Now We are (Twenty) Six

I  am not longer 26, or even 27 for that matter. This is a post I wrote a few years ago and it never made it out of drafts for some reason. Now that it is almost a month since my 30th birthday I figure it’s an appropriate time to post this. My 30th birthday was just as quiet as past ones, perhaps even more so since it came on the heels of my wedding. Things are certainly a bit different: I no longer teach small children, and that someone I care about very much has become my husband. I still have that newer confidence and understanding of who I am, but I no longer wonder what God has in store for me, since my path in life has clearly become that of a wife, and hopefully soon a mother. However, my thoughts and sentiments on this topic are still very much the same.


I have now entered into my last week of being 26 years of age. 26 years and 300-something days ago (I am not very good at math), I was born on September 28 in Waterbury, Connecticut. A very short autobiography I wrote as an early teenager states this fact, so it must be true, though to be quite honest, I was rather occupied with taking my first breaths, so I cannot remember the actual occurrence. My parents, however, assure me that this is the case, and I shall have to trust them.


Looking back on the twenty-sixth year of my life, I can say it has been a good one. I cannot say that of all the years of my life, though at the same time I cannot completely say that I have had any particularly terrible years…it has been a good life on the whole. But my twenty-sixth year brought me a new contentment and confidence that I had never known before, an understanding of who I am, and, even though I still have no idea what God wants of me, a trust in the unknown of where I am going. At the age of twenty-six I learned to trust and not worry too much, and I was given the gift of someone I care for very much. At the age of twenty-six I learned that I am kind of not too bad at being a teacher of small people, and at the age of twenty-six I finally published my first book. It has certainly not been a bad year.

And so it is with fond farewells that I look to the next year of my life, the twenty-seventh year. I have always loved birthdays. In college, I had several friends who did their best to make sure no one knew it was their birthday, and when that day came around, they would hide out as much as possible. That was never the case with me. Although I by no means “tooted my own horn,” as the saying goes, I was always happy to share my birthday joy with my friends. One year while I was living in Virginia, I was all alone for my birthday, and was feeling very depressed. (As it happened, I made a very good friend that day when a coworker heard that I didn’t have any plans and asked me to go to dinner to celebrate my birthday.) I do not like being the center of attention, but celebrating something wonderful with your friends is absolutely necessary.


Growing up, birthdays were always a big deal in my family. We didn’t throw the big parties that other families threw; ours were quiet family celebrations. Things got started the week before the birthday. The other members of the family would go out together to buy presents for the birthday person, which was always a great deal of fun, despite the shopping options in Tehachapi being limited to thrift stores, antique stores, and Kmart. A great deal of secrecy would ensue from that point, and well-meaning younger brothers would sometimes slip hints of what a present was. (I am thinking in particular of when at the age of 16 I got my ears pierced, and my little brother told me that he could not tell me what my present was, but that it was something that went in my ears.)

The night before the birthday, the living room got cleaned, always a process in the Zehnder household, and after the birthday person went to bed it was decorated with balloons and a “happy birthday” sign (often handmade by a sibling), and the presents laid out on the coffee table. The morning of the birthday, we would all wake with much excitement, and sit in the living room shaking and poking the wrapped presents until our parents decided to wake up and make their way to the living room. Somehow they never seemed to enjoy being woken at the crack of dawn to open presents. After a singing of “Happy Birthday”, usually prolonged in an annoying manner by a certain head of the house, presents were opened.

The rest of the day was spent much as any other day was spent, but there was always the excitement of new gifts, and if your birthday happened to be during the school year, you didn’t have to do any school. Part of the delight of a school-year birthday was seeing your siblings doing their work, and you not having to do anything at all. Then you got to choose your favorite meal for dinner, and your favorite kind of cake, always home-made.


