Betty Duffy

Friday, October 30, 2009

Damned Ladies: In Quick takes


In the Spring we took the kids downtown for a parade, and it was so hot and sunny, I sat in the shade behind the bleachers with the baby. Near me stood two women, apparently in the “business” of looking sexy. They both had artificial boobs and impossibly skinny hips. They were “done” with manicures, pedicures, glitter on their skin, tans, fancy sunglasses and sex hair.

They were accompanied by two tan men, in their fifties, with gold bracelets, smoker’s skin and pot bellies. It was all so weird to see professionals at work. They are not civilians. All the wives nearby cast cynical glances in their direction and tattooed men ogled them with neither shame nor tact. One whisky nosed gent circled the area like a hungry lion, unable to avert his attention from the sex for sale. They are women of a different breed, set apart, for a lifetime it seems by this career path they’ve chosen.

I taught for a year at a ritzy private school here in town, where local celebrities like Bob and Tom and Isaiah Thomas sent their children. Faculty were required to sit at lunch tables with the kids, to ensure good manners and behavior, but parents also came to school often to dine with their kids.

One afternoon, I found myself sitting at table with a mum who met her CEO husband when she jumped out of his birthday cake. Here she was, years down the line, no longer in the biz, and the mother of two children. But even still, and maybe more pronounced by her Cinderella ascent into money, she was set apart by her silicone perfection. I can only imagine that marrying her former client made her perhaps doomed to a life of constant sexual performance—that her marriage was somehow a vow to the lifelong continuation of her profession, as much as to the man. At the lunch table, she pulled a small bottle of skin glitter out of her purse and dabbed it on the forearm of a little girl sitting next to her. “Isn’t it pretty?” she said.


BBC’s The World, Have Your Say, asked the question yesterday, “Is gender equality an impossible dream?” The question was fueled by this article last month on the Huffington post, suggesting that women are less happy than they were 40 years ago, while men have gained happiness over the same time period.

People calling in said, “No—it is not impossible. We just need better, affordable childcare, more equality in the workplace. We haven’t accomplished gender equality yet, but when we do, we’ll be happy.” Happiness is always just over the horizon, even as our quantifiable happiness trends downward.

I wonder why we are so reluctant to say that the women’s movement has not been as successful as we hoped. Women are less happy than they were forty years ago–perhaps because the women’s movement HAS benefited men more than women. Sex is free for men, but women still become ensnared if there is any fallout (and the polls would suggest that having more access to contraception and abortion doesn’t free us from that fallout). Motherhood has been relegated to another (often less dignified) lifestyle choice among many, when it is, in fact, a latent quality of our womanhood. If we choose to embrace that quality and stay home to raise our own children, we face isolation and disdain. If we leave our children to go to work, we do so at considerable cost to our consciences. There is conflict with any decision we might make.

Still, I'm not sure what we could do about it now, were Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to come out and say, "Sorry, we were wrong."

From a letter I wrote to a friend and Catholic dissenter:

I don’t understand why feminists desire to be the workhorses of the economy, the family, and the bedroom. And I don’t understand why they would have such an aversion to the essential qualities that make them who they are—their fertility, their femininity, ability to be mothers, which is in a deeper sense, their ability to shape humanity. Women are endowed with such power, such influence, such dignity in the Catholic faith—and they prefer a sham. I assume you are referring to the fact that they cannot be priests when you say that the church doesn’t accept women. And this, to me, is another reflection of a secular outlook which places all things masculine at the pinnacle of achievement. The priesthood is endowed with the characteristics of fatherhood and maleness—and why a woman, who is offered such a richness of feminine vocations in the church, would prefer the male ones—speaks to a loathing for what is inherently feminine that is the product of pop culture and modern feminism—not the church.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lazarus on My Doorstep

Something about Halloween bothers me. I’m not against the Holiday. It was always my favorite growing up, and my friends and I definitely trick-or-treated well into high school. Part of the fun was running around the neighborhood in the dark, smooching boyfriends, dressing up in tart outfits, and of course, the candy. Occasionally a grumpy old man would say, “You guys are too old to be trick-or-treating.” But we still felt young, and we mostly ignored the curmudgeons who would spoil our adolescent good time.

