Betty Duffy

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Virile Womanhood

My husband has the flu, so I took the trash out tonight. Seems we forgot to put it out last week, and the Christmas wrappings of this week meant I made several trips from the garage to the end of the driveway. It was cold, and I was glad to have boots that are impervious to wet snow, and an olive green down “Fargo” coat that I inherited from my grandmother. Being dressed appropriately in the snow gave me a little thrill, probably something like a man feels at having the right tools to complete a job. So I stayed outside a little longer. Shut the barn door that keeps blowing open in the 20 mph winds, and abutted it with rocks and rebar. Walked the fenceline. I felt like such a man.

I’ve always been the type to take charge in a vacuum. When no one else can do the job, I’ll do it, and do it well. Several years ago, my husband was out of town when two feet of snow fell. We had just sold our tractor, and everyone I knew who had a plow on their truck was cashing in on the weather to bail out the acres of Wal-mart parking lot. I had four kids at the time, and no choice but to imprison the baby in his crib, put a movie on for the kids, and go outside and dig.

I fancied myself Vigdis the Viking Lady from Sigrid Undset’s “Gunnar’s Daughter.” She skied across the Nordic countryside and mountains for three days with a baby on her back, fleeing from her enemies. I think she even cut off her own finger when she suffered frostbite. Me woman. Me strong.

I had a post up earlier on the male sexual overperception bias (misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest), but I took it down (temporarily), because I think I missed the point. I’m not really as concerned about how my friendliness will be perceived as I am about how my particularly female strength should be used.

I was remembering a female drug rep who used to come into the OB’s office while I waited, pregnant, for my appointments. She wore power suits and high heels, and rolled her wares in a briefcase on wheels. With her narrow hips and sharp elbows, I thought, “I bet she always makes her sale.” I had an envy of her strength and confidence that was all wrapped up with her status as a “working woman,” and as such, I presupposed her embrace of feminism and her own sexual prowess. But I don’t think it’s so cut and dry (strong woman=sexy-power-suited feminist).

As I reject so many tenets of modern feminism, I’ve made the mistake of falling into a sort of feminine wimpiness that does not have roots in Christianity. What it amounts to is a sense of helplessness when my husband is around. Changing a diaper is never just changing a diaper when he’s in the room—suddenly it’s an event, requiring assistance: “Can you just hold the baby’s hands out of the way? Can you toss me the wipes?” I can’t bring in the groceries by myself. I can’t pack up the car. I can’t put the kids to bed. I can’t do anything by myself. Why? Because that wouldn’t be fair.

And then something happens, and he can’t help, and I’m suddenly just as strong as I used to be. Or some third party threatens me or my family, and I feel emboldened to take down my adversary “judo style,” as my sister-in-law put it. I have these instincts, and I have this strength because God gave them to me. Mewling around the house like a helpless twit is not a valid expression of my “non-feminism,” it doesn’t honor my “feminine genius,” and it annoys my husband.

My mother-in-law likes to say that marriage is never a fifty-fifty prospect. To be happy in marriage, both spouses must give a hundred percent and expect nothing in return. I find it a bit ironic that when I occasionally adopt the fifty-fifty mentality, a concept that seems relative to the women’s movement, I actually end up feeling and acting weaker. I maybe even “play weak” to inspire the action and assistance of others.

I went back to the Sacred Spain exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art today, and I’m glad I did, because I saw so many things I didn’t see the first time. One painting in particular caught my eye today: a portrait of Madre Jeronima de la Fuente by Diego Velazquez. She’s shown staring confidently into the eyes of her observers. A Poor Clare, she was the foundress of the first Catholic monastery of Manila. The intense gaze of her portrait, the caption said, “communicates her status as a ‘virile woman.’” She exhibited exceptional strength in her “deeds undertaken with a courageous and virile heart.”

Madre Jeronima wasn’t pretty, but I bet she always made her sale. And she did it in a man’s world, with a Crucifix in her hand. Her expression puts me in a mind to rise to the occasion of my vocation, taking out the trash and all.

A similar post

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If you like your blog posts more polished and definitive, don't read this one

My editorial ran this morning, and the paper picked up the story to turn it into a feature. Due to a string of circumstances set in motion, the zoning board canceled the zoning meeting until further notice. A victory, for the time being.

As I’ve been in sort of a man’s world lately, talking to editor, zoning board, and wily businessman, I found this little note sort of interesting in Harper’s mag the other night:

From responses to a survey by the British Psychological Society in which psychologists were asked if there was “one nagging thing” they didn’t understand about themselves.:

David Buss of the University of Texas answered, “One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as believing that I will be happy for a long time after publishing a new book, when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than anticipated. Another is my succumbing to the male sexual overperception bias, misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest.”

I definitely fail at affective forecasting. Having my name in the local paper does not give me a very good feeling. I guess I didn’t really think that it would make me happy when I wrote it, but it’s weird how I’ve lived so much of my life wanting to see my name in print. And it’s always my letters to the editor that end up making the cut, not my poems, my stories, my book-length manuscript. It’s sort of lame to be just another person with an opinion. But that’s what I am.

