Betty Duffy

(Amateur)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Yes, Michigan!

We left behind oppressive humidity, intermittent flooding and sporadic rainbows—the kind of weather that makes everyone feel guilty for being as irritable as they are. There are rainbows, which should soothe the high strung nerves and short tempers brought on by the heat, but the rainbow rarely does more than draw the soul-weary out of the air conditioner to strain their eyes at the sky, wondering where the rainbow ends, and what this rainbow might mean.

Kissing my husband goodbye in the morning before work, nightgown and tiptoes, drinkable air and a rainbow must mean something; we’re special, we’re blessed, yet the following day it doesn't spare us the "packing up the car for vacation” spat. (“Daddy said we weren’t going on vacation, but Mommy was growling around for awhile, and then we went!” Andy said to my mother when we finally arrived—good reason not to argue in front of the kids.)

Getting out of the car eight hours north of home, where there’s no humidity, and the wind bends the dune grass into its own constant arc, and the sun manages to appear at around ten o’clock every morning following coffee in sweatshirts on the porch, it’s impossible to remain embittered about anything. We’re on vacation, and everything is cool.

I’m always suspicious of vacation. This can’t last: my parents, my siblings and our spouses, our children, the eighteen cousins, so many of whom are just barely prepubescent with chubby torsos preparing to sprout into a lithe young adulthood. Another year or two and these kids are going to be too big for this, or too busy. Or we won’t have the place to stay. There are too many variables to consider from one year to the next. And yet, somehow, I’ve been here every summer of my life.

Our lake is ten miles long and three miles wide, and I call it our lake because anyone who comes here considers it their own. People put up signs in front of their cottages that say “The Glens, since 1904” as though their presence in this place over a hundred years ago makes it more theirs than the property of the nouveau riche who have invested millions in the area in the past twenty years or so; small pine and cinder block cottages razed and replaced with vacuous A-frames on granite foundations.

Every year we do the same things, though we’ve forgotten why we do them. We drive to Point Betsie and watch the sunset. We stop at the mineral springs to drink the sulphur water said to contain health-reviving properties. We swim. We hike. We play tennis. Each day a triathalon to offset the ice cream and cherry fritters that are never as good as we remember them being. We drive down Graves Road in the dark and look for deer. And we look in at the three shops in Beulah.

I’m surprised anew each year by how much physical activity I can fit in a day. We stay at my aunt’s house which is the only house at the end of a gravel road in the woods, up on the hill about a quarter mile from the water. Treks to and from the beach, with kids in baby joggers, wet beach towels, books, life jackets, and whatnot are alone enough to leave the glutes throbbing at night. Down the hill: hang onto the stroller for dear life. Up the hill: push the stroller, hungry and tired from swimming. Fall into bed at night, skin tight and dry from the sun, feet smooth from the sand, eyes tired from trying to stay awake while reading, and sixty degree breezes blowing in through the window. “It’s the climate,” my husband says. Morning is Spring, evening is Fall, and the afternoon, from noon to six is a perfect Summer.

As the days pass, my oldest son’s jaw, which has been set forward since the end of the school year, begins to recede. He smiles and engages in conversation, which shouldn’t be as big a deal as it is. My kids don’t fight with each other when they’re with their cousins; so much discipline replaced by positive peer pressure. And somehow, everyone becomes uncommonly good-looking as their hair bleaches out, the skin browns, and eyes brighten. My own kids look like palominos crawling on the sand, each muscle set off by sun and shadow.

"The world doesn't owe you a trip to the lake each summer," it's been said. Oh, but it does, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Interesting, Articulate, and True

I always love a good sex talk, hence, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Musings of a Young Mom, on her experience as a Protestant Minister's wife coming to a deeper understanding and embrace of Catholic teachings on sexuality.

Part One

Part Two


In other news, I've been spending all my time with my sister while she's in town. I'll be back one of these days.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Law of Diminishing Returns

Weather is cool and damp, everything green, kids stuck in the house due to rain. First week with kids home from school has been a raging…something. Maybe just raging.

My husband has remained on the same schedule under which we operate during the school year, up at 6:30, fumbling around the room in the dark, until it seems the thought of me still sleeping is just too much to bear, so he turns on the light and starts asking me questions, like “Where’s my wallet?” And I never know the answer to questions when I’m sleeping, so I have to tell him, “I don’t know. I’m sleeping.”

My Dad used to be the same way when we were growing up, couldn’t stand to be up alone in the morning. He raised homing pigeons, and would wake up and sing in an operatic tenor, “Good Morning Pigeons!” which really meant, “Wake up, everyone, because I am a morning person!”

