Betty Duffy

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Kindness

I hadn’t been to Adoration in a long time. Since we moved and have to drive long distances to get there, and since I have a lot of kids, I’ve let the habit slip. Last week, my mom had a couple of my kids in town, so I covered her Holy Hour with my two oldest and the baby.

I knew the baby would be all over the place, but assumed we’d be the only ones in the Chapel, and it wouldn’t be a problem. I did not expect the problems to arise from my boys, who are old enough to know that it’s inappropriate to make fart noises in the Chapel. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that we were not alone in the chapel, and that two older women were also there trying to pray, my boys were skidding their elbows on the wooden armrests until it made a noise guaranteed to set off their incurable snickers.

I tried separating them. I tried pinching them. I briefly considered murder, and when that thought crossed my mind, it occurred to me that it could not possibly be the will of God for me to be there at Adoration that day. Why would he call me there to get angry? Why would he put in my heart the desire to pray and then arrange the circumstances so that I had no choice but to fight?

The two older women, had already kissed the floor and made their exits, I assumed because of us, and I was about ready to chuck it myself, draw the curtain on our Lord, and finish outside the discipline I’d threatened to carry out in the sight of God. But after she’d been gone for awhile, one of those older women cracked the door to the chapel open again, and addressing my kids said, “Would you boys like to go outside for a walk so your mother can pray?”

She looked at me for a nonverbal permission, and I didn’t know the lady from Adam, but I willingly nodded my assent. At that point, if I never saw those boys again, I could not foresee disappointment.

I am not someone who easily puts my children into the care of others. In all the years that I have had children, only once have I hired a babysitter to whom I was not related. But I didn’t doubt for a second that the boys were going to be alright with this lady. More than alright. She was quiet and petite, but matronly, with gray hair and glasses on the end of her nose that gave her the look of a chronic knitter. Around her neck she wore the uniform of Adorers all over the world, a veritable charm necklace of Four-way Crosses, Miraculous Medals, and Patron Saints.

She looked Holy, which is an appearance about which I have never been mistaken. When someone looks Holy, they usually are (A Holy appearance being something entirely different from someone “trying” to look Holy). There is a preternatural openness or light in their eyes, and otherworldly equilibrium in their bearing. Take my children, Woman—take them! Do with them what you will! I know it will be better than what I was about to do.

And so there I was alone, with Jesus, and a brick in my mouth prohibiting any meaningful prayer because it’s hard to shake off anger like that, and I was long overdue for Confession anyway. What was the point of my being there, I was asking of myself, when I became aware of a chill working its way up my spine.

I could hear the kids playing in the courtyard, happy sounds, but otherwise there was this silence before me, and the knowledge that I had been done a kindness. I didn’t need any answers to the petty questions I had posed—there was this kindness that had been done for me. A perfect stranger had considered it so important for me to pray, that she had literally made it possible, because I wasn’t praying before, but her kindness to me gave me no choice but to pray.

Jesus wants me to be here. I had nothing else to say or to feel but gratitude and happiness. He wants me to be here, in his presence, which is something, I’m sorry to say, had not occurred to me in a long time.

This summer, for a number of reasons, has been a distant one for me and God. So many Sunday mornings spent in the little cry booth at our church, which is unventilated and heavily populated. For the first time in my adult life I have considered leaving a Mass. I actually didn’t want to be there, sat in that booth, unable to breastfeed a squeaky baby because of a well-intentioned Dad who was giving his wife a chance to pray in the Sanctuary. The quarters were too close, the baby too likely to lift my shirt of his own accord, and I was grousing through the Eucharistic prayer, and thought I might just leave. What’s the point?

He wants me to be here.

Whether I receive the Eucharist or not, whether I pray well or not, whether I have confessed my sins or not, whether I’m loving the people around me or wanting to wrench them. Just be there—sit it out, and the grace will come—maybe in the shape of a petite gray haired woman who has nothing else on her agenda but to do me a wholly unwarranted kindness.

