Betty Duffy

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Am Ruining My Children

Some days with children are shaken, not stirred. The ice crushed rather than cubed. Bedtime is served with a headache, and the nighttime writing routine becomes the vomitous of negative experience piled on negative experience, and literally the salvation of children who might not survive parents without similar outlets.

These children have my genes. If some of them have inherited the best of me, some have also inherited the worst. And one of them, one is so stubborn, so obstinate, so intent on being right, that the two of us together are like trains barreling at each other, full speed, both content to go off the tracks in flames rather than slow down, correct ourselves, and administer to one another, a mercy.

But that’s who he is. Conflict is apparently the spice of his life. He comes by that naturally. I just hate who I become in response to his dramas. I’m not an angry person. I don’t like to yell. But I don’t tolerate the whining and contradictions, often timed in the early morning or late evening hours. It doesn’t matter what allowances I make, what treats and gems I tempt him with, or what consequences I supply. He will find the “no” in the discourse and beat it to a pulp.

It’s hard to know what it is to pray until you have a child that brings each of your weaknesses to the surface. Every conversation becomes a battle, not so much with the child, but with the self. How to pull in the reigns and tame the emotions and outbursts that the child inspires. Often the battle is lost. And the prayer, every prayer almost, becomes a plea with Heaven to erase the words said, the damage done—make the child resilient and triumphant against the wounds I may have inflicted. I am always begging for some grace, some miracle, that in my frequent anger, my heart does not purely request.

And then I think, “Oh there goes my obstinate child, stealing all my prayers from his brothers and sister, just like he speaks for them, and talks them into giving him their toys.” He demands more of everything from everyone.

And my other son, the next in line, the one who takes the brunt of his older brother’s abuse, does little things to try and make me happy. Cleans things up here and there without being asked. Whose heart wouldn’t melt? I want to squeeze him and kiss him, but I can’t be too effusive because I’ve got textbook Cain and Abel syndrome here. I wish there were more ways to show more positivity and affection to both of them—without making them jealous or resentful of one another. But how twisted is it that negative attention can flow like water from one to the other without an ounce of concern. But if I dare to hug or kiss one of them, I fear the other will hate the recipient of my affection. Especially if the other is in a little hot water.

You wonder sometimes if they all might be better off if I threw in the towel and ran off somewhere. Let them think they missed out on a mother who would have made their lives so much better, rather than the reality that I slowly screwed them up, one by one. It’s always the mother’s fault.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Are You Hungry for Jesus?

We had a First Communion in our family this weekend. I've been wondering how to ensure my son is "getting it." Does having a big party emphasize that it's a precious event? Mementos? Statues and Rosaries? Cupcakes (the above cupcake was courtesy of our Parish social committee--not sure how I feel about it)?

One of the matriarchs in my family, who has a penchant for posing leading questions asked my son, "Did you stand in awe at the presence of God?" And before going to bed that night my husband and I considered what an eight-year-old would make of that question: a slack-jawed, bug eyed, hands-flayed, neck distending pose? What does "awe" look like to a kid?

I think it is hard to stand in legitimate awe (not the pose of awe) at the presence of God when we receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And transmitting that Holy reverance to a child feels at times even more difficult.

At my own First Communion, I was so distraught by my absense of a veil, and the plainness of my linen hand-me-down dress with a peter pan collar, that I missed the fact that Catholics believe Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. Long after my First Communion, a grade school girlfriend told all the girls on the playground that Catholics drank blood at Church. Her mother was a lapsed Catholic. I was mortified that she would think such a thing, and was quick to counter her with, "They do not! It's just a symbol!" I went to a public school, and our family was one of two maybe three Catholic families in our small rural town.

My parents converted to Catholicism only a year or two before my First Communion, and I think they naively believed that I would learn everything I needed to know about it in my CCD classes. But the first time I learned that Catholics believe that Jesus is really present body and blood in the Eucharist under the species of bread and wine, I was close to graduating from college. I had lectored at the 10:30 A.M. Mass all through high school; I had played my cello with the church choir; I had taught a Confirmation class to kids only two years younger than I, and won a "Spirit of Youth" award from the Archdiocese, and I did not know this basic teaching of my faith.

It's no wonder I fell hard when I went to college. In that environment, without the richness of the Sacramental life, or any understanding of why the Sacraments are so important, I had no well from which to draw. I was trying to be good on my own strength, and failing miserably.

It wasn't until some blessed soul (a member of Regnum Christi) set me in the Adoration chapel in front of the Eucharist that I began to understand the True Presence. "Go in there and ask Jesus what he wants from you," she said. And I thought, "Whatever. God doesn't talk to me."

