Betty Duffy

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Poetry Reading!

The marquis on the old movie theater on town square said there was a poetry reading tonight. So what do you know, I went, even though I’m not a poet, though I try to write poetry, but I’m really too hormonal for that good work.

Among the folding chairs in the theater, I took the only available seat, next to the organist at my Church. Didn’t expect to see her there, nor anyone really. I thought a poetry reading in my small town would be about as popular as… my blog (which enjoys a local readership of zero—as I like it). My organist’s husband held a tidy little packet of his poems, typed up on a word processor. His hands shook, holding his poems, maybe because he was nervous, maybe because he’s eighty years old.

Turns out there was a keynote reader, Dan Carpenter: liberal-Catholic-Democrat columnist in the Indy paper, whose name was not on the marquis, but whose columns have made my Dad irate every Sunday after Church for many years. My organist and her husband looked at their watches during his turn at the mike. They wondered loudly if they should go home or if Mr. Carpenter would read forever.

He didn’t read forever, and soon it was time for the peanut gallery to take the stage. First up, Mr. Serious Indianapolis Poet, who I’ve seen at other writerly events, who has won several local writing competitions, who writes in earnest, and who does whatever it takes to get his words out there, even readings like these. He read like a real poet, with a lilting voice. He writes in the cadence du jour: a staccato word ("Maize" for instance), then an elaboration or description engaging that word ("Which is also known as corn"), and repeat. Frankly, he made everyone else look like amateurs.

But everyone else had a good time I think. Among the readers were a local high school teacher and his students who came for extra credit. You have seen this teacher before, as he is young and cool, and his students love him. He’s me, actually, ten years ago, playing Sylvia Barrett to the troubled students, as not only did I literally play Sylvia Barrett in our high school production of “Up the Down Staircase,” I was released after college to practice my empathy on living, breathing high school students who may have sought an education in their high school English class, but instead found a friend who let them dissect the lyrics of their favorite rap songs. Many a profane little muse has been born under such circumstances.

Like the hairy, scruffy boy who wrote a poem about the serial killer and how he has a kinship with the alienated and depressed people of the world. And the black boy who wrote about how people in this town expect him to be a drug dealer, but he’s not a drug dealer, he’s a Christian. And the boy you would never notice whose poem exposed his parents for the phonies that they really are. And the girl who is not her daddy’s little girl anymore because she just lost her virginity. And the plump, pimply class clown who made the crowd groan merely by standing up. He read a self-aggrandizing poem brimming with F-words and pimps and hos.

My organist whispered loudly, “Am I missing something?” because the Class Clown’s poem wasn’t funny. It was shameful, and he should have been embarrassed to have read it in front of old people, but he wasn’t. The organist’s husband had read a poem about honoring the flag and the soldiers who died so that we might fly it. The Class Clown should have been ashamed, but he walked smilingly back to his seat.

And then there were the women, the sensual women, the women who feel alone in this town but who moved here with their husbands in a fit of agrarian idealism, and now write poetry in order to survive. They are over thirty years old, but under fifty. They might have been creative writing majors. They might have won awards. They were A students back in the day, and they still write secret, ironic poems about their fluctuating libidos, their existential moments, and about coming undone. Here’s me now—which is why I didn’t read—because there are so many of us—and we are so predictable—and I was sitting next to my organist from Church.

But, Gosh, I wanted to make friends.

One of them had a New York accent and was really pretty, and I followed her down the street afterwards looking for a moment when I could ask her if she was from around here, and did she want to be my friend? But I was shy. And I walked too slowly (probably on purpose) and she was in her car by the time I reached her so I just walked on by like I was going to my car, even though my car was two blocks behind me, and I’d already been there before I decided to go out stalking for friends.

So I didn’t talk to anyone (excepting my organist, who said she wished I’d read a poem because anything had to be better than what we heard—she was a touch grouchy about it). But the little rain cloud of disappointment that started to grow over me actually illuminated a need I didn’t know I had, and may have been the subliminal reason I went to this poetry reading: I was looking for a kindred friend in this small town, as Pedge and Irene live in Indianapolis, and I only see them once a week. And while I might come off as a melancholic at times, I’m really a sanguine person who becomes morose on my third day of isolation. I probably need to go back to the MOPS groups or else be satisfied with the children and old people who populate my life. Grouchy organists and their husbands are good country people. And children have their charms, of course.

I got pulled over on the way home for driving without headlights because I was in my husband’s car and his headlights aren’t automatic. That beats all.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


My daughter has learned how to hoola hoop and jump-rope. She’s not yet six years old, and her little body looks pretty cute practicing her black-top recess tricks. It probably won’t look as cute in ten years, or maybe a different kind of cute.

