Betty Duffy

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Quick Takes: quick links

(Thanks Jen, for hosting)

1.
I've been wanting to draw some attention to a few links I've been enjoying. Here they are:

2.
Dunia Duara
This is my friend Justin's blog (sometimes she comments here as "Jus"). She and her family are living in Kenya for a few years while her husband, a doctor, does a medical mission/residency.

Jus blogs mostly for friends and family, but she takes the most gorgeous pictures of her kids, the culture, and life in general, that just looking at her blog satisfies both my thirst for adventure and for domestic tranquility. She's Orthodox Christian, a great writer, an inspiring mom, a transmitter of beauty, and a dear friend.

3.
A Song Not Scored for Breathing
Christianity is nothing if not deep healing for serious wounds. Hope writes about sexual abuse, substance abuse, sexual addiction and recovery through Christ with incredible honesty and intelligence. This post gave me chills.

4.
Bloggers Anonymous

Speaking of addiction...


5.
An Aesthete's Lament
For those striving to live a life worthy of their blue china.

6.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
This is a short story collection I picked up because Steven Riddle is crazy about Li. I have not been disappointed. Incredible writing and story-telling.

7.
The Hurt Locker
I'm not usually a fan of war movies. This, however, was gripping and had tremendous food for thought. It's out on DVD. Warnings: Violence (not really, though there was some disturbing imagery), Language (probably, but I wasn't listening for that).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Do Not Speak...

I'm watching Masterpiece Theater.

Little did I know, I could pick up online the premier of Emma that I sacrificed to my husband's viewing of the NFL playoffs Sunday night.

Featuring Sick Boy as Mr. Knightly!

The sun is shining!

Again, tomorrow!

...and then perhaps Cranford?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Please Pour Me a Glass of Pinot Noir

My husband had to go out of town this week, and it makes me unhappy. If there is an ebb and flow to marriage, cycles of distance and closeness, we are on the shore at the moment, probably still on a high from our trip. I feel close to him, even though our literal distance from one another is about a thousand miles.

I do fine when he’s gone. As I’ve said before, I’m capable of handling the household: Bending, scooping up the pieces of the day, bathing children and putting them away. I’m a machine. But I’m reminded of a Bjork song I used to listen to in another life:

while you are away
my heart comes undone
slowly unravels
in a ball of yarn
the devil collects it
with a grin
our love
in a ball of yarn

he'll never return it

so when you come back
we'll have to make new love


I can’t help feeling resentful of our dependence on corporations that force us to be independent of one another. I had this sensation returning from Williamsburg as well, the first time I made lunches for my children. I was hyped up on the idea that there is nothing that people need in this life that God doesn’t provide, until I realized we were out of juice boxes, and I had no spare change around the house for the kids to buy milk at school. What fates dictate my dependence on these pre-packaged beverages? Why must I leave my home to go buy them? And why am I sending my children to school anyway? It’s the school’s fault we can’t just go get our water from the well. And this is, of course, fodder for a different post because it’s not really school’s fault. It’s my fault I’m too fearful to school my children at home.

But the example makes an important point: I want to blame the corporations for separating me from my husband and making my life less authentic, but it has just as often been something in me, fear, selfishness, that drives a similar outcome.

I keep thinking about a poem read recently, “The Entrance of Sin” by Scott Cairns (from his collection, Recovered Body ). The poet describes the events leading up to Adam and Eve’s fall:

…Sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke…
sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man’s hand and he withheld it.

...One supposes that even then, this new taste for turning away might have been overcome, but that is assuming the two had found the result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was this: every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined, the subsequent isolation one conceived was irresistible.


Even if my husband did not have to leave home this week, would I not eventually have succumbed to the idea that I need to invest in my own interests a little? The serpent whispers: “This has been great togetherness and all, but I’m ready to get back to my things. I don’t want to lose my identity. I don’t want to be so dependent that my happiness hinges on you being here.”

I do remember once, very early in our relationship, praying to God for detachment from my husband, something I probably needed in order to put more faith and trust in God. But it’s easy to confuse detachment for independence, and then wonder—what happened to our love? Some wicked devil has been collecting it with glee because we ourselves allowed it to unravel, by turning away, rebuffing, and withholding, in order to maintain this irresistible self.

I heard a homily last weekend on the Wedding Feast at Cana, about how the wine represents the “spirit” of the marriage, both the Holy Spirit that sanctifies the union, and the spark of spousal unity and attraction. When we feel our marriage has lost its spark, in either the spiritual or the physical sense, we should call on Mary and ask for her intercession. She urges Christ to perform miracles for us, to transform us, to turn our water into wine, to give us a spirit and a spark.