That was it. There was no big party with dozens of people, although sometimes we had grandparents or cousins over for dinner. Still, birthdays are some of my happiest memories. Perhaps it comes from being one of seven children. When there are that many of you, being the center of attention for a day can be quite pleasant. But as an adult, I think birthdays are wonderful for a different reason. It’s always lovely to get presents; I am the sort of person who finds gift-giving one of the better expressions of love, not through any sense of materialism, but because when I love someone I want to give them things. But it’s more than that. Birthdays are wonderful because they celebrate you. You, that amazingly complex thing called a human being. A person. Once you did not exist, and then you were conceived and brought into being. There is nothing more amazing than that. A birthday is a celebration of that being-ness, a celebration of the fact that God loved you so much that he formed you and brought you into life.

And each year you (hopefully) grow in wisdom, and in understanding, and experience more of the wonders of the world. And at each birthday, you are one year closer to eternal life. Closer to death, yes, but hopefully closer to a joy far greater than the marking of the day you were born. That, I believe, is something worth celebrating.


Waiting in Wonder

For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and night in its swift course was now half gone, 
thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,
into the midst of the land that was doomed,
a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of thy authentic command,
and stood and filled all things with death, 
and touched heaven while standing on the earth. 
(Wisdom of Solomon, 18:14-16)

It is my second Christmas in my family’s new home of Ohio. It is strange spending Christmas in Ohio instead of California, but at the same time it is not strange. I miss our old home at times, but there is nothing wanting. It is the same people, the same furniture, albeit in a new environment. And while we are going to a new church and driving new(er) cars, and hanging our stockings on a bookshelf instead of our woodburning stove, Christmas is the same as it always was. We still have our customs and our understanding of this great feast. 

Last night during Midnight Mass, and again during noon Mass of Christmas Day, I had many thoughts going through my head. It started as we stood to Sing “O Come All Ye Faithful”. We were sitting on the side of the church with the shrine to Mary, and as I stood I looked at her, and I was suddenly filled with joy. I am usually moved by the creche, which at St. Patrick’s was on the other side of the church; but last night I was moved by Mary. My thoughts as I looked at her and sang were something along these lines: how joyful she must be. We on earth are joyful tonight because we are commemorating the day our Savior was born. But she has been filled with joy from the moment that she said yes to the angel, and is filled with joy for all eternity. Someday perhaps I will be where she is, joyful for all eternity instead of just this one moment on Christmas eve. Last night that simple statue of Our Lady, which we see every day of the year, was more striking to me than the manger scene on the other side of the church.

Then I began to dwell on Christmas itself, and as the Mass unfolded in all its beauty and splendor, I mused on how my understanding of this feast has changed over the years. The very fact that I was so struck by the image of Our Lady is testament to that. When I was a child I was more excited about the tree and the presents than I was about Christmas itself. But all the same, even while I was more excited about those things, I understood Christmas. I attribute this to our family “traditions” and how our parents taught us. 

Growing up, our understanding of Christmas stemmed from how we celebrated and kept Advent, a period that is so often overlooked even amongst Catholics, and especially by the world. Advent was always an important time, because we were preparing for Christmas. We always understood that it was a time of preparation, that it was not Christmas. Christmas, with its following twelve days, was Christmas. It was something we looked forward to with excitement, but not with preemptive celebration. We never decorated the house or put up our tree until Christmas eve, and when we were little we children didn’t even do that. We went to bed to an empty tree on Christmas eve, and woke the next morning to the wonder of a decorated tree and filled stockings. I still remember my delight as we ran around the house looking at the decorations. We would be excited to see where a certain decoration was put this year, and sometimes there would be new decorations to see. 

In my family we never had Santa. We followed the German tradition of the Christ Child. The Christ Child would come in the night and decorate the tree and house and fill our stockings. I never gave it any thought as a child, but now I see that it was an excellent way to “keep Christ in Christmas.” But I was fortunate that my parents really understood how to keep Christ in Christmas. That was mostly because we kept Advent. Our culture does not keep Advent. Most Catholics do not even keep Advent outside of Mass. But Advent is such an important time, as it is when we prepare our hearts and minds and homes for the coming of Christ. How are we to welcome Him properly if we do not prepare? When I teach my kindergartners about Advent I give them the analogy of preparing for a guest. I ask them if they would invite special guests to their homes if there were clothes and toys all over the floor and everything was dirty. Little children understand that you do not invite special guests to a dirty home. So why should adults not understand that we do not invite Christ to an unprepared soul? 