I will still give candy willingly to teenagers, as long as they are not wearing violent or graphic outfits (and even to those, I hand one meager piece of candy, just to get them off the step). But there are new trends in trick-or-treating that I’m not sure about: mainly, grown-ups, bona fide grown-ups, people my age, going door to door trick or treating. Sure, some of them will say, “It’s for my baby,” (who is asleep in the stroller, and too much trouble to remove at each house, and furthermore, if I get him out, you will see that he has no teeth and that this candy is clearly for me to eat for dinner for the next ten days).

I should be clear; this is a class issue. My husband and I moved away from a neighborhood on the near east side of Indianapolis three years ago, but my husband’s brother and his wife still live there, so that is where we go trick-or-treating. We go there because we still know a lot of our old neighbors, because we have no neighbors at our new house, and because there is a Catholic Church and school right in the middle of the neighborhood that puts on a little carnival for younger kids with trick-or-treating door to door in the classrooms of the school building. It’s a safe, one stop shop for young trick-or-treaters.

Certainly, we could drive to a more affluent neighborhood with hopes of getting more and better candy, but more and better candy for my kids is not a priority for me at Halloween. We try to stress the Eve of All Saints and All Souls days (the two holy days that follow Halloween), and also just give them the good time that the rest of America’s children enjoy.

America’s children are getting older and older. They are not growing up. They are looking for someone to feed them. And they want to be fed candy, not a warm bowl of soup.

Putting these thoughts into words, I wonder why I feel cynical about giving a piece of candy to an adult who is obviously in need of...something, while I willingly dole out treats to pampered children. My cynicism could have something to do with the fact that many of these adult trick-or-treaters are overweight. America must be the only place in the world where so many of the poor are fat. In this, I recognize my tendency towards class snobbery, and wanting to assert that the poor are somehow guilty and responsible for their own poverty, while I have knowlege that Jesus would not have troubled with assigning blame. There's no reason to expect the poor to be exempt from the original sin that affects all of humanity.

I'm only capable of ascribing the title "Blessed" to the literally starving people of the world, but for them I also feel a romanticized and certainly misguided envy that in their complete lack, they are somehow happier than I am. I want to say, "The poor you will always have with you," because we are all somehow poor. We are starving for beauty, for community, for love, and also for material support.

But I think these thoughts are a salve to me when I feel sad, like the rich young man, that I cannot (won't) give everything I own to the poor to follow Jesus. I hope that my tithe will somehow compensate for my relative wealth in relation to the truly needy and my uncertainty about how to best serve them.

I am absolutely content to consider my children the poor that I am actively called to serve, and to step over the poor man on my doorstep, or at least throw a conciliatory piece of candy in his bag and go back into the house.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Watch Us Enjoy Nature!

We brought our kids to a state park for their Fall Break. Southern Indiana is awash in yellow and orange, and the park is crawling with young families, cameras in hand. By the playground stands a large Pin Oak Tree, occasionally dropping leaves like a swarm of butterflies. A mother grabs her camera with its mega lens and begins snapping pictures while her son dances around trying to catch leaves.

Can’t help snickering to myself, “I bet she has a blog. I bet she’s going to post these photos to let everyone know that her family enjoyed nature this weekend.” As soon as I had the thought, I realized that I want to write about how we enjoyed nature this weekend.

I want to write about the hike we took through the woods with the kids, how the little ones ran ahead and got so tired they had to be carried halfway. How I plucked Sassafras leaves from the edge of the trail and nearly stuffed them up my nose to keep their scent. Would have taped one there, had I tape. My three-year-old picked up a “weaf” and decided it would be his pet, and that he would name it. Naming is on the brain lately because we’ve been trying to name our dog.