The other note, this sexual overperception bias, is something I’ve been wondering about for awhile. I haven’t been in the work force since I married and had kids, and before that I never really thought much about appropriate levels of friendliness with the opposite sex. When a woman shakes a man’s hand, is she supposed to look him in the eye?

You can’t really stand up to a threatened law suit by lowering the eyes and acting modest. There is something about making a firm point that requires all the muscle and vibrato that my sex has to offer. And yet, I’m not offering sex at all. At least, I don’t think I am—just saying I have it, and he can’t have it, so there. And I should be clear--this is all done with posture and eye-contact. Possibly the only reason I'm even aware of it, is that I tend to have a more slumped and averted carriage in my day to day life.

But then there are those other friendly interactions where I’m not thinking about sex at all, old guys at Church, kids’ friends’ dads. I smile when I talk—can’t help it. Could be fair to say I even flirt a little with the old guys. But it’s because I’m not sexually interested that I’ve never questioned this friendly banter. Could I have led Jerry McQ to believe that I have a more prurient interest?

Anyway, I hate to sign off for Christmas on this note, so maybe I’m not signing off. But if I am, I wish anyone reading this a blessed Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009

This Marvelous Love

(Fighting the Man, part 3)

I didn’t sleep at all Saturday night. Instead, I lay in bed while my husband snored, and I ticked off in my head all of the things I could have said, when a certain individual in our community called and said, “I’m going to be very firm with you, Mrs. Duffy. If my name appears in any public writing that you do, you will hear from my attorney, and I will make your life very difficult.”

I had given him the courtesy, when I interviewed him, of letting him know that I planned to oppose the zoning effort that would allow a high density apartment complex to be wrapped around my family’s home on three sides. The person in question, a local businessman, did not want his name mentioned in connection to the pending real estate deal, even though his role in the transaction is very significant. I looked out the window at my beloved field and pictured it marred with street lights, timber balconies and vinyl siding.

As it happened, the letter I had already sent to the paper, to be published sometime this week, did not mention his name, which made the injustice of his threat sting so much more. I felt bullied, and angry, and I thought about all the things I should have said all night long and all the next day.

He doesn’t have the power to make my life difficult. And I’m not out to ruin him anyway, regardless of how he feels about me.

“Make justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord.”

And so I have found myself in a dangerous position in this week leading up to Christmas. I have been absent to just about everything that is not the composition of letters to editors, letters to zoning boards, letters to neighbors, letters to corporate entities attempting to purchase the land in question, and letters to the entities attempting to sell it.

And there are other things…

Several months ago, I started thinking I needed to make some money. So I told the Music Minister at our Church to pass my name on to any couples getting married who wanted a cello to accompany their wedding. She said she would, but she also thought that it would be nice to have a solo cello at the Christmas Eve Mass, and would I play?

Well, it was a way to get myself out there, so I agreed, even though solo cello was not what I had in mind. I’m an accompanist, in the background, not alone, in front of everyone. Between playing solo cello after a ten year hiatus, and the mixed reaction with which my editorial in the paper could be received, I was wondering how many acts of public buffoonery I could commit in one week.

And of course playing cello at Mass would be yet another reason why my heart and mind would probably not be worshiping God on Christmas. I was starting to worry that this Christmas would pass me by. And I was sort of glad. Just do my duty to my family, cook dinner for my in-laws, smile at all the people who, for various reasons, are annoyed with me at the moment, and soon enough all the drama would be over, and then, I could finally find my moment with God. I would have paid a lot for an hour of silence from the activity, and from my thoughts, but it just seemed like it wasn’t meant to be.

At the Church rehearsal, the vocalist sang her song, and I sat at my music stand feeling like I needed to roar. I wanted to sing. I wanted to sing my guts out. When I was in college, sitting in the Orchestra pit accompanying the Halleluiah chorus of Handel’s Messiah, I always felt so pent up and frustrated that those people on the stage were the ones who got to open their mouths and let it all out, while I sat grumbling on my strings down below.

I even thought about asking the music minister if I could just yell into the microphone and hear my voice echo through the empty sanctuary. If I could not have my hour of silence, then I could be content with an hour of extreme noise. But instead, I played Silent Night on the cello four times and packed up my stand and my music.

Everyone put on their coats to go home, and I went to look at the manger scene that volunteers had set up after Mass on Sunday. I sat down in front of it, while the music minister turned out the lights in the Sanctuary.

"Do I need to go?” I asked.

“I need to go,” she said, “But if you want to stick around, you can lock up and turn off the lights.”

And so it happened that I found myself alone, in near darkness and silence in the Sanctuary of my Church.

Ask and you shall receive.

What a magical thing it is to be alone in a Church at night. My priest has a little chair set up in front of the tabernacle with his notebooks and breviary. He comes in every morning before the sun rises to prepare for Mass, and I felt envy for a moment that that is his life: every day, to be alone, in silence, in the dark, with our Savior.

