Betty Duffy

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Odds and ends (Updated)

Injured husband, five kids, five acres, herd of dogs, a house...if I am ever again overcome by existential angst, wondering why I have been placed on this earth, the answer is now, "Duh."

It's tempting at times to think that other people haven't done this to their lives: run off as fast as their legs can carry them to hurl child after child into the universe. Why did I make my life so difficult?

"I" didn't really do any of this. I didn't set out to have five kids in quick succession. I chose to be faithful, and this is what happened. A commenter to my post yesterday wrote: "Marriage and parenting truly can be the antidote to selfishness." No cure for selfishness, I'm afraid, but a conduit, maybe, through which selfishness finds a better outlet or a distraction, until this job is done, the flames die down and then selfishness once again proclaims aloud, "Why me?"

I think Mrs. Darwin nailed it when she said, "Somehow, in marriage or in parenting, you find yourself just doing what needs to be done -- even the tasks that sound utterly heroic when you hear about someone else taking them on." And I think about Pentimento's recent post "The Moral Theologian and Me," and about the heroism of Blessed Gianna Molla, and how what parenting and marriage do allow us the opportunity to do is be faithful, again and again. Sometimes being faithful is thankless and anonymous, and sometimes it takes us into the realm of public saints and heroes.

And sometimes faithfulness is all we have, even lacking purity of intention, lacking a generous spirit, lacking the will to put one foot in front of the other, I will do it nonetheless. And my selfishness becomes the offering.

All of which is to say that I have not been cured of my selfishness. Maybe the stars have aligned of late, giving me the opportunity to do a few things that appear saintly, but will I have these same opportunities next week? And if so, will I be faithful? I don't know.


I am always surprised/ amazed by how the prayers and tools of the faith DO supply us with every grace we might need. One week I'm stressing out because my kids keep beating up on each other, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy gives me at least some glimmer of hope for their eternal souls.

This morning, I'm thinking about the Angelus, how I'm lucky if I remember to say it even once a day, but morning, noon, and night, if I just remind myself, "She conceived of the Holy Spirit," I can take heart that God is going to accomplish the big labors, and all I have to do is cooperate. Faithfulness.

My eighteen month old has developed the bad habit of putting his hands in his diaper whenever he sucks his thumb and he sucks his thumb ALL THE TIME. Grocery store, church, wherever, his little hand is creeping down the waistband or up the leghole of his pants. Not sure what prayer of the church there is to offer for this one.

It is not every mother's dream to rear a chronic crotch-grabber, but sometimes faithfulness takes you there too.


My husband is recovering nicely, and as seriousness is behind us, we can speculate as to whether or not setting oneself on fire is worthy of a "Darwin Award." My family offers the Darwin prize to any member of the family who survives incredible odds against survival brought on by one's own thoughtlessness, stupidity, or sheer bad luck.

Darwin awards have been offered for things like going out to clean the gutters in a lightening storm, or for putting a big tractor on a not so big trailer and taking it out on the interstate.

My husband doused weeds in gasoline and the fumes surrounding him ignited when he struck the lighter.

Fire is not joking. Hopefully we can be done with it for awhile.

Anyone interested in what a serious burn looks like may be interested in this picture:

Sorry. Jusk kidding. That's the meatloaf hospital food service brought him.

I cannot for the life of me figure out what happened to May. It's just begun; no, it's almost finished, and my tomato plants are still sitting on the kitchen counter.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Two Shall Become One

My husband, in an attempt to burn down some high weeds in the yard, accidently set fire to his legs and hands. Midnight Saturday night, after much indecision about the emergent nature of his condition, found him on an ambulance to the Wishard burn unit in Indianapolis, where specialists removed several layers of damaged skin, and sent him home, a bit buzzed on pain killers, with a week's worth of new dressings that I will change for him.

Burns, I'm learning, are tricky, as if they are not treated, the skin will continue to burn for several days, inflicting more and deeper damage to the lower layers of skin. The greatest risk for a burn victim is infection, so the wounds have to be, not just patted clean, but scrubbed, to remove yesterday's salve and bits of dead skin. New ointment is then applied, then gauze and bandages.

Scrubbing a loved one's open wounds is not something one does casually. Reading about the apostle Thomas touching the wounds of Christ after Easter, I made a note to myself, this is significant in some way I don't yet know. It was this morning, my bare hands weeding through my husband's open tissue, I realized the fear and humility that must have instantly replaced the apostle's pride and doubt when he touched the wounds of Christ. It was indeed the body of the Lord, as Thomas's hands penetrated each layer of skin; a body, inside and out, died and risen.