And then Christ, of course, keeps the best wine for later—when we’ve exhausted those early, superficial highs, when we’ve subdued the irresistible self, when we’ve asked for a miracle. He grants it.

My husband and I have always positioned our bed under a window, and one summer night, the bats were out, flying very close to our screen. We both jumped up to our knees to look out the window. It felt like we were two children, suspended for a moment by our mutual fascination in something other than ourselves--matrimonial innocence, like two lovers before the fall.

It was just a little taste of the sweetness that ensues when we quit treating one another like a trick pony: I’m here. Talk to me. Other couples talk. Why don’t we have anything to talk about? If we can look outward together, we are bound and united by our mutual experiences and labors. We don’t need to talk so much.

For now, my husband is away, united only by a phone call each night, and the pressure is on to make it count. Stay close, keep close, talk, talk, talk. When he comes back, I’ll fight the urge to leave the house pleading for some time off after a week home alone with the kids. I want to remember to ask Mary for a miracle, a little nightcap at the end of the day: to keep giving when I feel like I’ve given enough. Reopen the home and my heart to his headship. Take up the yoke again, with him at my side: Make new love, every day, new love.

Monday, January 25, 2010

We Won!

Two weeks ago, the zoning board in our town voted unanimously against the request of an apartment developer to rezone the field next door to us from single family to multi-family. And the developers withdrew their request before the City Council meeting. So we’re safe, for now.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Attention Prayer Warriors: This is an Email From God

I received an invitation recently to participate in a new prayer initiative. These groups keep springing up in forwarded emails addressed to “Prayer Warriors,” bemoaning the present culture and asking the recipient to use the powers of the chain letter combined with the Holy Spirit to spread the word and become a part of a miracle.

The most recent invitation came from a person I respect, who also wanted me to use my writing abilities to help the cause by composing weekly e-newsletters. Snagged! Rather than pressing delete, I have to reflect on the initiative and respond personally.

So I have pause now to consider, is it possible that God is currently using the humble means of spreading his word through a collective of grannies sending each other chain letters? If God saw fit to be born in a stable in Bethlehem, then why would it be so very unlikely for him to perform miracles through a misspelled chain letter?

I’m underplaying this particular initiative a little bit, because it is not JUST a chain letter. I would just be responsible for composing weekly newsletters that have the flavor of a chain letter. But it is also an ecumenical work, where different Churches in a community come together to plan “An Event” at which the community would pray and sing to change the world. In all, fasting, prayer, and song is not a bad initiative. In fact, it’s a very good initiative. I still feel that this is not exactly my particular calling, and I plan to respond accordingly.

I know this is not my calling because I have already received two very straightforward communiqués from God in recent months. One is that I need to spend less time in front of the computer rather than more. The other is that I need not spin my wheels on new initiatives and apostolates when I am not yet accomplishing the primary commitments of my Christian vocation.

It occurred to me as I thought this over that while spreading the word about a new fasting and prayer group is not a bad idea, Mother Church already has the structures in place to effect miracles. If the entire Church joined in the intentions of the Holy Father each week, fasted on Fridays and during the liturgical seasons of fasting, attended daily Mass, said a daily Rosary, attended regular Benediction and Confession, took up devotions to the saints, etc. then there would be miracles aplenty. The Church has already guaranteed the means to change culture and put each individual on the path to sainthood.

If we’re talking about the power of one person to change the world, then the answer is not necessarily to compose a letter in attempts to spread the word that hearts must be changed. It is rather to change my own heart. If I were already doing all of the above, and accomplishing my duties to my family with some regularity, and I still wanted to do more, well, then, email away!

But first, I need to get my house in order.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In Praise of Slo-Friends (rerun Aug.08)

Movement towards the truth implies temperance. If truth purifies man from egotism and from the illusion of absolute autonomy, it makes him obedient and gives him the courage to be humble, it thereby also teaches him to see through producibility as a parody of freedom, and to unmask undisciplined chatter as a parody of dialogue. Pope Benedict XVI


As this self-titled blog has developed into sort of a rant against popular self-absorption, you may find it hypocritical of me that I picked up a Self magazine at the gym the other day. Sitting on the stationary bike, I flipped to an article on gossip, and how to do it correctly. How to do it correctly? In otherwords, “How to Hurt People so that No One Gets Hurt?” It didn't make sense. But as “Self” magazine is all about what’s good for the self, it had to be noted that gossiping makes people feel closer to one another, and since being close to other people is good, gossiping must be good. But one should follow “Self’s” particular guidelines to keep anyone from suffering from your criticism of their life for your own benefit.

