Betty Duffy

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Repressed Sanguine

Found this in an old diary:

I had been thinking all this time that I am a Sanguine-Melancholic, but since “The Temperament God Gave You” book says this would make me a schizophrenic, I’ve had to re-evaluate. Am I more introverted or extraverted? Pessimistic or optimistic? Quick to react, or slow to react? Two out of three responses point to sanguine. And admittedly, in my youth, these attributes were much more clear.

What kind of person wants to be alone for two out of three days, but will practically die if she doesn’t have something to do on day three? I deliberate on matters of great importance, and make snap decisions on everything else. I desire social life, but also find it tiring and sometimes not worth the work. So maybe, I’m just a lazy sanguine who’s picky about her company, but needs it none-the-less. I do feel my best when I’m active, have a lot to do, and an adoring audience to watch me do it.

How could I ever think I was melancholic? Because motherhood interferes with my fun and makes me glum sometimes. Because my audience more often than not is un-adoring. Because I have learned that it’s never flattering for a fat woman to be a show-boater, so I don’t get to flash my jazz hands as often as I’d like. Because I admire my melancholic sister and have endeavored to obtain some of her interest in reading, writing and thinking.

I am vain enough to think it’s cool to be a quiet thinker. It is an affect I started to cultivate, probably around seventh grade. I used to practice staring for long periods of time to make people think I was deep in thought, but my deep thoughts were something akin to: “Don’t people think I’m deep? Who’s watching me stare into space?”

If I have any quality that appears to be wisdom, it is only my unfailing honesty. I must tell the truth, no matter how ugly, and if that appears to others as deep perception, lucky me. But another truth, is that I am not cunning enough to discern what to share, and what not to share.

Inept Gardener

One ear of corn

One apple on my tree

Where, oh where, could my onions be?

Pumkins out my ears, and cucumber from my nose

Then suddenly...



Monday, August 24, 2009

Spiritual Oneupsmanship

Coming into our marriage, I assumed that I was more spiritually advanced than my husband. I’d lived a year in poverty, chastity and obedience after all—an entire year of daily Mass, Rosary, and Benediction, plus frequent retreats, and a virtually guaranteed life of grace. Meanwhile, my husband was just a (crinkling nose) Sunday Mass Catholic.

Once or twice I thought that he was holding me back, that if he just went to one more meeting a week, one more retreat, then we could leap into our status as a spiritual power couple, one that sits in the front pews at Church with perfect kids saying the responses with such sincerity and volume as to edify everyone in the Parish.

I wanted to be the kind of couple whose spontaneous prayer flowed from our lips at every turn (“Let’s just pray about this…”). And I wanted him to initiate it—even though I married him with full knowledge that he was not comfortable with this kind of prayer. I thought it was his responsibility as the spiritual head of the family to acquire it and henceforth, to lead us all as I saw fit.

Well, none of that happened. He just would not agree to be as Holy as I was—didn’t matter how I poked, prodded, or complained. And, being the spiritual giant that I am, I threw tantrums, deciding that if he wouldn’t be Holy then neither would I. Genius, to think that if nagging wouldn’t work then being irritable and bitchy would.

But what is marriage if not a growing up together? Maybe it was a matter of growing in maturity and experience, for me to realize that a person with free will, when yanked upon, will pull back with an equal opposite force. The more I hounded him, the less interest he took in matters of a spiritual nature, so that it’s quite possible that by association with my nagging, he lost what interest he had. And for me, too, prayer became something conflicted:

“If we have unrealistic expectations of others, our spouse, our kids, we probably have unrealistic expectations of prayer. If we are nitpicky fault-finders, we think that is how God will be with us. Who wants to go to prayer to be nitpicked? If we appreciate others and enjoy their presence, their good and bad, we will know that prayer is not always a perfect scenario, but is good and necessary.” (****)

Somewhere along the way I thankfully learned that prayer does not win me anything in a spiritual competition with my husband. There was no sudden epiphany that led to this realization—only the passage of time for me to observe that my prayer did not accrue value or interest as the days passed. It didn’t propel me forward in advance of others. And the many retreats I attended and prayers I said didn’t really set me forward in virtue over my husband either. While I cleaned out some of the less savory physical elements of my life, my interior disposition was saturated with pride and self-righteousness. At nearly every retreat or spiritual talk I attended, I thought, “My husband really needs to hear this” rather than “How can I apply this to my life?”