Our dog now has a name. His name is Doug—chosen by popular vote and suggested by the same boy who named his stuffed cat “Lisa” six years ago at the age of three. Lisa is still a prominent member of our family. My son sleeps with Lisa every night. That sounds wrong. It all sounds wrong. Lisa and Doug should be our suburban neighbors who invite us to their beige house for Euchre night and coffee. But darned if I don’t love the fact that the dog’s name is Doug, and that my son still loves a stuffed cat named Lisa.

I could write about how my boys became sweaty and took their shirts off. Their backs are so beautiful. Each little muscle around their shoulder blades flexes when they lift their arms. I sense the hint of manhood under that smooth skin and it makes me feel hopeful.

But hopefulness has been a friend of mine lately. Seems that serotonin bump I had last month has everything to do with the return of my fertility. Had a flirtation with its return a month after the baby’s delivery, but I scared it off when the baby began nursing more heavily, and I started losing weight. Now, it is here to stay, and I’m becoming reacquainted with the cyclical nature of my femaleness that has been a stranger to me these past nine years. So this is the vast experience of womanhood around the world—these highs and lows. I feel a part of something. I want to remember this: Rejoice! It is day 15 and everything, everything is beauty!

When Mom and Dad first bought the farm and started forging their trails through the woods, I wanted them to get a bulldozer and make the trails wide and neat, covered with mulch, so I could take a clean walk, free from overhanging branches that might serve as a launch pad for ticks and spiders. For the same reason, I didn’t want a dog, the way they leave their slug trail of mud and fur and saliva on everything they touch. How can one enjoy the best things when one is averse to getting dirty? Life is messy, kids, dogs, nature—it’s all so dirty. And the only way to be happy is to accept it, embrace it. I’m not too good, too tidy, too untouchable for the messy gifts God wants to give me. It’s holy dirt, holy life.

When I had my first child, someone gave me my first houseplant, a peace lily, and suddenly I wanted more plants. I was in the throes of creation, bearing kids. Life begets life. I wanted more life, more kids, more plants, a garden, to plant trees. My husband took up woodworking, started caring about heirlooms. He makes furniture, and now walks through the woods singling out the cherry trees, counting board feet in the Walnut trees, points out two trees fused together by a burl. “They look happy,” he says, those kissing trees, begetting a bark growth worthy of a veneered breakfront. He sees it in his head. Creation begets creation.

This is a good thing, all these people at the park enjoying nature. I’m so happy that they’re here taking pictures of the trees to post on their blogs. Make people envious of the way your family enjoyed nature. These things have a way of catching. Can’t read about someone enjoying nature without wanting to do it too. Life begets life. It’s contagious. It’s good.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Trust is Negotiable

In college I dated a boy who had the gay double life on the internet thing and a habit of telling lies. I was blindsided by the evidence when his roommate produced it for me.

Of course, a relationship cannot continue if one partner is only feigning interest, but beyond that, I had been deceived, and it seemed an inability to trust would render any relationship insupportable.

Last year, I sponsored a young woman as she came into the Catholic Church. She converted, and her fiancé reverted, both inspired by a deep sense of contrition about how their relationship began. There was apparently some overlap between their relationship and a prior (invalid) marriage for him.

I had this young woman over for coffee Friday, and we were talking about the plans for their impending marriage, her hopes and doubts. And she said that she was having trust issues, perhaps inspired by the circumstances under which their relationship began. People who begin a relationship under the strains of infidelity can’t help suffering from paranoia.

Like me, she thought that if she has doubts about her ability to trust this man, then the relationship cannot function. She keeps thinking she needs to postpone their wedding until she feels an adequate amount of trust.

I wonder if it will ever come.

Looking at trust from the other side of ten years of marriage (to a man who is undeniably heterosexual), I had pause to wonder if a failure of trust really is incompatible with a long-lasting relationship.