My husband worked as an orderly in a nursing home when he was in college. Mostly, he lifted the heavy bodies of people who could not lift themselves, then changed their sheets, their clothes, their diapers, and cleaned their bodies. When we got married, and he told me about his experiences, it was a hopeful sort of joke to say, "Someday I might have to do that for you." If we're lucky; if we live long enough; if one of us is still strong when the other is weak.

I can think of only two times in the ten years we've been married that we've had to care for one another in some intense bodily fashion. Right after we were married, I was sick with a kind of flu that required him to clean carpets, walls, the bathroom, and bag up the clothes I'd been wearing to put in the garbage. My status as a coy young bride was instantly replaced with a vulnerability and carnality that I would have found appalling if I'd been able to predict that my marriage would take me there. As it turned out, it was good preparation for what we would later experience in the delivery room. But my husband has never been ill or injured in any way that has demanded more of me than bringing him tylenol and a glass of water.

The first time I stayed up all night with a sick baby, I had the awareness that this is what it means to be one in flesh with the beloved: I'm tired, but sleep is not my right nor my desire, rather, I want to take on myself whatever is ailing you. Whatever's clouding your head or hurting your ears, I want to feel that in your place.

In marriage, the desire to ease one another's physical pain comes naturally, but the opportunities to do so are so much more rare than the emotional opportunities. Caring for my husband's physical wounds calls to mind all the times I've scoffed when he's had his nose bent out of joint about something.

My husband doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve. He will never be the kind of person to say, "This is where and how I've been hurt." But somehow, I always know when he is, and I'm stubborn enough to want him to say it out loud: "Put your hand here."

He shouldn't need to say it, though. To be one in flesh, my desire is to take on myself whatever is ailing you, even wounds I don't have to see to believe.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Non-sectarian lit

The editor said my writing is a bit sectarian for his liking. Just a bit too Catholic, which is not bad, in itself, just is not his particular interest, as he likes more literary styles.

"And working towards a definition of literary non-fiction, you would say it is non-sectarian?" I ask.

"I tend to think of it as being a bit more ambiguous, morally speaking, where the absence of a particular truth allows the reader to intuit more universal themes."

Here's an excerpt from a poem by Ruth Lilly Prize winner, Eleanor Ross Taylor that would contradict editor's definition of literary:

To Future Eleanors

How will you
cut off from Zions,
fall on your knees among the lions?
What if you
cut off from hymns
confound worksong with anthem

Cut of from Scripture
find sense suspect
and worship incoherence--
distrust the laces and adore the tangled thread?

What of you
without a holy thing,
but every sacrilege
of the sacrileged class?

Read the rest

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity

--(WB Yeats)

I stayed home today expecting the phone call that I missed yesterday. I stayed home, and cleaned the kitchen, which wasn't too dirty because of the party this weekend for my son's First Communion. I had scrubbed the bones of it in preparation for guests: baseboards, window sills, fingerprints on the refrigerator. So all that was left to do were this morning's breakfast dishes, which I did, and then made cookies.

While I made cookies, I ate the dough and imagined what I might hear during my phone call. Up until yesterday, I didn't think I would receive a phone call at all. I had dispensed with the thought I'd be worthy of it. But now, knowing that a call had been made, to "talk about my work," no less, it seemed only possible that the call would change my life.

To what?

I had no idea, to what, only that it might require me to purchase a good bag, maybe a brief case, a full-grained leather one with brass buckles.

The editor was calling to talk about my work. He was calling in the morning, but he was calling from San Francisco, so it could be the afternoon. And he was going to change my life from one where I lazed around on Tuesday mornings eating cookie dough, to one where I would need and use a five hundred dollar bag.

I stayed home from a trip to the cemetary, planned and executed by my Aunt, the family historian. I am family historian in training, but today it was raining, and a trip to the cemetary to check on the headstones of dead relatives felt irrelevant to the new life waiting on the other end of my phone call.

Perhaps my book would already be in the works, sent out, accepted, bypassing his editorial expertise, because none was needed. Perhaps the call was just to tell me how things were going to be now; that my work is now done, and it's all being taken out of my hands, to be returned to me on a platter with a hard cover and a check.

Of course, there was no promise of any such thing when he said I could send him my manuscript. And I hadn't heard from him. Not anything since that email that I thought was putting me off, about how he had to run to his father's bedside, and how he hadn't had time to look at my work yet, and that he wasn't sure when he'd get to it. "Well, that settles that" I thought.

