with color and hope.

So…these last weeks of Lent will be a time for quiet reflection and invisible work. I can sense the joy of Easter getting closer. There’s still time to get ready, to do what needs to be done so that I, too, can push through the murkiness that’s keeping me down and into the light of spring.

It’s March. Show your colon some love!

Once a year — usually during March, which is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month — I parade out a photo of my fine-looking colon to get your attention. (Yes, that is my actual colon above, as it appeared during my most recent colonoscopy, which was a little less than two years ago.)

No one likes to talk about colon cancer or colonscopies. OK, no one but me and Katie Couric and now Harry Smith, whom Katie Couric convinced to have his colonoscopy on live TV. Be thankful I limit my coverage to still photos. Why am I so passionate about something that many people (wrongly) feel ashamed to talk about? Because I would rather talk about this disease and pay attention to this disease than die of it, which my mother did just about 22 years ago at the ripe old age of only 47. The exact age I am right now.

If caught early, colon cancer is a curable disease. If not caught early, it will kill you. Sometimes very quickly. My mother had months not years, and not very good months considering what they did to try to save her. So, for your health, for your family, for anyone who cares about you, go get a colonoscopy as soon as you can if you are over 50 and have never had one, or if you are under 50 but have a family history of colon cancer or any diseases of the colon. It is not as bad as you would imagine. Really. I’ve had two so far and the advances they’ve made in the prep work that needs to be done is remarkable. The two experiences were like night and day, and I can honestly say that I do not fear the next test, which will come up again in less than a year. (I’m on a two-to-three year cycle of tests. Thanks, mom.)

In addition to getting a test to makes sure you don’t already have colon cancer or the polyps that can lead to cancer, you can also take some steps to try to prevent colon cancer. Increase fiber, decrease meat. Yes, that’s right. Cut down on meat. Do you think that’s just some vegetarian propaganda? Think again, and then read this article. Red meat is no friend to the colon. Cut it out or at least cut it down. High fat diets aren’t so great either. Click HERE to read about dietary suggestions for colon health.

If you want more information on the signs and symptoms of colon cancer, testing, prevention and more, go to the American Cancer Society by clicking HERE. Now, go call your doctor and make an appointment before I put up photos of someone’s unhealthy colon just to scare you.

Meatless Friday: Pasta and lentils, together at last. Try it. You’ll love it.

Before you click by this post because the word “lentils” scares you, especially in relation to pasta, I beg you to stop and just consider it for a moment because it is out-of-this world delicious. This particular recipe is actually a combination of two: a lentil sauce recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and my own addition of roasted butternut squash and garlic that gets added in right before serving. (That change-up happened because I had a squash that needed to be used and, voila, a new recipe was born.) The result is a dinner that is not only vegan (no meat, dairy, eggs, etc.) but incredibly yummy, with a complex texture and taste even though it’s easy to make. So here we go…

3/4 cup of dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
2 carrots, diced
2 medium onions, chopped
1 can of diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 butternut squash, cut in 1-inch cubes (You can find peeled, large-cut squash in the produce section if you don’t want to deal with a whole squash)
1 pound of pasta — ziti, rotelle, rigatoni
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 425. Combine butternut squash, minced garlic and 2 Tbsp olive oil and toss. Spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for about 20 minutes or until the squash is tender and getting a nice browned color. Set aside.

Meanwhile, combine lentils, carrots, half the onion, and water to cover in a large pot over medium heat. Simmer until lentils are tender but not mushy (about 20 or 30 minutes). Add the tomato, salt and pepper, and marjoram. Stir and continue to cook for about 10 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for pasta. Cook until the pasta is firm. Do NOT let it get cooked all the way through or, heaven forbid, mushy. While the past is cooking, heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil in a saute pan and cook remaining onions until they are starting to brown. Add butternut squash until heated through.

When pasta is al dente, drain, reserving some pasta liquid. Add pasta to lentil mixture and top with butternut squash/onion combo. Mix and let flavors marry and pasta reach perfection (meaning still al dente but not too tough). Salt and pepper to taste. Add some of the pasta water if it looks too dry.

I cooked this in my favorite Lodge Caribbean-blue enameled cast iron dutch oven (that’s it above) and brought the whole dang thing right to the table. No serving bowl needed. This dinner was amazing. Trust me. The lentils add delicious texture to the dish and the squash adds a subtle sweetness. Try it. You’ll love it.

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