Helen McLaughlin, author of Advent and Christmas in a Catholic Home, writes, “Children love to anticipate. When there are empty mangers to fill with straws of small sacrifices, when the Mary-Candle is a daily reminder on the dinner table, when Advent hymns are sung in the candlelight of a graceful Advent wreath, children are not anxious to celebrate Christmas before time. That would offend their sense of honor.” This was true for me as a child, and for my youngest siblings now. Circumstances involving Midnight Mass have prevented us from decorating the tree when everyone has gone to bed, and for the past few years the older siblings have helped to decorate. But we still observe Advent properly, and we still wait until Christmas eve to bring Christmas into the house. It is hard to wait sometimes when the rest of the world is already celebrating Christmas, and everywhere you go you see and hear it. It almost makes Christmas a little tiring.

But our parents raised us to understand that for every time there is a season; the world celebrates Christmas for a month with shopping and decorations and music, but we celebrate for an octave with Mass and great joy and all the depth of our faith. So it was that as I welcomed Christ last night in the Midnight Mass I felt such joy. I was happy to be at Mass, happier to be there than I ever was as a child. Now I understand what it means that earth touched heaven, and that darkness has been overcome. As I sat in the church in the dead of night and the cold of winter, amid a world full of hate and anger and sin, there was a light inside of me, and a light all around me. Life is given richness with the proper practices of our faith, and I am ever grateful that I was given those proper practices as a child, and am able to love them and carry them on as an adult. I hope that one day I will have a family of my own to pass on these traditions to. I want to light the Advent wreath every night at our dinner table and fill up the Jesse tree with my children. I want to see the delight in the eyes of my children on Christmas morning as they race into the living room to see what the Christ Child wrought in the dead of night, and give them the gift of seeing, years later, what He has wrought in their souls many years later.


Musings from 10,000 Feet

284.JPGToday, as I fly from Connecticut to Columbus for Christmas I am suddenly struck by the wonder of flying. I have flown frequently in the past ten years, to and from California and Wyoming, California and Virginia, California and Connecticut, and now Connecticut and Ohio. So much air travel can leave you jaded, but sometimes your appreciation for something can be renewed. Sometimes, as in my case, all it takes is the fact that someone you care about very much is fascinated by the thing that you are jaded about. And then suddenly your eyes are opened, and interest is renewed. Being in a relationship is very good for a person. It broadens one’s horizons, and you come to appreciate things you never thought you would ever, in your entire lifetime, come to have even the slightest interest in. Baseball, for example. I have little interest in sports in general, and never thought I would ever take any interest in a game that I regarded as tedious and bewildering. But look at me, having gone to two baseball games and actually enjoyed them. And not dying inside when my boyfriend talks about baseball.

288.JPGBut I digress, though this was all to say that my eyes have been opened to the wonders of flying in an airplane. At this moment, somewhere between Baltimore and Columbus, I am dwelling on those wonders as I watch the sun set from the airplane windows. And I am experiencing all of the elements of a flight as if it were for the first time.

The feeling of taking off, as the plane lifts off into the air. Feeling as if you are being pressed down, feeling ever so heavy as your stomach decides to stay behind for a moment. The feeling of being scattered every which way as the plane climbs into the sky and you are almost unsure that it will make it. But then the plane levels itself out, and suddenly you are sailing smoothly, weightlessly, above the clouds, looking down at the minuscule things that make up our world. Up in the air there is the feeling of suspension of time. Inside the plane, it seems to be barely moving, while in your head you know that if you are on the ground looking up, a plane moves quite fast.


