Betty Duffy

Friday, October 29, 2010

New York, Part II

Arriving in New York at Mt Kisco Retreat center, I encountered fifty high school girls—young, nubile bodies, slenderness. It was widely assumed that I was Kate’s mother, the buzz kill, matronly one, having gained twenty pounds this year, already showing at six weeks pregnant—and maybe that’s not actually “showing.” I still don’t know why I came.

The retreat center, Mt Kisco, is like a crazy haunted house, full of dark hallways, mysterious doorways, attics, and a Great Gatsby-like main house.

On Friday, we stayed in the house, had a couple talks to get the girls excited and in the right spiritual frame of mind. No one called on me for experience. No one wanted their pictures taken with me. No one wanted to talk. That night, the Consecrated took a bunch of the girls downtown to serenade the Holy Father at his hotel. I was asked to stay home. Someone in the house was sick, apparently, and couldn’t be left alone, but I never saw her that night—just her closed door. I went to Borders and bought two books, spent the night reading in bed, not needed.

The next day, I was asked to coordinate getting the girls into the city for the Youth Rally. Seven cars drove to Yonkers, each driver responsible for the girls in their cars. Six Mexican girls jumped into my van and spoke Spanish for the duration while I drove along, an old overweight chauffer.

Fortunately, at the Youth Rally, I found friends in some of the other chaperones, Trish and Ally. Trish was formerly Consecrated back when I was in R.I in my twenties, and Ally intended to enter a Carmelite Cloister. We stayed up in the food area most of the day, where there was shade, and a chapel, and priests hearing Confession.

We took pictures of all the Religious, enjoyed the colorfulness of the Church, spoke to strangers, enjoyed the fact that the Church is alive and well, prayed, and went to Confession. Trish went first, and came back raving about what a Holy priest she’d had, her best Confession ever.

I had been a week ago, so didn’t think I needed to again, but Ally made such a good point—that Confession helps us to see holiness more clearly, to have the closest possible relationship with Christ. Since our Pope, the Vicar of Christ on Earth was going to be here, maybe going to Confession would help us to see him more clearly.

So I went, and my sins became apparent to me: my vanity, my mourning over my lost-youth, my poor-me-ism, my self-love, even while I was trying to serve God.

The priest said that our God is an incarnate one, one who took on humanity so that he could meet us, exactly where we are. He wants me to be the best me I can be, with whatever I have right now, even if that is apparently less than what it used to be or what others have. When we are doing whatever we can to cooperate with Christ, there is no comparison to be made. With God there is no generation gap.

At two o’clock, the entire Dunwoody Seminary had a lockdown. Helicopters began to circle overhead. I tried to get close to the pylons, though my friends had stayed up near the food and chapel to pray and eat. We didn’t know there would be no movement between the two areas—the food court, and the lawn where Pope Benedict would be. My friends were locked out, as were about 5000 other people.

I was one of the lucky ones who stood in sweltering heat at the pylons for two hours trying to secure my spot. I accidentally bumped into an elderly nun, and she gave me a sharp, swift elbow in the back. A group of women had made a pile of their belongings in front of the pylon to hold their place. I suggested they might want to move it, so that it wouldn’t get trampled when the Holy Father came. “Not yet. It’s only three o’clock” they said, not ready for the crowd to make its inevitable encroachment. Things were getting ugly.

We’d been there since 7 a.m. We were tired and hot. Lines were long in the food court and now it was closed. We were hungry. We were thirsty. We wanted to see the Pope and touch him.

A young couple was taking advantage of the closeness and anonymity of the crowd to grope one another and stick their tongues in each other’s ears. There were nuns standing around them and I got angry because, couldn’t they see? I tapped the boy on the shoulder and told him to knock it off. Keep it G rated for the women who have taken a vow of chastity. He loosened his hold on the girl, and avoided eye contact with me for the rest of the day. I felt sorry I had not been gentler.

A security guard then came by and told us that the Pope would not be coming into the crowd, so we could relax. Our standing and ribbing had been for naught and a palpable disappointment and shame rippled through the crowd. Poor, miserable people. So hungry for Christ, so clueless about how to find him.

A quiet young voice began to sing, “Jesus, I adore you…” People looked around. Was it one of the nuns? A child? Who was it? A few other voices sang too, “And I lay my life before you.” Others joined in, and it was a round, “How I love you.” Within seconds, our shame and loss had become a song of adoration.

Talked to Mom this morning. She said, “I’ve listened to the Holy Father’s talks and it’s been wonderful—sounds like you’re having an amazing experience. Maybe you can give a talk to our Regnum Christi team about your experience when you come home.” And I thought, how unlikely that would be because I hadn’t heard a word of it.