But I went nonetheless, and God didn't talk to me, but I sat there for a long time, and people came and went, and they knelt down on both knees, and they gazed lovingly at the Eucharist in the monstrance. They stood in awe of the presence of God. And I thought, "That's an awful lot of hullabaloo for a piece of bread." In hindsight, it's possible that I'd heard the teaching on the Eucharist by this time, but had never seen anyone acting like they actually believed it.

My parents' initial conversion was to a sort of "Catholic Lite." Their conversion to "Super Catholicism" (or practicing ALL the teachings of the Church) occurred separately and almost simultaneously with my own reversion nearly fifteen years after they were confirmed in the Church.

Coming to belief in the True Presence of the Eucharist was a long, slow process that required many trips to the Confessional, many retreats, and several drastic changes of lifestyle. But I wanted to believe and God answered my prayer.

The Eucharist is so important to me now it has become a physiological need. It enables me to meet my day with optimism. It's strange how something that for so many years seemed irrelevant has become like air or water. The Church can carry on just as well without me, but I can no longer carry on without the Sacraments it provides. Some people can live without them. I cannot. I NEED them.

And yet, if I know my son at all, the cake and punch reception in the Parish Hall, the party following in his honor, the gifts; these things were all terribly important to him, but the actual reception of the Eucharist...not so much.

I want to make sure he gets it, at the same time I'm aware that the interests of an eight-year-old boy don't usually rest in favor of attending Mass. It takes time to grow spiritually, and his apprenticeship is just beginning. To breed little child saints seems the territory of other families, families who've done everything right all along, who've never treated the Eucharist casually. Not to say I'm throwing in the towel at this early hour, only recognizing that we're not all there yet.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Gloom, Doom, and the Honeybee

“Chances that an American who has become unemployed since 2007 is a man: 4 in 5”
--US Bureau of Labor Statistics via Harpers Index

My dad and I run a very small, very amateur honey bee operation. It has been widely publicized that the population of the honey bee has diminished greatly over the past few years due to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

No one knows exactly what is causing CCD, but one theory is that the hives, which are moved from orchard to orchard to pollinate throughout the blooming season, are simply working themselves to death.

One of the first things you learn about bees is that the worker bees are all female. They do the dirty work of collecting pollen, building comb, heating and cooling the hive, tending the queen and the brood. The worker bee is the life blood of the colony, and if there is work to be done, she cannot NOT do it.

The males, or drones, are needed to mate with the queen, and they are tolerated during a honey flow, but when the weather turns cool and the food becomes scarce, they are booted out of the hive to fend for themselves, and likely die.

It occurs to me that American life is the new beehive.

When a woman decides her clock has ticked long enough, and she wants a child, she can mate with a drone, or better yet, just purchase his frozen assets and conceive a small brood. She might even keep the fellow around long enough to care for the child while she goes back to work. She does make better money. A woman’s interpersonal skills are perfectly designed for the business model of the future: online networking, promoting, consulting.

And the man’s skill set…suffice to say is not finely honed to nurturing children and keeping a spotless house. No doubt, when the worker bee comes home once or twice to a messy kitchen, and children playing outside in nothing but a diaper, she will wonder why she continues to feed the male and send him packing.

And the little worker bee, with her happy paycheck, will quietly work herself to death, and the colony, well...

Bed Head

This morning I went to the Mass at my kids’ school and sat in the back with the baby. My first grader walked in with his class and caught me off guard by displaying the kind of bed head that can give you a bad reputation all the way up through high school. “Remember when Duffy’s hair stuck up like three inches above his head? It’s called a comb, man.”

You’ll forgive me for not doing something about it this morning before we left for school. I didn’t realize that what looked like a little innocent bed head while he noshed on his bowl of cereal, would translate into a full on rooster's comb when compared with the tidy little heads of his peers. Plus, I had diapers to change, lunches to make, breakfasts to set out, shoes and belts and socks to find, then the gung ho march out to the car with five kids and car seats to fasten.

When he came to sit with me at Mass, I was distracted throughout the entire thing, not only by fussy infant, but by how I might be able to tame his mane. I tried a little spit on my palm to no avail. I contemplated the Holy Water font. If I asked for blessings over him in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, would it curb the mildly sacrilegious flavor of doing one’s hair with Holy Water?

I directed him back to the font at the sign of the peace, but he balked, until it was too late to use the water discretely. All the older folks in the back had turned around to flash us a smile, nod, and wave of peace. And we smiled and nodded back, then I pulled him into the women’s restroom.

“I can’t go in here Mom.”