Sailing through the clouds that look so dense you do not think they can be pierced. Coming out of the clouds and floating atop them. The clouds looking like a bed of cotton that would catch you if you fell. The sun shining on the clouds, giving the atmosphere a rare, translucent quality that you can never find on the ground. A tiny bit of heaven. The sun shining on a body of water that reaches to the horizon and connects seamlessly with the sky. Seeing the intricacy of the world below, the river and trees, the mountains and valleys, the houses and roads. Realizing how tiny you are in the hugeness of creation.

The sun setting on the horizon, ringing the world with a crown of gold and pink and purple. Seeing a sunset on the ground is glorious, but seeing a sunset from the air is sublime. Watching as the light fades away and the million pinpricks of light begin to appear on the ground.


The feeling of descending to the ground at the end of the flight. The sensation of your body slowly seeming to leave you and floating in the air as you approach the ground. The frightening bump as the plane touches the ground, and the roar of the brakes. And then realizing you are once again earthbound, and gravity has once again taken over.

Flying is truly a great feat of human ingenuity. We humans have always wanted to fly, have always striven to find a way to get wings. Because having wings is like being God, and we have always, since our first parents were created, wanted to be like unto God. That was our first fault, and it is our greatest desire, to be something like unto God. To achieve perfection, and freedom from the effects of sin. As fallen creatures, we feel the weightedness of sin. We have lost our passability and are rooted to this earth. But God always gives us a way out of our sinful state. At the highest level, He gives us grace. At the lower level, He gives us our intellects, which we can use to create the power of flight.

Modern air travel is much different from the first air travel, I am sure. It has lost quite a bit of its glamour, especially as we are crammed six to a row. But if you ignore the hundred other people around you and instead look to the wonder of a sunset from the air, and imagine you can feel the clouds folding gently around you, you can imagine what it was like to fly for the first time. You can slightly, only very slightly, imagine what it to be sinless, to be like God.

I’ve reached far up into the endless blue,
I’ve soared to heights as yet unknown to man.
I’ve sailed through clouds of blinding white,
And battled storms and all the elements.
I’m not alone; the sky and I are one.
I have no fear; the sky and I are friends.
And what is more, which no man yet has done,
I’ve reached up and I’ve touched the hand of God.


Ice Cream in the Snow

It was a bitter, cold day. We spent half of our day sludging through the ankle-deep snow, down for lunch, up for class, down for workstudy and dinner, and back up again to our room. We walked up as fast as we could, our gloved hands thrust deep into our coat pockets, our hats pulled down over our ears, and our scarves wrapped up to our chins. We were both tired, and we longed for our warm, cozy room.

We finally reached our dorm, and stamped the snow off our feet. We went in and took 100_3278off our boots outside of our room, leaving them in front of the door to dry. We went into our room in our stocking feet and put water on to boil for tea. A few minutes later, we were settled on our beds, our mugs of tea sitting by our hands, smelling deliciously of peppermint and chamomile.

I sighed happily and took a sip of my tea. Jen made a face at me from across the room and made a comment about “yucky peppermint.” There is one thing I regret about my four years at Wyoming Catholic College, and that is that I did not convince my roommate that peppermint is God’s gift to the world, second only to chocolate and artichokes. But then, we have many years ahead of us.

I took my Compendium – Latin edition – down from the shelf and opened it to the next day’s assignment. I read for a few moments, then groaned. “I didn’t understand a word of that.”

Jen immediately began to translate, as I hopped off my bed to pull down my Latin-English edition of St. Thomas’ Compendium. “I’ll just read it in English,” I said. I sat down again and tried to read as Jen continued to translate for my benefit. I launched a pillow at her, and she threw it back.

100_6479We settled back down to our work. Jen continued to read in Latin, because she is good that way. I, on the other hand, was not such a genius as far as Latin was concerned, and I was of the “there’s-no-point-in-losing-sleep-over-it” persuasion. We finished our chapters – we were both presenting in class the next day – and began to work on our theses. Jen sighed about not being very far along, but, as we all knew, she was going to write it three hours before it was due and pass with honors.*

A racket arose in the hall, girls running and shouting to each other and singing. We rolled our eyes and sighed. Freshmen. We felt a mixture of annoyance and longing. We had once had such energy. The freshmen left, probably to do some secret freshmen thing, or to study in the Holy Rosary classrooms. The freshmen had a great affinity for studying, we noted as our laptops lay idle on our laps. “Remember when we used to study like that?” we said to each other.

“Yes, back when we had energy.”

We sipped our tea and dreamed of the days when we had energy.

There was a knock on our door, and Jen and I both hollered, “Come in!” Clare bounced into the room and draped herself across my bed. She, like many of our classmates, was suffering from the Thesis Blues. Jen and I gladly put aside our computers and chatted with Clare. It’s funny how when you have something important to do you will use any excuse not to do it.

“Would you like some tea?” I asked Clare. Jen and I both rattled off our selection of teas, which was extensive. Clare chose chamomile, and I poured some water from my Nalgene into my little hot pot. It took little time for the water to boil, and I poured out Clare’s tea and handed it to her. We lounged on our beds and talked, ignoring the homework that needed to be done. We were seniors; we had procrastination down to a science.

Suddenly, Jen cried, “Let’s get ice cream!” Normal people would meet this suggestion with doubtful remarks and deprecatory insinuations, it being below freezing outdoors, but the three of us were far from normal. And since we were far from normal, Clare and I quickly agreed to the suggestion. Never mind that we had been trudging through the freezing cold all day. This was ice cream. We never said no to ice cream, no matter the weather. We quickly bundled up again: leggings under our jeans, our warmest wool socks, several layers of shirts and sweaters under our coats, hats and gloves. We were ready for ice cream.

On the way out of the dorm we met our favorite of Jesses and invited her to go along. JessOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA is a wonderful person, and is highly in favor in getting ice cream at any moment. It did not take much pressure from us for her to agree to come along. The four of us stepped out into the cold air. It was the kind of cold air that freezes the inside of your nose. The best kind of weather for ice cream.

We trudged through the snow again, happier this time because we were on our way to ice cream. It was not a far walk to TCBY, which was in the convenience store at the Exxon gas station. It was a place we knew and loved, particularly because they had Waffle Cone Wednesday, when one could get a waffle cone for less than a dollar. This was not Wednesday, but that did not matter. We were on a mission to get ice cream.

We got our ice cream and paid for it, then wandered around the store for a little while, soaking in the warmth before heading back into the freezing air. We looked at the racks of Wyoming memorabilia, the shelves of overpriced convenience store items, and the bulletin board plastered with ads and signs. Then we went out the back door, back into the snow.

We walked back up Main Street, licking our ice cream cones and talking. Our hands holding the ice cream cones were cold, our faces were cold, our tongues were cold, and the ice cream going down our throats was cold. But it did not matter. We were young and enjoying these days of life and our first taste of freedom, and friendships that we had forged in the beginning days of our four years of college. It may be cold, but eating ice cream in the snow with friends is always a good idea.


* Note: This actually did occur, despite her protests to the contrary.

Child of the Green Fields

When you are young, you do crazy things. Things like driving back from Philadelphia at 10:30 p.m., or driving up to upstate New York at 4:30 in the morning, to spend the day and drive back that evening.

Last weekend we did just that, drove up to upstate New York at the godless hour of 4:30 in the morning to attend a wedding. It is a four-hour drive from Norwalk, so we had to leave so early. I am not a morning person, and I am even less of a morning person at 4:30 after a restless night. But when the sun is rising over beautiful, rural New York, and you are with someone very special, it’s not so bad.

This was my first time in upstate New York. I have been to the City many times, and to Yonkers once, but have never ventured past those two cities. On this early Saturday morning, I fell in love with New York state. Aside from my days in the mountains of Wyoming, I have never seen such beauty. No photographs can do it justice. It was beautiful as the sun rose, and splendid as the sun began to set. There is nothing quite like the sun shining on a field of green grass just after a rain, when the clouds have parted and the sun shines in more clarity and brilliance than before. The greenness of the grass is more than green then; it is the radiance of the light and the solidness of the earth combined.