The last time I got hit-on (three years ago, according to my records) was jumping rope at the gym. Mr. Muscles, the guy with the barbed-wire tattoo around his bicep said, “Where’d you learn to jump rope like that?” and I said, “Uh, Elementary school.”

Unrelated (possibly?), I haven't jumped rope since.

Talking to my sister yesterday on the phone, trying to convince her to come home for the summer and stay at Mom and Dad’s with me, I said, “I’m just going to take the kids out to the farm, and spend the summer cozying up in Mama’s womb.”

“That’s MY womb!” she said. “You get her the rest of the year. I get her this summer!”

So the grown children are still battling for Mama’s womb-space.

Mom and I went to the symphony last week: Respighi, “Pines of Rome,” one of those pieces I heard when I was a kid, and fell in love with –that giant crescendo at the Catacombs, the marching beat on the Appian Way that makes you want to stomp around like a dinosaur. It’s so loud. I love it, and hearing it live, with the auxiliary brass in the first mezzanine, with the organist sneaking in the little trap door to play the lower pedals—I forgot how exhilarating live music can be.

Reminds me of the surround sound ad before the previews at the movie theater, where every sound in the spectrum winds up to a super-sonic crescendo. It’s my favorite part of going to the movies. It’s just loud and pleasing.

My sister-in-law has three new foster children who arrived at her house without any clothes except the ones they were wearing. So they came over the other day to look through the plastic bins in our attic and see if there was something they could use.

When my sister-in-law first conceived of foster-parenting, I thought, “Oooh, she’s going to get an education,” because she doesn’t have any kids of her own, and I think sometimes my kids wear her out. Kids can be very demanding, very, very demanding.

But now I’m worried that it’s just my kids who are demanding, because they’ve always had everything they’ve needed, and they always want more. My sister-in-law’s foster kids were worried about drinking too much of our milk because they didn’t want to run us out of food. And they were curious about why we didn’t use any “bad” words. They were quiet, polite, and so incredibly grateful for EVERYTHING.

So you start to wonder who’s better off: the ones who are never happy with their pampered lives, or the ones who suffer, and then see every good thing in their lives as a blessing.

From “Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict”:

We continually close our doors; we continually want to feel secure and do not want to be disturbed by others and by God. And so, we can continually implore the Lord just for this, that he come to us, overcoming our closure. (p134)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The End of an Era

I have 80 dollars worth of primer, paint, spackling, and whatnot that says my kids will no longer write on the walls.

At what point, however, do you just say the graffiti IS the decor of the room, and let it be?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Found this in the old diary...

I have been praying that I will have joy in the morning—because mornings, considering the work that lies ahead and the vast needs of my children—have been especially difficult. There is never enough sleep.

I’m at Mom and Dad’s, as Husband is out of town, and I woke up while it was still dark to some wailing in the distance. I thought it was the coy-dogs, at first. I couldn’t tell if it was night or day. My bladder wasn’t too full—still night? But my shoulders and hips were stiff as though they’d been in position underneath me for a long time.

I heard the noise again, and realized that it was the rooster crowing. Morning. And I wasn’t going back to sleep. Early morning, no pink yet in the sky. I thought I should force myself to lie back down, but I realized that this might be my call to joy. I was awake, before my parents and children. Before sun. There might be some new solace out there.

I got dressed in the dark and went outside for a walk. In the open sky, there was enough light that I could make out my surroundings. Birds just started to chirp. I stirred up some turtledoves in the ditch, and they scared me, because before they flew across my path, they grunted, and I had a moment of confusion. What grunts in ditches in the darkness? I had no idea.

Yesterday, my daughter came inside, alarmed, and said, “I heard a noise out there by the barn. I think it was a monster, or a tiger, or maybe just a hammer.” In fact, it was my oldest son using a hammer, but like my daughter, my first response to the unknown was fear. The grunting beast in the ditch was a monster or a wild dog, and just when I could feel my legs prickle in the anticipation of a coming attack, the doves flew up into the woods. Beast? Dove? The fear was the same.

On the road were new anxieties, like which way to turn at the end of the driveway? Towards traffic, where speedy drivers might not see me in the dim light? Or towards the gravel road, where I knew the mosquitoes were rabid in the dip in the road by the creek. Or maybe a different route altogether? A diversion where I can’t anticipate mosquitoes, or traffic, or unfriendly dogs? If I never returned, my parents would not know where to look for me aside from my usual route.