During the Holy Father’s homily, I’d nearly passed out. I had to sit down in the crowd of standers. It was 5:30 p.m. I’m pregnant, and hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink since 5:30 that morning. I don’t remember anything he said. Towards the end of it, water bottles started to appear, but there were not enough. I had tried all day to get a good view of the Holy Father, and he had been a little white speck to me.

Shuffling out, exhausted, I finally saw my cousin, who had been among those locked out. As expected, we had a brief, inadequate visit, and then I rounded up my girls, drove back to retreat center and slept the sleep of the dead.


New York, April 2008: A Visit From Pope Benedict XVI

I meant to post this two years ago...

When I was twenty-two, I did a year of service in Rhode Island for the Regnum Christi Movement. Even though I spent the year considering whether or not I would ultimately consecrate my life to Christ in poverty, chastity and obedience, I made the drive home to Indy several times for family visits. Back then, I’d fill a thermos with strong coffee, leave at the crack of dawn or before, and chain smoke all the way home—a sixteen hour drive.

Aside from the caffeine and nicotine, it was a buzz to get behind wheel and travel with such abandon. It might have been my attachment to that feeling of freedom and self-sufficiency of crossing half the country by myself that made my decision to come home at the end of the year. Ironically, since I married and had kids, such high octane travels abruptly came to an end—not a bad or sad thing—just part of growing up and taking care of kids.

Now ten years later, it’s weird to think about going back to that kind of a life, even for a weekend. This time I’ll cross the country in a mini-van, and while it’s tempting to swill some coffee and smoke some cigs for an old time sake, I’m pregnant with number five, and I don’t think the baby needs that kind of stimulation.

I’ve learned that my cousin, a Dominican nun who was discerning her vocation at the same time I discerned mine, will also be in NY for the Pope’s visit. I haven’t seen her in years, and I know that any meeting on the sidewalk in New York City will be grossly inadequate. Still I feel a spiritual sisterhood with her since important phases of our lives paralleled each other.

We both studied abroad, she at Saint Andrews, me at Oxford, testing our call to academia. Finding that life wanting, we both came home and tested our calls to religious life. She took vows, I did not. But she has gone on to spiritually parent many children in her vocation as a teacher and principal, while I have gone about parenting my little brood. Even if we don’t see each other in New York, it feels fitting that we should both be there following the Holy Father in parallel.

Having had the experience of religious life, I am constantly amazed at how that life prepared me for the one I now live. Staying home with the kids is isolating, a cloister, but the dedicated act of not going places, not doing everything I might find appealing, has the effect of giving me greater focus and satisfaction with where I am.

In my current cloister, I am Mother Superior, and I have learned how humbling this position can be, and at the same time, how much responsibility it entails. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, and yet it is my duty to require obedience of my charges. I am the arbiter of God’s will for my children so my only option is to strive to be as Christlike and as authentic as humanly possible. If they feel that God’s will requires them to be subject to a screaming, angry nutcase, how will they ever learn to love the will of God as their own?

I wonder why I am here in New York. Everyone is young, and I’ve finally come to the realization that I am not. But there is a plan. The Holy Father is here in New York, and I am ever-so-slightly scared. What if terrorists blow something up? I could fall asleep driving on the way home. What about my kids home with my husband? What safety standard will be violated in my absence? There are so many risks in being here.

I have come to New York to see Pope Benedict because I like his writing. Why did I do that? I didn’t put much forethought into it. I had no anxiety. Some unknown forces conspired to get me here. I knew who to call for a free place to stay. I knew what to offer—my chaperoning services. It’s very odd that I made it this far. I am not tired. The drive was easy.

When I volunteered to chaperone a group of high school girls around New York City, my primary motives were my own rest and spiritual refreshment. Going to a Youth Rally at Dunwoody Seminary, I believed the Holy Father would be addressing me. I’m still young. I remember what fresh Holy enthusiasm feels like, and I’m not too old to experience that again—even as it becomes apparent that my other youthful dreams might not come to fulfillment. Famous writer? Probably not. Beauty Queen? Definitely not. But fresh young faith? It was maybe still an option.

Kate, a high school senior, also from Indiana, rode to the East Coast with me. She had just made a decision about where to attend college, and she was full of questions about how to survive college with faith intact.

I was more than willing to share my wisdom with her, certain that God wanted me to minister to these high school girls out of my font of experience paired with my still youthful vitality. I told her everything she needed to know to be prepared for college life--in 1994. I had shared all my knowledge, quantified with the caveat, “at least that’s how it was fifteen years ago,” and it was only 45 minutes into the conversation that I realized my knowledge was likely now irrelevant. We barely had email when I was in college.

To be continued...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

An old favorite...

