Betty Duffy

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Voice of Disdain

Last year, I gave up arguing for Lent—not chocolate or coffee or swearing. I had a sense I was taking the easy way out because chocolate and coffee mean so much to me. Here they are on my desk, my constant companion. But in the wee hours of the morning as young Duffys are getting ready for school and Mr. Duffy is looking for the articles that make up his uniform, I have argued, spoken with that tone I use, before I have even opened my eyes. This is a sticky point for me—my voice of disdain is so ingrained in me I am unaware of its provocation. It is me—I am the voice of disdain. “Do you have to dump the laundry out of the baskets to find one sock?” Never mind that the laundry has been sitting in the basket all week, clean but unfolded. It’s hard for me, I comfort myself. It’s hard to keep the laundry clean, let alone put it away. But my challenges with laundry are not the issue here. The issue is that I always give myself the instant gratification of saying exactly what I think, of defending myself while at the same time using a cutting tone that redirects or deflects the arrow off of me, and back to the one who sent it.

I have to be right at the expense of peace in my home, at the expense of my own interior calm, at the expense of my children’s innocence—they are cultivating under my influence their own voice of disdain. And when I hear it coming our of their mouths I want to smack them—even though the tone they are using is most certainly the gift I’ve given them.

I am in most ways an unlikable hypocrite—though if I’m brutally honest, this is a characteristic of myself I deeply cherish. My sticking point—another one, that is—is that an awareness of my flaws and my inability to part with them makes up 90% of my inspiration for writing. Self-improvement, at a very base level, seems to threaten my writing by relieving me of my internal conflict. This was so when I was in college and my sins were more obvious—sex, drugs, rock and roll—ridding myself of these influences would have made my writing less interesting, I thought. But lo—cleaning up my obvious offences has just made room for new, more hidden conflicts. And I love them. I cherish my conflicts because they make finding material for stories so darn easy. I suppose this is what Pope Benedict XI meant when he said in a December 8, 2005 Homily:

"In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being….The person who abandons himself totally in God’s hands does not become God’s puppet, a boring “yes man.” ….The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God … he becomes truly himself….It is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person. The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to other people."

As a writer, I find the irony in my behavior or the things that happen to me, and I mock them, turn them into satire—see what a fool she is. She has let you in on what she hopes for herself, and she proceeds to undermine them. But if I am a fiction writer as I aspire to be—I’m supposed to be able to use my imagination to come up with conflicts. Every story I write cannot be about me and my dazzling inner struggles.

And as a mother, I can’t be buddies with evil, no matter how insignificant that evil feels. At some point, I’m going to have get a little cozier with God if I want to model for my kids that “sensitive, benevolent and open” behavior, I guess I thought they would spontaneously develop in spite of me.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Delusions of Grandeur

They come as I’m falling asleep, in a state of semi-consciousness, over which I have no rational control. They are a little disturbing, as I have heard that delusions of grandeur can be a precursor to mental illness, but in an attempt to humble myself, and possibly prevent the onslaught of insanity, I present them here for your entertainment (though, maybe this is just further evidence of mental slippage):

I’m on American Idol, and not only do I sing like Joni Mitchell, but I answer all the judge’s questions with such wit and nonchalance that I become America’s sweetheart for being such a woman of the people.
“So, Betty, tell us something interesting about yourself,” says Simon.
“Well, I’m a stay at home mom. I have four kids, and we don’t watch TV—at least not much.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“Well, I just thought it would be something fun to do, break the mould, live a little.”
Paula says, “Do you have what it takes to be the next American Idol?”
“That’s really in your hands, and not all that important to me. I don’t know you guys from Adam — Simon, Paula and black guy. On our TV at home you guys are all minuscule grainy specks. I don’t think I would have recognized you on the street. I sing in the shower. That is the sum total of my musical experience—except for playing the cello.”
“The cello???”
“Yes, the cello, a beautiful instrument, closest in range to the human voice. Perhaps I could incorporate it into my performance somehow. Anyway, I did have this idea for a Saturday Night Live skit where it’s an advertisement for people to put a microphone in their showers and amplify their singing out to their neighbors with speakers on the exterior of their houses. You know, because the shower makes your voice sound awesome, and you want people to appreciate that ‘shower effect.’ Unfortunately, it’s an effect that only your family can appreciate. But I know you want to hear my audition because there are so many people waiting outside.”
“No, really, this is interesting,” says Simon. “I really like you, and I think America is going to like you too.”
“Well, I’m interested in the life of the mind, you know. I’m actually a writer, so I couldn’t be taking this American Idol thing less seriously. And while I wouldn’t complain if my appearance on this show brought some attention to my work, that’s not why I’m here. It’s strictly for fun. You know I haven’t published anything so far because I’m really particular about my work and making sure it will stand the test of time, and multiple readings. I would not be content ‘just’ to get published. I want to have a respectable body of work. I want my writing to be the thing that makes my children proud of me—not my appearance, or even my victory on American Idol. I just want more than that for my kids, and, well, for the kids at home watching this show. (Addressing the camera) There’s more to life than being famous. Being famous will not make you happy.”
“So true,” says Simon. He looks at Paula and Randy. They all turn to me and say in unison, “You’re going to Hollywood!!!!”
“I haven’t even auditioned yet, but, if you insist.”