The next Adorer on the schedule came in to relieve me—another petite, gray-haired woman with a battalion of Saints’ medals around her neck. “I’m here for the seven o’clock hour if you need to leave,” she said in a stage whisper. I made my genuflections and went out to find my boys.

One was following the baby around wherever he waddled, and the other was sitting on a concrete bench next to his hour’s guardian. I introduced myself, and thanked her profusely. But she answered back, “It was a blessing for me…these are very special children.”

“Yes they are,” I said.

In the car, my oldest sat in an uncharacteristic state of calm, his lips curled into a whimsical smile. “That lady was nice,” he said.

Existential Questions

Six-year-old daughter:
Were Adam and Eve the first ones to give their clothes to Goodwill?

No, remember Adam and Eve put on clothes when they ate the apple and realized they were naked.

Then where did they get clothes if there were no clothes at Goodwill?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Might have been better left to the pros

It began as an innocuous little belch under the paint in the bathroom. If someone were to sit on the john (not that I ever do), they would obtain a nagging glimpse of this growing lump every time they did their business, and one day, they might be tempted to push on it, just to see what it did. And if they pushed on it, the paint covering the lump would crack, and a poof of moldy drywall spores would escape from it, like one of those puffball mushrooms that grow in the middle of the soccer fields.

And then there would be an even greater imperfection in the wall where one looks every time they go to the bathroom. And one might suggest to her husband moving that little wall repair up on his priority list, and if he were to blow off the suggestion, one might start picking away at the drywall herself. She might enjoy pulling out deteriorated drywall and moldy insulation so well that she retrieves a hammer from the workshop and starts pounding it out.

Then she will realize that this is a much bigger project than she thought, because the water that caused such damage got into the floor as well, and so she will pull up a few floor tiles just to see what’s going on there, and before she knows it, her husband has found room in his schedule for a bathroom renovation.

Tiles will come shattering off the wall. Fixtures will be removed. The family will find alternative means of bathing for several days (weeks), not excluding lining the children up in the yard and power washing them with the hose.

At first it will be fun to take a bath in the laundry room sink. She will remember a camping trip on a primitive campsite, when two days in, she warmed a saucepan of water on the open fire, waited until the other campers were on a hike, and gave herself a sponge bath using only a quart of water. She will feel efficient and ecologically responsible.

Then she will slowly ease out of the bathing routine altogether. She will go to Church without showering for the first time in her life. She might employ Grandma’s old tricks of putting talcum powder in her hair, because not having a shower is a first world problem. It makes her feel important just to know that.

The kids will pee outside and love it. They’ve secretly been doing this for years, of course, and now they have their parents’ blessing. It won’t be long before one of them tries digging a hole in the yard to make their own toilet. And one day their mother will round the corner of one of the out buildings and come across a scene like this:

It's a bit more native than she would like.

So, she and her husband will stay up until three in the morning putting up new tile on the shower surround. Money will bleed from the savings account. That second bathroom addition they’ve been talking about for years will just have to wait, and maybe, while the grout cures, she will also take the kids to her mother's for awhile.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Revisiting an Old Friend

Since the Eat Pray Love phenomenon was the reason I started a blog, and since the movie is scheduled to arrive on the day I wrote the following post, I thought I'd give it a rerun.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008
One more word on Eat Pray Love

One of the reasons I read Eat Pray Love so willingly, and thought about it so much, is because there was something about her story that felt very seductive, while at the same time very dangerous. It hit me in a vulnerable place, because I am a creature of fantasy who tends to put hope in imaginary things, willing to believe that someday I'll be blissfully happy if I keep moving away from what is real and right in front of me towards the pictures of glory in my mind (i.e. A tour of Europe, good food, spiritual highs, S-E-...--and a book deal to cap it all off).