Having been stung by my aforementioned relationship, I spent many hours of my husband and mine’s early marriage waiting for the other shoe to drop. With each child we conceived, I felt more and more vulnerable. I would calculate my ability to handle life if our marriage, for some reason, ended. I could definitely take care of one child on my own, but could I manage two? What about three, or four? How many kids could I have and still be able to cut my losses and run? I was certain that my husband’s mid-life crisis or untimely heart-attack was right around the corner, and then I’d be up shit’s creek.

But at some point, one has to quit weighing trust against one’s insecurities, and choose faith. Choose to believe that I’ll be ok no matter what happens, that God will take care of our family even if my husband or I fail one another. Absolute trust in another person is overrated, even negotiable. It is fear and paranoia that undermines relationships.

Who can bear the weight of a beloved’s trust? In the course of our marriage, we have both lost and had to regain the other’s trust more than once. Maybe we haven’t committed the “big gun” acts of infidelity, but countless marriages, having suffered adultery, pick up their broken hearts and battle to keep their marriages intact until death. And so it seems that there is a sort of ebb and flow to trust, that in my pre-marriage days, would have made me feel very insecure.

I am NOT saying, “no one can be faithful, so just be honest.” I believe that spouses can be faithful to one another for a lifetime, but it takes work, and vigilance, and it’s scary how thin the line can be between a seemingly innocuous interaction and an outward turning change of heart. And even so-called minor breaches of trust are contagious. For every husband who looks at pornography, there is a wife googling her ex-boyfriend.

My husband is currently addicted to the Iron and Wine song, “Resurrection Fern.” The lyrics feel appropriate to this subject:

“And we'll undress beside the ashes of the fire
Both our tender bellies wound in baling wire
All the more a pair of underwater pearls
Than the Oak Tree and its Resurrection Fern”

Particularly, for couples who do not use birth control, there is a poignant vulnerability to the marriage act. Even when the fire has cooled to ashes, those “tender bellies” are always open to the possibility of new life, and the binding to one another that takes place with each conception. This is where we have no choice but to turn towards God and put our trust in him. We are less the stalwart Oak and its dependent regenerating flora than we are two delicate creatures growing together underwater in blindness.

A related post at Video Meliora

Another related post, by my sister at Back Bay View.

Monday, October 19, 2009

If You Live in the Midwest . . .

You might be interested in one of these:

They're going fast, but there is one very sweet little girl left.

Inquire to bettyduffy2 at yahoo dot com

Only nice people. Rigorous interview process. Have your ducks in a row.

Sad Windows

It’s freezing in our house. My three-year-old sits here at the table with a steady stream of snot pouring from his nose, and blankets wrapped around his shoulders like some mountain guru. He won’t move because it’s too cold to let the air infiltrate the cracks in his blanket.

Turn on the heat why don’t we? Soon we will, as my husband has nearly finished fixing the multitude of broken windows incurred this summer. Window repair has become a Fall ritual for us. No more threatening shards at the window on the stair landing, which cracked when we tried to dislodge the paint that sealed it shut. No more gazing out a window held piecemeal together with duct tape as you sit on the john in the laundry room bathroom (victim to trash flying into the can that rests below it). I don’t know how it happens that we always have a broken window somewhere or a screen slashed down the middle, but always, everywhere I look there is evidence of the bodies that thrash around in this house.

Now they all jockey for position over the vents. The heater has ignited. The blower is on.

Happy Windows

The beauty of antique windows compensates for the weakness of their glass. Our windows make me happy.

Looking into the mudroom from the outside.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Show Me the Narrow Gate

My friend, Pedge, is gorgeous. Tall, slender, brunette with perfect porcelain skin, she’s shaped like a capital letter S because she slouches, in that hip-jutting fashion peculiar to certain models. And she is, indeed, a model. She’s filmed commercials. This, after having had five children, and being, if I may say so, an entire year older than me.

The other day, I was sitting at the counter in Pedge’s kitchen when she revealed that she’d removed her name and portfolio from her agency.