“No one’s here. Don’t worry, you’ll thank me later.” and I yanked him a little harder, filled my palm with water and began to baptize him in the ladies room sink. Water dripped down his face and onto the shoulders of his shirt.

“Mom!” He pulled away so that he was holding the ladies room door open while I held his arm.

And then his teacher approached, “What are you doing?” she said to my son.

He looked at me helplessly, then his teacher rounded the corner enough to see me.

“Just a little bed head surgery here,” I said.

So what would you have done in this situation?:

1.) Ignore the bed head. It is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass after all, and first graders have a short memory.
2.) Use the Holy Water. God won’t mind, and the older parishioners who may be offended by it will probably be dead in a year or two.
3.) Ladies room. He can’t be trusted to go in the men’s room and do his hair on his own. He’d spend an hour in there for minimum outcome and then you’d miss Communion.
4.) Stop micromanaging your son’s life.
5.) Home school

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Slain in the Spirit

Pedge and I went to a Catholic Women’s Conference this weekend. The very last speaker in the line-up was a member of the religious congregation, The Fathers of Mercy, who did healing ministry. By healing ministry, I mean the kind where you walk up to the altar, and someone prays over you, perhaps speaking in tongues, and you might be slain in the Spirit. Men stand behind you to catch you if you fall, and women comfort your tears if you have them.

We did not know that this heretofore staid women’s conference was going to turn into such a service, but we decided to give it a whirl. I should preempt the following account with the tidbit that I have been to a Charismatic healing Mass before. There’s a pocket of Charismatics here in Southeastern Indiana led by Father Gregory Bramlage, an unlikely Charismatic who has helped many members of his small rural Parish discover the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I went to my first healing Mass thinking, “There are things in my life for which I could use some healing—I’m going to try this—but I AM NOT falling down, well, unless I can’t NOT fall down.”

The team of healers stands up around the altar waiting for the line of faithful to approach them, and they are Betty Homemaker, Sue Teacher, Jack Plumber, Mike Lawyer. As I stand up at the altar with Sue Teacher’s hands on my head, why not entertain, just for a moment, the belief that the Spirit has animated her heart, mind and hands and is permeating into my body, making my thighs and calves feel jittery, causing me to tighten my shoulders and close my eyes. It is filling my body with hot coffee, pouring it in from the toes, up to the top of my head, capping me in warm foam, sending a delightful jitter into all my nerves. I am not just a person who drinks the drink anymore. I am the vessel in which the drink is poured and I contain all the caffeinated, alcoholic stimulants in the world without ever taking a sip. Who would not want to avail themselves of this feeling? Why aren’t all the bored teenagers and lusty old men of the world lining up for this high? Why not roll over towards my husband in bed with me and say, “Hey, feel like getting slain in the Spirit tonight?” If he had felt what I just felt, he would not say no.

I want the Charismatic experience to be authentic. I long for some psychic subrealm that allows unselfconscious and physical communication between God and me. And if this communication can be won with third party intervention, this intermediary laying-on-of-hands, rather than by my own concentration and spiritual discipline, all the better.

Yet, I remain a skeptic. I held my ground. I did not fall down. Is the warmth of someone’s hands on my head enough to give me chills? Is the intimacy of this little woman whispering in my ear, “Come back to me, My Child,” enough to bring tears to my eyes?

The Father of Mercy said that two things occur that let us know the Spirit is working: warmth and tears. The tears are a sign of compunction—knowledge of our sins has pierced our hearts, punctured them, so to speak, and the tears are a fruit of the Spirit that confirm God has answered our prayers.

So Pedge and I watched as the Father of Mercy, Father Crotty, was his name, went down the row at the Women’s Conference, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of the faithful was slain in the spirit. Shoot.

Again, I approached the altar thinking, “I will not fall down.” And Father Crotty brought the Cross to my brow, and with his thumb on my forehead exerted enough force that had I room, I would have stepped back. Being that there was a chair behind me, I had no choice then but to fall into it. Slain in the Spirit, eh? I wanted to yell out: “This is a farce!”

We went back to our seats, and I confirmed with Pedge that he had also pushed on her forehead. “Aren’t you mad?” I asked. “I feel like any openness I had to this charism just went out the window.”

Pedge was circumspect, “I think it’s very possible that I have been healed of something in my life that needs healing and I just don’t know it yet.”

Father Crotty finished the healing portion of his ministry, and went on to explain that if we felt pressured, maybe we just need a little more docility to the Spirit. The Spirit has not been active in the Catholic Church like this for hundreds of years. It’s no wonder it seems foreign to us. We don’t recognize what the activity of the Holy Spirit is supposed to look like. We are stubborn and set against it. Maybe we need a little cajoling.