Well, I have never been a morning person. Found myself yesterday sweeping the porches and cleaning up the yard around seven p.m. Just the time of day I wake up and become productive. Kitchen cleaning at night, living room pick-up at night, toilet scrubbing at night. Anything to put the house in order before bed, in order to make re-entry to life in the morning a bit gentler.

I live for nighttime, and as much as I want to make a slow shift into a later evening during the summer, hopefully combined with a later morning, there is really no chance of it working out. Someone always wakes up early when there are this many people in one house. If it’s not my husband, it’s the kids; if not kids, the dog. And there’s really no common wisdom that says, “Stay up late; maybe your kids will sleep in tomorrow.”

The camping trip this weekend is one that has occurred annually for a number of years—back when everyone had one or two kids, young kids. We are all Catholic, and hence, not one family has less than four kids now, with the majority having five or six. Five families: twenty-five kids, extensive meal preparation, and kids who are now old enough that they want to stay up late haranguing each other around the campfire, just like the grown-ups do.

And the grown-ups, whose energy has decreased in equal proportion to their children’s increase in energy, live for that one little hour after all the little people are asleep in their tents and before we all doze off. How much we endure for one hour of adult companionship.

My own kids were impossible. After s’mores, and campfire songs, after a somnolent Rosary in our own tent, after the baby quit running laps around his siblings in their sleeping bags and fell over into his own delirious stupor, after my husband and I quietly unzipped the tent and snuck back out to the campfire, my older children did just the same.

We had just uncapped a beer and relaxed into our folding camp chairs when six brown eyes lit up in the darkness just beyond the halo of light around the fire. “We have to go to the bathroom.” Of course, since they always have to go to the bathroom immediately following the command that it’s bedtime and lights out and they should not show their faces again on this date.

There is a law of diminishing returns for camping trips such as these, and for parenting in general, it seems, as reasonable expectations for my labors with the kids are open to infinite variables. The more you invest, the more you need to invest, and the less certain are the returns as these children grow and their own wills usurp your own.

I found, in my oldest son’s bed yesterday, an empty six-hour energy shot, i.e. caffeine in a bottle of the kind truckers purchase at VP for overnight hauls. Some might call it legal speed. In any case, it was left over from, say eleven years ago, before kids, when my husband and I, and my husband’s younger brother, fresh out of a failed attempt at Seminary, drove to Texas in the middle of the night to see their sister.

Having driven his shift, my husband had been asleep in the back seat while younger brother drove, and I twitched in the passenger seat expecting his raw driving skills (he’d been in Seminary with the Legion for seven years) to send us careening off the edge of the interstate. That very nearly happened when he was following an exit ramp we weren’t meant to follow and crossed, at the last second before the cement pylon, through two lanes of traffic to get back on route. At that point, I had him pull over, and I purchased the energy drinks so that I could drive the rest of the way through the night.

Unfinished drinks followed us without thought or explanation through two moves, sat in the medicine cabinet in our sink for a number of years, not registering in my brain (this is speed, it should be out of my children’s reach) because it seemed its potency had expired along with the number of years I’d absently observed it hibernating in the cabinet. But its potency was quite intact, I learned when my oldest son impinged on my evening solace for an unusually long time. “I’ve got too much energy!” he’d said. Well, I guess he did.

What next? What totally unexpected thing are they going to do next? This morning I have coaxed a small particle resembling an air-soft BB from my four-year-old’s nose. I have repeated ad infinitum: “Get the skateboard off the trampoline. Get the Bikes off the trampoline. Get off the trampoline.” The older boys have coerced the younger, only recently freed from nasal BB, to test the dog’s new shock collar in exchange for a silly band.

There is a reason this way of life, or openness to life as it’s also known, has so few takers. It doesn’t just chip away at the ego and one’s free time, but it bores into subcutaneous material of a parent’s body and soul. It hurts, by golly.

Want to have life in abundance, Thrill Seekers? Want to know what it is to be expunged of everything you thought was yourself? Have babies. Have more babies, and keep having them until the only recourse you have to rearing them, after food and education, is the “Lord have mercy” that seeps out of your soul at every exhale.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Disembodied by Technology

When I was in college, everybody was bungee jumping, skydiving, doing triathlons, and any sport with the word “extreme” in front of it. Leisure activites were all about bodily thrills. But fifteen years later, the world has gone virtual. No more bodies bouncing through the atmosphere (at least not in my set). Static bodies sit unexercised and unimproved, behind the computer screen.

Went camping this weekend with friends, and late night campfire discussion turned to technology, and what to do with technology minded kids, boys especially, who have aptitudes and one-track minds for all things mechanical and digital.