“Why did you do that?” I asked, stunned. She stood at the sink rinsing suds off a sippy cup while she told me that it had been on her mind to do for awhile, that the whole business was causing her stress and internal division. She had trouble getting the words out. Modeling is something she has talked about pursuing since she was very young. And if I haven’t made it clear, unlike many modeling aspirants, Pedge actually has the attributes necessary to be a model. The first time you meet her she can make one very nervous. What is all this beauty doing here in a church basement prayer meeting?

“It keeps coming back to me,” she said, “What you said about how God could sum up Mary’s life in just a few sentences.”

As often is the case, my moments of enlightenment have a habit of fleeing from my consciousness after I’ve broadcast them. “When did I say that?”

It had been during one of our Thursday morning Gospel reflections, meditating on the Annunciation, how God said that Mary shall conceive a child, call him Jesus, and he shall be set for the rise and fall of many. And then I remembered, “That’s it. That’s Mary’s life in a nutshell. Her purpose on Earth was to give birth to the Son of God. It was not to write a tome about the highs and lows and drudgery of Biblical womanhood. Not to be famous”—though, ironically, her fame is universal due to her unquestioning obedience to God and her humility in bearing her great task.

I had been trying to chastise myself for spending too much time thinking about achieving “greater” things than my marriage and family. Be like Mary, satisfied that God has carved my little here and now out of eternity, and that he can sum it up in just a few words: marriage, children, this quiet life where grace is plentiful but witnesses are few.

I never meant to imply that Pedge should quit modeling, or that I should quit writing. We’re finally doing things we enjoy, finally able to leave the house for more than a couple hours without fearing the baby will suffer and die in the absence of our breasts. Where once, all I needed was to get out of the house, and have a little break for my mental health, now I feel free to come and go, and perhaps, just perhaps, I need to look homeward a little bit more.

“Maybe it is only this motherhood,” she said, “Affecting these five little souls in my family, and not me on a pulpit affecting the multitudes. What do you think it means to really be moved by the Holy Spirit, to be transformed, in our state in life?”

The last time I felt moved to dramatic change of life was when I reverted from a life of sin to a life of grace—nearly twelve years ago. The Holy Spirit in my life now, I’m ashamed to admit, more frequently feels like a subconscious nuisance.

This morning my son was playing with a couple of empty laundry baskets, stacking them up, letting them topple, connecting two together and dragging them on the floor like a train. He, himself was quiet, but the sound of plastic rubbing on plastic nestled into my subconscious, largely ignored, at the same time I realized that I was growing inexplicably more and more irritated. I couldn’t isolate what was causing my shoulders to tense up, the infernal growl beginning to stir in my lower stomach. And then I snapped to—it is that god-forsaken noise over there, that water torture plastic sound my son is making. “STOP it!” I said.

Maybe it’s not an exact metaphor, but my response to the more gentle irritation of the Holy Spirit is the same. I have a feeling that what I’m doing is not good for me or my family, a sense of division when for instance, I mindlessly check my stats on this blog: “Show me Denmark! Show me California! Come on Stat counter, Feed me.” The thrill of watching my audience show up in real time is the validation that every writer seeks, and that the internet uniquely makes possible. But it interferes with what I initially set out to do here, which is write because it is what I love and feel called to do. I have knowledge that I have lost my bearings, but I silence it, “Be quiet and let me have my fun.”

And thus my continued transformation into the person Christ wants me to be is postponed, for another day, because I’m having my time. There are so many ways in which I do not want to be transformed, so many ways in which I’d like to continue garumphing along this path of mediocrity.

Pedge continued, “I’m not saying that I’m going to just sit at home and do nothing. I just know that for here and now, taking my name off that list is something I had to do, and whatever God wants to do with me from here on is fine with me. And already, I feel so much more peace about it.”


I recently became aware of a small group of Catholics living here in Southeastern Indiana who have chosen the narrow gate. Mom went to Mass at their Parish, and saw some girls dressed up in long dresses like cast members from Little House on the Prairie. “Oh, are you putting on a play?” she asked them. But they were not. Every morning they clothe themselves in modesty, setting themselves apart from the world like the Amish.