I chose the unknown path anyway because the known dangers of traffic or mosquitoes now seemed like more of a nuisance than the unknown, which might not even be. So I walked up the road behind my parents’ farm, with soft hills, a shale brook that bred no mosquitoes, a tree farm, and a vast quantity of dewy scented clover.

There were no dogs. No traffic. No dangers at all. And I walked until it seemed prudent to turn around, and did so, in time to see the horizon turn fuschia, reflecting against the blinded windows of still sleeping houses, lighting wheat fields, and feeding me a blessed meal of color; blue, green, and violet.

Here was joy in the morning, having asked for it only two days in prayer.

I walked back to the house, now the sky was lit, and all the birds awake. A robin chased a female out to a field, trying to engage her in some sort of play. She rejected him, advancing ten yards. He persistently followed, and they skittered that way across the field.

At home, everyone was still sleeping. It was 6:30, so I have must have gotten up around 5. I showered, dressed, went to the porch to pray that I won’t be the unsmiling sad-sack I’ve been for so long.

I want to wake my kids up for a change. I want to see their mouths agape in sleep, the drool on their pillows, and the first flutter of their eyelids. Wouldn’t they be surprised to see me dressed and smiling in the morning?

Maybe I have asked for too much in the past: lasting, unconditional happiness? Maybe it is enough to start the day praising God.

And this...

Hair shirt

You should remove your hair shirt,
The plank in your eye, you choose
to look for pain
So you are less
saddened by the good
When good isn’t certain.

You would really rather kill
Grow claws and eat wood
Than be taken
by the hack-man
In the night.
So take off your hair shirt and fight.

Following the Voice of the Gatekeeper

Maybe it would make you uncomfortable if I said that there are times when my morning demons haunt me all day, when I feel desperate about all the different ways a thing can fail, the ways the world is failing, the ways I fail.

I’ve heard that when people are on the road to an affair, they move with a sense of inevitability. Nothing can stop the way their heart goes until their affection is consummated. Thank heavens I’ve been spared that road, but the devil knows how to jump the gates to every heart—and if I’ve moved with a sense of inevitability towards a desire I have permitted to take hold, it has been towards death. Sometimes I really want to die. Today.

I wish I could say this longing has the purity of a longing for Heaven, but it is in the same family with pining for the past, with preferring fantasy to reality, with escaping from rather than rising to the duties of my life. And nothing can save me, at least not the typical things: not a cup of coffee, not a shower and some fresh air, no creative outlet, not beautiful music, not laughing babies.

Certain things exasperate it, like crying babies, loss of sleep, a messy house, things getting broken, too much sugar, not enough sugar, a headache, and feeling a lack of something. But as soon as that lack is filled, I can become just as depressed by abundance and perfection. The world simply has no cure.

Only prayer is a cure.

It is a cure each day, when each day the demons attack with fresh ferocity. It is a cure when my will is not enough to overcome fatigue, when nothing is good: “Let us sing to the Lord all our life, alleluia!”

What the hell language is that?

The language of the Church supplants my own. I need new words, those of my fellow believers. “The waters swirled about me, threatening my life; the abyss enveloped me.” (Jon 2:6) and yet, “From on high he reached down and seized me; he drew me forth from the mighty waters.” (Ps 18:17)

I had forgotten. Even since yesterday, I had forgotten that the wind and sea obey my God.

Sometimes I need the Church to speak for me, to pray for me, to save me. Sometimes I don’t want to pray; death is preferable. But the words read from the liturgy of the hours, other people’s words, the prayer of the Church throughout the centuries, literally saves my life.

And then the magnitude of that universal prayer lifts me up. I am in awe of it: the idea that if I pray for the whole Church, everyone is the beneficiary of my prayer, including myself. And if others pray for the whole Church, I am the beneficiary of others’ prayers, even those in another part of the world, in other times of history; the Church eternal, the Kingdom of God, prays with me and for me. It saves my life. And it blows my mind.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Burning Stuff

One day last week, the dog chased a raccoon into a tree. My boys threw rocks at it, trying to make it fall out of the tree, until I intervened and put the kids and the dog away for awhile.

Nevertheless, the following day, the raccoon was dead in the yard. It was unclear who the perpetrator might have been, and it’s possible that the raccoon was starving and fell out of the tree on its own. Not likely, but possible.

So I dug a hole, and the kids all gathered around to put the dead raccoon in the ground.