My cycles of dissatisfaction are brought on, not only by the fact that I have chosen a different route in life (which has its own specific ups and downs), but also by my ego, which believes that I deserve to enjoy the perks and pleasures of a life I don't happen to be living. And my ego is constantly metamorphosing into new and mysterious disguises, adapting its wants to a prettily packaged, harmless looking memoir about three very good things. If I could nail my constant pining for some other happiness as the blatant ego preservation that it is, I'd give it a violent death. Or maybe I wouldn't. Maybe I would just hope that somehow my ego and my desire for Heaven could peacefully co-exist. I'd bumble along for the entirety of my life, on average terms with Jesus, on better terms with myself, and just hope for the best. That at the end of my life, I will have gotten by. I will have done just enough to ensure my entry into Heaven, but I will have brought with me my one true love--my Self.

Everyone feels a silent pity for the elderly, first because they are so close to dying, but mainly because, being so close to the end, they have never been cured of those defects that forever have been glaringly obvious to everyone but themselves. In their old age, we can forgive them, feel pity even, because the aged, like the very young, don't know any better. We can only assume they don't know any better because they've had a lifetime to discover those defects and cure them in the Refiner's Fire, but instead, those defects have only grown more intense. How many times have I said that I don't want to be the crusty old woman who never got the point? I believe in the mercy of God to do for people what in life they were unable to do. But I am aware right here and now of the specific details and defects driving a wedge between me and God.

This is to say that I don't need anyone encouraging me to put myself first, or to remember my best me, or to spend another second thinking of or pampering my self. All of this comes very naturally to me. Even with four kids and a bun in the oven, my first thought of the day's labor is always a recognition of the cost to my self. Oprah Winfrey and books like Eat Pray love are big business, because if we really can buy the conviction that all this self orientation is good for our souls, we will do it.

All that said, I'm probably going to see the movie.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A few weird things I've heard and seen this week

My dad helped chaperone a camp for Catholic boys, ages ten to eighteen. A priest leads the camp, and along with many retreat-like activities, the boys do outdoor adventures. One such adventure was a canoe trip down a muddy slow-flow river.

I can recall my college days, taking a similar canoe trip with my sorority sisters. We set off from the canoe launch with several rented canoes tied together so that we could more easily pass the beer from one boat to the next. We did zero paddling because the day was about soaking up the rays and the suds, and the slower we moved, the longer the party.

My guess is that this boys’ camp was a more wholesome affair, as at least one or two of the campers was considering the priesthood. The boys had pulled onto a sandbank to do some fishing. I believe the camp had a Lord of the Rings theme to it, so Father M must have been talking on some point or another about the book; maybe they were trying, like Gollum, to catch a fish with their bare hands, when shrieking downstream comes a flotilla of bikini-clad sorority girls.

They pulled up to shore alongside the sheepish campers (insert downcast eyes and sideways glances here), handed their camera to Father M (who was not in cassock and collar because it was a canoe trip), slung their arms over one another’s half naked bodies and said, “Can you take our picture?”

Got my haircut this afternoon at a new place out by my parents. Whenever I’m staking out a new haircutter, I look around at the stylists in the salon to get an idea of the kind of haircut I might expect. And one of the stylists had eighties hair, the big bangs, the long perm. She was giving someone a straightening treatment and saying, “You learn so much as you go along,” which might be the least assuring words to cross a hair-stylist’s lips.

I might have left the salon right then except that I don’t do that kind of thing, walk out on an appointment I’ve made, and I also noticed all the other stylists at their booths seemed a little annoyed by what she was saying, pinch-lipped and silent.

I had my head in the bowl, getting my hair washed, thinking, “This is worth whatever I’m going to end up paying for it,” when their lady with the eighties hair yelled across the salon: “Hey Jeannie, when the light comes in through that window, you look like a big lump of skin! It’s so weird what the sun will do to a scar.”