But the call came yesterday when I was not at home. I was on a field trip to the zoo with my kids, and it was raining then too, and no one had brought rain gear, at least I hadn't. And we stood in a downpour, my kids and I, and watched the baboons; how a mother baboon, with her baby latched to her breast cowered under a synthetic stone structure, sheltering her baby from the rain. She was frantic about the rain, actually, kept looking at it as though it were some foreign substance, as though she were offended to learn of its existence.

My kids and I were frozen to the bone, even after the rain stopped. Our jeans were wet, and all the moisture radiating off the school children fogged the windows of the bus on the way home. At night, I couldn't sleep because I was so cold, so I got up and put on a sweatshirt over my nightgown, and still couldn't sleep.

Restless, then, because I had missed the call that came while I was not at home. I know it came because he followed it with an email, requesting a time when I could be reached. Email implying that it's important to make contact. Important news forthcoming. Life changing news, too important for email.

But the news was not life changing, of course. The phone call finally came when I was putting on my shoes to pick the kids up for school. I knew it would happen this way when the call had not yet come by lunch time. I knew I would have to make a choice to pick up my kids on time or to talk to the editor. I spoke to the editor.

Afterwards, I went to get my kids, who had already been siphoned into the after school program. When I walked into the afterschool room, my kids looked disappointed to see me--their mom, there to drag them home when the cookies and kool-aid had just been placed on their napkins. They knew to expect carrots at home.

I'd forgotten already about the cookies I made in the morning, such a hopeful gesture.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

When the Words Come Back to Get You...

You can say what you want about the legitimacy of blogging, but one thing it does do is hold its authors accountable. Thinking about the parties I've got coming up here, it occurred to me rereading my last post that I've had a laissez-faire attitude regarding my son's First Communion this weekend.

If I believe what I say I believe as a Catholic, this event is one of the most important in his life, and as such, is worthy of a bit of my labor. So...I have ironed a table cloth:

I love looking at other people's neatly stacked linens, the way decorating magazines will arrange antique textiles in shabby-chic pie-safes. I have, however, been apathetic about making my own stacks of neatly ironed linens. My table-cloths usually live in the bottom drawer with the dish towels and occasionally are used as dish-towels when the real thing has run out.

But there is something generous about the sight of a good table-cloth. My sister wrote an article several years ago for Canticle Magazine about the lost art of hospitality. My sister has great parties, and I have always been inspired by her family's celebration of Sacraments.

I remember a Baptism years ago, where my sister refused my Mom's suggestion that she lighten her preparation burden by serving canned pineapple rather than fresh in her fruit salad. I'm easy to please, but I really felt taken care of by my sister's unwillingness to compromise (I love fresh pineapple). I also enjoyed the loving preparation of her Mimosas. If only half of her benevolence could rub off on me...

But I'm always surprised by how much I like ironing. The hardest part is getting out the ironing board, but after that, I don't want to stop. Ironing is low concentration enough that I can listen to music while I work. Listened to Hildegard Von Bingen, which matched the overcast mood outdoors, the grim light coming in the windows. I remember walking the towpath along the Thames River, listening to Hildegard on the walkman and daring myself to dive in and skinny dip to my death like a Kate Chopin heroine (the purpose of chant was lost on me). It was so romantic to feel alone in the world. The mood recalls another recent post (accountability moment) spent mooning for friends that I refuse to make.

It has been a lifelong drama of mine to withdraw and shoot silent arrows at the silhouettes in the distance. Starting around eleven years old, when our family went on vacation together, I would take my notebook into the woods behind the lakehouse, sit on a stump and write, "I'm so alone!!! Those people in that house five hundred yards away have no idea how they're hurting me!" I could have closed my notebook and gone back to the house and asked if anyone wanted to play cards, but then I'd have had nothing to write about.

That these reflections occur preparing for a series of recurrant parties throughout the remainder of Spring makes obvious that, contrary to fancy, I am not alone at all, and perhaps to my chagrin, I never have been. If I hadn't documented all my groaning on this blog, I might never have realized how offensive the assertion of my loneliness really is.

So...sorry for that.

Monday, May 10, 2010

House Party

One of the benefits of not having much on my calendar, is that I have the freedom to pick at the bone a little, chew on each event of my life, and assign meaning--if I feel like it.

When things pick up, then, and several major events happen in one day, it somehow all becomes part of the blur. This is how a bird shitting on me while I lie in the hammock can be a significant metaphor in my life, whereas a trip to the ER with five kids last week was just a spot of color on a full palette (one of the boys needed stitches).