Twenty-four hours passed, before the raccoon appeared again, dangling from the jaws of my dog’s gleeful mouth. The dog had un-dug our hole and unearthed the raccoon, and now the children didn’t want to go near it because I told them there might be worms in it. But the dog was happy, and had to be lured away from the corpse with a hot-dog.

I didn’t want to dig another hole only to have it un-dug again, so I used the shovel, this time to put the raccoon in the fire-pit. My husband enjoys making fires, burns lots of wood scraps and saw-dust, and set about cooking up the raccoon. It smelled like sausage for the better part of the afternoon.

By evening, however, when the fire had fizzled out, the charred raccoon began to emit a less-than-savory fragrance. “Can’t you do something about it?” I asked my husband, but he was squeamish and crinkled his nose.

I got the shovel again, and went out to the pit to see why the body wouldn’t disappear, and I flipped it over to discover that the underside of the raccoon was still very raw. So, I shoveled the raccoon again, this time into a garbage bag and carried it out to the curb, from which, I’m happy to report, he was removed the following morning.

Getting rid of the raccoon was the biggest challenge I faced over the weekend, and I probably went about it all wrong.

The next biggest challenge has been trying to find where, in a frenzy of self-control, I hid the chocolate chips from myself. I thought they were with the beans and onions in the dark, dry, lower cabinet in the corner. But they’re not.

I looked in the baking cabinet, the vice cabinet, the craft cabinet, and the old-dishes-I-never-use cabinet. I looked in the oven, where I found two sweet potatoes that I cooked several days ago and forgot to eat. The sweet potatoes have carmelized sugar around the edges of their foil wrappings, and I’m wondering if the sugar may have preserved the potatoes so that I can still eat them. I love sweet potatoes.

But the chocolate has apparently gone up in smoke.

Different day, different fire, my husband wouldn’t come in from the fire pit at night, and I was getting annoyed because I can’t fall asleep until he’s in bed, and I was tired. So I wrapped up in a blanket and walked out to see what he was doing out there, which was nothing. He likes to just sit and watch the scrap wood burn.

So I sat for a minute and watched it burn too. It was very relaxing—a cozy perspective to be wrapped up in a blanket out in our field, looking back at the house, with its lights on like a little gingerbread house, our children asleep inside. A sliver moon, a few stars, bats chattering in the sky—I could see why my husband was reluctant to call it a night.

Had I not come out to join him, he’d eventually have come in with a little existential experience under his belt, and found me looking at the computer or reading a book, huffing and puffing because I wanted to go to bed, and he was keeping me up. It would have been difficult for him not to look down his nose at me.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Faulkner Stole My (.)

Sometimes when you're walking at sunset and the fields have just been turned over by an old farmer wearing a flat-billed con-agra hat, and the insects haven't yet emerged from their underground nests, and the dogwood and redbud are the only color in the woods surrounding the field, and you and your wag-tail dog turn around to the biggest orange orb of sun you've seen in a long time hovering over the horizon, you want to listen to a little happy music, but only a hammered dulcimer accompanied by a bongo drum will do.

Times like these, I reach for Malcom Dalglish and the Oolites. "Hymnody of the Earth" is one of the best musical accomplishments to come out of Indiana, ever (which isn't difficult to say really); compositions for the above-mentioned instruments to accompany a youth choir singing the poems of Wendell Berry. It's earth mama, Holy Holy, conservation chic, and old man river, with just a dash of new age cheese--and I never get tired of it.

Plus, I get to say Malcolm Dalglish and the Oolites, which has so many misplaced L's, consonants and double vowels, it gives me the chills.

I really cannot listen to music and do other things at the same time; no background music to my writing, no mood music to my shopping--particularly not tunes of Joni Mitchell with the lyrics replaced by saxophone, because I know the words, and their Kenny G stand-in will grate on me so much I'll lose my mood for shopping if I had it to begin with.

In Florida with Pedge and Irene, Pedge wanted some tunes in the background while we played cards, which wasn't kosher with me because not only do we have dissimilar tastes in music, cards require more concentration than I can give them if I'm distracted by the songs.

"My husband hates listening to music while he's doing other things," I say, which is not true so much, but I'm such an accommodating friend, I won't come out and say that what you're doing annoys me; I'll say it would annoy my husband if he were here, so in the airport, for instance, when Pedge was popping her gum, I said, "My husband hates loud chewing," But Pedge enjoys popping her gum, and said, "Good thing he's not here."

Anyway, I have a one-track mind, so I can only listen while I'm doing something mindless like walking or driving or cleaning my house, and it's also why I played the cello rather than piano since I can only handle one staff of notes at a time.

I'm writing in long sentences, stream-of-consciousness because I'm reading Faulkner right now, and as Mrs. Darwin said in a comment stream here, "What he (Faulkner) does not repeat much is the period," and nothing is more alarming than a period that goes MIA, as evidenced by the fifty dollars worth of pregnancy tests I took this month trying to figure out where mine went--which is no where, that is, until without rhyme or reason, it decided to return, and now I want my money back.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


My husband and I did the Safety Dance at the wedding last weekend. People gathered around to watch, so we put ourselves into it, and the next morning, we were both plagued with doubt.

“I’m just worried that I didn’t look as good as I thought I did doing the Safety Dance,” my husband said. It was a legitimate concern.

My husband is famous for being an awkward fast-dancer with his disco index fingers and thumbs ups and high knees, though he does a mean middle-school skating party slow dance. Nevertheless, I was pretty sure I could dance for both of us, and that the looks on the faces surrounding us on the dance floor were full of admiration.

But his doubt fed my doubt, and as I’ve never actually seen my own rendition of the robot or the moonwalk, I started to worry that my dancing didn’t have the irony of a gen-x hipster doing the Thriller dance, and that maybe my “Geeky-cool” was just “geeky” and the kind of thing my daughter will remember, cringingly, for the rest of her life.

My own mother still bumps hips with her girlfriends all the way to the floor to the tune of Mustang Sally in my nightmares.

And there are more reasons to doubt my behavior over the weekend. The Bride asked me if I wanted to stay with her the night before the wedding at the hotel not far from our houses. Well…my mom had kept the kids for the night, and it was a green-light night, which as NFP practitioners will understand, are sometimes hard to come by. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be going home with my husband after the rehearsal dinner.

I’m sure I said something wise and patronizing like, “When you have five kids in a few years, you’ll understand,” and then my husband brought me another drink. And another.

We started talking to a couple of the groomsmen who run a contracting business together in which they rehab historic homes. It was right up my husband’s alley. And one of them also wrote short stories on the side, which was right up my alley. And I started rhapsodizing about starting a literary enclave in rural Southeastern Indiana, something like the Bloomsbury Group of Shelbyville. And one provocative question led to another until it was midnight, and we were still there bending the ear of the Groomsmen, and the Groom (who was waiting for his friends to join him in his hotel room for cards and comradery).

Gosh, I thought I was interesting. And it was way more fun to sit in a circle of groomsmen than it would have been to sit in a hotel room with maids, or even…to go home.

Decorating the hall in the morning, the Bride said, “We toasted to you and your husband last night. Did you have fun?”

Hem…haw…er…we had a very romantic evening…with your fiancé. And here’s where I should really say something patronizing, like when you have five kids in a few years, you’ll understand. We are starving, not for love, but for company.

So the Duffys drove ‘em wild all weekend long, and I’m remembering now why I really should avoid spotlights and honorary positions. I like them way too much.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Some Divine Mercies

Out my back door the lilacs are blooming. Out the front door, a white cloud of blooms on the crabtree.

“Fragrant” is one of those words that makes me uncomfortable to say, but there’s no better word to describe how the wind blows into our bedroom window like an adolescent daydream.

The house is full of flowers, not only because my children pick any blooms that dare to show their faces, but because we went to a wedding this weekend, and my daughter caught the bouquet, and I had my own bouquet, since I was Matron of Honor, and we collected flowers from the table centerpieces, since we stayed after to help clean up.

Flowers in every room on Divine Mercy Sunday.

I thought the Shower of Roses was supposed to fall on October First for those who remember the Novena to St Therese, the Novena I always forget, even though she’s the Saint I chose at my Confirmation.

At the end of the wedding Mass, Father gave the new couple a blessing, “May you have faithful friends who support you in good times and bad.” This went along with the prayer for many children, and a long life together. I’d never caught this portion of the blessing before, as faithful friends for the wedded couple is a need I would not have foreseen back when I was having adolescent daydreams about marriage.


Last week, Pedge said to Irene and me. “I offered my Novena to Saint Joseph for your husbands. I hope you don’t think that’s weird.”

“Not weird at all,” I said. “I’m touched—what a good friend.” The tears started to well in my eyes; a faithful friend for the married couple.

Novenas all around, then. I would offer my Divine Mercy Novena for their husbands, and their Mamas too.

A friend of Irene’s mother recently died. She’d said a Novena right before Christmas, then wrote a note to her children saying, “All my prayers have been answered.” She passed away Christmas morning.

The bride at the wedding this weekend was the girl I sponsored coming into the Church last Easter. I’ve been able to stand next to her for every Sacrament she’s received.

Because the Groom was married to someone else when he met his new Bride, they wanted a very humble ceremony and reception. Because the Groom and the Bride fell together on their knees before the Divine Mercy of Jesus when they found their way to the Church, they chose to marry on the day before we celebrate the feast.

The mothers, maids, and matron decorated and tore down the reception. Flowers were purchased at Kroger the morning of the wedding. Maids wore their own dresses, whether they matched or not. And the couple requested that guests make donations to a pro-life cause rather than giving gifts.

“What are you going to do for her?” Pedge asked me the day before the wedding. The question took me off guard. What would I do besides envy the minuscule circumference of the Bride’s waist? Besides fluffing her dress and holding her bouquet while she exchanged vows? What would I do besides offering a grandiose toast at the reception, and seeing how many flowers I can snag on the way out the door? Isn’t the Bride supposed to do something for me? A little thank-you gift for my attentions?

I would offer my Divine Mercy Novena for the wedded couple too, and see how many people can benefit from one nine-day prayer.

For her Confirmation, the Bride chose Saint Therese to be her patron Saint. She chose it long before I told her that Saint Therese was also my Patroness. Both of us wear a medal of Saint Therese on a silver chain around our necks.

Can the Shower of Roses fall because a relationship that began in sin, made its way to Sacrament? Because a friend prayed for my marriage, and I prayed for a marriage, and my husband put his hand on my back on the dance floor, and pulled me close to fulfill a daydream that began in my adolescence? Or because two women asked the same Saint for a childlike faith? All my prayers have been answered, because the flowers in and around my house are not just a coincidence of the second week of April, or the fallout from a wedding. The flowers are the mercy of God. I believe it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

My Walnut-sized Brain

My Grandpa used to say it was unwise to give a good book to a bad mind. Don’t even attempt to read the Russians until you’re twenty-five. But I did it anyway, of course; got my copy of Crime and Punishment, and carried it around with me for my entire sophomore year of high school.

I’d read a sentence, reread the sentence, read it again…and finally move on just to turn the page. My family made fun of me; called the book, and the bag in which I carried it, my security blanket, because I wouldn’t leave home without it—though I rarely touched it en route.

I’ve been reading people’s lists of the ten most influential books of their lives. I don’t think I remember a word of anything I read before I was twenty-one. My brain wasn’t ready—too overwhelmed by hormones and drama—to pick up on nuances and symbolisms. So I picked out the fattest, most conspicuous books I could find to carry around in order to appear intelligent.

My seventh grade year was marked by a hard-backed copy of Anne of Avonlea. It shouldn’t have been too hard for me to read, but it was. My freshman year of high school was Eleni by Nicholas Gage, which I could actually talk about when people asked, because I had seen the movie.

Interspersed in the fat and impressive books, were books that I did read: books about ESP and the paranormal, Babysitters Club books, Vogue Magazines. I didn’t advertise these reads. I gobbled them up in private, just like I’d horde chocolate in my drawers so that no one else could see my appetite for junk.

Part of the problem of growing up in a well-read family is that we all knew that some books were better than others. I could read a thousand Sweet Valley books and they wouldn’t total the value of one Dostoevsky. As it should be. The problem was that I didn’t “get” Dostoevsky, and Sweet Valley was a piece of cake. It wasn’t fair. None of my reading counted.

Meanwhile, in our living-room, my older sister had curled her body into a pretzel and was squinting her eyes into the minuscule print of Gone With the Wind which she finished in all of two weeks. Her concentration was unbreakable. I was invisible to her, though I crawled up behind the wing-back chair in which she sat and put my finger in her ear, or whispered words like “suburban” and “couperf” and “satchel” because I knew she hated those words.

Her friends would ride their bikes over to play, find her reading, and have to be satisfied with my company. And I would be playing Barbies, no doubt, making the dolls do naughty things, and then saying, “It’s ok, they’re married,” even though in my head, they were not.

One of my boys recently said, “I have a walnut-sized brain for school and a football-sized brain for comedy.” That’s me. My brain was too full of the junk to make room for anything of importance. I wanted to entertain, and be entertained—not to learn. As my husband told my son, however, “If you don’t change those proportions, you’ll be able to look forward to a walnut-sized salary someday.”

And so, in my later college years, I set about acquiring the skills of an intellectual—which meant, getting rid of my junk-food literary diet, becoming sort of somber and withdrawn (partially the outcome of failed relationships), and emulating my sister’s reading habits.