I cannot imagine the Lord finding fault with anything about their lives. Is that what it means to be transformed? Am I too easy on myself? I find aspects of that life very attractive. But that setting apart also makes me a little bit angry. Christians cannot shrink out of the dialogue for fear of committing the sins of pride or vanity. As soon as we are hiding in our cloister we will congratulate ourselves on the sacrifice of our gifts. Pride follows all humanity everywhere they seek to flee it.

I was recently chastised in a combox over at Pentimento. Commenter, Soundtime, said, “Be an active agent, or don't, but don't blame something else for one's own lack of agency.”

The internet is not responsible for my vanity or loss of concentration. Burning my jeans and taking up the veil is not going to ensure my modesty or chastity. Hiding in my house won’t make me a more humble mother. A global cataclysm might cure my addiction to stats, but it will not transform my soul. To be transformed I need to fight the battle at hand. Turn off the damn statcounter. It’s not that hard.

But maybe I give my fallen soul too much credit. Maybe the “Amish” Catholics in Heaven will pray for my soul while it flounders around Purgatory clinging to a pair of holy jeans, saying, “I WILL NOT SHRINK OUT OF THE RACE!!!”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sex and Death (again)

I write about sex a lot. An old boyfriend once noted the centrality of sex as a non-sensual monument in nearly everything I wrote. Thought I was frustrated, or obsessed, or had unrealistic ideas of were sex should fall in a hierarchy of life experience.

And since I can’t write about this without wondering what my parents would think if they read it, it feels right to put the blame for my preoccupation on them. It’s their fault—raising me as they did, with such knowledge of sex and its relationship to nearly everything important in life.

I took my children to my parents’ house today. My parents live on a small farm. They have forty acres, a log cabin, two Haflinger horses, three Belted Galloway cows, chickens, bees, and lots of dogs. The first thing you see when you pull up their driveway is an unneutered dog that looks like he needs to wear underpants. And sure enough an old bitch with teats nearly to the ground slowly makes her way out to greet the car and a couple of her puppies that have arrived with us.

I’ve mentioned that my children helped to take care of these pups, and that they witnessed also the untimely death of one of them. And so death seems to go hand and hand with all of this new life.

Not long ago, my parents tried, unsuccessfully, to artificially inseminate their cows. When the vials that arrived, packed on dry ice in brown boxes, did not “take,” a bull came to visit. What a wonderful time he had, that bull, with each of his special girls, Trixie, Tulip, and T--? Until one day he dropped dead of a twisted gut in the middle of the muddy field. A large truck came to chain him up and hoist him away.

Think any of this goes unnoticed by my children?

It’s everywhere: sex and death, death and sex. One day the rooster is mounting a hen, the next day the rooster is in the dutch oven.

But even before all of these animals, were my parents, and their affection for one another. My husband and I still laugh over the night my mom, trying to get us to open up about our impending marriage, sat on my dad’s lap and said, “There’s a difference between being in a relationship and being IN relationship. I don’t think anyone would doubt that your father and I are IN relationship.”

No mom, unfortunately, we cannot doubt it. And that living, breathing relationship somehow animates our entire family. My siblings and I, our spouses, and our children now number in the upper twenties. But numbers aside, there is a fecundity to nearly every aspect of my parents’ life.

Walking in the woods today my mom says, “Let’s go up this hill. The other day when Dad and I were walking up here we saw some remarkable fungi.” And sure enough in the rotted leaves are dozens of mushrooms. The sun breaks through the wooded canopy and mushroom caps in nearly every color light up the forest floor. The kids point them out: “There’s a red one! That one’s yellow! This one is pure white. I think I’ll name it the Baptism mushroom.” Yes, my good, pious children name mushrooms after Sacraments.

Then, in nearly the same breath, “Look, here’s some poop!” Everyone scurries over to see the little brown snowballs of coyote poop. Last winter, my dad and I found a coyote pup frozen solid on this hill. And now a ring of mushrooms grow in the rot where members of the pup’s family still hunt for food.