I am always amazed, however, at how once an object is in motion it will stay in motion, as I've been catapaulted by a number of external incidences, and there are signs of change everywhere: my floors are clean; I've hung a finch feeder outside my kitchen window; I've begun to paint the upstairs.

Part of my stress about the house falling apart has to do with the fact that we have a mortgage on it. When the kids write on the walls and the drywall in the bathroom starts to disintegrate, I think about depreciation. This is a house we purchased already built. It has an objective value. It was move-in ready, but now it's lived-in and the objective resale value is now less.

If we had built this house ourselves, out of logs or clay, fashioned it to our design, and owned it completely, I could think of our home as our shelter, a place where we live, and plan to stay. When something goes wrong with the house, we will fix it to our specifications because it is our shelter, and hence it serves us.

Our residence in this house would not serve or undercut a bank; it would have no bearing on the neighbors. We would have no responsibility to spray for dandelions or keep up the landscaping, because we're not catering to a mortgage and property values. The house would cater to us.

I could go on and on with my beefs about modernity, but if we can't feel at home in our homes, what's the point of mass home-ownership? Must there be a middle-man between our shelters and how we use them?

And doesn't the mass-production of homes make us feel even more distance from how we use and adjust our shelters? Who knows how to reglaze the brick, or add on for a growing family? When our houses don't work anymore, we vacate them.

Working on the house, because we have a party going on here nearly every weekend for the month of May: Mother's Day, First Communion, and several Birthdays one right after another.

Every party I throw is the same. I clean the toilets, I make a few phone calls, and here we are. There will be grilling, probably beer, and definitely something sweet to eat. But what you do at my house is sort of your business. You can play cornhole or poker. You can play golf or catch. You can sit in my living room or on my porch and have concerned conversation.

I wonder if my guests get tired of it, because the guests are always the same (my family, my husband's family).

At one of our parties in April, I went out to jump on the trampoline after eating too much cake. I didn't mean to make a sly disappearance, and surely, anyone who looked out my kitchen window would know where I was. But it circulated among my husband's siblings that I'd finally lost it and went boing-boing in the middle of my own party.

This is, of course, a double standard, because my husband vacates the party all the time: "Oh, your family's coming over? I'd better get some work done in the shop." And not long ago, at my parents' house, my Dad was seemingly overwhelmed by a need to take up the roto-tiller: "see tiller, must till" even if it's dinner time on Easter Sunday.

In any case, I love having people over. I like to signify momentous occasions in my children's lives with a family gathering. But I have no idea what happened to my relish for entertaining. Hopefully, my visitors don't mind doing without it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Photo Essay

I've been a bit of a downer lately. I don't think anyone made it out of my last post with their dignity intact, and my family is taking a beating lately too.

I've been thinking about a post at the Darwins' concerning Rural Ideal/ Suburban Compromise. Feeling apathetic about the rural ideal, because it's a lot of work, and sort of lonely. And I don't do much of the work, actually, which just makes you feel worse.

The actual labor I accomplish is in inverse proportion to the work that NEEDS to be accomplished (ie. the more there is to do, the less I do) because I feel overwhelmed, and work always yields more work. Such is also the case with relationships, with having a family, rearing children: the more you invest, the more you realize you need to invest. Still, things fall apart anyway.

I felt just as much, or even more, the mistress of my domain when I lived on a postage stamp lawn in town. It's easier to tame a postage stamp, for sure. When you make an investment in land, you sign away your right to control or subdue anything, unless you have some big machines, and people to steer them.

But maybe this is right where God wants us: out of control and ok with it, as opposed to out of control and anxious about it. I've been anxious.

People move to the country because it fills your life with metaphor and meaning, not to mention, beauty. Work has rewards. But always detach, open, surrender, invest--each being its own particular labor that feels at times more difficult than tilling the dirt or pulling out the broom again.

So here's a little pictoral quest for the reward, for the metaphor. (Caveat: I took most of these at my parents' house because it's easier to see the beauty in other people's work, and because my house is a falling-apart-mess.)

Self-portrait of the moment:

Early Peach:

Mean Bastard:

Spider in the Locust Bloom:

I don't subscribe, but I use this mug:

Bee on my wrist:

Bees in a box:

Empty cells:

Hot shit:

Ladder to ?:


Plug for my husband because he's really good at his work and he made these tables:

And this blanket box:

Evening sun: