Betty Duffy

(Amateur)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Husks in My Teeth

I had a piece of corn wedged between my molars for several days. Whenever I bit down on something, I could feel it digging into my gum, and making it swollen. My tongue grew irritated from my subconscious attempts to dislodge it while I was driving, falling asleep, reading—always trying to get the corn out of my teeth. Finally, today, at my parents’ house, with a string from their fancy tube of dental floss, I removed the corn, right before my mom and I went out for an after-dinner walk.

“I can’t tell you how much relief I feel,” I said to my mom about my corn saga. “There’s such a wonderful void between my teeth.” The air smelled like fresh dirt. All the farmers were out late last night, lights on their tractors, turning over the fields before today’s predicted rain.

“Gives a little hint, doesn’t it?” she replied, “To what it might be like for people who are in pain all the time.”

I thought of my Grandma who’s had the shingles for three months now. She’s tired, locked in at home, in constant pain. She called Saturday morning, just to talk, but ended up crying on the phone, probably because crying is just a normal reaction to living in constant pain and loneliness.

After our phone conversation, I took my grandmother to see a movie. The movie made her feel good, and it got me out of the house, which made me feel good, and then I took her back home. Back to her pain and loneliness.

My corn problem felt very insignificant, which is exactly how it should feel when compared to constant pain and loneliness, but my having survived it, and my subsequent exultation at having it removed made me feel primed for deeper challenges. When it started to rain, and our cheeks were already cold from the nippy wind, I said, “Imagine what the pioneers went through—snow, ice, wind—anytime they went anywhere.”

Both my mom and I looked down on the two kids we’d brought with us in the double stroller. The baby was suitably covered in a full body fleece, but my daughter had left her hat at home. She was asleep with her face turned up to the sky and each rain drop caused her closed eyes to pull tighter in her sleep. I turned her face downward, and patted the top of her head. “She’s a good girl,” I said.

“Yes she is. She wanted to help out in the kitchen,” my mom laughed. “She’s imitating the women-folk.” After dinner, when we were clearing the table and loading up dishes, my daughter brought food items to the counter with a look of self-importance. “I was reading somewhere about how the first five to seven years of life are all about building up the idea of the self—the ego. And the rest of your life, then, is about overcoming it.”

“By trudging homeward through inclement weather?” I asked. My thighs grew numb as the rain seeped through my jeans.

“Think of how nice it will be when we have some tea and Dad makes up a fire,” she said, smiling into the wind. “The tea would not taste nearly as good if we had not been out in the cold.” My mom has become terribly pretty lately. She’s sixty, married forty years, but the cool made her cheeks pink, and the rain made her hair curl. Smiling at life’s adversity, and the grace soon to follow, she looked like a soup commercial.

My mom is a very rare specimen. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, and occasionally, she puts her foot in her mouth. But she is one of the few people I know who has fought the battle for holiness, and has met with some success. She doesn’t gossip or complain. She’s been pulled into the service of her parents, children, and grandchildren but doesn’t seem to mind. She makes it look as though that aforementioned emptying of ego might actually be possible.

It gives me hope, recognizing that this change has been gradual in her. She has always been a beautiful woman, but when we were little, I remember her being a little grouchy and tired. I have to mention the grouchiness, because people won’t believe me if I say my mom has always been beautiful and selfless. It also fits into the theme for the day: Like feeling relief when I’ve had corn in my teeth, and having tea after walking in the rain, Mom’s current beauty and selflessness is better appreciated in relation to her past grouchiness. It is the grace made possible by trial.

What must it be like, then, to never experience the grace? To never have the reprieve? To live with corn in my teeth for eternity? Constant pain and loneliness?

Some people have to sort through grouchiness for a lot of years, as seems to be the case for me. But one of these days, when I get serious enough about it, I’m going to conquer it—and won’t my kids be surprised? Or I should say, God will help me overcome it, when I have completely surrendered it to him, because there’s always some reason for holding on to our maladies. I know my reasons.

I can’t speculate as to why my Grandmother rejects my Mom’s invitation to move in with them, even if only temporarily, until she feels better. But I think that if my Grandmother allowed us to take care of her more, she might find it a reprieve, at least from the loneliness, if not the pain. And we would find it a reprieve from the services we so dutifully perform for ourselves—to be emptied of ego. But she knows her reasons.

