Tending the Garden

Antonio Machado was a Spanish poet who lived from 1875 to 1939. I discovered his work when a friend of mine – a retired bishop who taught me at Notre Dame – read one of his poems in class. It was 1996 and the instructor encouraged us all to memorize a poem that spoke to us. I had chosen David Wagoner’s Lost, which is a powerful metaphor for all that was going on in my life at the time. I can still recite the work by heart and I think about it every now and then, especially the first few lines: Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here…

The poet still speaks to me through those words.

But recently, I have rediscovered Machado’s work – especially, his powerful poetic challenge, The Wind One Brilliant Day. The poem, quite simply, is a clarion call to each of us in these troubled times.

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
‘In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.’
‘I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.’
‘Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.’
The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’

We are given so much and often we do not take the care we should – with the environment, the people we meet, the trust that is placed upon us, our children, our friends, the reputation of our coworkers, our faith. The fragility of so many things can be overwhelming and we can fee strangled by the violence of busyness. We forget that everything is gift. It is all unmerited grace. Indeed, what are we doing with the gifts entrusted to us? What am I doing to make sure the garden grows to fullness and life and beauty?

What will our answer be when the wind asks for that which we cannot give? Will we have anything to offer at all?

Or will we weep in sadness having tended the garden so carelessly?


First Teachers

Anyone who has heard me give a presentation to parents knows that I love to quote the prayer over the parents that happens at the end of a baptism in the Catholic Church. It’s the part where the priest or deacon tells mom and dad that, in addition to having to buy diapers and formula, books and blankets, tuition and car seats, they are the “first teachers in the ways of faith.” Okay, to be fair, the rest of that isn’t actually in the prayer, but I swear it is implied.

First teachers. That’s heady stuff. There is an implication there that mom and dad have a clue as to what they are doing in their own faith lives. “You cannot give what you do not have,” the wise man says. So if mom and dad haven’t read the catechism or learned their prayers, they may want to spend that first year reading up on the Good Book so they are prepared.

I thought about that first teacher stuff the other night when I took the children to the track behind their school for movie night. The littlest really wanted to go and once she promised the eldest she would not sing along to every song in “The Greatest Showman” (which was the movie of choice), we had a deal. We picked up some chicken and some drinks, packed the folding chairs in the van, and set off. Mom was flying back from a trip and Friday night is movie night anyway, so this might prove to be fun.

It was a circus.

Actually, it was a circus happening around a movie about a guy that starts a circus. There was as much chaos in front of the screen as there was on the screen. Some kids chose to play basketball instead of watching the movie. Others chose to run around and scream on the playground. One little group of girls – all with light-up sneakers – decided to chase each other in and around those who were actually watching the movie. When one of them hit the inflatable screen for the third time, I thought my second youngest would lose it.

“What is wrong with these people?” he asked.

“Their parents,” came the response from the eldest child.

No one was in charge. No one had control of the situation. As my children sat there watching the film, I began to wonder why they were so irritated. It wasn’t because they wanted to run around, it was because this was billed as a movie night for families and since we’ve had movie nights for years, they knew how this should go: start the movie, pause it for snacks and bathroom breaks, and otherwise sit quietly and laugh, cry, or fall asleep. But running around, tripping on the tie downs for the screen, and generally shrieking about was never on the agenda for my kids.

It turns out the movie was a backdrop. An excuse to get families together. We went expecting one thing and what happened was something else. That’s not a bad thing, but the realization didn’t help ease my irritation.

At one point, I remembered, as I was trying to pass out Oreos to those kids sitting around us behaving themselves, what Ron Rolheiser says about those times when screaming and yelling of children irritates us. He calls the unabashed outpouring of noise and merriment “joy” and says that it can irritate us because this joy gets in the way of our own misery.

“Was that true?” I wondered as I sat there in the cool fall night? “Was I miserable in some way? Was this joy around me irritating me because there was something inside me that needed to change.”

“No,” I finally concluded.

These parents should be watching their kids.

Being a first teacher is hard.


Come, Holy Spirit

Come, Holy Spirit…

Fill our mouths with language that is kind instead of hateful.

Fill our homes with love instead of greed.

Fill our schools with knowledge instead of guns.

Fill the halls of power with authenticity instead of dishonesty.

Fill our skies with birds instead of weapons.

And fill our world with peace.

Give our children the wisdom to see that they are loved – and lovable.

Give our parents the courage to say, “no” to that which is harmful to children.

Give our leaders the strength to speak truth to power.

Give us all the fortitude to bring peace to our workplace and homes.

Wash us clean, Holy Spirit, that we may begin again, renewed, resolving to work for what is right, what is holy, what is just, and what is good.