I looked up from my bowl to see if she really said what I thought she said. NO ONE in the salon acknowleged it. Whoever and wherever Jeannie was, she had no response to that statement. And I guess I don’t either. Just thought it was interesting. And actually, my haircut turned out kind of cute.

We’re having the wood floors refinished in our bedroom this week, so I’ve been staying at my parents’ house with the kids. The fumes are really unbearable. At night I can hear my parents talking in their bedroom in muffled tones. Mom’s high voice, Dad’s low, a steady back and forth. And I stand on the stairs like I did twenty years ago trying to make out what they’re saying. Are they talking about me? Are they annoyed with my dog? With my kids? With me?

How close can I get before the stairs creak and they know I’m listening? But damned if I can’t make out a word.

The guy who owns our local bakery, the one who stands in the back room of the shop over a vat of butter cream and long johns mixing up the days’ wares, Lenny is his name, and he packs a gun in his apron.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How does it come to this?


Six year old daughter: “Mommy, that lady has fat inappropriate parts!”

Me: “Um, that lady has large breasts, but she is not fat…. You need to know, though, that her body parts are not inappropriate; it’s only inappropriate to let them hang out of your clothes in public."

Nine-year-old son: “What about breast feeding?”

Me: “Well that’s different because that’s what breasts are for, but it’s still good to be discrete when breastfeeding.”

Son: “What’s the difference between breastmilk and formula?”

Me: “Breastmilk is the best food for babies because God made it, whereas people make formula.”

Son: “Can we drink breastmilk?”

Me: “I could probably let you have some in a cup, but it would be weird for you to nurse.”

Son: “That’s because we’re neutered!”

Me: “Not neutered, weaned.”

Son: “Oh yeah, neutered is what you do to dogs to get rid of their mating instincts.”

Eight-year-old son pipes up from backseat: “I want to get neutered because I hate girls!”

Nine-year-old: “Yeah! Let’s get neutered!”

Me: “I don’t think you want to get neutered because that would mean having your body parts cut off, and one day, you might like girls.”

Nine-year-old: “I’m never going to like girls!”

Me: “Well, I hope you never get neutered anyway.”

Nine-year-old: “Then I’m going to get neutered when I’m a rebellious teenager!”

Me: “If you’re a rebellious teenager, getting neutered is the last thing you’re going to want to do.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Side of the Road

I took my older boys on my walk tonight as part of my new summer paradigm: “Love my kids, enjoy being a family, and get stuff done.” This was an uncharacteristic answer on my part to my husband’s question, “What do you want to do?” as my short term goals often involve avoiding my kids and lying around. Anyway, I said it, and it sounded so simple, so ideal and so attainable, I started to enact it on nights like tonight, for example, when I’d typically walk the dog by myself because I just need to get out of the house and away from everything.

I didn’t realize how much pleasure I was robbing myself of by always moving away from my kids for my down time. These boys are hilarious when you get them away from their little brothers and sister—maybe they need a little down time too—and they don’t need me to talk to them all the time. They have their own mystifying little culture between them.

We took the route to the brick house four doors down from us and approximately two miles away. The road goes over the interstate then snakes around over the river and between the cornfields that rise up on either side of the road in kind of sinister fashion this time of year. It’s been hot lately, so we’ve been walking around with sticky skin, frizzy hair, and red faces since about ten o’clock this morning, and the heat makes everything smell so much stronger: the musky corn, last night’s skunk, the dead creatures on the pavement.

The boys, after standing on the interstate overpass trying to get the truckers to honk at them (many obliged), walked on inspecting all the litter on the side of the road. Country roads seem to collect more litter than other roads, or at least, they are not often cleaned up, and this particular road is one of the worst. In the Springtime, when the snow melts and before the tawny orange lilies sprout along the riverbanks, you can see where people dump all their junk: couches, tires, TVs, coolers, yew clippings, air conditioners, bottles and the occasional porno mag.

I didn’t think about all this clutter with my kids on the walk because in the summer the roadsides are overgrown with Mulberry and Queen Anne’s Lace, but the boys observed EVERYTHING. Fortunately, we didn’t cross any dirty magazines, but they got a huge kick out of someone’s discarded skivvies, and a bottle of Mad Dog was occasion for an impromptu mad dog song that lasted, really, longer than it needed to.

One of them picked up a tree-shaped air freshener that people hang from their rearview mirrors and said it smelled like the deodorizing pucks found in urinals. And it struck me as odd that these boys are old enough to go into men’s bathrooms by themselves and use urinals—and in fact, they have been doing so for some time.

Who taught them to use urinals? It wasn’t me, I know, so I asked them, in what might be one of my most naïve moments as a mother. “Dad taught us to pee standing up. It’s just like using a regular toilet.” This makes perfect sense if you’re a boy, and have the characteristic apparatus. But if you are a woman, as I happen to be, the urinal concept is about as complicated as using a bidet. Who teaches people to use a bidet—and what must that tutorial be like?

Anyway, all this stuff on the side of the road, and my boys inspecting everything as if they were archeologists trying to unearth clues to a long lost people, made me feel a little sad. What will they learn about mankind from all this junk?

When my husband and I went to Williamsburg, I sat in on an archeology lecture while my husband was in his woodworking conference. Our guide took us back into the archives where the Williamsburg Foundation stores all of the artifacts they unearthed during the excavation of the original town.

By inspecting the trash dumps on a particular plot, the archeologists and historians could discern if the people in that home had been wealthy or poor, cultured or illiterate. If they used imported china, they were probably well off. If they used clay dishes, they might have been slaves, for example.

The archives contained millions of shards of crystal and cutlery, drawer after drawer of clues to the people that lived there. But this road we walked tonight, with its plastic wrappers and brand-name bottles, could have been populated and defaced by any auto-bot in the galaxy.

Hmm… This people appears to engage in some sort of sexual reproduction (What could this Durex wrapper connote?), and hence, should enjoy increased genetic diversity among its offspring, and yet, why does every specimen appear to drink Big Gulps and eat McDonalds?

There are so many, many reasons to swim against the current of this culture.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Pick and a Pan

“Your hyperbole is not helping anything, in fact, quite the opposite.”—so sayeth my husband. A symptom of my dramatic temperament, perhaps exacerbated by marriage to a phlegmatic, is that I’ll do just about anything to get a reaction. And the more difficult the reactions are to attain, the more flamboyant are my provocations. Hand gestures, the quivering voice, exaggerated exploration of the consequences of being ignored (“I might die!”), and perhaps even a feigned collapse—all just tools of the trade. I have found my soul mate in the character of the Countess from the movie, "The Last Station." This might be my new favorite movie.

I am a huge fan of Tolstoy, in spite of his kooky, late in life, religious heresies. "The Last Station" is about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, and how his disciples, who founded the “Tolstoyan Movement” based on his philosophical writings, inserted themselves between the author and his wife in order to make the rights to his writings the property of the Russian people. In the most simple terms, however, the movie is about marriage and what happens when interlopers insert themselves into the relationship between husband and wife, and when the public life takes precedence over the private one.

In response to Tolstoy's decision to change his will, the Countess stages public rages, wild dramas, and makes threats on her own life and the lives of others. In her defense, she has no opportunity for private rages and dramas because her home is always filled with sycophants waiting with pen and paper to write down anything Tolstoy says. The two have been married for forty-eight years: “You are my life’s endeavor, and I am yours,” the Countess says. But Tolstoy, considering the work his life’s endeavor, puts aside the bride of his youth in order to spend his last days in peace. And instead of asking for her counsel regarding their financial affairs, he follows that of his disciples and advisors.

What a challenge to be married to a public man, to be the wife of a president or ideologue—to constantly have my needs displaced by the "greater good," our private confidences and covenants betrayed by people who consider those covenants malleable when they are an inconvenience. A wife wants to be chosen and preferred by her husband, cherished and considered, over some vague public notions, or even an occasional game of golf. Choose me! Ask me! Spend your time with me!

And if not, well, look out for flying hyperbole.

The beauty of this movie, aside from the perfect casting (Helen Mirren as the Countess, Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, and James McAvoy—aka “Sexy Tumnus” as Tolstoy’s secretary) is the quiet triumph of the union of two. Tolstoy and the Countess loved each other. And in the end, it was only his bride that Tolstoy wanted to see at his bedside.

Gosh, I want to watch it again tonight.

I will not, however, be screening an encore presentation of "Greenberg," which stars Ben Stiller as a neurotic forty-year-old whose life, after early potential for stardom, has amounted to very little. In his twenties, Greenberg played in a rock and roll band, but when he threw over a recording offer and his band broke up, he proceeded along a path of arrested development climaxing in a mental breakdown.

Until…he falls in love…with an unambitious girl who works for his brother. These two characters have little to recommend them, and their vacuous dialogue made me want to blow my nose on their behalf to get rid of whatever is blocking their brain cells from making contact with their mouths. Where Tolstoy and the Countess each hold such strong, yet conflicting, beliefs that they would sacrifice their marriage for their ideals, the characters in Greenberg believe in nothing, and waft in and out of each other’s lives long enough to brush genitals and then retract back into their narcissistic bubbles.

I cannot express how much I hated this movie, which I guess was written by Noah Baumbach.

In one scene, the heroine, whose name is Florence should you care to know, who has recently gone from being in a relationship, “to just having sex, to just having sex, to just having sex” must get an abortion, naturally. Her decision is a given, and is made as easily as she falls into bed with strangers.

I can understand how a woman comes to this place, where emotion has been compartmentalized from the body and so each of these tragedies—the varied lovers, the death of a child—have become trivialities. The annoying part of this scene is how the men in the movie, Greenberg and his friend, Ivan, patronize Florence, driving her to the clinic, wishing her well before she goes back for her procedure, then debating how to greet her post-op (with flowers or a hamburger?). Why are these men such pussies? Why are they trying to sweeten up the tragedy that Florence clearly does not consider a tragedy? And if they care—WHY DON’T THEY STOP HER? Why don’t they offer even one word in contradiction of her decision?

This ridiculous flub-dubbery! Ridiculous men are not cute. They are not endearing, not sweet. Feminized, incompetent men make me want to roll out the meat-grinder, or yank my teeth out one by one, or jump into a riptide (would this be hyperbole?).

One final word: What happened to funny Ben Stiller? Adam Sandler did this sensitive buffoon thing too, right before his career imploded.

Anyway, see The Last Station. Skip Greenberg. But be advised, Gentle Viewer, that both movies contain unscrupulous sex scenes. Yeeha!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Walked my dog tonight in the park nearby because it's well lit after dark. Coming up to a street light, I saw a family of what appeared to be rodents crossing the street which made the dog a little jumpy, as I had just made a move to remove his leash and let him run. But seeing the small family, I held on, very tight. Because the streetlamp soon made known that it was a family of skunks, five of them, all with their tails raised and aimed at me and my dog.

My boys have been doing this obnoxious thing lately where they pass gas all the time and say "Safety," and I overheard them talking when they were supposed to be asleep about how patriotic they felt this July and how they should shoot off some "Fart-er-works," which is the only thing I could think of, having five skunk bottoms aimed in my direction.

Just to kill the suspense, we didn't get sprayed. Once the dog was still, the skunks made their very slow way into a cornfield, and I made a very fast way home.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Anything was NOT possible.

“On nights like that, every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” --Raymond Chandler

Writers say that when the Santa Ana winds blow in Los Angeles, anything can happen, or when a single girl, age 22 picks up and moves to New York, anything can happen. So many stories have begun on the premise that the world consists of limitless possibility, I have a sense that my failure to write well in my earlier years was based on an opposing premise: Anything was not possible.

Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but even if I’d been raised in the seventies and eighties on self-esteem in a can and freedom music, I have never, not for one minute believed the phrase “Anything was possible” to be true. Anything was not possible, because I was born in Indiana, to parents who were born in Indiana, and who became Catholic before I reached the age of reason.

I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That” about the time she spent in New York as a young woman. She planned to stay only six months, but stayed for eight years. She writes:

“I never felt poor; I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it. I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name “Debbi Lynn” or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100 call girl, and none of it would matter.”

Even when I was at my most adventurous and rootless times of life I always had parameters, parameters that perhaps shifted here and there, but parameters no less, like that I would never, ever wear a tube top. I was born with that knowledge, and catered to it throughout the years when I might actually have had the figure for it.

Because not only was anything not possible, if anything did happen, there was a very good possibility that that anything would be a sin, and I would not knowingly commit, nor allow someone I loved (a carefully considered fictional heroine who bore great resemblance to myself, for instance) to commit a grave one. Anything was downright dangerous, soul and body, and being from Indiana, and a small town at that, anything was not altogether available.

Perhaps if I’d not gone to a Midwestern University, if I’d strayed a little farther and left Indiana a little younger, possibilities might have made themselves known to me. But as it was, when I sat down to become a writer, and I opened the pages of the diary begun when I was eleven, I knew that I needed to acquire at least one or two wounds, for the sake of the art. Not bad wounds; shallow wounds, just something to get the blood flowing a bit. And I sought my wounds in the most economical way possible: I, after eighteen years of virginal scar-free life, got myself an older boyfriend.

But this is not the story of that boy. This is the story of my first story, my first failed novel that still sits in the drawer by my bed, and calls out to me once every two or three years, “I’m still here, I’m still bad, but I’m finished. I’m the first thing you ever finished and I know, for that reason alone, you’ll never stop loving me.” That boy, my first older boyfriend, he was chapter one.

England was chapter two.

When I went to England, it was for six months, but I was fractionally rebellious, and stayed six months and one day (no eight year stay for me). I was still kicked out of my flat at the appointed time, and left to find a place for me and my bags to stay for the night. When I mentioned my predicament to my wealthy socialist friend, he suggested I get a hotel, but I did not have the feeling, like Didion, that I could always make money, so a hotel even a hostel, was really too expensive. I did what rootless single American girls do in such a situation, and went to the bar until I found a place to spend the night. It was like hailing a cab. A girl can always find a bed, and yet sleeping with my host was not a part of my equation, and I was pretty good or just damn lucky at choosing the right host in order not to upset the equation. Anything could not just happen after all.

I was on my way to chapter three, in Rome, where the equation would be balanced; Jesus could take root, and I would return home to Indiana with my childhood faith reinstated as I always knew it would be. Novel complete. The wayward daughter has returned.

Other people have not lived such relatively tidy lives. And other novels have not been so constricted in their possibilities by the facts of the author’s life and faith. The novel goes into a tidy drawer, and I pull it out every now and then and wonder why the book doesn’t work, even though it’s not possible for me to change it. That’s how it was. That’s how the story goes, and how it always will. The wayward daughter has returned and the story is complete.

Matthew Lickona wrote for First Things, “the naked portrayal of religious belief carries with it the power and even the tendency to kill the story,” which is probably why my story died right where it should have begun. In the meantime, a few years have passed and I have five children, and sometimes I ask myself how in the hell that happened—because it was not in the book to have five children in ten years. And how did my life become so untidy?