I hate to say that my brain was just waiting for someone to turn the lights on. Either it came of age, or getting serious, and having a few more “adult” experiences under my belt, helped me to understand more serious matters. In any case, I suddenly understood. I began to read literature for leisure. I read with a pen in hand to keep notes of things that interested me—I still do.

And I felt personal connections for the first time with characters in my books.

I met my husband while I was a senior in college. Every now and then, this Duffy guy would call up and ask me to go to a Pacers game or something low-brow like that, which didn’t fit my new intellectual standards. But apparently he still liked me, and was interested enough to read Anna Karenina because it was my favorite book at the time.

When I asked him what he thought of it, he said he thought Anna was kind of a slut. It would be two years before I would go out with him again after that comment. Criticize Anna, criticize me. I took books very seriously and anyone who couldn’t comprehend the nuances of Anna’s situation had no business with me.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that my future husband was being glib. And it was I who couldn’t comprehend glibness in the face of a literary master. I had slid from one extreme to another, from book avoidance, to book worship. The only way out of my predicament was to read more, and more. The more I read, the more I could compare. The greater my literary experience, the better equipped I was to critique, and even at times, to poke fun.

I read for ten years. Throughout my twenties, while I was having babies like hotcakes, and they were all little and slept a lot, I would lay on my bed in the afternoon with sleeping kids around me, reading. I read out loud to them, at least the early ones, from whatever I happened to be reading at the time. I read a couple books a week, or more. I read Anna Karenina again, and found a couple things to laugh at.

I wish I still read like that, but I don’t. I go on reading benders here and there. And then I go on a writing bender. But the kids are older, and I can’t languish in bed in the afternoons anymore. Reading is after dark, which puts it at stiff competition with sleep, and writing, and surfing the internet (which somehow never puts me to sleep).

I want to read again. I need to read again. I feel a bender coming on, but it’s going to take some work, as reading benders don’t always come with the ease of, well, other types of benders. Junk out, good stuff in.

Things may be slow on the blog for awhile.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Chunky Hair and Tornadoes

My friend, Letty, owns a couple hair salons. At Pedge’s house the other day, it came to light that Letty does the hair of a prominent Catholic matriarch here in town, Mrs. M. It’s a small world among Orthodox Catholics, and Mrs. M is known, not only for the vastness of her brood, but also for having spazzy hair. When one first meets her, it’s tempting to think, “Please get a hair clue, Mrs. M.”

We’d all been thinking about visiting one of Letty’s salons, but maybe...not a good idea.

“Don’t judge how I do hair based on that particular client,” Letty said. “She requests her colors in chunks. She wants it chunky, chunky.” Letty grabbed chunks of her own hair as she said “chunky” and I could see Mrs. M making just that same gesture. “The client is always right.”

So the spazzy hair is intentional. It’s exactly what Mrs. M wants. It’s…self-expression of a sort: chunks of vibrant color in crispy little spikes all over her head. It’s punk, now that I think of it.

On this particular day with Pedge, Irene and Letty, we had a discussion about letting go of the idea that there’s something else we’re supposed to be doing besides staying home with our kids. Letty was taking a break from coloring hair because she’s pregnant.

We’re in our thirties; “something else” sometimes feels like a do or die prospect. We’ve got to write that book and make something of our lives, because we can’t hide our lights under a bushel, and we’ve had a bunch of kids already, and surely God wants us to do something more.

Or does he? Maybe he just wants us to stay home. Maybe this is all there is. Maybe we’ve been deluding ourselves and we’re going to rob our children of everything they need and deserve from us.

It’s been a couple of years now that Pedge and I have been hammering these issues out. This year, during Lent, it’s become pretty clear to me that there is no Act II. It’s not do or die; it’s keep on chugging.

Have detachment from what I want my life to look like, and detachment from what I don’t want—which would be something like having another baby every two years for the next twenty years of my life. Live in what is, rather than what may be.

When I told Pedge these things, she said, “So what are we supposed to do then? Have another baby?”

“Not necessarily. Not just because we need a goal, anyway.”

We sat in silence for a minute, letting the dreams dissolve, at least for this afternoon.

“If this is it,” Pedge said, “I’m getting the chunky hair.”


My cousin recently asked an unsuitable young man to step out of her life. Her attachment to him made the decision a hard one. But she felt good about spending Easter Sunday focusing instead on the Risen Christ.

The trouble is, the young man decided that Easter would be the day he went back to Church. He sat right behind her, looking in her direction throughout most of the service.