To clear my mind of all its clutter and noise, I knew that I had to sing. It felt dangerous to break the silence, like I was trespassing on God. But the first quivering lines of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” bounced off the pews and arches, and the echo sounded so refined, so much clearer than my own voice, like an angel in the Sanctuary singing with me.

I kept singing until my mind was free of its clutter. It took about fifteen songs, but then my heart started opening up to receive His love. What a gift.

All of my life, I have wanted to be near Him, and yet I have always been my own obstacle to receiving him.

When my husband and I bought our first home, it was no accident that it was across the street from a Catholic Church with a 24 hour Adoration Chapel. Many of my neighbors were not so desirable, but He was there, right across the street.

I did not take advantage of it like I should have. At that time I had two babies just about a year apart, and I didn’t have my act together. To get up at 8 and go to Mass seemed like a logical impossibility, but I could go out on my doorstep and make the Sign of the Cross and salute my neighbor, Jesus. That was enough.

When we moved, it was to free my children from the undesirable neighbors, to give them a more free-range life. But to do so I had to sacrifice my neighbor, Jesus, with all of the other neighbors as well. I look back on the days of having Him so near and wonder why didn’t I just get up and go to Mass? Why wasn’t I at Adoration every night, singing my guts out in the Sanctuary’s dark silence?

And now here I am, fighting off undesirable neighbors again, and wishing only to have my heart free enough to love.

There are so many things I get wrong. But this one thing, this desire to love God, is one thing I know I do right, because it was given to me, independently of my own efforts. “He has put into my heart a marvelous love.” It comes from outside myself, “a greater joy than they have from abundance of corn and new wine.”

“I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

If I could just trust this marvelous love, I could be free.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fighting the Man (pt.2)

My friend Pedge never yells at her children. I’ve been watching for many years, hoping to catch her in a weak moment. So many mothers yell, if for no other reason, to let witnesses know that they care about their child’s misbehavior. Not Pedge. I’ve asked her husband, “So what really happens when we’re not here? Doesn’t she ever just go crazy?” No. Her husband attests, she does not raise her voice.

Irene and I asked her the other day, how she does it. What kind of superhuman power is required to rear five children and never raise your voice?

“I just tell them, you can get dressed, or not get dressed. I’m leaving in ten minutes, and you’ll be in the car in your clothes, or your pajamas. But you will not steal my joy. You want to throw a tantrum about something? That’s fine. I’m going to continue what I’m working on and I’ll get back to you when you’re done. But you’re not going to steal my joy. It’s mine, and you can’t take it.”

Genius. Why should I let the misbehavior of my children blindside me into getting angry? I didn’t ask to be an angry person. I don’t deserve to be an angry person. In my bones, I am not an angry person. If I spend too much of my life being angry, it’s probably because I give away my joy too easily. Well, I’m not going to do it anymore.

Last night, one of my boys attempted to kick me when I took his book away to turn out the light. He knew better. It was uncalled for. My husband’s out of town this week. We’re all tired, and on any other day of my life, I might have unleashed on him a mouthful of spittle words and flying spank hands. But as much as I didn’t deserve to be kicked, I really didn’t deserve to have my day end in anger and regret.

“You may never kick your mother,” I said, firmly, but not yelling. I took him by the shoulder and marched him downstairs. “You’ve got five laps.” They run laps to our fence and back, not a short distance. We discovered several years ago that spanking is not much of a deterrent, while running gives us both time to calm down.

“But it’s cold!” he whined.

“That is why I have purchased for you a hat and coat.”

“But I’m tired!” he whined again. If anything steals my joy, it is unrelenting whining. I can be calm through the first few times, but after awhile I pop.

“That’s six laps. And I’ll give you another lap for every word you say. You can run all night if you want. But….You Are Not Going To Steal My Joy.” He didn’t know what to make of that. I think it was the first time he had heard his behavior framed in such a way, that it had potential to steal something from another person. He went out to run. And then he came in and went to bed. I didn’t hear another word from him all night, except for an apology.

My success caused me to look at some other areas in my life that are robbing me of my joy.

I’ve felt lately, a little man-handled by “Christmas Spirit.” The pressure to spend money, to prove that I have a benevolent heart, that I can help the economy, that I love my children, that I’m game for a gift exchange comes from every corner.

My kids are old enough to be aware that the Santa who comes to their house is not the same Santa who visits their friends. I’m not getting them much this year because they have more than they need, and can comfortably store. And I’m not going to beat myself up about it. My joy will not be less on Christmas morning because there are fewer presents under the tree. Not sure what to do with their disappointment yet, but I know it’s not going to steal my joy.

I’ve noticed a creeping sense of grinchery on my part, as I go to Church and one of the petitions is, “And in this busy month of Advent, let us not forget to pause, and remember the real reason we celebrate the Season.” The school principal offered a similar platitude after the school play Tuesday night. Our kids had just spent two months learning songs about Santa and how they don’t want slippers for Christmas, but simply by “pausing” to offer Jesus a quick thought, everything is put into perspective?