And I’ll admit, the idea that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles like a flame on a candle wick is a little less believable than the idea that the Power of God made the Apostles drunk, speaking languages that they did not know, consuming them body and soul.

“Preparation,” said Father Crotty. “This day is about preparation. Don’t doubt just because you didn’t FEEL anything. The Holy Spirit has descended upon you, and you will understand later just how.”

Last night I sang my kids to sleep with the song “Our God is an Awesome God.” My own musical spirituality tends more towards “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” but one of my sons, the one who balks at making the Sign of the Cross, and says, “Stupid, stupid” when I sing “Hail Holy Queen,” requested it and knew every single word of this song having heard it only once, maybe twice.

“Thunder in his footsteps and lightning in his fists;” it makes God sound like a super hero, so I’m not surprised it stuck with him. Where I forgot the words, he filled in the lyrics, “…Not just putting on the ritz--I love that part. It makes me think of crackers,” he said. In some ways, it fits perfectly with his little boy perspective—but for him to sing, for ME to sing, with our hands and voices raised like this, not even making fun of anyone, is just shockingly, shockingly uncharacteristic.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Still Undressing...not necessarily with dignity

It's weird how I somehow feel better seeing my name in your post, as if I matter more because you mentioned me in cyberspace. I'm only saying that to affirm that we do all need community and we seem to be on this eternal search to see if we matter.

I probably need to warn my family off of this one, because I do have these experiences from my past that I feel compelled to mine, now that some time has passed and I can see them (sort of) objectively. You see, when I mentioned in a post that I posed in an undershirt to be painted for Karly Whitaker’s senior art thesis, I actually didn’t pose in an undershirt. I posed in my birthday suit (Sorry, Mom, it’s true).

It’s traditional for artists to use live models for their work. And in college, Karly and I used to get together on Sunday evenings for a figure drawing class at the college art center, where the university paid for a live nude model. At these sessions, we began to discuss the possibility of my posing for Karly’s thesis. In my youth, I operated under the mistaken assumption that in order to be a writer, you had to EXPERIENCE things in order to write about them. Not surprisingly, I produced volumes of tortured memoir. I thought as well that if I could be represented, or immortalized, not only in my own work, but in someone else’s, then I could prove that I mattered.

I was unprepared for the fact that the experience of artistic nudity is by nature an act of objectification. The artist evaluates you on the basis of color, shape, or composition. And it didn’t matter how much of my soul I tried to project to Karly. I would end up a two dimensional image on a canvas.

I should have known better. Some parts of my tortured memoir are worth revisiting. Here’s an excerpt:

“Karly and I drew yesterday. We had a nude model, emaciated and tattooed with shaved vital parts and piercings. I drew her upside down with her knees tucked under, her hair blending with the folds of the blanket on which she sprawled, her ribs and hip bones protruding out of the gray background. I stared at her for a long time attempting to convert her body into shapes and lines. I imagined myself in her position, curled up for warmth between poses, fiddling with the heater and the lamps, trying to ignore the interrogation of the artist's eye—breasts, armpits, naval, inner thigh—all under the same wonderful scrutiny—the scrutiny of interpreting something exclusively for its shape.

When the model left, I stood in front of the mirror to draw myself. The shape I drew was rounder, with satisfying curves, and yet somehow one-dimensional and improperly shaded. I could not turn my own shapes into real life. I could not scrutinize myself.

M (Former boyfriend) apparently obsessed all day that Karly and I were posing for each other, which honestly, has come up in conversation more than once. M thinks that permission to view the body is reserved for people who are intimate with each other, and I like it that he cares. But I still want Karly to draw me in her fluid charcoal lines and make me look beautiful. As M put it, I want to be the center of attention—just not critical attention. Devoted unwavering adoration of need to find faults. Just draw me! Draw my breasts, armpits, naval, and inner thigh. Watch me as I circle the room bathing in the glow of the maglite!”

At that time in my life, I would look anywhere for redemption, except where I needed to look. Ex-boyfriend so keenly pointed out that the spotlight I directed towards myself was a maglite (a flashlight), when what I wanted was the high-beam spotlight of the masses. Ultimately I would come to know, and gain satisfaction with the even brighter sun of God’s love and acceptance, but I’m ashamed to admit that there was a time when even that was not enough for me, because my sin prevented me from understanding its reality. What I really wanted was to be famous, but if I couldn’t have that, I suppose I would just have to be satisfied with the love of God.

