Letters from a Distant Shore

There’s a stream of great books being published by former students of the  USF MFA program, where I teach. Letters from  a Distant Shore by Marie Fiala is a remarkable story of mothering, family, and faith.  Fiala’s son, Jeremy suffered a devastating brain injury, and her book tells the story of his long hospitalization and recovery, and the enormous impact his illness had on their family.    It’s a story of struggle, survival, and redemption, but it’s also an unflinching account of faith.  Twice, Jeremy had near miraculous following international prayer vigils.

My kids are in Catholic school, and one of the things I love best about it is how the school supports their spiritual growth.  Their education is not simply about academic achievement but about becoming a better, more faith filled and spiritual person.  I don’t believe that everyone is called to believe in the same way, but I do believe in raising children with faith, who have a spiritual core to sustain them.

Fiala’s book shows the miraculous and pedestrian aspects what faith can mean in a family’s life and she does so in prose in that is fresh and compelling and completely free from jargon and cant. This is the kind of faith I struggle to convey to my children, and books like this one help me on that path.

Whatever you believe, this story will move you.  And you don’t have to take my word.  Terrific reviews are coming in at Kirkus and Literary Mama.

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WWYSD? (OR: What Would Your Saint Do?)

A confession:  we didn’t name our children with Catholic saints in mind. Ella is Ella in large part because of those 2 secular saints of modern jazz, Ella Fitzgerald and Ella Mae Morse (and if you don’t know Morse, you really, really should listen here & here).  Finley is Finley Patrick after my mother and her grandfather.

However, they go to Catholic school, so they are encouraged to know the story of their saint and to understand that they have a personal connection with their name saint. Every saint  has a feast day, and families are encouraged on their child’s saint’s day do something special in honor of that saint and the growing faith of the child: light the baptismal candle, say a special prayer, do an act of charity, etc.

While it’s hard to forget St. Patrick, it’s St. Isabella who has recently proven remarkable in our family.  St. Isabella (which is Ella’s full, given name) was a real princess (a fact which came in handy in preschool), who loved the poor. She married a man who did not so much love the poor, but she would sneak out of her castle to feed the poor and do acts of charity anyway. As her story goes,   once, when her very mean husband caught and confronted her, the bread she was hiding in her apron was miraculously transformed into flowers.

Usually, we forget St. Isabella’s feast day. This is disappointing to Ella, every year. But now that I have my new iPhone, complete with a calendar (that I use) and an alarm, St. Isabella’s feast day will be noted in perpetuity.

This year, to honor St. Isabella, Ella decided to donate to a local food bank, but on the way into the store to buy the food, we realized that Ella’s school was ending the drive for the food bank served directly by our parish/school, and we knew that this food bank and the families it serves were in great need.  Also, the mass to honor this group/food bank was the following day, so we decided to give the food directly to them.

Ella also decided to donate flowers in honor of St. Isabella, so we loaded up on tuna fish (she gave $2 from her savings, I gave $20), and she chose flowers which we wrapped, and Ella enclosed a very sweet note explaining who St. Isabella was and the story of her miracle, and the next day she offered the flowers during the offertory.

Of course, I am not suggesting that you become Catholic, or even Christian (my husband is neither) nor that you go find a Saint to imitate.  But what is instructional, generally speaking, is the way that the story of Isabella helps take Ella out of herself and think about how she can, quite literally help other children.  St. Isabella encourages Ella to think about how she can sacrifice (a little bit) to help others and also to bring beauty into other people’s lives. It was empowering and gratifying for her, though she would never admit these things.

I suspect there are very many role models to choose from in this respect. The point is to find a story that is meaningful for your child and then to encourage them to understand a role model in a personal way.   It’s an act of imagination, really, that can lead to real empathy and, ultimately, to action. It’s another way of understanding how even the smallest acts of children can matter on a much larger scale.