Well, I’m Not Going to Let it Steal my Joy.

This experiment has helped me to realize something about the nature of joy. First of all, it’s a practice. I’m not saying that as soon as I decided I wouldn’t let anyone steal my joy, I never yelled again. Matter of fact, I yelled five minutes ago, while I was writing this. But it caused me to examine, “Where is this impulse coming from? And what can I do to prevent it?”

Where platitudes are concerned, I dislike them because Jesus is not just the reason we celebrate the season, he’s the reason for my entire life. I don’t like the idea that I have to cue up warm fuzzy Advent and Christmas feelings simply because I’ve pressed the pause button on my crazy life. It so rarely works and then I feel disappointed.

My anti-commercialism cannot remain satisfied in its anti-ism. It has to find its purpose in an embrace of finer things. Hence, for my joy to be authentic, for it to work in suppressing my anger, my faith must be something that I am always doing rather than something I am always seeking to feel. I want my children to receive that joy for Christmas, the joy of an active, practicing faith. And I want them to keep it through their entire lives.

I don’t suppose my kids would grow in their love for Christ if my actions are to smack them silly when I’m angry, tell them I thought their play stunk, said that my Church lector wrote the petitions badly, and then followed it all up with: “But Jesus is the reason for everything I do.”

As long as my joy is my Christ, no one can take it from me. But I can squander it, as easily as I stop “doing” my faith. If I am not practicing my faith and my joy every day, then it’s no wonder I feel nothing when I pause to remember the reason I celebrate anything.

A very good post at Light and Momentary

Fighting the Man (Pt. 1)

We received a certified envelope today informing us that there will be a public hearing to rezone the cornfield next door to build an apartment complex. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, the cornfield, that is. It’s too conveniently located to so many amenities. I still don’t favor it, for a number of reasons. Anyone have experience in fighting the power? What kind of arguments hold sway in determining who is granted their desired zoning?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Long Winding Roads (that always seem to lead here)

When I was five, my parents moved to a bedroom community twenty miles from the center of Indianapolis. It was a temporary move, meant to be a half step towards their final move to the country. Everything about the house pointed to its transitory service to us, the hollowness of the doors, the flimsiness of the walls. My family lived there for twenty years.

I could drive to that house in my sleep. In fact I have driven there, when I’ve given my brain the instruction to “drive home” and then unplugged from the mental exercise of determining the correct turns to make. I’ve arrived on that road, only to wake up and realize, “Oops, wrong home.”

Looking at what the new owners have done with the place, I feel bent out of joint, because they’ve done the house all wrong. They’ve cut down the Hawthorne my dad planted, and I can see into my old bedroom window that it is now an office. It looks sad, and unloved.

Of course we didn’t love it much when we lived there either. My husband and I had an opportunity to buy it when my parents finally made their move to the farm on which they now live, and no, we didn’t want it. It was a great street to grow up on, but the house felt stubborn, inefficient, and brown, and I also didn’t especially want to live among the memories of my former self and my siblings and all of our growing pains.

I drove by the old house Friday night after having dinner with my girlfriends from high school. When I go back to that road, that driveway, I still feel like I own it. And I own all those streets around my old house where we used to ride our bikes and where my husband and I took walks when we were dating. When I lived there, I wanted nothing more than to leave there, and when I finally did leave that town, I thought, “good riddance.”

But certain memories take on deeper value with the passage of time. Our life there comes back to me more and more often: the hole where my knee went through the drywall as I held the bedroom door shut against my sister. In the bathroom we shared, my sister and I would stand side by side in front of the mirror getting ready, and break into pouty poses: “This will be our album cover.” On the corner of our road, I had my first and only car accident, driving on ice when I was sixteen. I slid off the road and into a tree, totaling my parents’ station wagon.

And further down the road, where a creek crosses through the cornfields, my husband proposed to me on one of our walks. When I drive by the creek bed an alarm always goes off in my heart. We went back to that creek a couple months after we married to bury a miscarried child. I didn’t realize that we could have asked for a burial, and because I wasn’t far along when I miscarried, I would have been embarrassed to ask for one. We have not walked along that creek bed since then, but I still own it. A tiny baby of mine is there, in a little Tupperware coffin.

And this is not where I intended to go with this essay, but here I am, and now I’m stuck. I always get stuck when I think about the Tupperware. So I’m going to bed.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Salvation History

This weekend, one of my boys had his first Reconciliation. Our Parish had a mini-Penance service just for the seven children who received the Sacrament, and for their families.

The kids all lined up on their pew, looking fearfully towards the Reconciliation Room. A couple of kids held lists of their sins, some held copies of the Act of Contrition. One of the boys had been afraid even to enter the Reconciliation Room when they practiced before hand. But Saturday morning, each fearful child went bravely into the room, said their sins, and came out smiling. And so did my husband and I, my son’s Godfather, his older brother, and all of his Grandparents.

“You were in there a long time” my husband said on the drive home. “You must have had a lot to confess.”

“I just have a very delicate conscience,” I answer. My husband has mastered the art of Speed Confession and Speed Rosary. He has a very efficient spirituality.