Here’s another gem from Father Giertych’s retreat:

“In talking about religious life, men can focus more on the priesthood rather than their consecration, but women can sometimes focus more on the practices of the religious life rather than the consecration to God. Consecration is what matters—assiduous union with God in prayer.”

All the events of the past few weeks point to this idea of consecration in my married life—making my prayer a reciprocation of the love I first received from God, and making sacred all the irritable little aspects of my day.

For many years, I have referred to my prayer life as my “commitments,” and each day, I have measured them out, weighing the value of my day based on how many of my commitments I accomplished. It’s no wonder, with such a list, and such value ascribed to completing it, that I have looked down my nose at anyone who doesn’t share my accomplishments—and that I have beat myself up when I “fail” at them. When I view prayer as a reciprocal relationship with my Creator, not only is it impossible to fail at it, there’s no way of comparing it with anyone else’s prayer.

And concerning changing one’s husband, I overheard a conversation between my cousin and my aunt a few weeks ago:

Cousin says: “Here comes Dad barreling down the driveway again when his grandchildren are here. Can you please tell him to slow down?”

Aunt: “I can’t change him! He won’t listen to me! He’s seventy years old, and he has not once paid any attention to my pleas for change.”

If anyone’s marriage works otherwise, I would love to see it in action.

(****This is a paraphrase from a retreat given by a Legionary priest several years ago. Wish I could remember which one.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Eulogy for Nothing Important

Ever since I was a little girl, I could get chills from listening to certain librarians and sales people when they spoke in lilting rehearsed voices, while smoothing a page in front of them with a dry palm. If they sucked their teeth or swallowed frequently, so much the better. Without being touched, I felt like I was receiving a fully body massage from their palmy, tactile, dry-mouth demeanor.

Gently lift the book to read. Turn the pictures toward the listeners and oscillate from right to left. Flip through the stack of papers, find a quote. Read it, then pause. Allow the silence to sink in. Words, paper, silence—they’re so titillating.

I just received one of these virtual massages from a La-Z-Boy salesman at the local furniture store. I’d been to the library with a list of titles I needed. Back in elementary school, if I needed a book, Mrs. Maudlin, the school librarian, would have taken me to the card catalog and gently flipped through the cards, sucking her teeth and humming, while I stood by her side shivering in her grace. The utterly un-graceful adolescent at our local library asked, “How do you spell that?” and typed the letters one at a time into the computer. “No—it’s not in here. You wanna fill out a request?” No chills, no books, just meager, improvised service.

So I walked next door to the furniture store, just to see what they were about, and before I know it, I’m in the trance of a paper-rubbing, fabric sampling couch salesman. He has a spiel, used on many a local housewife, taking stock of the number of children in my household, and whether I prefer a classic or modern style. Yes, a fine leather is softer, smoother, feel it. But you’ll pay for it. No worries. I’ll just sit here for an hour or so, and feel the chills while you sell me. Work hard at it. Write down quotes for grade F1 and G1, and embossed leathers, and rub your hand over them as many times as you want. Then go ahead and swallow that saliva, dry your mouth out while I sample the leathers myself.

Not much of a point here. I didn't get my books. I didn't buy a couch. I suppose this post is a eulogy for the card catalog, for story hour, for the trained librarian, and for the back rub, dammit.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Muddling Through

Last week I checked out a DVD of Pride and Prejudice at the library and watched it over the course of two days. I watched the bonus DVD with actor interviews and details on the making of the movie. I read the included book that chronicled all the same information. And when it came time to return the movie and all its parts, I felt my mood drop from a considerable altitude into a feeling of complete desolation. Suddenly nothing was good. There were no empire waist dresses in my life, no witty communications, and there were certainly no Mr. Darcys.

The feeling was temporary. It lasted a couple of hours, during which time I called my sister to complain that my life was not a Jane Austen novel. She had recently completed another military move, and was struggling to get her footing in a new location with her six children. “Don’t you think that’s a universal feeling?” she said, “I’d just been envying you, being able to put down roots with your little house by Mom and Dad.”

And of course it’s a universal feeling: everyone else is having a good time while I’m not. It’s the chronic existential loneliness that rears its head when I am cut off from the vine. I’ve felt the looming darkness coming on for a long time—I could postpone it by continuing to do enjoyable things, like renting romantic movies. But the movies end, and then I have to deal with the fact that this summer has been a spiritual train wreck for me.