I want to say that there are licit means for Christians to provide one another with affirmation, and indeed there are (friendship, service to our families and one another, and through the purification of our art, music and writing, etc.)—but I cannot count on them nor be satisfied with them alone. The bottom line is that I have to kill the narcissism that supplants the sufficiency of God’s love.

Yes, I want to matter. But immortalization through art, through writing, through blogging, what have you, is a flawed endeavor, I have to remind myself. As with tattoos, the final image, or the reflected image is an incomplete picture, lovely though it may be. But God sees all: the naval, the armpits, the doubts, the restless seeking, the betrayals, the ingratitude, and he loves us still. God has provided us with the most profound and sublime affirmation, and yet every so often, I still seek a lesser one.

“What man needs is a communion that goes beyond that of the collective; a unity that reaches deep into the heart of man and endures even in death. . . Man cannot identify himself with God, but God has identified himself with man—that is the content of the communion that is offered us in the Eucharist. A communio that offers less offers too little.”—Pope Benedict XVI

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Undressing with Dignity

I’m still mulling over the rituals of Holy Week, in particular, the Holy Thursday washing of the feet. I realize that many parishes take advantage of this ritual to include women and children in the liturgy, but I’m glad that my Parish adheres closely to the tradition that Jesus set for us by choosing twelve men from the Parish to represent the twelve apostles. This ritual combined with the average modern male makes for some interesting alchemy.

We are used to seeing women's feet at Mass: sandals, flip flops, the mysterious smell wafting up from under the pew when the woman behind you has slipped off her uncomfortable pump. Our music minister removes her shoes to play the organ, and occasionally leads the Responsorial Psalm in her bare feet.

The men of Jesus’s day would have worn sandals so their feet, calloused and dirty, would have been accustomed to exposure. The typical modern man, however, no matter his field of employment, does not usually expose his feet unless he’s on vacation. While a woman may prepare her feet for the public at the first hint of Spring, a man removing his shoes and socks on Holy Thursday, exposes skin that appears to have been sealed in a plaster cast for many weeks.

Pasty, flakey, pale and moist, a man’s feet often look more vulnerable than a new born’s. The act of exposing them for washing suggests that even though a man has been washed in Baptism, typically as an infant, here is some part of him that as an adult rarely sees the light of day. He now offers it to Christ and the entire Parish for exposure and purification.

It is profoundly humbling—not only, I imagine, for the men sitting in front of the Parish, but for those of us watching from the pews. One can’t help but notice that the rosy cheeked lector, who always dresses in a sharp and tight business suit for his participation in the liturgy, has dirty socks.

The act of dressing or undressing is a private activity. There is a reason that the doctor leaves the room when you undress and wrap yourself in a paper drape for an examination. The privacy of the dressing activity is a statement of its dignity.

I’m reminded of the scene in “Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath” by Sigrid Undset, in which Kristin’s betrothed, Simon, discovering her in a tryst with her lover, attempts to salvage what’s left of her honor by demanding she leave with him. She pauses for a moment to consider her removed garments:

“Kristin rose obediently. She fastened her cloak around her. Her shoes stood next to the bed; she remembered them, but didn’t have the courage to put them on with Simon watching.”

She has already been caught and witnessed in her shame, but to stoop down and fasten her shoes in front of Simon is too much. She would rather walk in the muck and ice shoeless.

As the men of the Parish remove shoes and a socks, and the priest stoops to wash the exposed feet, the converse of Kristin’s pride plays out. The men bend down to work the sock slowly back over their wet feet while we all watch. They have been exposed and washed, while we all witnessed. I want to avert my eyes for them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Who Stole My Jesus?

“They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” (Jn 20: 1-9)

I’ve mentioned once or twice that I lost my faith while I was in college. I arrived on campus thinking my faith was invincible, and within months, it was gone. Reasons for my loss of faith could be compiled in a book-length manuscript, and indeed, are compiled in a book-length manuscript, which I turned in for my senior thesis, but those reasons amounted to one theme: My sin.

I received high marks on my thesis, because it read like a novel about an idealistic young woman who embarks on a series of ill-fated relationships, falls under the tutelage of several enlightened college professors, alienates her family by writing a play about their Christian hypocrisy (which she has staged in the alternative student theater), and ends her undergraduate career so depressed and obsessed with the gray shades of humanity that she has no options left for happiness but the vague thought of running off to a nunnery (she is enamored with the nun/whore dichotomy, after all).

At this point in my history, I graduate from college, cut ties with everyone in my former life, except for my family, with whom I am reconciled, and make the leap into a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. It was the most dramatic thing a young heroine could do, and I’m happy to say that God used my propensity for drama to put me exactly where I needed to be.