My cousin said God was testing her: “Are you going to let that boy steal your heart again, or are you going to focus on me, like you said?” And it was a struggle, being watched all through church, so difficult that by the time we met up afterwards, she was on the verge of tears. But she made it; bypassed the Sunday dinners she’d been eating with him and his family, and came instead to spend Easter with us.

When she told me the story, it was those words, “…like you said,” that struck me. They sounded so much like a parent disciplining a child, “Are you going to do this like you said, or am I going to have to come make you do it?”

At the same time, there was something sort of poetic about them, something of a covenant. You said it, and so it is. Your word means something to God.

That night, before bed, I said Compline for the Easter Octave, and there were those words again:

Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia
The Son whom you merited to bear, alleluia,
has risen as he said, alleluia.

Would we rejoice so much at Christ’s Resurrection if he hadn’t told us about it first? It was the fulfillment of his Word. He did it, just like he said, and it gives us hope and assurance, then, that everything he said is true.

Words mean something. Makes me want to take a fine-toothed comb over everything I’ve ever said, especially the covenants I’ve made to God. Will I go forth and sin no more, like I said? Will I love, honor, and obey, like I said? Words mean something.

Today was eighty degrees and gorgeous, with just a hint of humidity that let us know there would likely be rain later in the day. I was itching to go for a run, to burn off some of the Cadbury eggs that keep walking into my mouth. But right when my husband got home, the weather finally delivered on its promise. The sky opened up and let loose a terrific thunder storm.

So we went ahead and had dinner. We worked the kids through their homework. At dusk, it seemed the storm had passed, and I seized the moment to go out and run. There was no wind at all. The sky was green and pink. Not a soul on the road.

I had the Ipod on shuffle, and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” came up. Hadn’t heard that song in a couple decades, and it sort of matched the weather, so I let a few bars pass, before I heard, in the background, dim as could be, the tornado siren going off.

I looked around and didn’t see any suspicious clouds, except for one that looked sort of like a mushroom cloud. Death wasn't imminent, but I feared for my life anyway. If not the tornado, it could be some other disaster, a nuclear one, a meteor. At any moment, the world could go up in a poof, and really, I DO NOT want to be listening to The Smiths when that happens.

It was enough to cure me of the Ipod until I’d made it home safely, and I’m considering going through my files and deleting any music to which I could not stand to die. It would be curtains for about 90 percent of what’s taking up gigabytes on that little machine.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Priest as Witness

Wednesday morning I went to the 8 am Mass. Father, of course was there. Wednesday night, I went back to church for our catechism class. Father was there again. Nearly twelve hours had passed, I was wearing the same clothes, and hadn’t combed my hair since I first woke up. But here we were, regrouping, checking in. Betty was present and Father was too.

This past weekend, Father heard my Confession. I have to admit that I have at times skirted around saying what I need to say in the Confessional by using big adverbs and mumbling through the naughty part: “I firsha smirsha’d dishonorably.” Maybe, he’ll mishear, but not ask me to repeat. Maybe he’ll let the adverb do the talking—so that when he sees me later in the day, he’ll remember only the “dishonor” and not the “firsha smirsha.”

This past weekend’s Confession was brutal, one of those weary moments where the thought of repeating myself, yet again, makes me want to croak. So I removed the adverbs from my speech and articulated my firsha smirsha as though it were my dying moment, and I really would never have to confess it again.

And then I had to stand there in Mass afterwards and be present. I walked up the aisle, opened my mouth like a baby bird, and received the Eucharist from the man who quite possibly knows more about me than my husband.

It may be noteworthy that I am not friends with my priest. He’s eighty something years old, and this Parish is his retirement parish. It was the Parish in which he was raised. There are families in our Parish who knew his family when he was a boy. So if there is a holiday meal to be served, my priest does not come to our house to eat it; he will take it elsewhere.

I don’t chat with my priest after Mass. I don’t go to him for counseling. If I have business to do at Church, it’s at the service of the DRE. But I love the sense of accounting that comes from being present and letting this man witness my life, even the parts I don’t want to say out loud.

During Holy Week, the gang’s all here. We’re here on Thursday, letting father wash our feet. We’ll be back again tomorrow to kiss the Cross. We will go home Friday night with a collective sense of sadness, and be back Saturday, full of anticipation as we enter a dark Sanctuary, waiting for Father to the light the Paschal fire.

We are present. Father is present. I wonder sometimes what it is like to stand at the altar and look around at all our faces, knowing all of our sins. Even to those with whom he is not on a first name basis, he is a witness. And if it is a burden for him to carry all of that, I hope he knows how much better it makes my life.

On Being a Witness to the Lives of Others