By the time we reached my parents’ driveway, the rain had stopped. It felt also as though the temperature had dropped, but I think our wet clothes trapped in the cold. The children had slept through the rain, and remained asleep when we pushed the stroller into the garage.

Inside, the boys all slept around the football game on TV, and a fire burned in the wood-burning stove. It felt like walking into a womb.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Full of it

Driving up to my in-laws on a two lane highway, my husband and I tried to remember which of the pieced-together, badly-renovated, vinyl-sided houses that line the road was the one that got hit by a semi-truck last year.

“I think it was that one,” my husband said, pointing to a particularly dilapidated house. But I knew he was wrong, and didn’t feel like letting him rest in his mistake.

“No, it’s further north,” I said. Apparently the driver of the semi fell asleep behind the wheel and pummeled into the living room of a home set about twenty feet off the road. The home has been an emblem of horror and curiosity for us—the embodiment of how “this very night, your life may be demanded of you” while you sit in a recliner watching a football game. Whenever we go to my in-laws, we look for the house. It’s just what we do.

“I hate to break it to you,” my husband said, “But you’re full of crap. In fact that’s one of the things I’ve had to get used to being married to you, is that you always think you’re right, but you’re usually wrong.”

“Well, Happy Thanksgiving!” I said, a little bruised, but wondering how long he’d been waiting to make this remark. He’s had to get used to my being full of crap. It’s taken time for him, yet it is a matter of fact that I’m full of crap. And then I felt happy for him, because I’d finally served him his moment to get that thought off his chest.

Full of crap, I may be; I was still right, and he was not. Nevertheless, I decided to let him have his little drive-by victory. That could be the house if he wanted it to be. I can be wrong if he wants me to be. Not worth fighting over.

In the past I have fought over things that are not worth fighting over. One year for Christmas, my husband wanted to put up the Christmas tree in the spot occupied by my great-grandmother’s dining room table. We didn’t have room for the table, but it was an antique, a family heirloom, with which I did not feel I could part, so I had it crammed in a corner to use as an end-table. My husband wanted it out. It crowded the room, and putting the Christmas tree in that spot was a way to make the first step toward getting rid of it. We could put it in the garage during the Christmas season, and then onward to elsewhere for my grandmother’s table.

When he attempted to move the table, I sat on it, so he couldn’t lift it. And I kept sitting on it for about five hours. We had turned on the Christmas music, and brought the decorations down from the attic. The kids were excited about putting up the tree, but there would be no tree raising that night, because mommy was sitting on the table, and would not get off. There would also be no dinner that night, no bedtime prayer—because mommy had to win, and she was willing to do anything to stake her territory.

I knew, sitting there, that my husband was right. We didn’t have room for the table. But it was mine. MINE! If I caved on the table, then he’d start working on my desk, MY DESK, for which we also don’t have room, and which likewise takes up a large portion of real estate in the corner of the dining room. He’d been mentioning how he’d like to replace my desk with a smaller model, but I need space for my muse to spread out. If I retrenched on the table, and then the desk, the next thing I knew he’d be asking for my soul.

In last week’s Sunday Gospel, Jesus said to Pilate, “If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” But his attendants are not fighting to keep him. They are having a sit-in on the dining room table to protest the placement of a Christmas tree.

“If we say that God is really the ruler of all the earth, and all earthly authorities, we must ask ourselves whom we honor and why, whom we praise and why, whom we obey and why.” (Magnificat, Wednesday, Nov. 18)

After five hours of sitting on top of my table, ruining Christmas for my kids, it became very clear that I had spent too much time fighting to preserve my own sovereignty. Ultimately, I came down from the table and apologized to my kids. Of my own volition, I called my parents and asked them to take the table and give it to someone else in the family.

This time, in the car on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, I decided not to waste the hours asserting my rightness. I let it drop, and we drove on peacefully after gawking at the (wrong) house that got hit by a semi truck.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Et Tu, Father Bob?