It starts when I don’t have a schedule, no imminent need to get dressed. Noon rolls around and I’m polishing off a carafe of coffee in my nightgown. One can hardly consider going to daily Mass in such a torpor. My Catechism class was on hold for the summer, and weekly meetings I attended for accountability and prayer dissipated in the summer haze. All of my support networks went on vacation, and so did my prayer life. It’s no wonder I found myself in such a muddle when it came time to make a decision about school for my kids.

As Lisa, a commenter on a recent post notes:

It's so hard to know which way we think must be God's plan and which way really is. Since He just will not send us a post card we pray. watch. pray some more. step back and look at the big picture. pray some more. tweak as necessary or about-face when needed.

I want to say that we are all just sort of muddling through life, hoping decisions are inspired, or feeling inspirations of the Holy Spirit and then second guessing them, but my muddle is a little different, because slowly, this summer, my gaze has turned from God towards my naval.

pray. watch. pray some more. step back and look at the big picture. pray some more. tweak as necessary or about-face when needed.

How many times have I been here? How many times have I allowed the outward appearances of my life, as the mother of a large Mass attending Catholic family to mask the ugly truth—that I am running in circles around myself and my desires—not really praying at all? Then, when faced with a larger decision, I systematically choose the most difficult path to compensate for my lack of prayer and discernment.

And so out of the existential abyss, crawls the demon of discouragement.

Commenter, Anonymous II, had a wonderful response to discouragement in living the Christian life:

“I'm allergic to the idea of "religion as hobby". But where I think I went wrong was to think that therefore consolation is only for hobbyists. But consolation is really not optional, even the consolation merely of recognizing that God loves us even if we don't feel His love.

Reverence, not strength, is prized: (Psalm 147) “God’s delight is not in horses / nor his pleasure in warriors’ strength. The Lord delights in those who revere him, in those who wait for his love.”

Anonymous II goes on to quote a Russian martyr of the 20th century, Maria of Gatchina:

"…what a great consolation it is to realize that your discouragement is the unacknowledged fruit of repentance, an unconscious self-chastisement for the absence of the fruits that are demanded...From this thought one should come to contrition, and then the depression gradually melts and the true fruits of repentance will be conceived."”

In the midst of my muddle, I do feel deeply the presence of God’s love in my life, as evidenced in the reflective comments and insights to my question, the living witness of one life to another.

My cousin, a Domenican nun, just sent home a letter in which she detailed highlights from a retreat with Father Giertych, theologian of the papal household:

“Mary’s confusion at the Annunciation reflects her spiritual poverty. We always experience confusion and perplexity when God descends into our lives. These purifications are passive—God is causing the growth by bringing about some crisis in our lives, in the Church, etc. We use these experiences as a trampoline to bounce off of and land in the arms of Jesus.”

“Sanctity is not moral perfection, or success (a heresy of Americanism, he said), or psychic maturity, all of which are focused on the self. Instead, it is the meeting of our weakness with God, who loves us.”

This is not to excuse my spiritual murkiness this summer--but clearly, God has descended into my life, and it's time for another about face.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Being a Witness to the Lives of Others

The following is an excerpt from an email exchange with a friend from college. We hadn't spoken in over ten years--not for any particular reason, but because people get lost after college.

The letter concerns the quality of being a witness to the lives of others. I've been puzzling for awhile about the value of exposing our lives to one another, in a marriage, in friendship, in a blog:

You talked about keeping a journal, and how it feels pointless when it doesn't culminate in anything. As you know, my senior thesis was more or less the diary of my life that year--and that STORY, that I thought would be the culmination and pinnacle of my experience. You have no idea how many times I've reread that, rewritten it, tried to turn it into something else, or viewed it as someone else's history. I have pretended it's fiction, that it is a novel, and I suppressed the memories as they actually occurred to me.

When I experienced my "reversion," I thought that breaking with my sinfulness was also a breaking with my history and the people who were witness to my sin. What feels so good about talking to you, is that I feel like I can reclaim all of that history. That history was mine, those things happened to me, and I know it, I can prove it, because YOU were there too.

Again and again, God keeps driving this point home to me, that life is relational, that there is value in community, the public, the giving witness to one another, the holding accountable, the supporting, and the challenging--as painful as all of that can be sometimes.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Laying My Mediocrity on the Table

In college, I was obsessed with extremes. Things had to be all good, or all bad. Faith was either impossible or it was an all out change of lifestyle and location. Several academic mentors tried to tell me that the spiritual life could be sort of a middle road, not an extreme—and I was appalled at the thought. Mediocrity scared me. I did not want to pick and choose what I would believe and practice. It would be all or nothing, whatever I did.