Suffice it to say, if this interview makes me a woman of the people--"the people" in my delusions are a very different sort.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Will Pay for Advertising

I didn’t see any of the ads during the Superbowl this year because I was watching Masterpiece Theater, “Miss Austen Regrets” in another room while my husband and his brothers watched the game. I’ve never been a “one of the guys” kind of girl. But if I walked into the game room, or worse, one of the kids walked in there during one of the commercials we were greeted by major shushing because no one could stand to miss a word of the ads. If there had been a fee to watch the ads, my husband and his brothers would have paid it. And then, the following day, top 10 ads posted all over the internet. I’m sure the feature length Budweiser commercial is right around the corner.

The problem is that Miss Smartypants, here falls victim to the ads just as easily. I went to the grocery today and saw that Lucky Charms (my all-time favorite cereal) was marked down to $2.50 a box. I did not grow up on sugar-coated cereals, and I have tried to protect my children from them to a certain extent as well, but $2.50 for Lucky Charms never happens (they’re usually around $5). I also had a coupon for $1.50 off if I bought four boxes. To seal the deal, Lucky Charms offers Box Tops for Education which we recently started collecting, and I find a bit of satisfaction in our collection even though it is way more economical to buy generic cereal and throw a dime in a bag every time we finish a box. But to triple dog seal the deal, there were books inside the cereal box. Each box contained a free chapter of the Spiderwick Chronicles. I decided to give my kids (and myself) a taste of the good life.

I’m new to the chapter book genre of children’s lit. My kids have just arrived on the chapter book scene. I’ve completely missed the Harry Potter mania, and barely made it for a bit of Lemony Snicket. But I cracked open one of these Spiderwick books while I mindlessly shoved synthetic marshmallows into my mouth and found myself, yet again annoyed with what I as a consumer am expected to consume: The marshmallows were just right, but this pandering to a desire in parents to encourage their kids to read really gets to me. If it’s a book, it must be good; It has the word ‘Chronicles’ in the title; There’s a British cadence to the dialogue; It’s full of parentless children just like a Dicken’s novel. But these books are the phoniest product of arse I’ve ever picked up. And I don’t want to be a book snob. I have always remembered with fondness the fact that my parents didn’t hover over my shoulder as I read growing up. I read pretty much whatever I wanted. But I want my kids to have good taste in what they choose to read, not phony good taste that is just advertising for a feature length film in disguise.

But I got what I paid for.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

In Praise of Slo-Friends

Movement towards the truth implies temperance. If truth purifies man from egotism and from the illusion of absolute autonomy, it makes him obedient and gives him the courage to be humble, it thereby also teaches him to see through producibility as a parody of freedom, and to unmask undisciplined chatter as a parody of dialogue. Pope Benedict XVI

As this self-titled blog has developed into sort of a rant against popular self-absorption, you may find it hypocritical of me that I picked up a Self magazine at the gym the other day. Sitting on the stationary bike, I flipped to an article on gossip, and how to do it correctly. How to do it correctly? In my mind this translated to “How to Hurt People so that No One Gets Hurt.” It didn't make sense. But as “Self” magazine is all about what’s good for the self, it had to be noted that gossiping makes people feel closer to one another, and since being close to other people is good, gossiping must be good. But one should follow “Self’s” particular guidelines to keep anyone from suffering from your criticism of their life for your own benefit.

Self Disclosure: I have gossiped an unconscionable number of times in the course of my life. Starting somewhere around fifth grade, my conversations with friends began with not “What should we talk about?” but “Who should we talk about?” Who was on our nerves? Who should we not like on Monday? By high school, it was who was doing whom? And in college, who gets it and who is an automaton? Lord knows what gave me and chosen friend the authority to make such a judgment. But judge we did because all gossip is, just that, a weighing of another individual’s life against one’s own, paired with a preconceived decision that one’s own life is superior. People love to bask in feelings superiority with one another. I love to feel superior with a chosen friend. I love to be the one to say that the emperor has no clothes, which is why gossip is still on my list nearly every time I enter the confessional.

