Betty Duffy

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Artiste in the Kitchen

My husband is one of the most phlegmatic people I’ve ever met. Many moons ago, when his sister was trying to convince me that I should go on a date with him, she said, “You might have to flick him periodically just to make sure he’s awake.” There are, however two places on this earth where he becomes very animated, and indeed, a bit of an artiste (and I mean that with an E): his workshop and in the kitchen.

I’ll save the workshop description for another day. The kitchen is currently on my mind, because last night, my husband decided to make dinner. He cooks a couple times a month, and when he does, you can bet it’s either going to be blueberry pancakes, or chili. Last night was chili night.

The reason his cooking is so interesting to me is because my cooking is so incredibly utilitarian and boring. I operate in the kitchen under very strict principles of maximizing ease and minimizing labor. Therefore, I wait until the last minute to do meal preparations, and then I decide what to cook based on what can be made using the least number of dishes. I have dispensed with any pans that I find large, heavy, and cumbersome to wash. I don’t keep kitchen gadgets. I recently threw away my wire whisk because a fork does essentially the same job and takes up less space in the dish washer. Even my hand mixer, which I used to be smug about because it wasn’t a counter top mixer, broke about a year ago, and now I’m smug that I haven’t replaced it. I get by with a wooden spoon, a spatula, a good knife and my mom’s old Farberware pans.

My husband on the other hand seems to make it his particular challenge to use every pot, pan, dish and utensil in the kitchen when he’s cooking. He browned the meat for the chili in three different skillets. He had me chopping onions for him, which he thought not chopped enough, so he confiscated my good knife and proceeded to fast chop Emeril style occasionally dragging my good knife long blade across the cutting board to sort the onions off to the side. He likes to measure his ingredients in separate dishes, then toss them into the pot with sweeping gestures and long strides from one end of the counter to the stove. He is graceful. He doth dance around his stew, and makes the children believe that something very magical and beautiful is happening in the kitchen, and indeed, Daddy is making dinner.

Herein lies the problem: He believes that the cook should never have to wash his own dishes. I believe that this attitude discourages good dish stewardship and causes him to use more dishes than necessary since he doesn’t have to pay the piper at the end of the meal. This rule also only applies when he is the cook. Hmmm….

This particular batch of chili also happened to be inedible since he went a little crazy on the de arbol peppers. The kids were all crying around the dinner table with the spicy chili dripping down their chins, and even my husband had to wipe the sweat off the top of his head in between bites. All of this worked well for me last night, since I had prepared a cabbage salad as accoutrement to the dinner and didn’t imagine that I would be able to coerce the kids into eating it. When given the choice between “being tough” enough to eat their bowl of chili, or cop out and have some of “Mommy’s Salad” they all took the salad option.
So that is how to make your kids eat raw cabbage.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pedge Cries Foul

“It is the rare individual who is truly entertained by the fabulousness of others. You look great?—congratulations! So did the last lady who walked past me.” —Above it all Betty

Pedge calls me on the phone and says, “Really? Really? You have no interest in looking at other good looking people?”

“Um…” I’m suddenly remembering that little battle I have with my husband every time we choose seats at a restaurant. There’s always that little dance as we each try to get the seat that faces the largest number of other patrons in the restaurant. It has occasionally come just shy of both of us sitting on the same seat trying to push each other’s rear ends off onto the floor.

Yes, I LOVE looking at fabulous people. I’m hugely entertained by it. I could go to the airport and sit there all day evaluating people’s outfits. People watching is FUN. Here’s what I should have said: “It is the rare individual who, when sizing up fabulous people and realizing she’s too fat to compete, does not feign contempt for those whom she would like to be.” There, I’m jealous of rich, skinny people!

“You’re probably thinking I’m such a flake every time I open my mouth," says Pedge. "I like wandering around Target.”

OK, So, no, Target doesn’t do it for me, but the thrift store does: witness the four hours I spent wandering around Unique Bazaar—the most enormous thrift store I’ve ever seen. It was Nirvana, Mecca, Heaven, Eden for this heathen girl extraordinaire. It doesn’t matter if you don’t need anything at the thrift store—it only costs 79 cents—buy it anyway. This is why I have a closet full of high heeled shoes made for the runway, that only get worn to clean toilets: Electric yellow Bruno Magli sling-backs ($1.50 at Value Village), white ankle strap Charles Jourdans ($2.00 at Goodwill), red patent leather (can you say street walker?). So I’ve spent a few hours lying on my back looking up at my fabulous shoes—no joke—the gravity pulls the knee fat up towards your body so that your legs look longer, thinner, and even better with that high-heeled shoe hovering up there. Are you happy, Pedge? I’m shallow, materialistic, and I buy things I don’t need, just because they’re a good bargain.