A professor of mine was good friends with an Episcopal Priest in Boston, and got me a job as nanny and personal assistant to the priest’s family and children. I would live on a piece of prime Boston real estate, cook dinners for the family, help the kids with their homework, write during the day, and spend the year being sort of an understudy of the spiritual “middle road,” where I could get comfortable with a level of moral ambiguity.

At the last minute, before starting the job, I went on a retreat with the Catholic Church, with Regnum Christi, to be exact, and fell passionately in love with the Christ I had glimpsed only a few times before, but had never been able to obtain—because my lifestyle, and my soul were not conducive to a cohabitation with Christ. After the retreat I decided that I could not camp out on the fringes. If I wanted to know Christ, there was no point in being a spiritual understudy in what seemed to me, a compromised Catholicity. I had experienced a living, breathing faith on that retreat, and that is where I wanted to stay. So I did.

I have mentioned before how powerful and painful the following year shaped up to be. And I have mentioned before my feelings on learning about our founder. Neither one of those issues are the fodder for this essay. What I have learned recently about myself, is that in the subsequent years, in my marriage, in my family life, in my motherhood, I have become, by virtue of my human nature, a student of the “middle road,” and not necessarily with positive results.

It begins slowly, with wanting to allow myself some indulgence, some continued communication with a culture that mocks my values. That culture is still attractive to me, even while I can’t afford its luxuries, fiscally or spiritually. It’s that old battle that all of me is in God-land except for this hand and this foot, that cannot sacrifice the luxuries nor tolerate the humiliation of being considered “out of touch” or “extremist.”

Discouragement follows, because I do not live up to my ideals, of being a patient, self-giving mother, for instance, or a dutiful housekeeper, or a forgiving, and prayerful spouse (not by any means to suggest that these are the only manifestations of a healthy Christian life). And I begin to consider activities at which I would experience undoubted success, a paid job for instance, in my field of knowledge, or simply, lowered standards on my current duties. Mediocrity is a slow and sly seducer. It is a salve for failure, a consolation prize—that at least I’m not an extremist, at least I can see things both ways, even while my heart is conflicted and I’m troubled that I’m not living up to my ideals.

To put all these nebulous thoughts into context, I’m having trouble making a decision about schooling my kids, and yes, school starts tomorrow. To make a long story short, we are faced with a decision: Either make some serious financial cutbacks and sacrifices to continue sending the kids to Catholic School or Homeschool. Either way, I am called to a greater level of self-giving, and the bottom line is that I. DON’T. WANT. TO.

I am not one of those people who think that Public Schools are evil. I am a product of public schools. I refuse to fear monger, and assume that the public schools will sabotage my children’s innocence and send our family to hell. But if the public school has only become a serious consideration because it allows me to continue living in a state of relative comfort, without any sacrifice on my part, but with the considerable sacrifice to my children of uprooting them from what they know and have come to expect, then something is wrong with my motivation.

I don’t have a conclusion to this post at the moment. But writing is how I am currently dealing with the ickiness of my mediocrity. Now that I’ve confessed, it seems I’ll need to take it to prayer.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Walking at Night

Before our marriage, my husband and I spent most of our time together outside in the dark. I lived with my parents, we both worked long days, we were trying to avoid messing around, so rather than languishing on the couch in the evening, we clocked miles walking the country roads around my parents’ house.

Our method of courtship was suitable to my husband’s personality. While I enjoy sitting across from people, making directionless conversation and eye-contact, my husband enjoys doing things, and speaks freely when he is at work. But he’s never been one to make friends via artful conversation at a coffee house, for instance. People observing our relationship from the outside might mistake his quiet for disinterest and assume that we never communicate—because even still, our best talking occurs at night, in the dark, typically right before we go to sleep. He likes to speak unobserved. And some of my favorite spousal conversations are wordless; holding hands in our bed, or an affectionate nudge of the feet under covers.

I mention all this because being outside at night enabled and protected our pre-marital relationship without my realizing it. We’d walked through the humid nights of late summer, and into the chilly burning whiff of fall, when he proposed to me on one of our walks. We’d cut through a field, tripping on corn stumps and clumps of dirt, and finally sat down to rest in a dried up creek bed. The moon made our breath glow in the dark. And veiled by night, with shadows on his face, I have no idea how my husband looked when he proposed. It’s one of the great mysteries of our relationship.

