Sunday, December 15, 2013

Ready for Christmas

Not Quite Ready?
The tree is decorated. The lights are twinkling. Even the little snowman who counts down the days to Christmas has taken up residence in his normal spot by the fireplace. With only 11 days to go before Christmas, all but a few of the presents have been purchased. All indications are that we are ready for the holiday.

But, I keep thinking about my Nativity set.

Two years ago, on Thanksgiving weekend, I had one of my brilliant ideas. Our house needed a large nativity scene for our Christmas decorations out front. We always go all out on our lights, but the light up reindeer who eerily moved its head back and forth was starting to seem too gaudy. The candy canes and snowmen were looking tired. Instead of replacing them with more stuff that pointed to the North Pole, I thought it time that our house point folks to true north, Christ.

Like a man on a mission, I dove into the internet, only to find that outdoor nativity sets are a difficult find-- either too cheap to look really nice, or too expensive for my budget. Then it hit me: I could make my own! I had a few weekends before Christmas. Making my own nativity set would be a snap, and I'd be offering the gift of my own talents in glory of the King.

That was two years ago. As those two Christmases came and went, I got a little bit closer to completing my Nativity scene, but I never could get it finished.  Just as I could never quite complete the Nativity scene, I also felt like I'd never really entered into the spiritual aspects of Advent and Christmas either. Sure, I prayed a little extra, but the joy of waiting for Christ's birth on Christmas Day just didn't seem to be complete. 

Ready Now

The drawing I sketched out on my iPad (top) two years ago didn't actually become a reality until this evening, when I finally finished the Nativity set and placed it in front of my house (above). Granted, I didn't work on it at all from January to mid-November over the last two years, but there was something inside me that was ready, willing, and able to get it done this year. Something that said, "This Christmas won't pass without that Nativity getting finished!"

What's left now is to get my heart in this same place to be ready for Christmas Day.  To be in a place where I can say, "This Advent won't pass without me being ready for Christ's birth!" Funny thing is, even the desire to be fully prepared is increasing my joy and expectation of what Christmas morning will bring-- the birth of Jesus.

Who knew it was that simple?  At least, way more simple than building a Nativity set!

Blessings of Advent and Merry Christmas to you!

Images copyright Joseph A. Ciccoianni 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

That's Where the Day Went

My last post, Parents: Where Did the Day Go?, ended with a question: How do we slow down and reclaim some of the time that seems to have been lost in the last few years' race to constant "busy-ness"?

Well, a few days after posting this question, I received an answer in the form of a blog post written by Matthew Warner over at his site The Radical Life

I've come to realize that there's no such thing as coincidence because things like this happen all too frequently.  This is God, using one of His creatures, to answer a question. I invite you to read Matthew's most recent post "What's your idle?" (Click HERE)  

Although not all of the "idles" he cites are problems of mine, I can certainly learn to put down my smartphone, among others. How about you?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Parents: Where Did the Day Go?

Did you notice when it happened to you?  I didn't.

All I know is that, at some point in the last ten years or so, the time it takes for the earth to make one rotation on its axis shrank. This is the only thing that can possibly explain why it seems like I have so much less time in my day. You're with me on this, right?

Seriously though, I talk with a great number of parents at school, and it seems like this is the general consensus. We just don't seem to have the same amount of time anymore. The reality is that so many things are demanding of a parent's time: work, school, homework, sports, dance, instruments, Tae Kwon Do, family, friends. We just don't seem to have much free time left over.

As adults, I think most of us can agree that our jobs are demanding more of us now than they did even five years ago. Call it a symptom of the hard economic times our country has been through. I know many of you who work a full day and then take work home in the evening to complete once the kids are in bed. Trust me, you're not alone.

At the same time, we try to provide developmental opportunities for our kids, like sports or the arts, and this takes time, too. Although mine are still too young to be in club sports, I've heard from many of you that the tournaments are a killer, and keep you at the ball field all day on a Saturday or Sunday.