This is what friends are for--keeping us honest and grounded.

“And really,” says Pedge, “if we’re going to be these over-the-top Catholics, we have a responsibility to at least look normal. We are not freaks.”

Eight more weeks, Pedgy-poo! I promise, I’ll put away the yucky clothes the second I fit back into a normal pair of jeans.

The Four Walls of Freedom

I have realized on this trip how little actual reading and writing I did when I had “freedom” to do whatever I pleased. Being alone, reading and writing is what I always do at home (just to a chorus of many children), so now I should be doing other things, having experiences. At the end of a week, it was amazing how little I had actually accomplished without my normal parameters. I’m finding new meaning in what Thomas Merton called “the four walls of my new freedom.” For him, the cloister of the monastery permitted him to love God before all the distractions of his former life. For me, the cloister of my home provides not only the freedom to love God first, but also the freedom to live my vocation fully, as a mother, wife, and writer. These ties that “bind” me to my home and family, also enable me to use my time more wisely.

This is why we go away on vacation, to embrace our real life with new fervor—to rededicate ourselves. To give up all over again what we gave up in the beginning. I do it freely. I give it up again, because I remember now how it was never what I wanted.

I’m reminded of a parting exchange with an ex-boyfriend in college. I had just left town for the convent on the pretense of an extended retreat, and he spent a couple of weeks sending daily letters to me in the mail, which I did not return. When we finally spoke he said, “I’m starting to realize that I’m the only participant in this relationship. All I’ve ever needed was to feel needed by you.”

My answer was so obvious to me at the time, “All I’ve ever needed is God.”

Certainly, this all sounds like a bad teen movie in which I now turn dramatically away from him to go running off into the distant sunset. But how true that feeling still is today. I need my marriage, my children, the world, my writing insofar as they bring me closer to the presence of God. At first glance, it seems to negate the importance of those relationships to me, to turn them into stepping stones for my own self-interest. When I realize that I, too, have value to my children and my husband insofar as I lead them closer to God, I realize how transcendent and life giving these relationships, done correctly, really are. They overlook the trivial, don’t get hung up on mistakes and wrongdoings along the way. There is a purpose to these relationships that is ultimate. They are my mission field. I am theirs. There is no more important human relationship than these.

Now, I’m off for some scenic jogging.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Engaging the World, Part 4: Mass

The best kind of membership is where we kneel.

It took awhile for Husband and I to gel on this trip. The first couple of days we were so intent on getting caught up on what we thought we’d been missing all this time. For me, during the day that meant shopping, exploring, going to the Museums and galleries, and trying to engage this world, from which I feel shut out staying home with my kids, living in the Midwest, not having a career. When Hubby and I went out, it meant that every night had to be a date night. We had to do things we normally wouldn’t do. We were preoccupied with choosing restaurants, and finding the right quarter of the city in which to spend our evening.

It wasn’t until we met for Mass one day on his lunch break, shared a Sacramental meal, “knelt” together that we also seemed to relax into the freedom of “being” ourselves as a couple. Through Sacrament, the two are made one, not through eating ethnic food, not by going dancing, though those are enjoyable things that married people should do for a good time. Through Sacrament we have membership in one another—and it’s something I take for granted when we are at home. Of course we attend Mass as a family; it is one of the few things we can all do together. But something about going on vacation has always found me initially vacationing from my prayer life. I tend, in the work of my day to day life, to equate prayer with that work from which I need a vacation.

And it wasn’t until I went out looking for some substitute communion, which cannot be had, that I realized my lack of true food on this trip. How stupid of me, to let myself starve in one of the most vibrant and truly diverse dioceses in the nation. The Catholic Community in Washington is like the Catholic Community in Rome. It is one of those places where you wonder why the Church ever did away with Latin as a common language in the Church because the vernacular here could be any language in the world.

Here is instant community, belonging, membership and engagement with THE WORLD. This is where people from every corner of the Earth come to dine on one very simple dish. It’s the same food we eat at 8 AM every morning in Shelbyville, Indiana, the same food the Holy Father is eating in Rome.

Which makes me wonder, is diversity the coming together of individuals from everywhere in the world to shed their ethnicity, their identity, and bask in the shadow of a Creator we all share? Or is it the going out of individuals to have a taste of this ethnicity and that one, make friends with this person, and that one in the interest of collecting experiences and people who develop one’s personal identity as diverse? Is it different kinds of people sharing a commonality, or is it different kinds of people “tolerating” what feel like insurmountable differences?