Self Disclosure: I have gossiped an unconscionable number of times in the course of my life. Starting somewhere around fifth grade, my conversations with friends began with not “What should we talk about?” but “Who should we talk about?” Who was on our nerves? Who should we not like on Monday? By high school, it was who was doing whom? And in college, who "gets it" and who is an automaton? Lord knows what gave me and chosen friend the authority to make such a judgment. But judge we did because all gossip is, just that, a weighing of another individual’s life against one’s own, paired with a preconceived decision that one’s own life is superior. People love to bask in feelings superiority with one another. I love to feel superior with a chosen friend. I love to be the one to say that the emperor has no clothes, which is why gossip is still on my list nearly every time I enter the confessional.

But live and learn. A peculiar thing about adulthood is that everyone knows the emperor has no clothes. Some people choose not to mention it however, in order to protect something that is greater than the ability of the eye to see. One day we realize that people cannot always control their eccentricities. And we will ignore the things someone does, a family member’s idiosyncratic behavior, a member of a prayer group’s need to share too much, because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is more important for the family or the group to survive than it is to acknowledge that someone’s behavior is odd or annoying.

As tempting as it is to get together with a girlfriend and dish about these things, in order to forge friendships that are not annoying or troublesome, we will forego friendly closeness in favor of greater goods. And this has been a necessary sadness for me. I have a history of hot and heavy relationships. I remember many a college afternoon spent lollygagging with girlfriends discussing all the irritating people in our sorority. There was a physical closeness that came with this dishing—sort of like monkeys lying around eating the fleas off each other’s backs--and I'd be lying if I said these relationships didn't meet a need for physical and emotional intimacy that as an unmarried person I craved very much. Friendships were forged in a matter of weeks in college, where we had not only the idle time for such chatter but incredible nerve as well. It was important to be close with people and closeness required the revelation of our own secrets, and the secrets of others.

In adulthood, I have been blessed with friends, old and new, who have learned the value of discretion and who care enough about my soul to leave off a conversation that does neither of us any good. But this has also meant that the development of new friendships has moved very slowly at times. Often, I have felt that little rise of adrenaline when a friend has approached the edge of revelation about some personal detail in her life or the lives of others, and then has begged off with, “I really shouldn’t go there.” The initial disappointment when I realize that this friendship will have to forego that particular revelation and closeness is at times akin to having temperance in a sexual relationship. I really want to push you further. But for the good of your soul, we will forgo that closeness, and instead, talk about the weather. Bummer.

But hey, there will be no regrets between us, no murky feelings after a conversation or fears that I have betrayed the people I love most. Our friendship will have to be sustained on something besides the faults of others, which are, after all, finite. Neither one of us will have to make haste to a confessional, and the naked emperor will maintain just a little bit of dignity. That’s a good thing.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Journal From Williamsburg

I initially had doubts about a Woodworking Conference in Williamsburg for an anniversary trip. It seemed that ten years of marriage could be better reverenced with beachfront, pina coladas and hours of gazing lovingly into one another’s souls. But the trip supplies a perfect amount of togetherness and solitude, enrichment and reflection. We eat breakfast, go to classes, meet for lunch, back to classes, and have dinner and evenings to ourselves.

My husband sits at the feet of the Master Craftsmen who create period furniture using the tools and techniques of the eighteenth century. He shares the classroom with a number of retired hobbyists, and a few geeks his own age, all of whom wait outside the lecture hall before class in order to find a good seat once the doors open. The conference staff supplied each attendee with a canvas bag containing samples, notes and writing utensils. It’s quite a sight to see so many men in flannels and jeans, lined up out to the parking lot, each with his own man-bag slung over his arm.

The luxuriating in my hotel room that I had planned to do didn’t happen. I went into the Colonial village, and started talking to the historic “interpreters” who are people in period dress, trained to relate Colonial life to modern visitors through conversation and demonstration. If you ask them a question, they answer in character, but mostly, when you approach their little exhibition, they start talking about what they’re doing, “I’m dying wool using turmeric and indigo on an open fire.…”

What’s notable about a place like Williamsburg, which has been scrupulously restored and rebuilt according to period practices, is that modernity will not be suppressed. Eighteenth Century speaks, and modernity answers back. Under every bonnet and leather shoe is a twenty first century brain and foot. Cell phones flip up at the threshold of each cottage as tourists emerge from the eighteenth century.