For some of the most pivotal moments in our relationship we've been unseen to each other, but entirely present--from those walks when we first hypothesized on beginning a marriage and family, to the dark, tactile hopefulness or fear in which each of our children were conceived. Starting a family seems to require a little voluntary blindness.

Having children and doing some time in a neighborhood that was not conducive to night rambling, we don’t get out as much after dark as we once did. We still like to sit on our porch at night, but we’ve had to sacrifice the directionless walking and talking that fostered so much early philosophizing about a future together, at least until our kids can be left alone for an hour or two. The past few days, I’ve been walking by myself at night, because I can where we now live. My first night out, I was struck with the realization, “This is night! I remember night! I love being out at night!”

Aside from turning out the kitchen lights and putting kids to bed, what I love about night is the elevation of feeling that comes from darkening the other senses. I know many a smug morning person who will boast that lifetimes are lived before 8 a.m., but the same can be said of the world after 8 p.m. Like my husband who is liberated to speak freely unobserved, veiling the body and face and eyes in darkness allows a freedom of thought that to me is critical for creative contemplation, prayer, and a renewed belief in the general goodness of the world. Sort of funny I have to close my eyes to see it.

For a good time, read this poem:
The Country of Marriage

Monday, August 3, 2009

On the Carnality of a Rock Concert...and the Average Catholic Family

What kind of bore would I be if I really did shackle myself at home just because I’m a birth control rejecting mother of five children? What kind of ninny would I be if I really believed that everyone who enjoyed themselves at a rock concert was looking for indiscriminate sex and an escape route from their marriages and children?

So, after all my rhapsodizing on the dark cloud that follows me everywhere I go threatening to break open a shower of watermelons, I went to that concert with Pedge and had a blast. I only write a blog, after all, not legislation or church dogma. I’m free to contradict myself at any time without penalty.

It was a Dave Matthews concert at a big stadium venue with a nearby campground where stinky, past their prime, hippies follow the band cross country, dancing like the girl in red shoes, condemned to a life of interpretive-phish-style-spaghetti-armed dance moves. Joints passed by on our right, pipes on our left. Young teenagers, thinking themselves shielded by the crowd, groped each other in the darkness, though I should note that teenage groping is not symptomatic only of rock concerts. I had to break up a couple in the audience for Pope Benedict XVI in New York because they were feeling each other up in front of a group of young nuns, who, out of charity or fear, remained silent at the display of youthful immodesty.

There is something really energizing about being in a crowd of thousands, waving arms over our heads, sounding our barbaric yawps, and dancing with the unselfconsciousness that a mother of five children can surely enjoy. Not having listened to Dave Matthews much since college, I didn’t know the words to any of his songs. Here’s Pedge and I figuring them out:

Open up your mind, open up your something something, open up your mouth. It’s coming out.

“Aach ! Dave’s having a baby! What was that “something, something?” Was it “primitive?” Definitely started with a P. What’s that muscle that holds your uterus in? The perineum! Open up your perineum, Dave! (shouting)”

Every song that could become a Lamaze style labor anthem did so.

We received our only male attention from a drunk teenage Dilbert who went back and forth between trying on clumsy pick-up lines and cussing us out. As it happens, I have a son with the same name as that Dilbert, and all I could think about was my own kid, fifteen years from now, stumbling through the parking lot trying to keep his droopy eyelids from failing him before the night’s over. “Let us be warned, if we ever allow our kids to go to a rock concert, whatever ill befalls them is our own fault.”

We eked out the night after the concert in the parking lot, analyzing the carnality of Dave Matthews’ repertoire. In the context of a conversation between a thirty something married couple, the lyrics “hike up your skirt a little more,” seem sort of appropriate and even a little benign when issued behind closed doors. But for the majority of his concert attendees who were on average, fifteen years younger and unmarried, the words are titillating and probably incite all kinds of illicit behavior. Though, in my mind, the lyrics that follow, “show your world to me,” are even more dangerous. Shame on Dave Matthews for implying that the totality of a gal’s world is to be found under her skirt. But imply he did, singing with an expression of detached irony on the megatron; an eyebrow lifted, a sideways glance, a sort of smile.

Back in my own world (which has probably been shaped by the world under my skirt more than I like to admit), I found a house full of sleeping children, and a husband lying at a diagonal across the bed we share. I tapped him gently to make room for me, and fell asleep with crickets chirping in the background of my ringing ears.