I know that the problem with my idea of diversity is that we do not all share the same concept of Creator, or even if we do, the expressions of our devotion are very different. We can’t all belong to the same membership, which would require the giving up of certain creeds in order to embrace entirely different ones. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that that won’t stop my rejoicing in the diversity of my own Catholic faith. I cherish belonging to a World Religion because it makes my world a little less small.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Engaging the World Part 3: The Blues Bar

We sat on a couch in a U-shaped arrangement right in front of the band, and the crowd that assembled around us looked like this: a black woman with long cornrows, a serious sober expression and brows that came to a point at the bridge of her nose. She wore a shear blouse that hung low and tight around her pancake breasts, one of which was decorated with a heart tattoo. Next to her was a black granny who looked like she could just as well have been bopping her shoulders to the Baptist choir, but she was at a blues bar on a Friday night. Next to her, another granny, this one with cropped grey hair, happy to stay back on the deep cushions waving her arms over her head. Not smiling, but welcoming, nonetheless, passing around a baggie full of gum and mints. Next to her a middle aged white woman in a knit turtleneck, black tapered jeans, high heeled boots: a sexy suit from the late 80s. Her hair was shoulder length, her expression: “I am liberated. I own it.” Her moves: tucking one leg under herself on the couch, kneeling up, legs confidently straddled to talk to someone. Next to her was a gay male couple, a petite pixie guy in tiny, thick glasses who wanted to work his way around the circle that formed on the dance floor, being spun around by each person, starting with his lover, who at first became my default dance partner. Dressed in black with a blonde ceasar cut, the lover put his hands over his heart, pretending my pregnant dance moves were stealing it—nice act. My husband tried to stay on the couch and only dance to the slow songs. But one of the grannys kept pulling him up and saying to me, “You tell him to get the lead out of his ass!” So he danced with me in his funny way of making his tall body conjure a jointed letter S--ensuring that no one thought he was serious about his dance moves.

The band played slow at first: a group of grey haired black men with stoic expressions. Stix on drums eyed the lead singer warily, a baseball cap plunked on top of his head with clouds of hair sticking out on either side. Bass was a shadow, never cracking a smile, staying out of the way. Keyboard dressed all in black with a large gold medallion. He was short with jaunty braids that swayed with him as his considerable biceps pulsed with each note.

Lead singer wore a shiny long jacket and an expression that said, “I smell everything—every single one of you—and you stink good.” By the second song he was rolling his eyes, thrusting his hips, giving air spankings with the neck of his guitar and offering benedictions to the crowd between numbers.

Also dancing was a wiry, long-grey-haired, pock-marked white man in a black tank top. You could see the body odor radiating off of him and he was all over a delicate Asian woman with breasts the diameter of my 6-year-old’s head. She had on a tight shirt, worn as a dress, and every step she took seemed to put her in peril of showing her rear end to everyone in the bar. Her expression was the most forced smile I’d ever seen as she received his kisses and struggled to appear interested in the things he whispered in her ear.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Engaging the World, part 2: FIRE!

Last night, husband and I returned to our hotel and were surprised to find many fire trucks surrounding the building and all the hotel guests out on the front lawn. Alarm lights were blinking inside the building. This was not a drill.

Naturally, my first response was to look around and see if anyone was naked. Apparently no one at this hotel loved their life so much they would want to go on living it after hundreds of people had seen them naked. While several of the guests were without shoes, no one was struggling to cover their wet body with a small hotel towel. But there were quite a few pieced together outfits: t-shirts and dress pants, flannel jammy bottoms with a dress shirt, etc.

After an hour or two of standing around marveling at the mystery of what could be going on inside that hotel, from which we could see no fire or smoke billowing, and in the lobby of which, many firemen were standing around eating complimentary cookies from the receptionist’s counter, they finally allowed all the guests back into the lobby to inform us that they could not guarantee our safety for the night, and that they would begin the process of moving every one of us to a different location. This process took a long time, and those of us who didn’t bustle up to the counter at once, were forced to lie around the lobby of the hotel in casual modes of repose chatting with strangers.

This scene reminded me of the book Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, where once we recovered from the shock of potential life endangerment, we were suddenly fast friends with everyone who had experienced the trial alongside us. This is how I found myself petting the arm of an Asian man wearing the most beautiful ivory silk pajamas I had ever seen. They looked like Ellen De Generes’s bridal tuxedo. He saw me admiring his outfit, then realizing he was wearing pajamas. We both started cracking up. That’s when he wordlessly offered himself for my tactile interest. He didn’t speak English, but by use of hand gesture we were able to communicate with one another that I am seven months pregnant, and he, when he pushes his stomach out, can make himself look about five months pregnant.