Through Sacrament and reconciliation, I gained the correct feeling of detestation for my sins. But I also felt anger towards everyone who enabled them. Boyfriends, professors, friends and innocent bystanders were all condemned. They had wanted to see me stripped of my idealism. They had wanted to see me fail. They had stolen my Jesus, left my heart a tomb, and sent me racing frantically across the country in search of Him.

It had to be done.

I am slowly becoming grateful for the people of my past who allowed, encouraged or witnessed my fall. They did not steal my Jesus. They ultimately helped me to discover the Risen Christ. I had spent years feeling crushed by my repetitive failures. I had spent years trying to excuse my sin, or rewrite how I felt about it, or blame others for it, when I needed only to have my sin redeemed by a love I had not yet truly known.

One’s history leaves an indelible scar on the soul. My past has reared its head at various points in my marriage. It has resurfaced at times in my relationships with family members I once or twice wounded. It has had to be dealt with regularly, and privately, and sometimes publicly. But we are incarnate beings. One can no more erase years of one’s life than they can erase the “Catholic guilt” or the effects of sin.

I wish I could say that I never sinned again after my reversion. I wish I could say that I never sinned mortally. I wish I could say that my marriage has been a safe haven from any sort of temptation, and that all of my writing now gives glory and praise to God. But I cannot. I can only say that I now have a Redeemer for my sin, for my married life, for my motherhood, and for my writing. No small statement.

“O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

Pentimento has a beautiful post examining the use of memory.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What I'm Not Reading:

In the spirit of sacrifice, I'd like to share with you a few books I HAVE NOT been reading. It's possible Google is making me Stoopid. It's possible my attention span has shortened. It's possible I'm in writing mode rather than reading mode. It's possible modern literature is to blame, but for the life of me, I cannot finish a book lately.

When my husband and I married, I was very snobbish about what I chose to read. At the age of twenty four, life was too short to waste time on anything but the classics. And I would not dream of abandoning a book before I'd read every last page. In the subsequent years, delving deeper into this Orthodox Catholic subculture, I ran into many Catholics who would not read anything written after 1940 unless it was spiritual reading with an imprimatur. Being an equal opportunity reader seemed like sort of a safe rebellion for my contrary soul.

I began to read Oprah books, chick lit books, modern literary fiction, biographies. One day my husband told me that he liked me better when I only read the classics because I'd become such an unsatisfied hunter. When you read modern fiction, you have to be able to put a book down when it's not working. Only one in every ten books you pick up is worth savoring every word--if that. And so I'm always looking, always hoping that the next book I open will be one I don't want to close.

For your reference, my definition of a "new release" coincides with that of my small town library, which is, anything written in the past fifteen years.

In no particular order, here are the new releases I have opened, and since closed (also, I realize that book titles should be underlined, but I don't know how to underline in blogger, so quotes will have to do):

1. "Christ the Lord" by Anne Rice: Please, someone tell me, is this a good book or are we just excited that a former vampire novelist has converted to Catholicism? I gave it fifty pages, and could not uncover the answer.
2. "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Ecco is probably not a new release even by my definition. And I didn't get past the prologue--which begs the question: "WHY PROLOGUE?" They are always boring, and if there's one little piece of information that I will need in order to understand the next 900 pages, please give it to me in the first paragraph of Chapter 1.
3. "Ten Days in the Hills" by Jane Smiley. After "A Thousand Acres" I hoped for a Jane Smiley marathon, planned to whiz through all of her novels and maintain a reading high for several months. The first fifty pages of Ten Days are pure literary pornography, which I admit, I tolerated for far too long. There was some interesting dialogue in a couple of scenes, and all of the sex was in context, but still very graphic---and also incapable of salvaging the fact that the plot failed to present within the first 100 pages. I don't really care that it's supposedly a modern rewrite of The Decameron; it still needs a little motion (besides sex).
4. "Bergdorf Blondes" by Plum Sykes: I found this at Goodwill and thought it might lighten my mood while I walked on the treadmill. I read five pages. Insipid.
5. "I Don't Know How She Does It" by Allison Pearson: I wanted to read about a bad mother so that I might feel better about myself, but in a scene where she sprinkles store bought cookies with powdered sugar in order to make them look homemade for a school function, I just couldn't imagine caring whether or not my cookies were homemade.
6. "The Stand" by Stephen King: my brother-in-law said I should read it, and I checked it out so we'd have something to talk about, but I chickened out due to the length and the dark cover which made me think I'd be basking in darkness for far too long if I actually read it. Not to mention the fact that I'd inadvertantly picked up an expanded version--has he no humility?