Pedge called after reading my Ball gown post and said, “I can’t stand it. I hate this attitude that we would rather be watching from our window while everyone else has a good time--that we’re somehow better off, and better people because we’re locked in our houses changing diapers. I say no! I say, I’m still going to the Ball, and I’m going to wear high heels and be the best looking woman in the room. My husband is going to love it, and every other woman in the room is going to want to be me, still. And afterwards, we’re going home, and I’m going to screw my husband, and it’s going to mean so much more than making out with some stranger in the hallway, because we have these five children, and these twelve years of marriage, and this relationship is more meaningful than any relationship I could have imagined when I was twenty-two.”

“Oh,” I said, mulling over her words for a moment.

“What?” she asked. “Am I wrong? Is that not possible?”

“I’m just trying to reconcile what you’ve just said with the absence of actual Balls to attend.”

“There are plenty of fun things to do. It doesn’t have to be an actual Ball.”

I hung up the phone with Pedge, thinking about the misplaced frugality that has prevented me from hiring a babysitter so my husband and I can go to the Reverse Raffle dinner at our kids’ school. The Reverse Raffle is a fried-chicken fundraising event held in the school’s basement cafeteria. Each class makes up a theme basket, local businesses donate gift certificates, and then the emcee gives a basket or certificate to every third ticket-holder drawn out of a pot. The last ticket drawn wins a thousand dollars. In years past, we’ve gone to this dinner, and sat awkwardly at a table with older parishioners we did not know, wondering how to get over to the raucous corner of the room where the young parents laughed and joshed one another, and made increasingly wayward paths to the bar. It's not really a Ball, but it might suffice.

We moved to this small town only a few years ago, and many of the young parents in the corner grew up here, and are themselves graduates of this parochial elementary school. Most of the teachers and the principal have been at the school long enough to see the children of their former students walking through the hallways.

My husband did not want to endure another night of this awkward watching. But I did wonder what might happen if we could somehow let go of the self-consciousness we have acquired over the years, and go sit by the keg like we own it and talk to people like we have a right to speak to them.

So armed with pocket shots of gin, and leaving our children with a sitter, my husband and I went last night to the Reverse Raffle.

At the door, we were greeted by our boys’ Cub Scout Leader, a woman with the open sunny face of Anne of Green Gables. Normally she dresses in casual adventure gear: shorts, athletic sandals, a scout uniform shirt. But for the raffle, she’d teased her auburn hair into a Brigitte Bardot semi-updo. She wore black leggings, a stylish military jacket, and stiletto booties. “Is that the den leader?” my husband asked. “She looks dynamite.” I said, relieved that someone had dressed out for the event more than I had. I had not been certain until that moment that I liked my boys’ den leader.

We sat down on the keg side of the room at the first available seats we found. We introduced ourselves to the other couples at the table, who seemed to be related to each other, and not very interested in talking to us. I looked around and spotted another couple that I knew from PTO meetings. She signaled to us that there were seats at her table, and my husband and I debated about whether or not to offend the people with whom we were currently situated. For me, it was a no-brainer. “Let’s go.” I said to my husband, and “No offense,” to the people at our table, “Have a great night.” For seventy bucks at the door, I was not going to spend another night feeling like an interloper at some other family’s dinner party.

The Emcee for the night, as in past years, was an Eddie Haskell-like alumnus of the school. He’s still lanky, with freckles, like his son, and you could easily see him as a boy showering compliments on his middle-aged female teachers, while they swatted away his antics with a flattered smile. His charming wife passed out baskets to the raffle winners, and rolled her eyes when he announced, “Congratulations number 798! You are the winner of two Pacer’s tickets, a Pacer’s jersey and a box of condoms!” It was his joke of the night, to add “--and a box of condoms!” to every other basket he called out, which is supposedly funny, because while Catholics drink and gamble, they do not pass out baskets of condoms.

“Let me see a show of hands,” he said, feeling comfortable in his roll as comedian. “Who here is worried about Father Bob? I’m worried. He has a new beard, and a new hair do. There’s an awful lot of hair gel going into the Rectory. I’m starting to wonder if he has a girlfriend.” His wife rolled her eyes, and Father stood up and brushed his hands through his hair, which he just recently began combing back off his forehead. With his sizeable mid-section and white collar there could be no doubt about his celibacy.

Whenever I have a drink or two, I start to think about also having a cigarette, but in this environment, I hesitated. I only smoke in certain company because I have a golden girl image to protect. So I excused myself as if to use the restroom, and snuck outside. I was hiding behind a corner of the Church when I heard some other female voices and smelled the tell-tale aroma of tobacco. It occurred to me that no one could doubt my conviction to the faith I profess simply because I’ve had a drink and a cigarette, so I peaked around the corner to see to whom the voices belonged.

I recognized one of them, a platinum-haired woman who drove a black Armada. She’d just had her fourth daughter, and when she saw me emerge from the shadows, she looked at me with surprise, as if to say, “You too?”

I held up my cigarette and said, “Only when I’m drinking. Or when I’m angry.” My husband and I watched a movie earlier in the week about an Irish-Catholic prison inmate who rolled his tobacco in the pages of the Bible. When a visiting priest said he should stop smoking the Bible, the inmate answered, “I only smoke the Lamentations.” I wanted to say that, “I only smoke the Lamentations.” But I already have a reputation in this town as the ‘crazy lady with five children’—no need to add: ‘who also quotes obscure movies.’

In any case, there is always an instant union of souls in discovering another closeted tobacco user. When my husband and I were in the very early stages of our relationship, we both hid from each other that we used tobacco. He chewed. I smoked more regularly at that time. But we’d been set up because both of our families were involved with Regnum Christi. He thought I was one of those pious Catholic girls who might be turned off by his tobacco use. And I thought likewise of him. It wasn’t until our fifth date or so that we’d both had a couple glasses of wine and we couldn’t stand it anymore. I bummed a cigarette off the waiter, and we split it. I remember him inhaling twice before he exhaled, and I thought, for some reason, that it was one of the most sexy things I’d ever seen--the depth of his lungs, the voracious authenticity of his need. We spent the rest of our courtship in tobacco heaven, until we married and had our first kid, and we both put our habits to rest. He’s never used any sort of tobacco since. And I only smoke the Lamentations.

It wasn’t long before our Reverse Raffle secret smoking society was joined by Father Bob. “You too???”

"Only under very particular circumstances." He also smokes the Lamentations.

I came off the night feeling warmly about all these other parents to whom I’ve only nodded in the parking lot pick-up line. I’ve spent a couple years now feeling as though these people are not my people. But I felt an indescribable affection when I saw a couple members of the Knights of Columbus pull their Sedan up to the Cafeteria doors and unload another keg out of their trunk.

In college it used to annoy me that people felt like they were best friends if they happened to get drunk together one night. Not I, oh no. I am not so easily won, nor so easily known, I thought. But I’m not as deep as I was then; my needs are no longer so difficult to meet. I’m happy with just some casual familiarity in this community in which I live. No more awkward attempts at eye-contact and conversation starting. I now know a hand-full of people with whom I can let down my pious golden-girl guard. And it so happens that one of them has heard my sins in the Confessional. It sort of cracks me up: “You too, Father???”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”

--Czeslaw Milosz

In college I wrote a play. The play was autobiographical. It was about sin in my life. People who are living in sin love to point out the hypocrisy of others, so the play was also about my family and what I perceived to be their hypocrisy. It was staged in a black box theater with several other student productions. Many of the student productions were obscene. Mine was too. I did not want my family to know about this program.

Yet, for some unknown reason, perhaps because I was tired of living in secrecy, perhaps because I was proud of myself for having my play staged, I told my mom about it. There was likely a part of me that thought exposing myself would lead to some form of dialogue with my mother, and in turn, mutual understanding. I pictured her coming to one of the performances, perhaps feeling a little shocked, but then letting the floodgates open between us over coffee afterwards.

On the night of the performance, my mom had not arrived when the bell rang for everyone to take their seats in the theater. I felt relief for a moment, thinking she had decided to stay home. The lights dimmed, then the theater doors cracked open and in walked my mom, tiptoeing to find a seat, followed by my father and several members of my family, who were the models for characters in my play. She had apparently thought that my desire to shield my play from the family was some form of humility, and that I would be happy with this show of support.

I sat in my corner of the small theater, listening with an internal censor to the first couple of plays. F-words sputtered into the atmosphere like machine gun fire. When my play began, I could only watch my family, sitting in their row with tight lips and straight backs, looking like someone had taken a ruler and smacked them each in the face with it, one after the other. When my ten-minute spot was up, they all got up and walked out.

I vowed then and there that my family would never read another word that I wrote. But time sort of lessens the sting of most wounds, and a writer can only write in a hovel for so long, and now here I am with a blog, writing somewhat autobiographically. It’s an impulse, a way of making sense of the world and of relationships. When someone is born with this impulse, not writing, to some extent means not growing. And publishing is a natural end to this process.

There will always be a struggle then to write honestly and still protect the people and experiences that inform the writing process. In a writing course I took a couple years ago, I asked the professor what to do about this problem. He answered, “YOU WISH it were a problem. If this is ever a problem for you, it means you’re getting published. And in that case, you write what you need to write, and then you go to the people involved and tell them that this is going to be published, and if they have a problem you deal with it then. But you MAY NOT write in fear or you will most certainly never see publication.”

Blogging makes these issues more immediate. While some bloggers have no problem publishing their most private thoughts, for most of us, a reader would find that a very different account of actual events resides on the private pages of a diary. Still we occasionally make mistakes in discretion because we lack objective editors to temper our words.

David Matthews, author of “Ace of Spades,”says, “When it comes to writing about family or friends, you can be liked, or you can tell the truth. If you want both, you should become an accountant.”

For Christians, this reality becomes a moral problem as well as an ethical one: How to advance on the path of perfect charity while honoring the God-given impulse to write and make sense out of our lives.

I wonder sometimes if an element of fundamentalism hasn’t crept into our modern Catholic consciousness that prevents us from considering our writing, and our writing about ourselves, in particular, an art. We want to honor the Truth, and so order our fictional universes in ways that are not truthful.

It’s a complicated thing for any writer, and I’m not sure what the Christian answer should be. For me, as I've said before, I try to find the Gospel in the events of life. Where the events of life are concerned on this blog, however, don't take any of it as gospel.



Related posts:
A Bone to Pick with Modern Catholic Writers

The Truth is in the Lies we Tell

Friday, November 13, 2009

Having a Ball

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La robe rose



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Les gants blancs




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Le Cigarette



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l'étranger noir



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Commence-le-party

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"It is heavenly when I have mastered my earthly desires; but even when I have not succeeded, I have also had right good pleasure."

(--Oblonsky, Anna Karenina)


Pentimento’s post on the Blogger’s Ball has me thinking about ball gowns, their significance, the doors they can open, and the eras, signified by the gown, that are now closed. There is one such gown hanging in my closet right now, an emblem in pink silk shantung of a time in my life when I had . . . a lot of fun.

I was living in England, doing a couple of terms at Oxford U. on Renaissance Art, Shakespeare, Dante, and Wisdom Lit of the Old Testament. I had left a fiancé in the States, a law student, but I hadn’t been in Oxford long before I realized the marriage would never take place. We’d been together three years, but I broke up with him over the phone, because I knew that if I put it off and tried to do it in person, I wouldn’t have had the guts.

On the tail of my break-up, I went up to St Andrews, Scotland, where my cousin was doing a Masters degree, and had also just broken up with an unsuitable boyfriend. We spent an ungodly amount of money that weekend, apparently nursing our fragile hearts. We dined out on a plate of mussels and bottomless glasses of Chardonnay, then went shopping. It was one of the most dangerous things I’ve done in my life. In a small second-hand boutique, I spotted my dress. It was the fairytale dress of my little girl dreams, and when I tried it on, my cousin said, “Buy it! Now! You won’t be sorry.”

“I don’t have any place to wear it,” I said.

“Then you will find a place to wear it,” she answered. And so it was.

Back in Oxford, I got tickets to the St. Hilda’s Ball. I went with a Nigel who lived in Oxford purely for the social life, and earned his keep selling off his prescription Ritalin. He was a loon, but my flatmates were all teatotalers, and I didn’t know anyone else. Before the Ball we went to have drinks with the Whiskey Society in a wood paneled room of Merton College. I was one of maybe five women in the company, so it wasn’t hard to impress, but Nigel told me as we left, “It was agreed that I have the most stunning date.”

Moi? No, it was the dress. Someone at the Whiskey Party spilled their amber potion on the skirt, near the floor-length hem, and the stain is still there today.

At the Ball that year, everyone was wearing short, black and strapless. I ran into a gal who dated one of my flatmates. She stood in a huddle of similarly noir-clad females twittering amongst themselves. I went over to say hello to her, and she said, “Wow, pink ball gown. You have nuts.”

And I didn’t have nuts, but I might have been nuts. I don’t remember a time in my life when I cared so little what people thought of me. I was American. I was free from what felt like an oppressive relationship. I was rootless and dreamy and wanted to be someone else. That night I succeeded.

As the hours passed certain events grew a bit blurry, but I remember a moment in the hallway with a tall, dark, and handsome someone. He put an arm behind my back and whispered in my ear, “Every woman in this room tonight wants to be you.” Then he lifted my chin and kissed me. It was a 1940s Hollywood kiss, the kind that makes the symphony crescendo, and the camera zoom in while two black and white figures freeze in time with lips chastely touching, but not moving. It matched my dress, so I allowed it, then said thank you to the stranger and went back to find my date.

Our party, now consisting of a group of wealthy Londoners from Queens College, was outside doing somersaults in their tuxedos on the grass. I turned a couple of cartwheels, and the dress, with its stiff crinolines, opened up like a fan, but did not fall over my face, thank heavens.

Wealthy Londoner, A, offered me a ride home in his convertible Austin Healy, since Nigel had lost his head somewhere in the course of the night. When he pulled the car up to the gate for me, drunk hooligans jumped on the hood and over the doors into the front seat. Not wanting to be left behind, I jumped into the back.

“Get out!” yelled the owner of the car to the hooligans.

“But we’re wearing tuxedos!” They yelled back.

“PINK DRESS!” he replied, turning around to point to me and my bubble of a dress ballooning out of the back seat. When the hooligans failed to comply, he drove us all to the police station and threatened to leave them there. The hooligans jumped out, while the car was still in motion, and I was free to climb over the seat, into the front for the rest of the ride home.

Londoner, A, became one of my best friends for the remainder of my time in Oxford. He was the kind of eccentric, who collects fellow eccentrics on purely frivolous bases, like how they dress. I would never have made the cut were it not for the pink dress. We spent hours punting on the Thames River clad in white linen, dancing at the Salsa Club upstairs at Ronnie Scotts in suits and scoop-neck dresses, taking convertible drives through Hampstead Heath in sunglasses and scarves.

It was one of the most memorable, and possibly also the most meaningless, times of my life. Nights like my night in the pink ball gown can ruin a woman for a lifetime, like the high school athlete who thinks he’s hot stuff long after the arthritis has set in and the pot belly obscures his toes. I might not look like much these days, but I was once the bitch of St. Hilda’s Ball.

AND DON’T YOU EVER FORGET IT!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Redeeming Friday Night

Friday night, at the dinner table, my kids performed a gastro-sit-in over their unwanted succotash. My husband and I stood guard making sure no one deposited their veg in the trash, or dropped it on the floor for the dog. We were getting bored.

My husband got into the fridge for the caramel apple I had purchased, and was saving for a calorie window in my diet. He began licking the caramel off because it was too cold to bite. Each drag of his tongue over the surface of my apple seemed to mark it with germs, like a dog urinating on its territory. In seconds the apple would be all his—although this should have been a forgone conclusion when he took the apple out of the fridge. In any case, my “Calgon, take me away” vehicle was about to be consumed.

A tightness formed in my chest. I tried a new refuge: I closed my eyes and pictured myself riding a wild horse, bareback, splashing through shallow rivers, climbing snow-capped fjords, leaning over a blonde mane with the brisk wind in my own hair. It didn’t do much for me.

“Well, I guess I’d better run to the store and get some milk for breakfast,” I said. Last ditch refuge: the grocery store, the catharsis of driving in the dark, turning up some music, and maybe even buying a pack of cigarettes. It was Friday, after all. I thought that filtering my breath through a double drag on a Virginia Super Slim might dissipate the tightness in my chest. So away I went, leaving my husband to put an end to the kids’ stonewalling.

I set out for the grocery. I drive that route all the time, every day, several times a day because it is also the route to the post office, my kids’ school, and Church. It was seven p.m. by the light of the dash, and a faded memory began to take shape in my head. Something was going to happen on Friday night at seven…what was it?

I think I might have a photographic memory, because images flickered through my mind until I saw the little message board in front of our church. An old lady in the Parish puts pun-y religious slogans on the board like, “How will you spend eternity -- Smoking or Non-smoking?" And drivers by are supposed to think, “Those clever Catholics. I think I’ll join them for Sunday worship.”

Sometimes real announcements appear on the board as well like, “Benediction, Friday, 7 p.m.” I have a habit of forgetting events if they don’t happen on the same day every week. Benediction happens once a month in our Parish, usually on the first Thursday, so I almost always forget about it. But it seemed, Friday night, that the gods had arranged for a quirk in the Benediction schedule to coincide exactly with my frantic escape from my stubborn children and candy-apple-snatching husband.

I was glad to comply with the arrangement. I went to the Benediction and sang my heart out on “O Salutaris Hostia.” I was the obnoxious woman in the back row who holds the note just a bit longer than anyone else so that I could hear my voice dominating the others with uncalled for vibrato. It felt wonderful. My chest began to release.

I prayed, “Lord you are my refuge,” and seized on the word “refuge” as I had been doing all night long. “You, Lord, are my refuge.” My refuge is not the grocery store, or a wild-stallion daydream, or a cigarette, or sweet food, or the internet, or my book, or my writing. Here, with the incense, the golden sunburst around the Eucharist, the red and white satin vestments, the candle smoke, the elderly parishioners—my fellow children, here, is safety, peace, a refuge for my troubles.

“Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the Consoler.” Our missal uses the word “Consoler” rather than “Paraclete,” and the word resonated that night in a way that “Paraclete” might not have. The “Consolation prize” has a bad reputation, but considering the failure of my substitute refuges to console, I consider the consolation of the Holy Spirit a true prize. It is the one absolute uplifting consolation where substitute consolations fail to yield anything but temporary refuge and heartache.

“Blessed be Saint Joseph, her most chaste Spouse.” This benediction always makes me happy. When I was living with the consas of Regnum Christi, our Benediction was in Spanish: "Bendito sea San José, su castísimo esposo." It rolls off the tongue so well, it thrilled me then too. I am now married to a Joseph, and I like to think that outside the realm of time and space, he has found his glory. I believe that the two of us will die, having been sanctified, even if that hope is just a dangling carrot to keep us on the path of salvation. This life will purify us, so that one day, I can share my candy apple with him without sin. (Ha. Clever, clever Catholics.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Only Solution

Tonight I was driving all of my children around town in order to make drop-offs at swimming lessons and play practices, etc. The kids were nuts, screaming in the back of my van and jumping all over the place. I could feel myself dissolving into the driver’s seat. I was at the point where I typically snap and start yelling bloody murder, but the car was suddenly filled with the sound of pipe organ. I’d turned on an unmarked CD which happened to have on it the “Veni Creator Spiritus” as it was played at my husband and mine’s wedding, in an arrangement by Friedrich Froeschle.

The Church where we married has a long aisle with blood red carpet, and we processed to the altar to this piece, chosen to invoke the Holy Spirit upon our marriage. When I hear this music, I cry. Every. Single. Time. There’s something so humbling and comforting in knowing that whatever proceeds from that moment on the altar is God’s will because the Holy Spirit was there, and is there in our marriage. I count on it.

I was driving and crying, and the children were silenced by the pipes, at least I think they were because I’d turned the volume up so loud that I wouldn’t have heard them. And I had the sort of moment I always hope for, when confusion becomes clarity, where anger becomes charity.

I’ve spent the better part of this week thinking I have no answers for any of the troubles in the world. I teach a catechism class for adults at my Parish, and I’d been dreading it all week. What incredible over-confidence, to think I have something to teach these people. All week I have felt helpless about the poverty in the third world. I don’t know how to make the government operate how I want it to operate. I don’t know how to make my kids behave how I want them to behave. I don’t know how to be happy with all that I have. I have no answers, nothing to teach, no easy solutions.

Except for the Holy Spirit.

This happens sometimes, that I just feel ineffective in my positions. I’m no kind of mother, no teacher, no writer. Even striving to be Holy feels like an act of self-indulgence—because who can sit around examining their conscience when there are such abominable things happening in the world?

Last week discussing the Beatitudes with Pedge and Irene, I felt incredibly sad with its message. Blessed are the peacemakers, the poor, those who hunger for righteousness. I was none of the above. I was just about to comment on my ineptitude at living the Gospel when Pedge said, “I really am all of these things at one time or another. Sometimes I’m a peacemaker. Sometimes, I’m poor of spirit. Sometimes I hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

This keeps happening to us, that we can both read the same Gospel passage and glean from it the exact opposite. Today we read about the widow putting her last two coins in the basket, and I felt sad thinking that I haven’t given enough. And Pedge felt glad, because she interpreted the two coins as love for God and love for neighbor, and she felt that God had positioned her life so that she could give just those two things.

Driving in my car tonight the Veni Creator Spiritus reminds me that there is room for all of these different interpretations. There is room to find the cup half empty, or half full, because the Holy Spirit is going to speak to each one of us as individuals. The Holy Spirit is going to inspire Pedge to remark, “What gives God more Glory, to beat ourselves up because we have been given so much, or to be glad and spread what joy we have because it has been given to us by God?”

Teaching my class, I ask the Holy Spirit to guide me, and feeling as lacking as I do, maybe opens more room for the Holy Spirit to fill me. It’s the only solution I have to the problem of teaching that class. The DRE is counting on me. People show up. I can’t hide. I must prepare. And then when I’ve combined my resources and drawn up my plan, I ask the Holy Spirit to make the right words come from my mouth. It’s the only solution I have, because I have nothing else to offer.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I Don't Read Books Just to Get to the Last Page

From the archives, this time, last year:

No, if all I cared about when reading is what happens on the last page, or even in the last chapter, what would be the point of muddling through the first 300 pages? What I loved about "A Thousand Acres" is that each character was real, meaning, they were good people, who encountered evil and succombed to it. They made mistakes, as every human being does. During those 300 pages some of those characters were redeemed, and a couple of them were damned. So they all died in the end? Well isn't the death of the body the natural culmination of life on earth? Some of my favorite reads of all time are tragedies (the Kristin Lavransdatter series comes to mind, Anna Karenina...).

But in every tragedy there are at least a few survivors who carry on the story. They are there on those last pages to tsk tsk at the unnecessary suffering that occurred in those pages, at how it all could have been different if our beloved characters had made better choices or had not been seduced by evil that appeared good, or had they just been born into different circumstances. And the story is told so that others may glean from it what they can and try their darndest not to succomb to the same evils.

What I'm getting at is that the end of a tragedy is rarely the end of the story. Sometimes it's the beginning of a new story of change and renewed hope. Sometimes it is the beginning of a new and entirely different tragedy. Unfortunately, the history of man has been a testimony of many different tragedies, each a new reincarnation built on a hubris that says, "We will be different. We will not succomb like those people did." Each tragedy is unique.

Interspersed in these tragedies are also moments of great joy and accomplishment. I agree with Pedge that last night America saw an amazing triumph in the election of an African American to the highest office of our country. I am happy that many Americans who have been persecuted in the past and who have felt marginalized by the political scene in America feel that their voices have been heard. But all too often triumph rides on the shoulders of tragedy. I wish I could have, in good conscience, ridden the crest of that wave and rejoiced with so many other Americans. But my heart is still with that small voice that got trampled last night: those millions of Americans who have never had the opportunity to elect anyone, who have never seen an election, because in their weakness they were denied the right to life. Someone read the first page of their lives, was not interested, and closed the book.

My HOPE for CHANGE in this upcoming presidency is that the tragedy of the years since Roe Vs Wade will be redeemed, that President Elect Barack Obama really will listen to those with whom he disagrees and unite the people he represents. I know in my heart, however, that this is too much to ask of any one man, except my Father in Heaven, and so I am striving to be a person of faith, not of fear. Congratulations Barack Obama. It will be an INTERESTING story.