Most of all, Holy Spirit, open our hardened hearts to receive your Spirit. Open our closed minds to receive your wisdom. Open our mouths only to proclaim praise to the Triune God, the giver all of gifts.



For the Donovan family, Friday night is movie night. It has been that way since the oldest was a baby. The children (and parents) still miss the seating and the set-up from our family theater in Delaware, but like all first world problems, we muddle through with a large screen and comfortable seating.

Several months ago, we began to watch what we thought was the next movie in the Captain America series but within a few minutes realized we had no idea what was happening. With a little research, we discovered that you are not supposed to watch the Marvel movies in order of release. They tell a story and to understand it, you have to know which movie to watch and in what order to watch them. We are about fourteen weeks into this adventure and some of the movies are just fantastic. They speak of family and sacrifice, loyalty and redemption. They are worth the time and money it takes to rent them.

This weekend, however, we added another movie to the mix as we finally sat down to watch The Greatest Showman. It is a hybrid of Hollywood and reality and tells the story of P.T. Barnum, who lived and is buried just down the road. While it skips most of his time in Bridgeport (as mayor and legislator), it does tell the story of his relationship with those most vulnerable – and detested – in society.

I was a fan of the circus until the day it closed. We used to go every year near my birthday. In those early days, the title “circus’ was given to Barnum’s gathering of oddities as a term of derision. The people he gathered (and exploited) were among those that no one wanted to be around: the bearded lady, the tattooed man, the tall man, the short man, the fat man, and the hairy man, the conjoined and the dark-skinned. These are the people, the movie tells, that Barnum befriended with a smile and who helped him put on the greatest of shows.

In typical Hollywood fashion, he forgets his roots as the poor son of a tailor. He seeks fame and acceptance among the upper class. Only when tragedy strikes is he reminded what family really means, as he is encouraged to come home and rebuild. There is crucifixion and resurrection all wrapped up with songs you will be singing all week.

But the reason I loved the movie goes beyond the song and dance, though child number two couldn’t stop singing and child number four couldn’t stop dancing. There is a scene where Barnum’s youngest child meets the bearded lady and, while everyone else is laughing, she takes a cue from her father and looks past the lady’s shame and directly into her eyes. Barnum calls the bearded lady beautiful. His daughter smiles and maintains eye contact.

It made me wonder what cues my own children would take from me. Do they look upon those whom society ignores with love or do they change lanes to avoid eye contact? Do they treat others with respect or, like the crowds in the movie, yell, “You are not wanted here; go home?”

As my children grow, will they be among those outside the tent or among those who serve and are loyal to those singing and dancing?

Children watch. They don’t always listen. But children watch.

Sometimes it frightens me to be so powerful.


Best Dad Ever

The title of this entry comes from the birthday card my youngest made for me. She is known for her brutal honesty, so I am taking her words for Gospel.

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He is the patron saint of fathers (Joseph is also patron saint of the Universal Church, families, fathers, expectant mothers (pregnant women), travelers, immigrants, house sellers and buyers, craftsmen, engineers, and working people in general), so he and I share a bond. I don’t have any kids like Jesus, but they try.

Since yesterday was my birthday, the children were extra well behaved. The yelling was limited only to the moments when child number three hit child number four (two times) or when child number two “tripped” on child number three’s outstretched leg (only once). They made cards and gave me a wrapped package of Junior Mints. They used money I had given them for when they go to town after play practice, so technically, I think I bought the Junior Mints.

We had our standard dad’s birthday dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes, and broccoli. Apparently, I thought we were having company because I have enough mashed potatoes for a week.

Maureen made sure I got to spend the entire day with the kids and enjoy their company all by myself, having gotten herself checked into the hospital on St. Patrick’s Day. She’s still there, hooked up to pain meds for some mysterious illness that has her doubled over in pain. I told the children she probably forgot to buy me a present.

Nothing is recorded in Scriptures about St. Joseph’s words to his family. He gets a message in a dream, but even the Blessed Mother gets to speak once in a while. And yet, he is a model for fathers everywhere. There’s a lesson in there, albeit an ironic one, about who gets to talk and who gets to listen.

This week, be like Joseph and listen more. Speak less. Work hard. And, like Joseph certainly did for Jesus, teach your children well.

St. Joseph, patron of best dads everywhere, pray for us.



I remember the day that a little girl fell down a well and the world watched while she was rescued.

And the well got covered and the little girl grew up.

I remember when the Space Shuttle fell from the sky shortly after takeoff killing all the astronauts on board, including a school teacher who won a contest.

And the fleet was grounded for years while protocols were amended.

I remember when a group of miners was trapped underground and people all over the world held their collective breath until the very last one came to the surface.