The following books weren't torture, and maybe I'll come back to them because someone recommended them to me, or they have notable authors:

7. "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke: I read 600 pages out of over 1000 which made putting this book down a considerable loss of investment. But I realized I was looking for excuses to avoid it. It made me feel guilty. And rather than lugging it around for the next three years, as I did with "Anne of Avonlea" in the sixth grade, I decided to cut my losses.
8. "Fugitive Pieces" by Anne Michaels: I've tried several times to read this book. Recently my mom saw the movie and said it was wonderful, so I picked up the book again--still no go.
9. "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth: I think you're either a Roth fan or you're not and I don't think I am. But maybe I'll try something else.

A non-related literary pet-peeve: Why are so many recent books named for someone's daughter? ex: The Storyteller's Daughter, The Alchemist's Daughter, The Abortionist's Daughter, blah blah blah. Dumb trend.

And now, the one book in ten that I finished:

"Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout
This is a collection of short stories in which a middle aged woman named Olive appears. She's an interesting character, even if her entrance into each short story feels a little stilted. For instance, a young man sits in his car contemplating suicide when his grade school teacher (Olive) knocks on his window. But the stories are good, and one should consider my completion of this book a strong recommendation.

Currently undecided:
"Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" by Brad Gooch: So far, so snore, but I want to like it, so I'm still trying.
"The Women" by TC Boyle is waiting in the wings.

Just for kicks, The Wall Street Journal recently asked how many pages you read before giving up on a book. How about it?

A Related Article at Bookslut

Monday, April 6, 2009

Giving up nouns for Lent

It’s always around this time of year that I wish I had given up a noun rather than a verb for Lent, some thing, some arbitrary thing that in and of itself is not bad, but would just be a concrete thing to sacrifice, so that on Easter Sunday, I can partake of it after forty days of abstinence, and mark the end of the Sacrificial Season.

It is good to give up bad habits, like arguing, for Lent. It is good to do more positive things like praying early in the morning. The only problem is that if something is worth doing or not doing during Lent, then it’s worth continuing the practice after Lent.

When I was growing up, my whole family gave up sweets for Lent. My mom did a super cleansing of everything in the house containing sugar, and if we were still hungry after dinner we had to eat something like yogurt. There was always much discussion about whether or not certain foods were sweets, like sugar free pudding—sweet or not a sweet? It has no sugar, and milk is good for you, but it tastes good. Is jelly on one’s peanut butter sandwich a sweet? Technically it’s a condiment, but it’s full of sugar.

These perennial discussions annoyed me in their legalism, as my mom and dad hashed out every item they put in their mouths—which is why, as an adult, I’ve sort of avoided the practice of giving up sweets. Not to mention that come Easter Sunday, my siblings and I would hoover the Cadbury eggs until we fell into a coma.

But here, at the end of Lent, I wish there were something more concrete to signify the end of the forty days. On Easter Sunday morning, I’m not going to wake up and say, “Alleluia! I don’t have to pray this morning!” Nor am I going to spend the day arguing just because I haven’t done it in awhile.

It seems like finding the right thing to sacrifice means finding something that has the quality of luxury. It isn’t essentially good or bad. It is just something I enjoy, of which for forty days, I will postpone enjoyment. I seek a standard of measurement and a signifier that the forty days is over and the Season of Celebration has begun. The Church in her wisdom has supplied us with practices like abstinence from meat. Do I think I’m more wise, more noble than this 2000 year-old institution when I choose some “loftier” personal sacrifice than these mere things?

When I was on the precipice of my reversion back to Catholicism, I spoke to a priest about all my questions. For every teaching of the Church, I had a "But what about (fill in the blank)?" statement to make. I kept thinking I could throw a wrench into his thinking, stump him, and in so doing relieve myself of the burden of this faith (it felt like a burden at the time).

After answering a few of my questions, and realizing I always had another complication to follow the last one, he finally smiled at me and said, "Just be simple." His words held such weight, because this particular priest was anything but simple. I'd sought him out specifically, because I knew he had an appreciation for the complexities of life.

If this particular priest could "be simple" then I had my first inkling that there was some value in the practice of obedience. Some practices of the Church may seem too trivial, too picky to be of any value. Tempting to say, "Well what does the Church know about that?" And I've so often heard obstacles to teachings of the faith framed in reference to the age and gender of the heirarchy of the Church. "What do a bunch of old celibate men know about marriage?" for instance.

The fact is, they don't have to know anything about marriage, though they frequently prove quite wise on the subject. Either the teachings of the Church are inspired by the Holy Spirit, or they're not. If they are, then my obedience to those teachings will be blessed with the light of faith. In practice, comes understanding.