Decomposition, death, refuse, and redemption all happen on this hill, and in the pasture, and in the puppy whelping box, and in the chicken coop, and in the house where we soon retreat to drink some tea.

I do not shelter the children from any of it. I have wondered at times if my children even take these things too lightly, when they say, for instance, “When I die, will you get a new me?” because they see how our affection for animals can be replaced by, say, the next largest puppy in the litter. ("You, Child, are irreplaceable.") I would rather them take death lightly than know nothing of it. And I’d rather them see that sex is necessary, and plentiful and procreative—with all this animal mating going on around them, not to mention the increase of our own family—than to live a sterile small life, perhaps with a sterilized pet, in a tidy little house with bleached counters and floors.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Snooty's Suit

Standing at the ironing board I begin to press my husband’s suit pants for a fancy dinner we will be attending. A dusty crease has formed from the hangar on which they’ve hung for the past several months. The suit is ancient, older than our marriage, picked out by his ex-girlfriend before me. No one in his family liked her, so they called her Snooty, and I can’t help but think that this suit is Snooty’s suit.

I don’t resent that Snooty picked out the suit. She had good taste. She was a doctor, and my husband had dated her for over a year. Her father was starting to hint around that he needed to pee or get off the pot.

It was sort of pathetic really, poor Snooty. I came home from the convent and went out to eat with my husband. “An old friend has come back into town,” he told her. Within a week he had broken things off with her. But the clothes remain: a shirt that’s a little frayed around the collar, a dated tie, and two suits. She insisted that he wear his sleeves down and buttoned at the wrist, and I was the most generous and laid back woman in the world for liking his sleeves rolled up.

At the end of a relationship, it’s customary to toss out any remaining artifacts. I personally threw away the smarmy picture of the two of them in their flannel button down shirts on a hike in Brown County, and her portrait which sat framed on his television. They didn’t write each other letters, but there was a remaining Christmas letter she’d written to her friends telling how the two of them had met and hinting that this one might be the one. Well, he wasn’t.

Ten months after that initial dinner, my husband and I were married.

I was cheap enough in the early days, however, that if a woman who went before me purchased four hundred dollars worth of suiting in order to ensure that the man who would ultimately dump her for me was well-dressed, I would keep the suiting, and say, “Thank you, Snooty.”

Ironing the suit today, though, seeing the yellow hue the suit-lining has acquired, smelling the old wool smell, it suddenly feels appropriate to throw away these final artifacts of his life before me, and to buy him a suit that fits my own taste. After ten years, I’m finally a little bit tired of how this woman dressed my husband.

In my secret heart, I think she was too generous in the upper arms, too loose in the thigh. With cash in hand, I’d cut his suit a little leaner.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Becoming More Human

Celebrity cellist, Yo-Yo Ma performed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this week. Tickets sold out many months in advance, so sitting at home rather than in concert finery, I’ve been inclined to read the reviews. Raving positive, they can only be, or Indianapolis may never see such a headliner again, but our local classical music reviewer (I’ll call him J.) went above and beyond his superlative duty and labeled the event “special.”

He went on to describe, with intricate detail, Ma’s interpretation of The Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor; how he blended with woodwinds in a second movement cadenza, echoed a horn theme in the first, and accompanied the flute with his beyond-other-worldly bow control.

For a minute, just one little minute, I thought to myself:

Who in Indianapolis, Indiana, besides J. himself, and one or two nerds (myself included—but just barely) could possibly care about what Yo-Yo Ma did with a second movement cadenza? And what did J. do? Sit there with his own copy of the sheet music in his lap to see, “Oh, here, Ma needs to play ‘ma non troppo.’ Will he do it? Yes!” Nobody here cares about classical music anymore. And if Yo-Yo Ma is on their radar, it’s probably just to say, “Hey Yo Mama is here!”