And mining regulations changed.

I remember when evil hijacked the planes and the towers fell.

And we changed the way we check in and get screened at the airport, we went to war, and we hunted down the guilty party and made movies about the whole experience.

I remember when oil gushed beneath the Gulf of Mexico and people dove into the sea to escape the flames.

And the number of inspectors tripled, and audits of offshore oil rigs became more complicated.

I remember being in a classroom with junior high students watching on television as children in Littleton, CO ran from the building.

I remember Paducah, Tacoma, Knoxville, and the Amish children in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

I remember the night and weeks following Newtown and how we held each other and our children so much closer.

I remember people arguing about politics and guns and parenting and I remember politicians crying and celebrities offering thoughts and prayers.

But nothing changed.

So, now, seventeen more children and adults are dead, and the arguing has started all over again.

And parents everywhere wonder…

Will things be different this time?


Family Update

Child number two won second place in the science fair this week. Her project had something to do with whether girls were smarter than boys. The irony that a boy won first prize was not lost on her. Still, we are very proud.

Child number one did not place but did an excellent job on her project, “Can you survive a black hole?” The principal said that many of the judges found it fascinating and he wondered aloud if you could indeed survive a black hole. I told him I would let him know when teenage years were finished.

Child number three got a haircut that is too short for him. He complained that the stylist did not listen to his request. Good thing he’s a good-looking kid. He can pull it off. Dad…not so much.

Child number four was painting last week with child number three, when her sibling took the paint she was going to use. Rather than asking for the paint to be returned she whispered, “Sleep with one eye open, buddy, because I’m coming for you.” Too much Internet access for that child.

Maureen got home from a week away so our schedule of staying up late binge watching Monk on a school night will have to end. The kids said I was the best Dad ever every single night. The ice cream might have helped.

As we move towards Lent, we have been discussing what we could do as a family. Child number one suggested that we give up movie night but was horrified when I offered Stations of the Cross as an alternative. When another child suggested Taize prayer at our parish, all agreed, most of all the eldest. We also opted for more time in prayer each night and I have promised to get back on the exercise bike.

To cap out week, we went out to celebrate Dad’s birthday last night. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone six and a half years.

May your week be blessed and your Lent begin with humility and peace.

Death at the Cemetery

I returned from a week in Bethlehem, Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem on Saturday night and will be processing the journey for some time. It was a powerful trip, especially because I participated with twenty young adults and our bishop. Reading the Scriptural passages, studying them, and then visiting the physical places is a powerful way to make your way through the Holy Land and, as with any pilgrimage, some moments stand out more than others. There will be time, in the coming weeks, to share more of what we experienced. For me, though, it was the unexpected moments that were the most emotional.

On Tuesday, as we hiked up the hill towards the Chapel of the Milk Grotto in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories, we noticed a large group of women coming down the hill. They were all in black and heading into a church. Not being familiar with our destination, I assumed they were heading the same place we were going. But then, many paces behind them, came the men. The first one was carrying a lid to a coffin and it became clear pretty quickly what was going on. The men were carrying the body of an old man, laid out in a coffin and surrounded by flowers. Then came another group of women, many sobbing. We stood silently on the side of a very small road, trying to push ourselves aside for the procession to pass. As they headed into the Coptic Orthodox Church, I found myself praying for the deceased and his family. It was a stark reminder that life falls over into death, even in the holiest of sites.

The following day, we were outside the Eastern Wall of Jerusalem, which faces the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley. On one side of the hill is an enormous Jewish cemetery. On the other side, nearest the Eastern Wall, is a Muslim cemetery. Both are hundreds of years old and yet still in use. We saw one family gathered at the grave in the Jewish cemetery, placing stones on the grave of their loved one, presumably marking a birthday or anniversary. We made our way down the hill from the Garden of Gethsemane and wandered through the Muslim cemetery so we could more closely touch the Eastern Walls surrounding Jerusalem, which have stood since the time of Jesus. As Fr. Paul, our guide, was speaking, a group of men walked in haste towards us. “Stay where you are,” Fr. Paul whispered into our headphones. As the group came closer, I could see that the man in the front of the crowd was carrying a body.

It was child.

No box. No coffin. Just a father carrying his child, presumably wrapped in the traditional white linens, though we could only see the green blanket wrapped around the outside. If I had to guess, I would say the child was no more than five or six years old. The pained look on the man’s expression was one of emptiness, unimaginable grief, and yet a look of purpose. The tradition is to bury the dead within a day, but not after sundown. It was obvious this was a recent death and so the group moved with precision, past the onlookers, and towards the grave.