But live and learn. A peculiar thing about adulthood is that everyone knows the emperor has no clothes. Some people choose not to mention it however, in order to protect something that is greater than the ability of the eye to see. One day we realize that people cannot always control their eccentricities. And we will ignore the things someone does, a spouse’s idiosyncratic behavior, a member of a prayer group’s need to share too much, because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is more important for the family or the group to survive than it is to acknowledge that someone’s behavior is odd or annoying.

As tempting as it is to get together with a girlfriend and dish about these things, in order to forge friendships that are not annoying or troublesome, we will forego friendly closeness in favor of greater goods. And this has been a necessary sadness for me. I have a history of hot and heavy relationships. I remember many a college afternoon spent lollygagging with girlfriends discussing all the irritating people in our sorority. There was a physical closeness that came with this dishing—sort of like monkeys lying around eating the fleas off each other’s backs--and I'd be lying if I said these relationships didn't meet a need for physical and emotional intimacy that as an unmarried person I craved very much. Friendships were forged in a matter of weeks in this strange system of American young adulthood, where we had not only the idle time for such things but incredible nerve as well. It was important to be close with people and that required the revelation of our own secrets, and the secrets of others.

In adulthood, I have been blessed with friends, old and new, who have learned the value of discretion and who care enough about my soul to leave off a conversation that does neither of us any good. But this has also meant that the development of new friendships has moved very slowly at times. There have been many times when I have felt that little rise of adrenaline when a friend has approached the edge of revelation about some personal detail in her life or the lives of others, and then has begged off with, “I really shouldn’t go there.” The initial disappointment when I realize that this friendship will have to forego that particular revelation and closeness is at times akin to having temperance in a sexual relationship. I really want to push you further. But for the good of your soul, we will forgo that closeness, and instead, I will go home. Bummer.

But hey, there will be no regrets between us, no murky feelings after a conversation or fears that I have betrayed the people I love most. Our friendship will have to be sustained on something besides the faults of others, which are, after all, finite. Neither one of us will have to make haste to a confessional, and the naked emperor will maintain just a little bit of dignity. That’s a good thing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

One more word on Eat Pray Love

One of the reasons I read Eat Pray Love so willingly, and thought about it so much, is because there was something about her story that felt very seductive, while at the same time very dangerous. It hit me in a vulnerable place, because I am a creature of fantasy who tends to put hope in imaginary things, willing to believe that someday I'll be blissfully happy if I keep moving away from what is real and right in front of me towards the pictures of glory in my mind (i.e. A tour of Europe, good food, spiritual highs, S-E-...--and a book deal to cap it all off).

My cycles of dissatisfaction are brought on, not only by the fact that I have chosen a different route in life (which has its own specific ups and downs), but also by my ego, which believes that I deserve to enjoy the perks and pleasures of a life I don't happen to be living. And my ego is constantly metamorphosing into new and mysterious disguises, adapting its wants to a prettily packaged, harmless looking memoir about three very good things. If I could nail my constant pining for some other happiness as the blatant ego preservation that it is, I'd give it a violent death. Or maybe I wouldn't. Maybe I would just hope that somehow my ego and my desire for Heaven could peacefully co-exist. I'd bumble along for the entirety of my life, on average terms with Jesus, on better terms with myself, and just hope for the best. That at the end of my life, I will have gotten by. I will have done just enough to ensure my entry into Heaven, but I will have brought with me my one true love--my Self.

Everyone feels a silent pity for the elderly, first because they are so close to dying, but mainly because, being so close to the end, they have never been cured of those defects that forever have been glaringly obvious to everyone but themselves. In their old age, we can forgive them, feel pity even, because the aged, like the very young, don't know any better. We can only assume they don't know any better because they've had a lifetime to discover those defects and cure them in the Refiner's Fire, but instead, those defects have only grown more intense. How many times have I said that I don't want to be the crusty old woman who never got the point? I believe in the mercy of God to do for people what in life they were unable to do. But I am aware right here and now of the specific details and defects driving a wedge between me and God.

This is to say that I don't need anyone encouraging me to put myself first, or to remember my best me, or to spend another second thinking of or pampering my self. All of this comes very naturally to me. Even with four kids and a bun in the oven, my first thought of the day's labor is always a recognition of the cost to my self. Oprah Winfrey and books like Eat Pray love are big business, because if we really can buy the conviction that all this self orientation is good for our souls, we will do it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Bed With Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Mr. Duffy, a custom woodworker, has been waiting for about a month for a customer to decide what kind of bookshelves she wants. Not wanting to start a different project when he has made himself available to this customer, there has been some restlessness and boredom on his part. After several days of this, my husband, who hasn't read more than two books (not counting wood-working books) in the entire eight years of our marriage, lay down beside me in bed and cracked open the Gulag Archipelago. I have to admit, this vision, of two people parallel in bed, reading in silence, has long been my ideal of connubial bliss, and this moment of its realization in my own marriage has been a dream come true. He is now immersed in Book II of Gulag, which is way further than I've ever gone with Solzhenitsyn, and is mourning the recent death of his new-found hero. Our nights of silent reading are speckled with comments like, "Americans really don't know how to suffer," and "Suffering really gives life meaning," and I am happy, infinitely happy. But all good things must come to an end. This customer recently gave him the green light, and I will soon have to take my books out to the workshop to read alongside my beloved at night.

Here's a taste of some of Mr. Duffy's recent masterpieces:

The workbench where it all happens.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity...

His gifts to me...The Barrister Bookcases, adding instant gravitas to any room.

A desk commission

Kids' dorm

Various and sundry

Why I Didn't like "Eat Pray Love"

While I agree that it's good to be comfortable with internal change, and to overcome spiritual disorder, I felt like Gilbert went about it selfishly. She didn't examine the failure of her marriage much in the book, and I thought that while she had a noble intention of not airing her husband's dirty laundry, the reader is left to put the pieces together--and it's not a pretty picture. Clues like, she gave up her life with her husband to eat organic peaches in the sunlight point to a shallow interpretation of the good things in life.

I'm happy for her that she was able to eat good food in Italy, to have spiritual enlightenment in an ashram, and to have sex in Indonesia, but she seemed to make idols of these things, or rather, her persistant self-seeking became the idol and these events various forms of idolatry.

There was no indication that a person could find fulfillment within the context of vocation, where there happen to be strings attached--as in relationships with a spouse or children.

There was no indication that serving others is as much a spiritual practice as gazing at the stars, in fact the one instance in which she raised money for the lady in Indonesia became an opportunity to point out how helping people bites you in the butt.

She gives the impression that following your bliss is the key to life, when it has never been my experience that good food, good sex, and even spiritual mountaintops provide lasting happiness. What's left after the mountaintop, is fidelity--fidelity in relationships even when it is not reciprocated, fidelity in prayer even when there seems to to be no fruit, and mostly moderation in the food department. Maybe that sounds ascetic and unfun--but it is the reality of most human beings, who don't have the resources for a year of naval gazing in exotic places.

The self-search can be undertaken anywhere, in any context--and ultimately the outcome will be an introduction to the same inadequate human being you left at the start of the search. I think that you get somewhere when the search is truly a God-search and contemplation of a God-man who is entirely separate from the self, but at the same time dwells in the self when invited.

The author could never entirely separate her god from her own ego. She talks about a divine love, and feeling loved, but she never went to the next step where the beneficiary of that love responds in kind by striving to love and adore the Creator. Instead she used that freely given love as affirmation for her behavior. Even in the ashram, her prayer was a quest for floaty feelings rather than an act of adoration, thanks and praise.

Authentic love is demonstrated through self-sacrifice for the beloved. And God gives us opportunities to show our love to him by loving the people he puts in our lives. Therefore, the quietness and dailiness of my life at home with my children becomes an act of worship to God.

There is a specific vocation to consider the world one's home, its people one's children (ex, Mother Theresa (not exclusively)). But my choice to be a mother, and a Catholic mother of many children, necessarily requires the rejection of other experiences, other loves--and I don't think that this sacrifice is exclusive to my Catholicity either.

The book gives the impression that happiness is found in the wholesale rejection of one's first mistaken choices, in order to join the world search-- and that's an ugly lie which this author made pretty by being a charming, funny and engaging narrator.

It didn't really help that I was reading Eat Pray Love alongside Wendell Berry's Art of the Commonplace--which as the title suggests is an ode to hard work and local communities and economies, among other things. It's hard to believe Liz Gilbert, when Wendell Berry is whispering in my other ear how the pursuit of leisure as a vocation of the few leads to the mass prostitution of human dignity for industrialization of the global economy. An argument for another day.