But maybe I had that thought because I have gradually lost interest in classical music. Why? Because it’s difficult. I have never been able to understand or appreciate a piece of classical music until I have played it. I do have to hold the sheet music in my lap while I listen, and read or play along. Interpreting classical music is a bit like reading a big fat classic novel, like War and Peace. You have to get over the desire to reach the end of it, and learn to appreciate each word, each sentence, each theme for what it is. You have to have patience and concentration, which is something I have gradually lost.

I admit, I know this J. I played in a youth symphony with his son, also a cellist, when I was in high school. His son (I’ll call him T.), sat first stand with a lanky Polish boy on whom I had my first major unrequited crush. But T himself was a classic, textbook nerd. He wore coke-bottle glasses, had a shaggy head of greasy hair, and bountiful zits which he used to rub with the tip of his bow. He was home-schooled and didn’t watch TV, though sometimes he said, they borrowed films from the library. He could recite in chronological order, with incredible speed, every ascendant to the Czarist Russian throne, and he did so at least once a rehearsal.

I sat behind him, fourth chair, sharing a stand with a pudgy, dark-skinned boy named Darius. Darius and I were like a couple of puppies poking and prodding the two serious musicians at the stand in front of us. When T eventually grew irritated, he would turn his entire body around without moving his neck to glare out of his coke-bottle glasses like a pre-pubescent Dracula. In short, he was the model of patience and concentration, and the living artifact of an eccentric, intellectual education. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in his home! To be the son of local classical music reviewer, J., who believes that certain cadenzas are beyond special!

I say all of this a little tongue in cheek, because I was, am, and ever shall be envious of what I do not have, and what I did not have in high school was a life built on aural appreciation. Music was always my hobby, something I did that was different from everyone else at school. I had enough aptitude to get by, make the cut, but never enough patience and concentration to make music my life.

As a member of the cello section in this particular state-wide youth orchestra, we received complimentary tickets to hear the last celebrity cellist who came through Indianapolis over fifteen years ago, Mstislav Rostropovich. If my memory serves me correctly, he played the same piece that Ma did this weekend. During the intermission of that concert, I made my move on the lanky Polish boy who occupied the first stand of the cello section, and he brushed me off, quickly, because the lights were beginning to dim, and he didn’t want to “miss a note.”

His father was a first generation Polish immigrant, founder of a local violin competition, and yet another classical music aesthete, who would sit on his couch in the middle of the day listening to obscure recordings. When we walked through his living room, he would say, “Young people, sit down and listen to this recording! It’s sublime!” and throw back his head on the couch, smiling at the ceiling and swinging his leg, crossed over his knee. That love is what I never had—the desire to sit and do nothing else but listen to complicated music, to read it like a novel, to enjoy every note.

Now I go for walks and listen to the ipod which is filled with a lot of classical music, a lot of folk, a lot of rock, and a bit of country. I set it on “shuffle” and skip song after song that appears on the screen. “No. Not that. Can’t tolerate this one right now. Does not match my mood.” Music must serve me by sustaining desired feelings or changing undesirable ones. And it had better not challenge me, because my life is challenging enough.

It’s sad.

It’s sad because it is yet another sign of my insistence on making everything I touch, see, hear, taste, or smell reflect my emotions and my experience. And it is another sign of how almost all technological gadgetry has the ability to foster narcissism.

I’ve been trying something this week—something I should have done long ago—which is severely limiting my time on the computer. Write with a pen and paper. Listen to music that requires patience and concentration. Read a book, even if it is one I’ve already read, and value every word. Share other people’s experiences, even those that make me uncomfortable or exhausted. This because I want to be more human, less technologically enthralled, and less dependent on the highs that technology somehow mysteriously provides for me. I wonder, if becoming less the master of my sensory environment would provide me with more dependence on God, and if my failures in patience and concentration are at the root of my current difficulties with prayer. I want to care about how Yo-Yo Ma blends with the woodwinds in the second-movement cadenza, because that is such a definitively human concern.