Moral being that having faith as a subtle baseline throughout a story rather than a grand kaboom at the end, allows the story to go anywhere, maybe even into seedier barrooms than the wayward child would have touched with her tidy little pinky. Because we all know what’s going to happen when the rootless single American girl walks into a bar, but when a Catholic mother of five goes to the pub? Goodness, anything could happen.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

On the Dunes

We climbed Sleeping Bear Dunes one day, and my sister and I, and an assembly of our boys took the trail all the way to Lake Michigan, which is something I've never done. I've begun the trail several times over the course of my life, but have always turned back with fatigue and warnings from haggard hikers making their return that it's much longer than you think.

In distance, it's about 2.5 kilometers one way. But it's up dunes, down dunes, back up dunes etc. the entire way. We set off so joyful, with one water bottle between us, kids jumping off of the sand drifts, and skipping over the hills like fleas.

But soon the stragglers had separated from the group, and my sister carried one of her little ones and walked slower so as not to lose those that fell behind. And I ran ahead after the agile ones who were always at the peak of the next dune over, always just out of my reach. I worried they'd get to the Lake before me, jump in and be carried out to sea by a riptide, so I ran all the downhills, but the uphills made me feel like I was stuck in a nightmare where I need to run but my legs are buried in cement.

And the dunes go on and on.

Finally there, I handed the bottle around to the boys (Who were in the lake by the time I reached them), and not realizing that it was our only water, the first to take a drink took a big drink and left only a sip apiece for everyone else, and then I had that nightmare that I'm stranded on a desert island and I have to breastfeed everyone to keep them alive.

But I did not.

We slogged back through the dunes, and anyone who thinks the worst is over after the first initial steep hill is fooling themselves. All the dunes are steep, because each step uphill in the sand actually slides back about three feet. One is better off scuffing up the hills, inch by inch so as not to disrupt the delicate balance of tiny granules supporting one's body weight.

We walked for hours, and even the boys who seemed to hop across the dunes on the way out, slogged back. I saw my oldest coerce his little brother (who is bigger than he) to carry him part of the way, until their bodies drifted to the side and fell over.

But we made it.

At some point, the peak of a dune reveals a civilization of reveling dune climbers. They are still smiling and talking about how they would like to try and make it all the way to Lake Michigan. So foolhardy. So naive. And they don't ask for my opinion, "Is it difficult? Is it worth it?" I feel like a warrior returning from battle to find that those left at home were unaware a war was taking place.

What to do now?

I am very good at starting projects, but much less talented at finishing them. Some time ago, I decided to make a quilted bedspread out of squares of felt. I purchased a monochromatic selection of blue felt, a roll of batting, wound up my sewing machine, pieced the spread and threw it in my closet for ten years. Gave away the sewing machine several years before I found the felt pieces again and gave it to my kids to cut up. That was it for me and sewing.

Painting my daughter’s bedroom had a gorgeous kick-off—applied two coats of primer, then cleaned my brushes, and set them on top of the full paint cans in the hallway, where they sit still today.

For the past year or so, several other house projects have been beckoning to my husband and I, so when we came home from vacation midweek, and my husband had the rest of the week off, we pulled our bedroom mattress onto the living room floor, dumped piles of clothes onto the surrounding chairs, and ripped up the thirty year old carpet on our floor. Terribly gratifying.

Also, I took a hammer to the disintegrating drywall and floor in our only bathroom, revealing some rotten wood beams in those now-gaping holes.

In addition, my husband made new doors for our shed, tore up the rotten deck outside his workshop, and cut down several storm ravaged branches from trees in the yard.

The good news is that my husband is better at finishing projects than I am. The bad news is that he goes back to work in a day.

Projects completed since our return:
1. Mow
2. pick up mail
3. cut down limbs
4. fix stuck windows
5. wash windows
6. spray fruit trees
7. hang pictures
8. rip up carpet
9. barn doors

Projects to complete soon
1. Repair bathroom floor, tile, & fixtures
2. refinish wood floor in bedroom
3. paint Jane’s room
4. redo culvert on driveway (dig washed out gravel from the ditch)
5. clean out entry way
6. fix porch lamp