For our children, this "busy-ness" has become part of their daily lives, too. First and foremost, the curriculum is accelerating. If you doubt the rigor of recent curriculum changes, you only have to look at a first grade math book to see what I mean. You and I were not doing "algebra readiness" at the age of six like our children are doing! Throw technology into the mix, and our kids not only have more challenging content to learn at an earlier age, but they have an added modality or method for learning to which they must adjust. On top of that, many of our kids have intricate nightly schedules that juggle things like dance, softball, and piano-- all of this adds up to a child who is constantly on the go (and by extension, parents who start to feel like taxi drivers).

Casualties of "Busy-ness"
Lately, the casualties of all of this acceleration have really been haunting me. I worry that the constant go-go-go nature of this kind of life is warping my sense of reality and causing collateral damage.

I remember driver's ed in high school. The teacher warned us about "velocitization." The concept was simple: the longer you drive at high speeds, the more accustomed your body becomes to those high speeds. The teacher warned us that we had to be careful after we exited the freeway to surface streets because we were velocitized, and might end up getting a ticket for driving much faster than we thought we were going.

The velocitization of a parent's daily life has some pretty clear casualties:

  • time with God
  • time with spouse
  • time with children
  • time alone
If you thought this was where I offered a neat and tidy solution to the problem, I'm sorry to disappoint. This is really all about commiseration! I'm with you on this. Hopefully you're with me. Perhaps we can crowd-source a solution to the problem? 

In the meantime, I'm going to pray that we're all able to slow down and figure out how to reclaim that lost time. God Bless.

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Toddlers and Mass

To all my brothers and sisters in the faith who have the courage to put those two together week in and week out, I applaud you! 

From the time our first child was born, my wife and I drew a line in the sand . . . We would not make use of the crying room during Mass. "Hey," we reasoned, "we're both educators and lifelong Catholics. We've got this under control. Besides, how is our child going to learn to behave in the church if he's never actually in the church?"

I think that decision was made under the influence of a lack of sleep from all of those nighttime feedings!

Somehow, we trudged through my son's infant and toddler years. We made a lot of mid-Mass trips outside the church when he got rowdy, and we avoided upsetting any of our fellow parishioners-- at least not to the point where they said anything to us. Now, at age six, he's pretty much got the behavior thing down, and we're working on getting him to actively participate in the Mass.

Unfortunately, we're now in the middle of Round 2-- my daughter. Don't get me wrong, she's a sweet kiddo. I think something happens when kids get inside the church, though. Suddenly they're tired-- even though they just napped; hungry-- even though they just snacked, and so on. And, isn't it great how churches naturally amplify and echo sound?

My wife and I are personally grateful for the two older couples who sit behind us most weekends (because Catholics sit in the same pew each week, like Mass has a seating chart, you know!). They're friendly when we arrive with our backpack full of books and snacks.  They're patient when my daughter lights into one of her tantrums and has to be taken out.  They're even understanding, like the one particular weekend we ended up sitting behind them, and my daughter kicked one of the gentlemen in the head as I was trying to remove her from the pew before her tantrum hit glass-shattering decibels.

Despite it all, we somehow manage to grab that moment of prayer, those few words from the homily that transcend the stream of interruptions, or that connection with the greatest gift of the Mass-- Christ in the Eucharist. 

I know both of us are looking forward to the time when we can once again bring our full and undivided attention to Mass. But, in the meantime, we feel like God's teaching us another, maybe even more valuable lesson-- "Enjoy your current circumstances. Appreciate the gifts I've given you . . . no matter how distracting. Learn to make the most of even the smallest moment with me." 

And we're okay with that.

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Boy . . . Was I Wrong!

It hit me recently . . . I've been dead-wrong. 

Here I thought I knew a little something about raising kids. After all, I am second-oldest of eight and was babysitting since age 10; I worked in a group home and a youth shelter during college;  I had 16+ years of experience in elementary school teaching and administration; and I had one child of my own along with numerous nieces and nephews. I figured, "Hey, I know a little something about this stuff. I can share some of what I've figured out over the years."

Then my second child came along, a daughter, now about 18 months old, and I've spent the last 18 months coming to terms with just how little I actually know. This beautiful little girl has defeated all my usual approaches and defied my most tried and true methods. 

Like an old western stand-off, she matches my "angry daddy" face with her own "angry toddler" version. She can go from joyfully giddy to terribly unhappy in under 0.2 seconds for no apparent reason. She doesn't even laugh at my silly faces. I used to keep my son in stitches with that routine, but it produces the opposite result with her. She makes me feel like I've been doing this whole raising kids thing flat wrong!

Yet, she's got the most infectious smile (when she feels like it). After a long day at work, I am still turning the key in the front door when I can already hear her screaming "Daddy!" on the other side. She's a hugger . . . and they are truly the best hugs.

Of course, I attribute all the good stuff to my wife's influence, but maybe I had a little something to do with it. I guess what I'm saying if you've read this far is-- if I know one thing, it's that I don't know it all. Kids have a funny way of showing you this.

So I'll continue to share what has worked and what hasn't. I'd love to hear your stories in the comments or via email (, especially if you've got a few stories of parenting "fails" like mine . . . I could use the company!

God Bless.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dear Teacher,

This past Friday I had a singular honor. I was privileged to be present when a former student of mine from the St. Pius V Catholic School Class of 2000 received her teaching credential. 

I'm not ashamed to say that there was a tear (maybe two) in my eyes as I sat in the gymnasium at California State University, Fullerton during the ceremony. Surrounded by her fellow credential candidates and their family members, my former student-- now all grown up-- delivered an address on behalf of the entire student body present.

In many places her speech read like a heartfelt thank you letter. She expressed a humble recognition of the support of her own teachers, family, and friends, while at the same time bubbling over with enthusiasm for the career upon which she is about to embark. 

Dear Teacher,
Here are a few excerpts from her speech:
     I stand here today as a result of not only my hard work and dedication . . . but also the hard work and dedication of all of my teachers, past and present, parents, and anyone who helped me . . .
     My presence here is evidence that what we do makes a difference in the lives of our students.
     We all have people in our lives who've inspired us: friends, counselors, parents . . . who have encouraged us and gotten us to where we are today-- receiving our credential, and getting ready to change the world.
     We can live in the kind of world we want, as long as we are willing to create it. And, I hope that whatever we create honors those who have guided us and supported us along the way.
     May we take what we have learned and use it to inspire the next generation of teachers. (J.L., CSUF Credential Recipient, May 24, 2013)
What this graduate doesn't realize is that her humble words inspired me. Her words were a shot in the arm . . . a reminder of why I started in this career in the first place.

Her final words were a quote from Brazilian author Paulo Coehlo: "Be blessed.  And just as you are transforming your own life, may you transform the lives of those around you."

I'd say that sums up the experience for me quite well. Thanks, J.L.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

What Kind of a World...?

The last few months have been trying. I found myself worrying quite a bit. Sometimes my feelings even strayed into the realm of anxiety, fear, or hopelessness. I'm not concerned about the aspects of life closest to me, like family or work. It's the stuff happening in the world out there.

Recent events in Boston, school shootings, an economy that doesn't appear to be getting better. People, in general, just seem to be more angry, more uncaring, and more concerned only with taking care of #1. I found myself sometimes saying , "What kind of a world are we living in?"

The fact that I have young children only complicated the matter for me. Having kids added the dimension: "What kind of world will be left for my children?"

Addressing my Fears
Two things helped me address these fears. First, I heard someone say that he, too, used to worry about the kind of world his kids would inherit, but he became too depressed. Instead, he chose to focus on what kind of kids he's leaving to this world. This shift in perspective has had a huge impact on me. I may not be able to impact worldwide change for the better, but I can raise my children to be people of hope, generosity, compassion, and love. The world will need people like that.

Second, I realized that I was focusing on the darkness. I had taken my eyes off of God, and I was looking only at the negativity and evil. I had forgotten my goal of placing myself in His care and trusting His providence. 

Making these two shifts in my perspective has greatly helped. I get the feeling this will be a long road, though. After all, there will always be evil and darkness in this world-- this isn't heaven. We deal with the evil now; someday, our children will. My goal is to leave the world children who rely on God as their source of strength and hope. Perhaps they'll be able to bring that hope to others someday. 

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Boy Who Lost Jesus

A story is told of a young boy named Johnny (my apologies to all "Johnny's" out there!), who attended a Catholic school. Johnny was an energetic young lad, who caused his teacher, Sr. Mary Catherine, no end of headaches.

On a particularly busy day for Johnny during which he had pulled Suzy's hair, kicked his classmate Bobby, and tipped over the class pet's fishbowl (poor Bubbles the goldfish!), Sr. Mary Catherine couldn't contain her frustration any longer. She marched Johnny to Fr. O'Malley's office.

Fr. O'Malley sat behind his big desk in the pastor's office of the rectory, carefully scrutinizing the boy Sr. Mary Catherine referred to as "one of God's precious ones." Finally, Fr. O'Malley said in a deep, booming voice, "Johnny, where is Jesus?" Johnny's crystal blue eyes stared up at the pastor as a blank look filled his young face. Obviously, he didn't understand that Fr. O'Malley wanted Johnny to answer, "Jesus is inside me!" so that Fr. O'Malley could point out that because Jesus was inside Johnny, Johnny needed to behave.

So again, Fr. O'Malley boomed even louder, "Johnny, where is JESUS?" The corners of Johnny's eyes began to fill with tears. In one last attempt to help this lost young soul recognize the error of his ways and the necessity of right conduct in accord with the presence of God within him, Fr. O'Malley bellowed, "JOHNNY, WHERE IS JESUS?"

At that, Johnny dashed from the pastor's office, bolted through the door of the rectory, and ran all the way home, not stopping until he had slammed the door of his bedroom behind him. His mother, having heard the commotion, came to Johnny's bedroom and found him hiding in a corner. She said to him, "Son, what's wrong? Why are you hiding?"

Johnny replied as honestly as he knew how, "Mom, Jesus is missing, and they think I had something to do with it!"

Knowing the Right Thing vs. Doing the Right Thing
Looking back at our own upbringing, some of us may have encountered faith formation that seemed to have the purpose of filling the students' heads with knowledge of church history, scripture, virtues, commandments, and doctrines, in the belief that those students would then act morally and virtuously. Though these topics are all absolutely necessary as part of proper Christian formation, they don't automatically translate into a person behaving morally. Something else must occur.

Johnny knew it was wrong for him to pull Suzy's hair, kick Bobby, and terrorize Bubbles the fish, for instance, but his knowledge of right and wrong didn't prevent his bad behavior. His story illustrates the fact that: knowing the right thing doesn't necessarily mean a person will do the right thing. Even more, knowing what's right doesn't mean a person will choose to do right and actually love doing what's right. When I discipline a child at school, my goal is that they not only come to know what's right, but that they appreciate doing what is right.

This is especially true in our modern society. Knowledge of right and wrong doesn't translate into a love of right, and the choice to do right. If it did, young Johnny in our story might behave, and some corporate executives might not embezzle money from their companies, for example.

Making a Change: Accepting New Ideas & Adapting the Old
Sometimes we lose this emphasis as we discipline our children and students. Take Fr. O'Malley, for instance.  Though he meant well, Fr. O'Malley's approach to disciplining Johnny might not even work with many adults. If we, parents and teachers, are to help our students grow spiritually, morally, academically, and physically, we must be open to new approaches.

Vatican II's Declaration on Christian Education, #5 states that the vocation of teaching our youth "requires special qualities of mind and heart, most careful preparation, and a constant readiness to accept new ideas and to adapt the old."

Consider: what would help Johnny love right behavior and act rightly?  What approach is needed? What approach should we take as parents and teachers who desire our children not only to know the right thing, but to love the right thing and do the right thing? What kind of example do our children and students need to see from us in order to come to a love of doing the right thing?

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Community in Our School

Around this time each year, Catholic schools across the country observe "Catholic Schools Week." This is a time for all of us involved in Catholic education-- clergy, administrators, teachers, parents, students-- to celebrate the unique history of Catholic schools, and their importance in today's world.

So . . . what exactly is so important about Catholic schools?  According to the U.S. bishops, "Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the fourfold purpose of Christian education, namely to provide an atmosphere in which the Gospel message is proclaimed, community in Christ is experienced, service to our sisters and brothers is the norm, and thanksgiving and worship of our God is cultivated" (Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium, 2005).