And in this case, as is so often the case, my nonconformance to the standards set by the Church has left me with an empty feeling in my gut, here at the end of Lent.

(P.S. BY NO MEANS am I trying to dismiss the reason on which the teachings of the Church are based. Only saying, if I don't understand it, I'm probably complicating it--because the teachings are so reasonable.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

From the Archives: The Voice of Disdain

Sort of fun to see where I was in Lents past.

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 out 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. Pope Benedict XI, in a December 8, 2005 Homily, said:

"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 of autobiographical essays, 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 it. 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 to model for my kids that “sensitive, benevolent and open” behavior, I guess I thought they would spontaneously develop in spite of me.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

T.C. Boyle and Me

Deprivation can make many a dull thing a delight. In my convent days, we ate so many stale muffins and leftover casseroles that a First Class Feast Day with volcanic lava ice cream felt like Heaven. For your reference, volcanic lava was a discontinued flavor at Powder Mill Creamery consisting of cookie dough “rocks,” peanut butter “spumes” and a large quantity of red dye. I suppose, as a flavor, it was anything but dull, but in its essence, it was still, just a bowl of ice cream, not fois gras or filet mignon.

In my current life, spending my days with diapers and cereal has managed to turn something like attending a poetry reading, or a lecture into a very naughty indulgence, which is why I’m still on cloud nine this morning, having spent last night hearing T.C. Boyle read selected short stories at Butler University.

Normally, on Wednesday nights, I teach a Catechism class at my Parish, but class was canceled this week, which opened up my night to a number of different possibilities. The hot ticket for Catholics in my neck of the woods is the “Spaghetti and Spirituality” night at Holy Rosary Parish, where you can enjoy a meatless pasta dish and a lecture given by a preeminent Catholic thinker. Last night’s talk featured Dr. Ray Guarendi, clinical psychologist, father of ten, and dispenser of parenting wisdom.

Very hot, indeed.

It almost felt like a sin, but I opted to pass on “Spaghetti and Spirituality” and go hear one of my favorite authors spin a few yarns (Even hotter). Such a rare feast is a reading for me that it seemed worthy of indulging in a little personal hygiene. I inserted my contact lenses, though in hindsight, my glasses would have provided me more intellectual credibility. I addressed the remnant of last fall’s application of toe nail polish, now floating like a disembodied continent on each big toe. I wore my best muffin shoes with a body elongating wedge heel.

I was accompanied by my cousin Rachel, her friend, E, my four month old baby in a sling, a gambling heart, and a solemn prayer that my baby would nurse without heavy breathing or gulping and drift off to sand-land. There are more kid-friendly places to take a nursing baby than a literary reading on a college campus. My son elicited a number of concerned glances from the crowd of middle age writer wannabes, and college students in pajamas, there for extra credit. At Spaghetti and Spirituality, I could have been certain that a number of nurslings would be chortling and bouncing in their mother’s arms along the back wall of the auditorium.

My gamble paid off, however. My son was an angel, and made me look like a mother with a magic touch. He made exactly one noise before sticking his thumb in his mouth and falling asleep (God bless thumbsuckers). Then I was free to relax my clenched shoulders, close my own eyes and see the stories in my head.

We could talk about T.C. Boyle’s stories here, but they speak for themselves if you ever pick up one of his books (“The Devil and Irv Cherneske” was anthologized in the Best American Catholic Short Stories). What I want to talk about is the heart racing, endorphin rushing near collapse of meeting a moderate to highly famous personage and personal idol. What is it about people who have managed to perfect their craft and achieve success in the field to which one aspires that causes such bodily trauma?

By outward appearances, he’s a grasshopper-legged, frizzy-haired genius, but at his best, he’s another child of God like me. Oh Christianity! Oh Great Equalizer! At the end of our lives, T.C. Boyle and I will be judged by the same rule. It seems impossible. He’s the filet mignon to my volcanic lava, but in the end, we’re both stool.

I tried to keep this thought in mind when I lined up to have him sign my book. And here, though my legs trembled and my mind turned mushy, my sleeping baby proved to be an enormous trump card. “I see his fontanelle,” said Mr. Boyle to me. “That’s always freaked me out.”

“Yes,” I answered. “Sometimes you can see his heart beating in it.”

“Cool.” Then grasping my book, “Should I make it to him?”


And he wrote, “Dear P. Grow up quickly. We need you. (indecipherable signature).”

I thanked him, and smiling dumbly walked out to my car thinking, “ ‘Grow up quickly. We need you’…What the heck does he mean?”