One can’t help feeling a bit like an imposter and eavesdropper, especially since in the winter, cottage doors are kept closed, so I open each door hesitantly, peek in to see if anyone is there, and if I will be welcomed. Sometimes I want to apologize for my jeans and my modern accent and for imposing myself on their little Colonial oasis. After a couple of days, I become more bold, and start using the knowledge I am slowly obtaining to ask questions.

There are Colonial Williamsburg fans who have been coming back to this place year after year, considering themselves more at home in a different century. I could easily succomb to such a practice, as Williamsburg can provide the illusion of a more authentic life. It’s possible to ignore the Williams-Sonoma, the Talbots, and the gift-shops nestled into Colonial architecture just on the edge of the village.

One of the “wives” (as the woodworkers’ companions were known as) was an elderly woman who said that this place was her home away from home. When the wives took a tour of the Williamsburg Inn, this woman hugged all of the staff, the house florist, the interior designer, the concierge—her diamonds twinkling in the light of the crystal chandelier. Rooms at the Williamsburg Inn begin at around $600 a night. Fortunately, there are plenty of more economical options for dreamers with fewer pennies in their pockets. Since my husband gets Marriot points, we stayed off the colonial campus where the outlet malls and Applebees restaurants fizzle into the suburbs.

On the way to an organ recital at the Wren building on the campus of William and Mary, I walked behind a woman who wore a familiar perfume. I trailed in her wake for a bit trying to place the memory of someone in my childhood who also wore the fragrance. I hate to leave a memory hanging on the edge of fruition in my consciousness. There is something about the perfume that I am supposed to remember, but it never comes back. What does come back is the commercial, “White Shoulders—Wear it and the World is Yours.” And it seems, in this case, the advertisement has delivered on its promise, as the perfume is like a pied piper, luring nostalgic and hypnotized gen-x-ers into following its scent in search of dead grandmas, or great aunts.

Another of the “wives” is attending the conference with her son. She was widowed at a young age, left with an infant, who now in his late twenties, still lives with her. I told her I had left five kids at home with my parents, and was missing the baby a bit. She looked at me meaningfully and said, “It’s good that you came, because you only have now.” It turns out husbands sometimes don’t wait indefinitely for our attention.

And just in case we needed more evidence of our mortality, there are earthquakes in Haiti: hundreds of thousands dead, dehydration, hunger, complete devastation. The Colonial town is blissfully silent on the issue. The blacksmith hammers away. The cobbler sews his leather. People in restaurants still order bottles of wine, and rather pathetically, my husband and I turn off the news and go to bed. Of course, we’ll send a check to assuage the guilt of continuing to have a good time in the face of such a disaster.

And we did have a good time. Did lots of walking, since the afternoons warmed to a pleasant 50 degrees. Drank many cups of coffee and related to one another our adventures during our time apart. Strange to have something to report over dinner, to have spent time doing things that feed our interests and intellects.

The drive home on the West Virginia turnpike gives me vertigo. Each turn of the highway on its steep incline makes the car feel like it’s dangling off the edge of the earth. Said a Rosary between requests for my husband to reduce his speed. On the straight ways, we play the alphabet game, and my husband decides to put a sign in the yard when we get home that says “Xylophone” as a courtesy to people passing who might require an “X.”

Back in the burgs of Southern Indiana, the roads are like ribbons on the hills, and each house displays a concrete Grotto to Our Lady—something it now occurs to me, I have not seen much of in the Protestant Colonies. And we are happy to greet the kids. The baby nurses as though I’ve never left and bounces up and down on my lap in greeting.

In my own home after a few days in hotels, I have pause to wonder what the lady of the house has been doing with her time all these years. Has she never washed the tiles in the shower? Does it occur to her to dust under the furniture?

The woman who has just returned from vacation has all sorts of new plans, like making bread, sewing and canning. She pictures a boxwood maze in the backyard, and a raised herb garden, then to rest at days’ end by candlelight in a reproduction Campeachy Chair, just like Thomas Jefferson’s.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Engorgement is GORGE-y-ous!"

--The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding


Every now and then, my husband and I call live radio talkshows. He dialed in Carol the Coach to talk about the portrayal of adolescent attitudes in the movie, Juno. The topic was essentially a ruse in order to hear his voice on the air. Carol affirmed his concerns, however, and said “Thanks for calling in ‘Bob,’” with all the requisite smarminess. I, on the other hand, called Dr. Laura for affirmation concerning a marital squabble and was promptly chewed out, and disconnected.

The marital sqabble in question: My husband had a business trip in San Francisco and he wanted me to fly out with him. At the time I was breastfeeding our eight month old and was three months pregnant with baby number 2. The events of 9-11 had just transpired, and hyped up on anxiety and hormones, I did not want to fly.

I expected Dr. Laura to agree that my place was at home with my babies, but instead she said, “Give that baby a bottle, drop him off at your mother’s, then get on that plane with your husband where you belong… What are you going to do when that baby of yours is too scared to give a speech in school? You’re going to tell him to face his fears, just like you do. Click.”

My husband chuckled in victory. I professed my belief that Dr. Laura would disagree with any caller, regardless of how justified their concerns are, and stubbornly remained at home while my husband went on his trip without me.

Nearly ten years later, my husband and I are on our way to Colonial Williamsburg for our anniversary. We have left all five children with my parents in spite of my anxiety about leaving our one year old for the first time. He’s not weaned, but he might be by the time we return and that makes me sad.

My husband is going to participate in a Colonial furniture making workshop with Roy Underhill, of the PBS series, “The Woodwright Shop.” And I’m going to attend lectures on Colonial Art, cookery and fashion, and otherwise luxuriate in our hotel-room, if I can allow myself to be wholy present to my out-of-state condition while the lives of my children tick on without me this week, a day’s drive away.

We passed a car on the interstate full of retirees, two men in the front seat, talking, and two women in the back seat with loosely permed helmet hairdos and pinched expressions. “Look at those grumpy people,” I said, “They’re probably on the way to Williamsburg, too, for an elder retreat. I bet they’re regretting their dried up wombs and wishing they had enjoyed their children more while they were young.”

“Don’t worry,” my husband said, “We can make another baby AND a Thomas Jefferson Table while we’re here.”

I admit, I secretly enjoy letting my husband play the badguy about leaving the baby behind. After five kids and ten years, I really do feel ok about taking this trip, but I want to be persuaded, and go through that lengthy process of submission and acceptance. And my husband does his part in this game with a good nature and appropriate persistence.

I am keenly aware that this opportunity is a gift. My grandma likes to tell me that when she was rearing her children, it would have been unheard of for a mother of five children to go on a vacation from her kids. And I feel blessed that my own parents have not treated their retirement as “their time” but have welcomed the grandkids with unconditional abandon. So many grandparents prefer to say, “Been there, done that, find your own babysitter.”

Another quotable misperception on marriage from the Elizabeth Gilbert interview was that “People will always want intimacy with one chosen person and you cannot have intimacy without privacy, which is why couples draw circles of privacy around themselves. They demand that family, neighbors and the law respect their union, and that is why we have marriage.”

Au contraire, marriage is a public declaration, not an inward turning, but an outward turning of the couple towards the bringing up of children and involvement in community life. Which is not to say that couples should not invest the necessary time in maintaining spousal intimacy. I was probably mistaken all those years ago when I refused to go with my husand to California. But I do not believe that I’m entitled to this vacation. It’s a gift, and a benefit of the outward turning marriage that my parents have practiced for forty years, and continue to exercise in their involvement with their grandchildren.

My kids love it at their house, and maybe, since I’m pumping breastmilk while I’m here to keep supply up, the little one will have me back when we return. Until then, my breast is full, very full indeed.





Similar post on The Public Life of the Family

Friday, January 8, 2010

If you are interested in any of the following:

1. The Twilight Series
2. The Creative Process
3. The non-fiction of Michael D. O'Brien

You might enjoy this discussion.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Embracing the Mystery (or more reasons to be annoyed with Elizabeth Gilbert)

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love," is in the news again promoting her new book, "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage." After having sworn off marriage, she has decided to give it another go, but only after defining marriage in soft palatable terms, “marriage lite,” and girding herself against the threat of a mysterious future by signing a prenuptial agreement.

In an interview in the Wall Street Journal on January 2, Gilbert concedes to marriage as a way to protect the privacy of her relationship with her partner and gain legitimacy and respect. But no bond lasts forever (without handcuffs), and she should know. Thus she considers it an act of charity to lay out an exit strategy:

“Even in the heat of love, it's as though we all understand that the future is a mystery, and it's best to keep your options open, just in case, God forbid, it doesn't last…. sometimes it is an act of love to chart the exit strategy before you enter the union, in order to make sure that not only you, but your partner as well, knows that there will be no World War III should hearts and minds, for any sad reason, change.”

She phrases her motives so reasonably. We are mutable, evolving creatures in a situation called marriage that over the years has undergone its own mutations. How can we possibly expect to remain yoked to both a changing person and a changing institution? And yet, one of the only certainties in life is that people do change, and it’s very possible to wake up after ten years of marriage, see the inert body under the covers next to mine and wonder, “Who is this stranger in my bed?”

We try to decode the mystery of other people by putting them into categories. My husband is phlegmatic. He has a dry wit. He’s of German/Irish descent. These classifications help to alleviate some of the mystery of the other, and make the thought of having yoked my life to a mostly unknowable entity a bit less fearful. But there seems to be a little voodoo in any such tests that claim to sum up and predict the behaviors of the human soul: The Myers-Briggs personality test, The Temperament God Gave You, “Which Jane Austen character are you?” on facebook.

The message of Christ redeeming tax collectors and prostitutes seems a sign to Christians, however, that we are never free to pigeonhole people. We can never assume that anyone is beyond the possibility of surprising redemption and change. And as we are all sinners, it should be our hope to be in constant transformation into Christ. The more we imitate Christ, the more knowable we are to others.

My cousin related a recent homily she heard on the Feast of the Holy Family by Father Walter Wagner, OP. On the finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple, Mary and Joseph ask him “Why have you done this?” And Jesus answers, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary ponders these things in her heart. The Gospel does not say she understood. She ponders. Her child is a mystery to her.

Reminds me of a poem I read in college by Robert Hass:

Household verses: “Who are you?”
the rubber duck in my hand asked Kristin
once, while she was bathing, three years old.
“Kristin,” she said, laughing, her delicious
name, delicious self. “That’s just your name,”
the duck said. “Who are you?”
the duck asked. She said, shrugging,
“Mommy, Daddy, Leif.”
---“Santa Barbara Road”


The child’s “delicious self” is a mystery both to the parent and the child. When the child can’t define who she is, she identifies herself by naming the members of her family.

And Jesus, attempting to explain himself to Mary and Joseph, identifies himself with his Father: “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?” I’m sure his answer was just as mysterious in his own, fully human, twelve-year-old mind as it was to Mary and Joseph. We are all mysteries to one another, just as we remain a mystery to ourselves.

Maybe the act of charity in the face of all this mystery, would be not to plot an exit strategy, but to go a little easier on our spouse, and on ourselves. We are all struggling to become more recognizable, more predictable, more knowable, more like our Father.


*Strong contribution from cousin, M.B., on this post.



Posts on Eat Pray Love:

Why I didn't like Eat Pray Love

One more word on Eat Pray Love

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Melanie Penn makes music.

One of my best friends from college has put out an acoustic/folk album.

Buy here.

Listen here.

She's very good.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I Doubt Your Family Is As Cool As This:

My husband points out that this post has no other purpose than to tell what I did over Christmas Break. If vacation logs with odes to family don't interest you, you might prefer to skip this one. I think I also used one or two impolite words.


When my siblings come together, we bring our combined eighteen children. They are all under the age of twelve, and after they have played until they are red in the cheeks, and we’ve fed everyone as much as they can eat, they sleep on floors, couches and chairs, in complicated configurations around my parents’ house: the little girls in traded pajamas, asleep on the floor in my parents’ room; The older girls, upstairs with their “American Girl” dolls; A pile of boys in the basement, laid out like slugs in their sleeping bags, dripping from the la-z-boy.

And then the grown-ups, who don’t feel very grown-up at all, emerge from the dark bedrooms where the babies have just been placed ever-so-carefully on their pallets, milk dripping from their open lips. We collect food and drink from the kitchen and sit around the big room, waiting for someone to say something funny.

“So Little Brother, getting a little thick around the middle are we?” Apparently, Little Brother is now some sort of “Rising Star” attorney down in Dallas, but we don’t want it to go to his head.

“I’m sorry,” Little Brother says, “you’re going to have to put that in a compliment sandwich for me.”

A compliment sandwich occurs when one frames a criticism between two compliments, thus softening the blow of the criticism for he who receives it, and allowing the one offering the criticism to make it ever so much sharper, since it’s offered between two compliments. For instance:

1. Cute haircut.
2. You’re a complete a-hole.
3. Nice shoes.

This is where the fun is to be had for my siblings and me. We thrive on offering one another thinly veiled criticism. It’s how we show our love. We revert back to our childhood personae: My older brother, the bully; my sister, the bookworm; I’m the bratty show-off; and my little brother is everyone’s pet and pawn.

We chronicle the rise and fall of one another’s weight with near-obsessive precision, and yet our family gatherings are in constant orbit around the kitchen, all day long, eating…eating more. So it seems an accomplishment of some sort of magic when one of us turns up thin (She gets to eat whatever she wants and not get fat.).

So Little Brother’s compliment sandwich goes thus:
1. You look just like Ben Affleck.
2. You also look like a guy who just swallowed Ben Affleck.
3. Fortunately, you’ve finally grown into your buck teeth.

Perhaps because of the compliment sandwich, this year was less critical than years past. Maybe we’ve worn out our old standbys. Maybe more of us are thin this year than not. Maybe because my brother-in-law leaves soon for Afghanistan, and my husband has pneumonia, and more and more time tends to pass between gatherings of our entire family, this year was about finding work for idle hands and it kept our hearts light.

We went outside for a walk. The snow fell in plump wet flakes, obscuring the view through our collective fogged up glasses. There was a crazy halo around the moon. A friend from college once said the moon and the earth are having a love affair, and it seemed on such a night, with the moon-glow on our snowy coats, that we might as well spend the evening together in the fantasy that we’re still young.

We passed the derelict house that sits out in front of my parents’ property. Its ancient trees planted in a row were topped off years ago and look like hands reaching up from the underworld. We were soon plotting the order in which we’d die if we were living in a horror movie. We couldn’t decide if it’s the nerdy girl or the slutty girl who always dies first, which put my sister and I at odds. If one of us had to play the nerd it would be my sister, and if one of us had to play the slut, it would probably be me, because as my sister-in-law pointed out, “Your blog got a little too sexy for its shirt last week,” (Can you sandwich that for me?). But my brother-in-law said he’d protect my sister, and so he’d probably end up dying first, going down with a military salute after a heroic battle for his life, and then tragically, the nerdy girl would die anyway. Romantic.

Around that time I decided I wasn’t going to be the slutty girl but the writer girl instead, and then it became a battle with my sister-in-law (the smart, sassy Texan) for who would die next. And we decided it would look like Smart-sassy would be the last one standing, but then she’d go into Writer Girl’s room and discover that Writer Girl had just finished typing up a manuscript about how Smart-sassy would take the knife, and that Writer Girl was really the murderer all along, and that she was that very moment standing in the shadows waiting to take down Smart-Sassy, and turn the sensational story into a best-selling horror novel. The end. I’m the last one standing.

We walked into the upper field, and decided halfway around perimeter that we would run across the field instead. We couldn’t decide if we were frolicking or fleeing the unseen. “Let’s call it a frolick,” one said, and we all agreed, which put us in a mood for more such fun.

We arrived at the sledding hill, where the toboggan and plastic disks sat in an alluring state of repose, from our children’s earlier descent. My brother-in-law grinned mischievously. Midnight sledding was inevitable. None of us are currently pregnant or depressed. Though we all may be closer in age to forty than twenty, we had no real reasons to decline this invitation to fun. Two by two, we went down the hill, and trudged back up, again and again, until someone pointed out that morning was just around the bend and our children would show us no mercy at dawn.

This morning, as everyone has packed up and driven back to their corners of the country, the pack of eighteen children has dwindled down to my five who are on their way to school, my husband is back to work, and the house is cold as a tomb, I can’t help laughing, remembering how my sister’s voice sounded like Miss Piggy as she flew down the hill in the night: “KERMEEEEEEEEEE!”

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"You're On A Freight Train Headed for the Blues"

--Jack White


Several months ago, my husband and I went to “Ribberfest,” a blues and ribs festival in Madison, Indiana on the banks of the Ohio River. I’ve never been much of a blues fan, and that night didn’t change it all for me, but it piqued my interest.

We sat on a stone wall next to a couple of bikers who’d been to this festival annually for the past few years. They were blues aficionados, and talked and sang and smoked as though anyone around them were welcome to join the conversation, so I did. Robben Ford played with a bassist and a drummer. I wasn’t familiar with the band, so I was listening for clues in the bikers’ conversation.

“They’re putting out a lot of sound for just three guys,” one of them said. I’d hardly noticed how many people were actually playing up there, because I just heard the product, a bluesy song that sounded much like every other bluesy song I’d ever heard.

“This guy’s the real deal,” said the other.

The real deal? “Why?” I asked, joining the conversation. Was it because he’d won a grammy? Because he’d collaborated with Joni Mitchell (a true accomplishment, in my opinion)? And if this guy was the real deal, why weren't there more people in the audience?

“Watch them closely,” the guy next to me said. “They’re having a conversation up there.”

I wanted to see this conversation up close, so I went up to the front of the stage, where the serious appreciators danced with their eyes closed.

The three members of the band breathed together. They communicated with eyes, with toes tapping, with the swaying of their bodies. Bass’s mouth puckered while his shoulders hunched. He appeared to be chewing. Reminded me of the puckered expression that would show up sometimes when people took pictures of me playing the cello, one of the reasons I was too vain to let go of myself and play with attitude. Drums watched him closely, then they both turned to Robben, who was getting down on the guitar. He was the leader, the big breath, the ignition. If he stopped, they would all stop.

My husband and I recently watched the documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” in which three iconic guitarists (Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White) come together to discuss their craft and make music. At one point, Jimmy Page talks about what it felt like to hit his groove in a band: “When passion meets competence, it’s absolute musical heaven.”

Yes, these guys were the real deal.

The three band members relished their command of the unspoken language. “How can I get some of that?” I wondered. It was a dance, with plenty of improvisation.

Pentimento spoke here (in the comments) about how music speaks a language beyond words, but I’ve found that the written word can also take on an aspect of "unspoken" communication.

In “It Might Get Loud,” The Edge said he considers the guitar his voice. He uses the sustain feature on his amplifiers to make his notes converse with the notes he played seconds before. His present music becomes a duet with the very recent past. I’ve always wondered what it was that made U2’s music so compelling. In a large part, it’s this conversation between the past and present, this "sustain," that has been taking place right under my nose all these years without my being aware of it.

I think Pentimento uses a sustain feature in her writing. I’ve often read one of her posts, like this one, and wondered what is it about her writing that makes me want to keep reading. It is the conversation between the past and present that is so skillfully executed, I hardly realize it’s taking place. It’s no coincidence she’s a musician as well as a writer.

“Music evokes location,” said the Edge. “Where is this music being played? Where does it take you?” The best writers evoke location. The Southern writers, O Connor, Faulkner, Percy, are not called the Southern Writers for nothing. I’ve been thinking lately about what the particular music of the Midwest is these days. Maybe it’s these new blues, Robben Ford singing, “I want to see what it feels like to be nothing to nobody.” Midwesterners always want to ditch the good stuff and run off to the coast.

The Edge spoke of a moment in U2’s early days, acknowledging that no one in the band knew what they were doing. They weren’t trained musicians. And he one day had the realization, “Our limitations as musicians were not going to be a problem: I can do that.”

For about eight years after I started having kids, I didn't write much. I decided that instead of writing, I would be a reader. Someone had to buy the literary journals. Someone had to appreciate all the words sent off to find their way in the cosmos. I would be that person. I spent most days reading all the books to which I didn't pay attention in college, and others that my liberal professors wouldn't have assigned.

I read a lot of good writing. And a lot of bad writing. And one day, it dawned on me: "I can do that." I could write somewhere between the good and the bad. What do these people producing all these words have that I don't have? Is it competency? Is it passion? Is it time? Am I not allowed to write? I decided that I would not let my limitations, whatever they were, be a problem for me. I was allowing my limitations to intimidate me. I was allowing them to make me feel like an imposter in a world I was born to inhabit, not the "Literary World," so to speak, but the world of my every day life that I longed to decipher in the written word. The only way for my limitations to cease being limitations was to surpass them, daily, little by little.

Though my limitations are still likely a problem for whoever reads this blog, writing it makes me feel like I'm a part of that three-way conversation, picking up cues from, breathing in accord with God and the world around me. It's my own little Midwestern blues band I guess. Not quite "the real deal," but one of these days...



More Quotes from the Movie:

Edge on the creative process: “There will always be something if you keep going.

Jack White: “When you dig deeper into Rock and Roll you’re on a freight train headed for the blues.”

On writing music: “If you don’t have a struggle inside of you or around you, you have to make one up.”

Jimmy Page on early experimentation with dynamics on electric guitar in rock music: “It’s the whisper to the thunder, the quiet invites you in….Light and dark, crescendo—wouldn’t I want to be employing that?”

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Few of my Favorite Christmas Presents

Steam rising off another newborn calf while we sat waiting and watching for its delivery.


Snow

The bat that flew out of our Christmas tree after it had warmed up enough to awaken from its hibernation. It landed on the couch next to me, then flew off into the house where we couldn't find it for a couple days. Then one morning, I woke up, and found it in my kitchen sink, taking a drink.


The trampoline that our neighbors decided to part with the week before Christmas. They asked if we had any use for it, and I thought we might.


Pickles.


Funny mugs