I have had to discipline myself in the Confessional. I love Confession. It seems specially designed for someone who needs affirmation of forgiveness and who has a fervor for examining motive behind wrongdoings. I’ve often wanted to offer, not just a thorough confession, but also reasons and circumstances that led to my fall. It took some further examination of my desire to pinpoint motive to realize that is was a means of absolving myself of some personal culpability. It takes two to tango, after all. I wouldn’t get angry at others if I lived on an island.

One of my best Confessions ever was right after college. I’d spent the weekend at a friend’s wedding, which had been one long party. I was on my way home, feeling like a soulless wreck, and happened to pass St John’s Church right at the hour when daily Confession began there. It was one of those coincidences that looking back, feels like the hand of God, scooping me out of the pigsty and carrying me home.

The priest there was old, could barely hear, and his Confessor style was no-nonsense. I began rounding my way towards my sins, and he said, “Those aren’t sins. Tell me your sins.” So I started listing them, without explanation. After each one he stopped me and asked, “How many times?” And I was horrified to tally up the number and take responsibility for my repeated offenses. I had never seen my culpability laid out in such certain terms before, and I was struck with a true contrition that I had not possessed upon entering that Church.

Friday night, I got together with some friends from grade school. We grew up together, spent twelve years of our lives making mistakes, and picking ourselves back up. We all have children now. And we have all come back to our Christian faith. Some of our conversions have been dramatic, others, a long slow reclamation of tenets we never decidedly left. But one friend’s path homeward has been more troubled. After a ten year absence from our lives, we have just recently reconnected with her.

When we talked about our faiths, and how Christ has helped us to put our lives in an order we could not have achieved on our own, my friend said, “I can respect that. I’m just not there yet. And I’m not really sure how to get there.”

This friend was from one of the handful of other Catholic families in our small town. We experienced our First Reconciliation and First Communion together. We did our Confirmation together. I was present at her wedding.

We had remarked on how our childhoods had made us more like family than friends. We were thrust together by circumstance early in life, and forced to deal with, and grow to love one another’s eccentricities and differences. Even though there are chunks of one another’s lives we didn’t witness, getting together now somehow feels like going back to second grade, where we get one another’s sense of humor in just one word:

One of us opens the fridge and says, “Sarah, what the hell happened in here?” and Sarah answers, “Yogurt.” And we all crack up, because, it’s yogurt. Just yogurt. And yogurt is funny because it does wreak its own particular havoc on a fridge.

It occurred to me, as we talked about our faiths, that this familial experience has an even deeper resonance with my Catholic friend, because it is also a Sacramental history. I wasn’t sure if it would rub her the wrong way or not, but I said it anyways, “You could try going to Confession. It would be a first step towards getting there.”

And she looked at me, sort of surprised and said, “Thank you for saying that. I would never have thought of that. I might do it.”

It’s a first step towards coming home when we don’t know what other steps to take. It’s the prodigal son tentatively making his way up the lane to his Father’s house, unsure of whether or not he will be rejected or accepted. And of course, the Father runs out to meet him in an embrace.

So many times I’ve gone to Confession with just a partially contrite heart: I’m not really sorry, and I’m not sure I’ll change. I’m only aware that I don’t like where I am. I feel dirty, and alone. And so many times, with seemingly bottomless patience, I have been greeted by my Father and given the gift of a fully contrite heart, often shedding tears in the Confessional.

It’s always good to see my friends, to go back to my home town, and drive the familiar roads. I put on the Sufjan Stevens song, “Chicago” in the car, which is so ethereal and nostalgic in its own rite,

“If I was crying…
it was for freedom
from myself and from the land.

I made a lot of mistakes…

You came to take us,
(all things go, all things go)
to Recreate us
(all things grow, all things grow)”

The following morning, our family took a first step in creating a Sacramental history for our son. We went to church as a family to say, “Indeed, I have made a lot of mistakes.” And if I took an embarrassingly long time in the Confessional, it’s because I was crying for freedom "from myself and from the land."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Quick Takes

First of all, I want to say thank you to Jen, both for hosting Quick Takes, and for featuring me in her “Undiscovered Gems” series. It has been an honor to enjoy her shared readership. And while I know many readers may find this blog isn’t their thing, I welcome you all back.

Driving in the car the other day, my five year old daughter asked, “Which do you like better, Love or Biscuits?”

“I like Love,” I answered, consciously aware that biscuits are actually the less demanding of the two options.

“I like Biscuits better,” she answered. “Because if you eat Love, you won’t have any left to give me.”

This morning, my three-year-old and I sat on my bed reading a book. He’s an innately affectionate child, and delights always in being as close to me as possible. As he jockeys for a closer position, his elbow hits my full bladder, he pushes on my breasts to boost himself up, he pulls my face closer to his and says “See, mommy!” and I don’t see because I can only look cross-eyed at the item that is two inches from my face. Once or twice he’s tossed his head back and hit me on the chin or the bridge of my nose with his noggin. And for a minute, my reflexes want to push back, “Who just punched me in the face?” and then I realize it was my child, whom I love, and it was an accident.

I was about to employ a more librarian approach, “You stay on that side of the bed, and I’ll hold up the pictures for you to see.” I was thinking that affection sort of hurts, and that’s why I’m probably not an innately affectionate person.

Then it occurred to me, that this is actually not an affection problem so much as it is an etiquette problem.

When I was around eleven years old, one of my favorite activities was getting as close to my siblings as possible, right up next to their ears and saying, “Does this BAAAATher you? Am I making you UN-COM-FORT-A-BLE?” Of course it bothered them, that’s why I did it.

I decided to try the same tactic on my three-year-old. I got up nose to nose with him and said, “Does this BAAATHER you?” Sure enough he pulled back, and said, “Don't Mommy!”

This is the etiquette lesson I have been practicing almost my entire life to teach: “Stand back a few inches, you are making me uncomfortable.” Funny, that in rearing five children, this is the first time it’s occurred to me to teach it.

A couple weeks ago, I deleted my presence almost entirely from the internet. I deleted this blog. I deleted my facebook account. I was questioning the importance of technology in my life.

I was surprised, during that half of a day when my blog was gone, how bereft I felt without it. The facebook wasn’t hard to part with, but the blog had come to feel at times like my living room or parlor, at times like a member of the family, at time like an extension of my brain and its work. I felt, without it, like I’d amputated my right hand.

Naturally, I put the blog back up, and Blogger fortunately makes life easy for people suffering Blog Deleter’s Remorse. It was all still there, in the same form, same comments and all, just waiting for me to reconsider.

But since then, I’ve been considering a number of different perspectives for why I do this blog. On one end of the spectrum, it’s only entertainment, and completely self-serving. I have no responsibility to my readers, and they come here at their own risk. On the other end of the spectrum, this blog is an extension of my Christian work, or my Apostolate, and I have grave responsibility to my readers whose very souls depend on reading inspiring words here.

The comment boxes in the last two posts have provided a wide-ranging exploration of the gradations between the two, and I’m still not sure where my writing falls. But I loved a recent comment from Sally Thomas, who said:

“As I went through my day I kept thinking about all this, and it came to me that really, truly, the reason I have a blog at all is that I have to write. It's a total compulsion. And any time I'm writing, or thinking for that matter, I'm always talking *to* someone. Sometimes it's a real, actual person whom for whatever reason I've taken as Muse du Jour; sometimes it's an imaginary reader. But there's always a reader, ie a listener to my monologue.

And blogging is good because it's motivating to have real readers/listeners. Makes me do it. It's part literary endeavor, part thought-exercise, part dashed-off email, part notes for later, more developed writing, etc etc etc. It's thinking-in-writing -- but it's thinking *to* people, which does make me self-edit in ways I tend to think are useful rather than otherwise.

Also, when I write on paper, or in word processing, and it's just me and the blank space needing to be filled -- THAT's when I get writers' block. Never when I know I have these other people out there waiting -- breathlessly, of course -- for the next installment of whatever. Then I can just bang it out, because it's for them, whoever they are.”


I never seem to have seven quick takes, because my takes are not very quick.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On Blog as Apostolate

The following was initially a comment I wrote for the previous post.

As I have nothing else for posting today, and as my comment took up a lot of space, and as I'm pretty sure no one is still reading that thread, here it is:

I think it’s true that blogging is an apostolate in the sense that every aspect of our lives is an apostolate if we take our Christian vocation seriously. You tell your story with honesty and a Christ-centered heart. You write beautifully and the final package is entertainment that is edifying and apostolic, even if that is not a stated or intentional purpose of your writing.

I think my understanding of “apostolate” has been colored by my experiences with Regnum Christi, in which apostolate is related to recruitment, and is worked on during hours specifically designated for Christian work. As that Movement undergoes purification, I am also rethinking how I use certain words I am in the habit of using. Part of my objection to the “blog as aspotolate” idea is that, by my former definition, it compartmentalizes aspects of our Christian life.

I appreciate what Jennifer says about our blogs being public, and I agree, as such that it requires prudence and savvy, just as any public life does.

I’m not sure, however, that I can “prayerfully consider” every word I put up here. I think it might make me scrupulous and defeat anything I write before I write it. And even if I agree that I should do it, the fact is, I won’t do it. Just as I don’t always prayerfully consider every word I say to my children when I discipline them. And never am I more entrenched in the work of forming Christian souls than when I am at home with my kids. But if I dwell on the damage I may or may not inflict on my children in my moments of non-reflection, I would probably despair of my vocation to motherhood, and my Christian vocation alike.

I learn from story. I experience my faith in story. Stories can glorify God, but sometimes they don’t. I have personal experience of coming to a deeper embrace of my faith through stories that might even be considered anti-Catholic. I think God can use every aspect of our lives for his Glory.

In “Blogging,” which by its nature orients us towards stories about ourselves, I have to trust that God can use my stories however he wants, even when my intentions are not entirely pure, even when the inevitable self-promotion sneaks into my writing.

If my entire life is an apostolate, of which blogging is a part, then my Christian work must include my errors. It has to include writing that is sometimes just cathartic for me. It has to include my parental and spousal missteps.

And as all this relates to Catholicism, fundamentalism and art, I think that what’s missing from a lot of blogs, and a lot of Christian writing is a humble and deep acceptance of God’s unconditional love and mercy. He forgives us our sins. He uses our sins for his ends. So I think we can relax our fears a little concerning writing with honesty about our lives. If the future of Christian story-telling is in the blogosphere, and I think it might be, then I would be sad if our stories were lost because we were afraid to tell them.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bright Shiny Catholic Stuff

I was in a Catholic bookstore this weekend, looking for some good religious books to put under the tree for my kids. I’m sure the Stations of the Cross coloring book will be tossed over their shoulders like a pack of underwear, in favor of the Legos and dolls. But until some Catholic entrepreneur comes up with something bigger and shinier to command my children’s attention, a coloring book it is.

On one of the shelves in the bookstore, I picked up a book for grown-ups that looked interesting. I read the back cover, absorbed the synopsis, then looked for an author bio. “Well what do you know,” I thought, “It’s that angry man on the internet,” and re-shelved the book. I’d recently happened upon the author’s blog, on which he peeled apart the writings of some bad Catholic with whom he took issue.

The author bugged me, not because of his lack of charity. Mean people are a curiosity. He bugged me because his self-appointed Catholic gate-keeping functioned as a sort of literary terrorism, scaring anyone who writes with a “Catholic” next to his or her name out of writing anything interesting.

As Pentimento suggests in a recent comment here:

“If your Catholicism is an openly-stated aspect of your writing and your consciousness, you may find that some of your equally open and self-conscious co-religionists are standing by waiting to judge the way you express your faith and tally how well you live up to it…. I was surprised a year or so ago to receive deeply hurtful criticisms in my comboxes from some who thought my writing was inappropriate, and from others who called my faith into question and even slandered me in the comboxes of a friend. My best friend in real life… took me to task after that because she thought my writing had become bland and cautious.”

Who wouldn’t write cautiously when our writing about our personal experiences as a member of this Catholic Community faces such vicious scrutiny? Fundamentalism in our readership makes for fundamentalism in our writing. We constantly check ourselves to make sure we don’t commit error that might lead others into sin.

And by extension, we create for ourselves a new problem: thinking of blogging as an “Apostolate.”

Is there one single person who has been converted to Christ by reading blogs? Please stand up and be counted.

Of all the crazy substitutions for Church, of all the absurd rationalizations for our addictions: “The blog is my apostolate.” Unfortunately, casting ourselves as spiritual internet gurus produces reams of boring and unreliable content in the Christian blogosphere. And it forces our readers to become their own Magisterium, sifting and sorting through the web for strands of truth. Hence the angry author whose book I encountered at the Catholic bookstore. It’s a vicious cycle.

Here then, is one Catholic blogger who will say without shame, I write this blog only because I enjoy doing it. It is not my apostolate. I might lead you astray. I might cuss. If you want edification, information, tips for domestic bliss, and a deeper spiritual life, please seek it elsewhere. Come here only for your entertainment, and even that I cannot guarantee.

Likewise, when I go out in the Catholic blogosphere, I will click away from the author who has a chip on his shoulder. I will click away from blogs with a faulty sense of humor, from lay blog homilies, from links without a back story, from recipes, parenting advice, and anything with the word "musings" in the title. And if I don't know the author, I also click away from people’s prayers—toss them over my shoulder like a pair of underwear in a child’s Christmas stocking.

I don’t come to the blogosphere to pray, actually, nor to be edified, chastised, convinced, converted or transformed. And I definitely don’t come to fight. Maybe it's shallow of me, but I come to be entertained.

Of all the reasons I'm glad I'm not a cow... birth to a child the size of a great dane is at the very top.

Here's the latest baby in the family, at my parents' farm:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Addendum (He sees you when you're sleeping...)

I can’t get that bad movie I watched the other night out of my mind, which is by no means a recommendation of it. It was set in Mexico where religious symbols are everywhere, which means that in the background of every dirty deed performed on screen was an image of Our Lady, or a Crucifix. Unlike the scene in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (a movie I DO recommend), in which a character is unable to perform in the sack because of the statue of Our Lady on his girlfriend’s dresser, the characters in this movie were oblivious to the religious symbols that surrounded them.

It’s troubled me for a couple of days, their coldness and oblivion. I thought at first that the movie makers were thumbing their nose at religion, my religion, in particular. And since it was a coming of age story about teenage boys, it made me feel despairing about the spiritual life of young men during that pivotal time in their lives. I was tempted to say that adolescence is some sort of parenthesis to the spiritual life—a time when young men are in less control of their wills than even before the age of reason.

Today, it occurred to me, that as troubling as the lives of American teens seem to be, there really is no parenthesis to the spiritual life. God became man: a baby, a child, an adolescent, a young man. The beauty of the incarnation is that Christ is not oblivious to any of the temptations that any man in any stage of life might feel. Of course there is a Crucifix in every heinous scene of that movie, because Christ is privy to all the wretchedness of humanity, whether or not we want to give him the credit for understanding what we’re capable of. We would prefer to think that he’s glaring over our shoulder waiting to judge and condemn us for these temptations that are too terrible for him comprehend.

But if Christ became man to save us from our sin, it is probably a safe assumption that he is present to us in our adolescence, battling fiercely to win our hearts, perhaps more than at any other time in our lives. And his victory is more often than not in the contrition that we feel once we have surfaced from our oblivion and recognize that he loves us still.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Naked Post

My son is in a swim club that meets at the local public high school pool. After practice, the kids are allowed to go into the locker room to change clothes, but I’m not very cool with the idea of sending my seven-year-old into the high school boys’ locker room, so he usually just puts his clothes on over his suit. It’s cold on the ride home, but not cold enough for hypothermia, so to me, a preferable option.

I’ve noticed lately that other young people have found their own ways of going around the locker room issue as well. After practice last night, I noticed a couple of kids hovered in the corner doing a little bait and switch right there in front of all who would take notice. These kids were Japanese siblings, members of a small community of Japanese people that have found a home in rural Indiana due to the Japanese auto manufacturing business.

I first noticed the little boy, probably around seven-years-old himself, girding himself with a towel in order to remove his wet trunks. I caught a flash of his bum by accident, with that inevitable lifting of the towel and dropping of the drawers—one of those moments when the eyes register “a naked bum” and it takes a moment for the brain to catch up and think, “That’s not very common out here among the English.” Same thing happened to me the other day driving on the interstate when I saw a woman apparently having bladder urges on the stretch of I-74 where there’s no exit for fifteen miles. “I think I just passed a naked bottom. How odd.”

Anyway, it cracked me up, the way the boy just gave up girding his loins when he got his tighty-whities pulled up. He hopped on one foot in his underpants trying to get his wet toe into the leg of his pants.

There’s a fair amount of nudity around our house; seven-year-old bottoms are a pretty common sight, which is why I’m always a little concerned that my kids will be the ones undressing in public, not realizing that there are different standards for nudity in public than there are at home.

Seeing the kid, and seeing other people take notice of him with sort of shocked expressions, I had a moment of thinking, “Americans are so provincial. What’s the big deal with a little nudity at the bathhouse?” You see, I’m enlightened about nudity. I have a little bronze statue of a naked discus thrower on my desk. Kewpie dolls are adorable. “The Last Judgment” is fantastic. I deal with so many bodily fluids, so many intimate functions of the body in my life as a wife and mother, that nudity is about as tame as it gets, harmless, and even a bit lovely. How quickly I forget...

I watched a bad movie last night after swim club, when the kids were in bed. My grandma used to watch the “Dukes of Hazzard” over our shoulders when we were kids, and she’d say, “This is horrible! Isn’t this awful?” Yet she was powerless to turn it off—that’s how I felt. I kept thinking the worst of the movie was over, and yet it wasn’t, but I kept watching anyway. By the end of it, I felt like a needed to take a bath myself. It was a coming of age movie about teenage boys—you can guess. I turned it off thinking, “That’s why no one I love should ever set foot in a boys’ locker room.”

Just being in a high school brings back so many memories for me, the smell of it: books and sweat, hash browns in a deep fryer. I walked through a gathering of post-practice football players, ripe with wet grass and testosterone. I felt scared for my life, scared for my future: in less than ten years I will have four teenage boys under this roof. They currently all share a room. That won’t last.

I came across a picture of my high school girlfriends and me in a friend’s swimming pool, all wearing bikinis, hugging one another. Half naked was our state of being for a large portion of our lives back then. If it wasn’t bikinis, it was the itty-bitty shorts we wore for track, the cheerleading skirts—the high kicks supposedly guarded by our “spankies,” the little underpants we wore underneath. We had a sense of physical familiarity with everyone in our graduating class. Even of those we didn’t “know” in a biblical sense (and many did “know” one another), we could draw up a pretty accurate mental picture of those supposedly hidden flesh points with little prompt.

The American high school is such a strange universe, but every day millions of American parents send their fledglings into it without much ado, perhaps a pang of recognition that their innocence is over. They scoff at the foreign boy hopping around the pool deck in a pair of tighty-whities (“Should we tell him that’s not acceptable?”), but everything changes once you set foot in the locker room. Nudity is shameless when we’re young, and shameless when we’re old, shameless in a family. It is required in childbirth, in bathing, in the marriage bed, in some of the most pivotal and important times of our life. And then there’s this one little parenthesis in our lives that is the educational system of America’s young adults, where nudity or semi-nudity is more prevalent than anywhere else, so far from innocent, and serves such little purpose, but we make our kids jump right in. I’m not sure what to make of it.

I suppose the faulty line in my thinking is the assumption that everywhere but high school is some sort of Eden. Post for another day...