I stood and wondered. Was it a boy? A girl? Had he been sick? Was it an accident? Why the hurry? These questions haunted me all day and into the night, as the rest of the pilgrims shared their reactions, prayers, questions, and thoughts as we gathered for our regular time of sharing that night. As I went to bed, I prayed for the family of that child, the repose of the soul of that child, and fell asleep thinking about my own children six thousand miles away.

Then, around 4 am, I woke up with a start. I don’t know what made me wake up, but as I sat up in bed, a thought occurred to me. Maybe the father was hurrying because he had other children at home. He had a wife he was anxious to get home to. He had responsibilities waiting. Outside the cemetery, life was waiting. It was a strange experience in so many ways.

In the United States, we have sanitized death, commercialized it even. We have rituals, a timeline, showrooms for caskets, and budgets. There is a beauty in all of this, to be sure. There is also a beauty in hastily taking the dead to their resting place, giving him or her back to God, and getting back to life. Even after leaving the cemetery, that father will carry the child with him forever. That’s how fatherhood works.

I know, too, that I will carry the image of that scene with me for some time. It is an image not on my camera, but embedded in my mind. I will continue to pray for that child, those men, that family. Religious views may divide us, but that man and I are fathers and I pray with all my heart, I never feel his pain.

May your week be filled with holy sights.

Morning Routine

There are some mornings when the children rise, speak pleasantly to each other, arrive to the kitchen with teeth brushed and uniforms on, eat their breakfast, and are waiting at the door when the bus arrives.

Today was not one of those mornings.

It was probably my fault because I prayed last night for the sleet and snow to delay the arrival of the day by a few hours. Mentally, I was prepared for that. Like most predictors of the future, the weather people were wrong and the wintry mix will not arrive until the morning commute. So the children rose and the yelling commenced. Child number four was making a noise that irritated child number three. Child number one was taking her time and child number two lives in her own time zone.

There were a few minutes when the cinnamon raisin toast was distributed and the stillness of the snow outside took over, but to be honest, that lasted about a minute and a half. Coincidentally, that is the time it takes for three children to chew two pieces of toast apiece.

The bus arrives five minutes early, as it does on days like today, and so the toast for child number one goes with her to the bus. Child number two has decided that now would be a good time to brush her teeth and I scream for the bus to wait as the mailman pulls up to deliver packages from the Santa that lives at Amazon. Neither sleet nor snow nor waiting buses will deter the mailman as he inches closer to the driveway blocked by the honking bus. Down the stairs bounds child number two, irritated at nothing and everything all at once.

Then, suddenly, the mayhem is over. As quick as the morning stillness was broken, there is peace in the house once again. We have passed the chaos off to the bus driver who will, in turn, pass it off to the teachers.

It is quiet. It is still. There is peace.

I sit in the living room, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock, preparing for the day. Like every morning, I pray for the safety of the children and the sanity of the teachers.

And there, in the stillness of the morning, when all is calm, I find myself longing for the chaos.

It is an odd feeling to be irritated by something while you are in its midst and yet missing it once it has passed. In the stillness, I realize something I hadn’t before.

In the chaos, I find my joy.

May your week be filled will joyful chaos.



The children are planning for Christmas. They are making lists and comparing them with each other, making sure that they do not overwhelm Santa or Mom and Dad. I think they also want to make sure they do not repeat on one list what is asked on another.

When we moved to Connecticut, we started a new tradition. The children’s list can include only four items:

One thing you want.
One thing you need.
One thing you wear.
One thing you read.

For the sake of tradition, we also allowed one thing from Santa. The practice requires thought, planning, and maybe a little scheming. In the end, however, it has been a great move. Gone are the days of the endless list of toys that will litter the basement – we already have plenty of Legos for that. Gone, too, are the days of trying to count to make sure every child receives the same amount. The lists are simple and direct. Needs are identified and answered. There are still “family gifts” like the Nintendo Wii that appeared a few years ago and still haunt us, or the Lego Millennium Falcon, which did not actually get put together until just a few months ago, so it is not as if anyone is cheated by the new tradition.

The youngest has been asking for a few days when we can start decorating, but until the leaves are out of the yard, it just seems too soon. The liturgical calendar requires we “do” Advent first, but I think the tree may appear this weekend. After a whirlwind few weeks of attending the National Catholic Youth Conference and celebrating Thanksgiving on the road, visiting family and friends, and going to the movies (you really should see Coco), the school bus arrived on time this morning and the family is settling back into our routine.

I am taking a few days off this week, making use of the vacation days I will lose if they go unused. There are plenty of chores to do around the house, but my guess is that I will work from home while I pretend to get some reading and writing finished for school.

As we head towards the season of waiting, may your week be filled with the hope and anticipation that can always be found this time of year in a house filled with children.