I have first-hand knowledge of what technology does to a thirty-four year old mother with no aptitude for computers, who doesn’t work in the field, and never much cared for video games. She finds it quite absorbing. So much so, that often the important reasons for turning on the computer (checking email, for instance) have completely slipped from her mind by the time she turns it off.

And one of our camping companions, a liberal arts professor, who spends his summers attempting publication in academic journals, expressed a serious amount of distaste for all the women spinning their wheels trying to keep up a blog—something so transient, so inconsequential, so self-oriented. “What are your fans doing while you’re gone this weekend?” he asked, “Did you leave a note so no one would freak out?”

The question hit a nerve, because I do sometimes feel like I’m making a much bigger deal out of my “Writing Time” than it actually warrants. My kids see my absorption in the screen, even while I tell them that computer games will rot their brains.

They play Poptropica in their computer class at school, and the other day, they snuck my laptop up to their room to log onto their accounts now that school is out. I have made their leash so tight that they run away into the neighbors’ yard as soon as they can break free. They've taken to sneaking around behind my back.

Two years ago I started this blog because I wanted to develop the discipline of turning the thought fragments that occur to me throughout my days into fully realized ideas and opinions, and it seemed a nice compromise to writing in a hovel, producing material for a theoretical audience that might never come to fruition.

And so began a series of compromises, not so much related to the blog as to the status of culture in general, that what I really want is a living breathing community, but I will be satisfied with logging into some sort of online community. Naturally, I really want my writing to be material, something I can hold in my hands that has survived the filter of a distinguished publishing agency, but I’ll settle for a blog.

And with my kids, there’s that feeling of wanting to spare them the emasculating disembodied life in front of a screen, but gosh, who can support themselves without an online presence in this day and age? I look online for plumbers, carpenters, even, sometimes, my friends’ phone numbers. One compromise after another.

To say that technology got me through a rough patch in the witching hour of a Friday afternoon—and that’s why I do it--is not good enough. It’s not good enough to keep making excuses for myself and compromises, because I have a faith that makes no compromises, and that is perfectly equipped to handle the mental and physical complexities of my life. I always said that I could never profess a faith that ignored the body, that I need the Incarnation, yet I willingly commit hours of mindless devotion to virtual concepts that neglect the body.

If I want to keep my kids in my own yard, I’m going to have develop a culture and a community in our own family that makes them prefer being here to the greener pastures online or elsewhere. And if that culture can’t stand up to the completely overpowering beast that technology can be for certain addictive personalities, then hopefully it will be a reminder and an impetus for them someday down the road to think, life was pretty good before I was addicted to this soul sucking, body crushing garbage. Maybe I should go back to a culture more like the one we had when we were kids.

Our professor friend and his wife have an envy inducing familial culture of guitar playing and song singing, reading aloud, and outdoorsy activities, not to mention living on the edge of a college campus. I always thought that I'd one day have a Kumbaya Family, but that is not our family's charism. Our charism is loud. It's chaotic and a little antagonistic, and maybe I've let it become that way through my staunch prohibitions, and failures to provide them with other enriching experiences.

When my husband was in the hospital, the nurses kept pushing pain-killers, which my husband refused. They wanted to stay ahead of the pain, one of the nurses said, because if the painkillers wear off, many of their patients are miserable, and then they spend days chasing the pain.

I spend a lot of time chasing negative behavior, and not so much time preventing it. I’m in favor of a fair amount of free-range parenting, but a little guidance and structure is not going to stunt their creativity. And it might spare me the kind of defeat that produces public broadcast of my week's complaints. Loosening their leash with technology a little, maybe getting them a chessmaster CD, could cure their curiosity with the stuff, but it means tightening my own leash as well to provide better supervision and direction.

I want to have a familial culture, even if it's not a perfect culture, that appreciates each member of this family, body and soul, conflicts and gifts. I want to enjoy being with my kids, but to do so, I cannot be disembodied by my little hobby here. And my attitude towards my kids cannot always be an automatic "no," because that means I'm not listening to them.




Sally has written a post about an "embodied" day with her kids.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Nothing to see here

I've made a number of false starts trying to fill some space here at the end of this week, and all I can seem to do is complain. "All out of heroic self-giving?" my husband asks. Short-lived, it was.

My boys got in a fist fight at Goodwill today over the only Starwars book on the fifty cent paperback rack. Had to drag them out fighting after five minutes in the store.

Hospital bills have made their unwelcome arrival in the mailbox. Fridge is empty. Husband's back to work. Garden has already declared check-mate. Gained five pounds. And the computer has somehow lost it's appeal.