I love having the walls between strangers and I removed—that law that says you must not make eye-contact with people in an elevator. Always make yourself look busy and important and unapproachable. If you are eating breakfast alone in an IHOP, bring reading material, so people will know that you meant to be alone, in fact prefer it, and were not stood up by anyone.

I want to wander from room to room in this hotel, borrow things from one another, watch movies, eat ice cream and enjoy the built in community of living under the same roof with people who are not of my choosing. But this break in the cultural reality was rare and brief, not meant to happen, and certainly not to last. A good thing, in the long run, really, that there are these cultural boundaries in public places that keep people safe and regard privacy as a good thing. But a crack in the boundaries here and there, is also a good thing, allowing us to see the humanity of those strangers we encounter on a daily basis.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

All Roads Lead…to the Mall. (Engaging the World, Part 1: Shopping)

I went for a walk on one of those paved walking trails outside our hotel and as I watched the Canadian geese frolic and splash in the man-made lake, I very soon found my path meandering, not towards a woods or meadow, but towards the front door of a Target store. As if the appearance of a mall on my quiet morning walk were not surreal enough, ads on the window at Target showed economically successful, shiny mannequin people of varying ethnicity doing things like feeding a baby in a high chair while wearing an evening gown and high heels or floating weightless in red space suits.

Shortly after the Target was an outdoor food-court. This court had a sampling of the most popular ethnic restaurants: Sushi, Kabobs, Mexican, Tai, Indian, Italian and a Hamburger Joint. The Mall complex was new, flawlessly landscaped, and utterly processed for people who fancy themselves to be like those lovely Target mannequin people. We are open minded in our dining tastes; we like diversity; but we’ll have it in the suburbs, please, with other white middle class diners, to whom we will not talk, but for whom we will just “appear.” And by “appear,” I mean the only kind of communion that people in a consumer culture can have with one another, the kind of communion that is looking at others, and being looked at by others, but never actually interacting.

I was originally going to make this post about Georgetown, because I assumed, foolhardily that this culture of appearances was something unique to the upper class, but Georgetown, upon further reflection is just a more quaint, more expensive version of the suburban mall. It is a place that offers invitation after invitation to an impermeable world—the one in the ads, the one that we will never be able to imitate completely, and even our best efforts to do so will leave us starving for a witness—to be observed in our material perfection.

These thoughts came to me on my first day of relative freedom, while the kids were back in Indiana with my parents, while Husband did his 9-5 stint. My gut reaction was, “When one is free from the kids, one goes shopping.” I could go to Marshalls and buy a good bra, get husband some jeans, and though I feel they would be strong and wise purchases, things we’ve both needed for awhile, they would be accompanied by a pit in my stomach, when I think about the cost and how I keep throwing money at life, at the same time I have knowledge that a nice pair of jeans and a good bra really do NOT MATTER.

I am sitting at a Starbucks with my coffee saying my morning prayers, watching everyone Jonesing for caffeine walk in, throw down money for a quick fix, and walk out, everyone attending to their own personal wants. And I am no better. Where do I go to pray? And yes, part of it is convenience: prayer, coffee, outdoors, right across from the hotel. Part is pure self indulgence combined with a weird helplessness. Where can I go to forget about myself? Where can I go? All of these stores are built up around the city like a cage. How do you administer to the needs of others at a Starbucks? Pay for their addiction? Hold the door? Practice random acts of kindness?

They are not enough—though they might contribute to my own self-satisfaction, the concept of my own personal generosity. But to make a difference, one really has to practice RADICAL acts of kindness—which amounts to a theoretical self murder. This is why I stay home with my kids. They matter. My self giving makes a difference to them, and I forget about that, wishing to engage a world that refuses to be engaged.

It is the rare individual who is truly entertained by the fabulousness of others. You look great?—congratulations! So did the last lady who walked past me. And to tell you the truth, I’m starting to feel a little smug about my stretchy maternity clothes, because they are a sign that I have not been so completely snowed by this culture that seems marked by a palpable despair. It’s so cliché to talk about suburban despair, but it has to be real and hungry, or we would by now have sold all these material things that bind us in order to live more closely in community, serving one another. I’m so sad for our world, for the faux diversity, for the isolated cars and houses we live in, for the meager things we find to sustain us from one week to the next.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I Asked For a Fish and He Gave Me Shrimp Pad Tai, Brazilian Fish Stew, Sushi, and Seared Sesame Crusted Tuna Salad with Ginger and Cilantro.

A week or two ago, my husband let me know that he was going out of town this week. This sort of thing happens all the time, because his day job requires him to be somewhat on call, and while he works out of the home, he travels to different labs throughout the Midwest, and occasionally has to return to his Biotech mother ship in San Francisco or DC. Being the sensitive man that he is, he discerned that right now would be a good time to jerry-rig a way for me to come with him, which is how I find myself currently sitting on a tightly made king sized hotel bed just outside of Washington DC. By Saturday, I will have been here a whole week, with no kids, quietly reading, writing, and making occasional field trips into the city. I promise, that after this week, I will never complain again—for I have very obvious proof that there is a God in Heaven who really does answer the prayers of the weary. “Ask and you shall receive.”

So here, I’m sending out special thanks to my Mom and Dad and my in-laws who have taken turns watching the kids this week. And to my husband who made the arrangements with his boss to come to DC rather than SF so that we could drive, play the ABC game for ten hours, and not have to buy a plane ticket. Big Kudos to hubby’s employer for paying their engineers’ gas, food, and lodging on their trips so that this week, 8 years in the making, has come together, totally free of cost. And finally, thanks God for necessitating this trip during this month or two of my married life when I do not have a nursing baby.

Husband has to work while he’s here, which means I fill the hours between nine and five, however I see fit. In addition to much reading, resting and writing, I’ve been snooping around Georgetown to see how the other half lives (it’s not that great), I had lunch with two of my cousins who are also pregnant and live in the DC area, I’ve been to the National Gallery of Art, and to what is quite possibly the largest thrift store in America. But my primary occupation on my outings has been to stay away from European men in tight jeans, so that people walking behind me would not be able to see how much bigger my rear end is than apparently all of the men in Europe. I don’t have this problem in Indiana, which makes me realize just how diverse the states of America really are.

DC is like another country where the residents are all from other countries. These residents are also all very well-dressed, and make me want to go home and repack my bag, which in the interest of saving space, contains only comfortable stretchy clothing and sensible shoes. The dumb thing is that I had no reason to pack light, because we don't have the kids with us, and I could have filled the entire rear end of the mini-van with stuff--but none of that registered until I got here. So here I am in geriatric fashion, when I finally have someplace to go that could accommodate a pair of high heels. This is a small problem--and not even a problem really--but just an irony.

When I had lunch with my cousins (who are pregnant with their #4 and #5) we talked briefly about what we would want to do if we ever went back to work, and in a stunning display of--I'll call it simplicity rather than shallowness--two out of three of us said we would be satisfied just to have somewhere to go that would require us to get dressed and talk to people. No need to change the world, here, no need for meaningful labor, just nice clothes and companionship. I'm going to go ahead and say that our ambition (or lack thereof) is a perfect example of the danger of the "Sex and the City" franchise to American women (even though I've only seen one episode of the show). It's probably also the danger of most fashion magazines which have us stay-at-homers believing that being a working woman is about how to change from day dress into evening dress just by switching around a few accessories. Daytime in these magazines is apparently strutting around a size 2 body for a bunch of Brooks Brothers models, and night time is having a coctail hour with the same dudes who have by now loosened their ties and ruffled their hair.

I know that the magazines do not give a realistic impression of what goes on in the working world (I actually did work as a teacher for a couple years), but if we think pop culture gives us negative body image, I'm saying that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's been years since I've had a subscription to a fashion magazine (though one of my grandmas passes on a Vogue magazine here and there), but I do see them in the gym periodically and in the check-out line, and I realize that I'm very susceptible to the lies they tell. Which leads me to Georgetown...for tomorrow.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Dissertation and a Sermon on "Just Being a Mom" (because I believe in blog freedom, which includes the right to post very long essays.)

Fat and homey, pregnant, writing a bit, not reading at all, keeping a happy home, hugging my children, cooking meals and tasting them as I cook, keeping the laundry clean, the dishes washed, the children bathed, rooms tidy, husband laid. It’s a tidy, tidy life and not tortured or artistic in any way.

And now here’s the reason that I suspect I am not a very good Christian: I hated my day. There was no movement of my story forward. Nothing happened. And nothing would happen apparently whether I fulfill my duties or not. Even if I communicated with friends, changed three poop diapers, enforced the completion of homework and made certain of many disciplines—even still—nothing moving or changing would have happened in my life. My “story” seems to have ended years ago, and that bugs me. Sometimes I want to tell God he can have it all back—I’m going to France to do the Can-Can.

I was reading an article today by a lovely young mother who just had her first baby, and in the quiet days that followed, she began to ask herself if it was enough to “just be a mom.” She had been an opera singer. She was beautiful. She had always wanted to pursue photography.

There’s nothing I hate more in an editorial or testimony than sniffing out the formula: “But then I had this epiphany (fill in epiphany) and I could think differently about all my problems,” or this formula: “Being a mom is hard, but when I see my kids smile, I realize it’s all worth it.” Well, as expected, this former singer realized that it was enough to just elicit the smiles of her new born son with a song. Hence, yes, she was ok with “just being a mom.” When I had only one infant, and all my most pressing problems could be cured by offering my son the breast, I too had such simple epiphanies.

I don’t say this to negate the experiences of women who have few or no children, but my first child made me feel like an expert. He responded to all my cues. He followed my direction. I never let him cry, and I felt that I had motherhood mastered. Each one of my subsequent children has brought me to a deeper and more complex experience of my womanhood and my motherhood. Not only have I been schooled in just how little I know, I find that even my responses to my triumphs and failures cannot be predicted from one day to the next. I am grateful for the absolutes by which I have chosen to live my life, because I don’t think I could handle the ambiguity of a less certain moral and spiritual outlook in addition to all the ambiguity my life experiences have wrought.

And one of those experiences I’ve had is a long, slow deadening to the daily loveliness of “just being a mom.” If you ask God for donuts and one day he gives them to you, you say, “Thanks God for the donuts.” But if you have to continue eating donuts for every meal, for the rest of your life, donuts lose their appeal. Even the Israelites, first blessed with the gift of manna from Heaven, eventually said after eating it for many years, “We are tired of this disgusting food.”

I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately with other educated women who stay home with their kids. I know I’m not the only one who struggles with the desire to parent my kids this way, and the nagging feeling that I am also wasting some part of my best self. I look back on my college years sometimes and think about what I was supposed to have accomplished by now (not that those aspirations were even close to the nobility of being the only mother my children have). But even on a spiritual level, my year in the convent was supposed to be my springboard to spiritual greatness, the launch-pad that would send me rocketeering through life ever upward on the path to holiness.

I have been in these trenches of motherhood for a long time now though, and I have long since given up trying to document my upward trajectory. I just keep getting deeper and deeper into the confusion, loneliness, at times stagnancy, at times difficulty of this vocation. And there are no clear answers. How do I move from hating 90 percent of what I do each day as a mom to loving it? Because even though I want to do God’s will, even though I am being obedient to what I see as my current vocation, I still don’t like or enjoy a hefty portion of it. I don’t believe for one minute that this life is meant to be one long dreary dark night of the soul. I know this is exile and all, but that doesn’t mean that it has to totally suck all the time. And just knowing that my vocation has value does not make me suddenly love everything that I do.

My friend, Pedge, told me that one candidate currently running for political office, when interviewed on Oprah a year or two ago said, (and this is paraphrase) that a person’s life should be valued on merit of its “usefulness to society.” And please, if someone has this direct quote, I would love to see it word for word. I’ve been googling and unable to find it, but I want to be proven wrong because I think it's a ghastly assertion. If a vast majority of my generation agrees with it, I'm very concerned.

As a mother, what I’ve done over the past eight years amounts to a heck of a lot of anal hygiene (just throw me into a pen with the senile, the handicapped, young children, and all the other people in the world who don’t contribute to society in any obvious way). I could fluff that up and call myself a “Bidet” or an “Anal Hygienist,” but it wouldn't change what it is that I do. If I value my life, my vocation based on what I’ve accomplished, there will never be enough accomplishment to fill my bottomless well of wanting. I will keep raising my standards. I already consider butt washing to be an occupation a little beneath my talents. My life does not have value because of what I DO. I can do, do, do a lot of things and have no life in me.

Honestly, I know that as lonely, menial, and at times boring as the tasks of motherhood can be, that it is a valuable service to our society. It is not true that because I have forgone a career in society that I am useless to society. As my brilliant friend, Elizabeth said, “To dispense love in this mad world is more important than (just about anything else).” But neither is it true that because I have chosen to stay home with my kids that I have to nail my hands to the ironing board (My husband is laughing right now. BY NO MEANS do I ever iron, but the metaphor will stay.). I think that God often gives us more freedom than we will allow ourselves. He opens so many doors that I, in turn, close because I prefer some sort of joyless martyrdom, or I feel guilty about betraying that first noble choice I made to stay home with my kids.

An interesting discussion has been taking place over at “The Husteds” about how my sisters, girlfriends, and I don’t feel well represented by what we understand to be “modern feminism.” Many of us have ditched birth control, are pro-life, eschew career, and are mothering many children. But we also believe in the inherent dignity of woman as a separate, unique, able and talented being who should be able to take advantage of the advances of feminism to the extent we want to and are able. A valid point was made about how unkind women can be to other women. Of course, I am guilty of this. See how quickly I rejected the epiphany of the opera singer earlier in this note. Women who work criticize those who stay home and vice versa. In my own subculture of Catholic, birth-control ditching (and did I mention sexy?) mothers of many children there is a temptation to pose as super-woman. After all, if we are going to go against the societal grain and have a million kids, we’d better make it look good. We don’t admit that it’s hard. There’s this unspoken assumption that if you’re having a hard time with it, it’s because you’re not praying enough.

In my opinion, it’s more accurate to say that if I’m having a hard time, it’s probably because I have said no to a lot of the opportunities, graces, and freedoms that in his goodness, God has offered me, in favor of a “Martha Martha” style of life. Just because I’m striving not to be “of this world” doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to pre-conceived expectations of what my life is supposed to look like, whether that image is a stiletto heeled executive or a jumper wearing home-schooler. This is one of the reasons that I do find Sarah Palin so inspiring. If a mother of five children, who apparently shares many of my values, has the door to the vice presidency opened to her, she doesn’t say, “Sorry folks, I’ve got to stay home and change diapers.” She’s faced criticism, not only from the left, but from a lot of Christian women too, and it surprises me that people who believe in “gifts from God” would consider this opportunity for her anything but.

Real success in life is “being” not “doing.” My fight on this earth is not the fight up some accomplishment ladder, not even a holiness ladder ( Prayers—check, sacrifice—check, almsgiving—check: Now I’m Holy). Nor is it enough for me just to hang on to the challenges of my life by the skin of my teeth.

Perseverance in my vocation requires a fight, and that fight is to BE who God made me with complete authenticity, and to be that me WITH him.

And now it’s time for a Sermon of Parables and Platitudes…

Because there is a little truth in most essay formulas, including that epiphany one I mentioned earlier:

Being in communion with God means asking for my daily bread and asking for it again tomorrow. I do have to pray more and every day, not to mark it off my list, but to BE WITH him. Then I will be more sensitive to and certain of the doors that God has apparently opened to me. If it is enough for me to "just be a mom" today, then great, but if it is not enough, I need to ask God what specific steps I can take today to move me towards what I feel called to do. The door he opens for me today may be closed tomorrow, but if I ask for my daily bread every single day, then I don’t have to worry about what to eat in a month or a year. I may still be eating the same old boring manna ten years from now, or I may be sipping cocktails.

I have to be simple, and childlike and ask very specifically for my needs. I know that if I ask God for joy, if I ask to be reconciled to this life, if I ask, I shall receive. No father gives his daughter a snake when she asks for a fish. If I keep asking, in time it will come. And in the meantime, I know that what evolves from my suffering and difficulty is in and of itself a GOOD THING. Because I am learning again and again, in all its complexity, what it means to “just be a mom.” And even if my life looks from the outside like a ten year stasis, it has been rich and deeply transforming for me.

It’s also high time I recognize what a sweet deal I really have, and what in many ways is the fruit and gift to me of my husband’s sacrifice (thanks husband). I have the luxury of just being a mom, of staying home with my kids, and fulfilling the irreplaceable role that only I can fill. In addition to that I have the gift of kids who are becoming self-sufficient enough to allow me time to pursue my life-long passion. I have a sugar daddy who loves me, our kids, and who doesn’t complain at all about the grindstone he faces every day. I have so much more than I deserve.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Is blogging an addiction for me? In complete honesty, yes it is. If we know a disorder by what it replaces, I admit, it has at times replaced my prayer life, at times, spending time with my kids. I have at times replaced the thought of pleasing God with the thought of pleasing whomever may happen across my blog.

But it has replaced another aspect of my life as well: All the empty hours of pining for fulfillment as a writer. I have known since I was about eleven that I would write when I grew up. Any career I might have chosen was a side note. The main course would be my writing. When I do not write, I am a miserable person.

I’ve tried not writing before, when I was a co-worker with Regnum Christi (an apostolic movement in the Church) before I was married. At that time, all my writing took place on paper, but it was equally addictive, and I would take my notebooks into the chapel to do my writing (instead of prayer) because it was the only time during the day in which I might do that and look like I was writing down my examinations of conscience to reserve for Confession. Well, the guilt was overwhelming then, living in what amounted to a convent. When all the temptations of the outside world were removed from my life, it was harder to sin, and yet any minor deception took on an elevated significance, because I didn’t have grave sin to overshadow it. So I made an attempt then to remove this evil writing temptation from my life—and that was precisely when my restlessness and dissatisfaction with what I was doing that year for the Church began. I longed for home. I did shoddy work on my apostolate. And when I finally told my Spiritual Director what was behind my antipathy, she scolded me.

Writing is not a sin. It is not an evil. It’s possible that God made me to write, as much as he made me to be a mother. And I have to honor that impulse (which back in the day meant discussing options with my Spiritual Director for putting writing into my daily schedule). And likewise, I have to ask God to temper it so that it doesn't replace my first purpose here on earth, to live in the light of God. Purifying my own intention is not something I am capable of doing. I don’t have the power to absolve myself from sin, and I don’t have the ability to purify myself. I keep forgetting that purity is a gift from God that I have to request, and I’m glad I went to this retreat so that I can remember now to ask for it.

But another reason I am glad for this blog is that it does provide what every writer ultimately hopes for when they write, and that is a readership, no matter how large or small. Blogging has replaced what amounted to despair for getting my words in print. Being a mom of many kids, I don’t have the time to send out numerous rounds of submissions, keep track of everything, and proliferate that cycle until some journal has mercy on me. Yes, I’ll keep sending my stories and poems out there when I can, but blogging alleviates a bit of the paranoia that I’m wasting my writing impulse by hording thoughts in a drawer. Granted, this is a different genre altogether than the ones in which I’ve previously invested, but for everything, a season. Apparently, it’s blogging season.

Monday, October 6, 2008

God is Love...and Betty is Confused

(Note: The following post is based on the a priori assumption of an omniscient, omnipotent and all loving God.)

I went on a retreat this weekend based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatious, which is never fun, but always internally wrenching and revealing. Three days of silence and hours upon hours of meditation to work out all the spiritual kinks, to kick out any obstacles to my complete unity with Christ. Well, I’ve had a few obstacles lately, one of them being this computer, in front of which I currently sit.

To blog or not to blog? I told my Spiritual Director that I really do it to glorify God, or at the very least, I strive not to offend God through my writing. His response was that you can tell if something has become a disordered attachment by taking stock of what you give up in order to do it. “Oh really?” I responded innocently, remembering the numerous mornings I checked for comments on my blog posts before completing my morning prayers. I flashed back to the kids at my elbows saying, “Mommy, look at my drawing.” And my response, which sounded something like, “Shut up, Mommy's ‘working’.” Because who wants to manufacture praise for stick figures when they could be receiving praise for their own belly-button-lint-musings about life and God?

What a dumb sin I have fallen into: I started this blog to glorify God…for the glory of me. I want to confess my failures, my sins to the universe so that people will identify with my failures and thank me for verbalizing on their behalf what they were unable to verbalize themselves. And then what? Sure I hope my readers will be encouraged to fight against THEIR sin, to which I have so brilliantly enlightened them. But what about MY SIN? I don’t hate it. I don’t change it. I may not even get around to expressing it so brilliantly to a Priest in the Confessional. How very Pharisaical of me.

Which moves me to my next quandary: How does God love the unlovable? Because if anyone knew me…really knew me…they could not possibly love me. I say this not to evoke pity, but in sincere recognition of what a flawed human being I am. When someone loves themselves as much as I love myself (ex: Where’s my public? What should I eat? Who’s helping me?); if I am doing such a good job of loving me, caring for me, feeding me, beautifying me, and providing for my needs, then why should God bother? What does He have to gain by loving someone like me?

He has nothing to gain, which only proves how incredible his love is. He loves me knowing that what I have to return will be meager, that my love for Him will be in constant competition with a persistent love for myself. His love dwarfs my love in every way, especially because my love and concern for myself is masking an equal self-loathing. I love and hate me. I hate my self-love. I build myself up because I have torn myself down: the vicious cycle of a self-absorbed person without God. (This is Oprah psychology at its finest: I’ve spent years in psychological self-battery for my failures, so now I must spend money to build myself up. I should buy some of Oprah’s favorite things. I should nurture myself because of all the damage I’ve caused myself. But then I will feel bad for spending so much money on myself…a vicious cycle.)

So here is my "AHA!" moment: The only one who cares about me more than me is God. The only one more interested in me and my things than I am myself is God. God’s love is stronger than my self love, and stronger than my self loathing. What a miraculous love! I am such a sucker for those who love me. I love being loved. I can’t help but love anyone who loves me.


(Note: I still haven’t answered that “to Blog” question.)