Although these are all great reasons for sending a child to Catholic school, I had an experience today that brought to light the "community" that Catholic schools create. 

And, to tell you the truth, it's exactly what I want for my children.

Community in Christ
During my school's Open House today, I met three special people who were visiting the classrooms and chatting with the teachers. At first I thought they were aunts and an uncle of one of our students, since I didn't recognize them.  As it turns out, all three were alumni of St. Pius V Catholic School from the late 60's and early 70's who had stopped by to visit during Open House.

Almost immediately upon meeting we began a walk down memory lane that involved fond memories of their time at my school. We talked about former teachers, principals, and friends-- the nuns who thwacked kids on the hands with rulers, the principal who was "so tall you could see his kneecaps through the upper-level windows," or the friends who'd gone on to do great things.

As they paged through books containing old class pictures, I couldn't help but feel such a great connection to them, even though I didn't attend St. Pius myself. The spirit of St. Pius V that they "soaked up" as students was still there, thirty years later when I became a teacher at St. Pius V.

Can any school create a sense of community, private or public? I suppose so. However, knowing what they'd learned at St. Pius V, and that it was the same as what I try to teach every day, means we have a connection through our Lord and Savior that goes beyond school history. It's this sense of community that encourages me and gives strength to my spirit.

I'm grateful for these honored alums who walked the campus of St. Pius V both then and today. I'm grateful for the lesson they taught me about community.  I hope and pray that thirty years from now my son will be able to come back to St. Pius V and feel that same sense of community.

Happy Catholic Schools Week to all!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Resolution to Do "Less"

Many New Year's resolutions tend to be about "more." I will spend more time exercising. I will eat more healthy foods. I will do more reading, more praying, more walking, more . . . The idea seems to be that the way to happiness is by having, doing, or being more.

Perhaps this year it's time to resolve to do less?

Take for instance praying. Like me, on some past New Year's Eve you might have made a resolution to spend more time in prayer in the upcoming year. I remember being very motivated to spend this extra time talking with God, thinking of the spiritual graces that would flow from it, like greater patience or wisdom. Also like me, however, the extra prayer time may not have had the desired effect.

Why? More prayer time is always a good resolution to make. However, in my case I think what I really needed to do during that extra prayer time was less: less talking, less rattling off rote prayers, less focusing on my own needs, wants, and problems. What should I have done instead? Listen. Reflect. As one priest told me-- "sit in Christ's presence, stare into His eyes, and see the love He has for you there."

Less is More 
Often we'll resolve to be more patient with our children or more kind to our co-workers. In this case, why not call out the vice and resolve to commit it less? As I used to tell my 8th graders when preparing for Reconciliation, when it comes to a sin we have to "Name It. Claim It. And Change It." So the resolution for this year could really target the vice, "I resolve to be less nitpicking with my children." Or, "I resolve to gossip less with/about my co-workers."

Last year at this time, I wrote the ultimate "less is more" piece when I advocated leaving one of your New Year's Resolutions blank, allowing that to be God's resolution for you in the new year. (Leave Room for God's Resolutions)

My prayer for everyone who reads this is one of petition-- that God would bless you with less this year: less anger, less strife, less unrest, less doubt, less fear . . .  As you resolve to do less in order to make room for God in your life, may God bless you and your children! Be assured of my prayers for you!

NOTE: I originally intended for this blog to be weekly (mostly Sundays) during the school year. However, in the true spirit of my "less is more" resolutions, after 14 months I am finding that even trying to keep up with that infrequent schedule is putting a strain on me and my commitments to my wife and two young children. Although I'm sure there are those out there who can "do it all," I feel like I'm already doing so even without adding a weekly blog post to the list.

With that in mind, I resolve to write occasionally-- not necessarily weekly-- mainly when inspiration hits, or when the need arises. I look forward to the season of my life when I will again be able to commit to writing regularly, as I greatly enjoy it. In the meantime, I pray that God will direct my use of this small amount of time for the good of my family, my school, and my soul!

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