This trip made me think of my childhood, and the time I spent outdoors, and how fortunate I was to have that. So many children now don’t have the opportunity to revel in nature as I and my siblings did on our five acres in California. That is one of the tragedies of the modern world. We have taken away the beauty and splendor of God’s book and instead given children volumes of concrete and technology. Being in nature does something to you, and for you. Studies have been done on the effects of nature on the human body and brain, and the benefits are vast, far more than putting a child in front of a television or computer screen for hours. I sing the praises of nature not only because of those studies, but more from my experience as a child the wonders of the created world.

Nature promotes creativity and imagination through its endless possibilities for unstructured play. There is nothing more magical than a stick to a child let loose in the outdoors. A stick has so many potential uses; it can become anything. Nearly everything in nature offers endless possibility. As a child, I would play anything from house under the lilac bushes to building forts and playing war behind the barn with my brothers. My younger brother was known to pretend he was dirt. I spent many hours wandering through the garden and orchard, telling stories to myself, and soaking in inspiration from the sights and smells. As an adult, I still love to wander through fields and woods, and walk by lakes and rivers. As an adult, being in nature settles me more than anything else does.

Nature teaches responsibility, and reality, and how things work. Living things die if you do not care for them properly. I remember when I was a little girl I found a baby bunny in the garden. It was the cutest thing I had ever seen, and I wanted to keep it as a pet. It was so small I could hold it in one hand. I made a cozy home for it out of a shoe box, and cared for it. I would take it out of box to hold it, and it would burrow into my sleeve and crawl up my arm. But baby bunnies are not meant to leave their homes in the wild, and my bunny died. It was tragic to young me. I cried, and buried it in the yard. But that was an experience that taught me things about life, and death.

As a child, I learned so much from playing outdoors. We were homeschooled, and a big part of our science was experiential in the best way. I learned that if you peel a dandelion stem into strips and put the strips into cold water, they curl up. I learned that certain bugs hide in certain places. I found old wasps’ nests in our playhouse, and marveled at the building skills of those creatures. If I went digging in the garden very often I found those ugly and fascinating creatures, the Jerusalem beetle. I learned what types of plants grow where, and what they look like at different times of the day. I watched baby goats being born, and watched as they struggled up onto their tiny legs. I would lie on my back at night and watch the stars, and later I would read about them. I learned to love the stars from watching them as a child.

Nature stimulates the senses in a way that nothing else can. A child in nature sees, hears, touches, smells, and often tastes. Growing up in nature, I saw, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted. I watched a dragonfly lighting gently on the water. I heard the mockingbird singing outside my window. I ran my fingers through the soft, silky tops of the tall grasses that grew in the fields. I smelled the delightful scent of freshly-turned earth, and the not-so-delightful scent of animals and what they left behind. I pulled and ate carrots and peas from the garden, and picked mint leaves that grew like weeds around the drippy faucet in the front yard. All of these experiences focus and sharpen the senses, which helps with other aspects of life. As a teacher, I have seen children who spend little to no time outdoors struggle to focus on their work, and be unable sit still and listen to a story.

Recently I started reading The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah. Cardinal Sarah writes that God is silence. Silence is the indispensable doorway to the divine, and the world that wars against silence wars against God. As an introvert, I value silence immensely. I learned silence partly from my introverted nature, and partly from spending hours outdoors. Being in nature teaches you to see and listen in a way that nothing else can. I learned this playing in the outdoors as a child, and I learned this as a young adult in the wilderness of the Wyoming mountains. I learned the vast power of God in his created world, which is evident not from great clamor, but from the immensity of his silence. It is the silence of the wind wrapping around you at the top of a mountain, and the silence of a sky speckled with billions of stars.

The author Richard Louv writes in his book Last Child in the Woods that “as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, and this reduces the richness of the human experience.” There are so many things that make up the richness of the human experience: music, books, food, conversation, art. To me, one of the most valuable riches is seeing the sun shine with rare quality on a field of brilliant green.