Indeed, one suffers initially after a conversion, considering one's past sins, wishing to break immediately the bonds of secular concerns, to walk in tranquility the ways of the Lord, to throw off the heavy burden of earthly desires and in free servitude to put on the light yoke of God. Yet while one thinks of these things, there arrives a familiar delight in the flesh which quickly takes root. The longer it holds on, the tighter it becomes, the later does one manage to leave it behind. What suffering in such a situation, what anxiety of the heart! When the spirit calls and the flesh calls us back. On one hand the intimacy of new love invites us, on the other the old habits of vice hold us back.
--Gregory the Great

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Am I Reading This?

I’m not sure why I keep reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels. They make me feel dirty, like I need to take a bath—but read I must. I feel like my Grandma when she used to get stuck with the remote in her hand in front of an episode of Dukes of Hazzard, “This is awful!” she’d say, “Turn this off!” all the time, unwilling to make the connection that the power to look away was at her own fingertips.

Part of the problem is that in spite of Franzen’s tired complaints about the growing irrelevance of reading and novels in the face of technological progress, he still gets his face on the cover of Time Magazine, and his novels into the hands of the President of the United States. He’s literary jester to the king, and I sort of feel like it’s my duty as a concerned citizen to know what the king is reading, so I picked up Freedom at the library the other day (oddly, it was not checked out in my small town).

It’s rare that a book holds my attention for protracted periods of time over a series of days, but this book has, like his novel The Corrections before it. In The Corrections, I really was impressed with Franzen’s drawing of the older Midwestern couple—the Dad suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the Mom suffering from an empty nest. These two characters were recognizable to me, and managed to draw my affection. But the other characters in the book, the one’s more like Franzen himself, one presumes, as they share his age, geography, and class demographics, were not only rather bland, but at times impossible to like.

Freedom suffers from similarly unlikable characters, only without any likable characters to offer relief. An interview in the Telegraph UK reads, “In Freedom, (Franzen) says he moved into uncharted territory, mostly drawing his characters out of thin air. ‘There was extra work involved in making them very specifically not me.’” I’m not sure that extra work paid off.

I was trying to figure out why, with the alleged “sprawling” themes of this book, his characters still feel so narrow. Having read, now two of his novels, plus quite a bit of his non-fiction, I think it’s because each character in Freedom feels a little bit Franzen and nothing else. Hence, there’s neurotic Franzen, then earnest Franzen, cool Franzen, rebellious Franzen, etc. each a one-dimensional caricature of the author’s worst selves (as revealed in print).

The book revolves around the marriage of Patty and Walter, two forty-something liberals in St Paul Minnesota. The problems begin, obviously, with their names. Patty? And Walter? I’m not buying it. I realize that at this very moment, ironic hipsters are naming their firstborn sons Walter, and should Franzen have children of his own, he, too, might choose the names Walter and Patty. But for a grown man, in his forties in the year 2005 to be named Walter, and to go by Walter, and not Wally—it’s just too cute.

But that is, of course, the least of these characters' troubles. An even greater problem is the failure of these characters’ voices to differentiate one from another. The ironic quips of Walter’s college friend, Richard, with whom Patty has an affair, could just as easily have come from Patty herself if she were a fully drawn character capable of variant moods and modes. But she’s not. She only has two modes, in control and out of control, so she has to resort to sleeping with ironic cool.

The dialogue in the book is insipid blog speak, “like, you know?” There’s not a question asked in the book that a character doesn’t answer with another sarcastic question. I suppose we could know our characters by the sermons they give on topics like the environment, overpopulation, conservation, or the war in Iraq—except, no, they all tow a predictable party line—and the fact that characters are giving sermons, is in itself an irritation. The novel does, in fact, read at times like a really long, slightly above average, blog post. (I am, apparently, an avid reader and writer of blogs, however, which might explain a bit about why I still have my nose in this book, and why a culture that Franzen asserts is too busy with their technology to read novels has made this book a best-seller.)

The best Franzen can do to diversify his characters is to let us know how exactly each one of them likes to screw, or be screwed as the case may be. But even the sex in the book—and there’s a lot of it—is so sterile and banal it seems to take on a discovery channel flavor of mammalian sexual behavior. Needless to say, not a soul is conceived from all this sex (as of yet—there might be a contraception failure later on).

So why do I keep reading? Because it feels good to get angry? Because I want to know why this is considered “literary” fiction? Because Obama called it “terrific?” Because I’m concerned about a culture that produces characters who are so consistently dull, selfish and homogenous? Or because I’ve spent the weekend in an aerosol Franzen can and I have to keep reading until all of these pressurized, but depressed, contents explode?

I read this morning in Magnificat, “ ‘Life is not a tragedy. Tragedy is what makes everything amount to nothing. Yes, life is a drama. It is dramatic because it is the relationship between our I and the You of God, our I that must follow the steps which God indicates” (L. Giussani). It is this Presence, this You that makes circumstances change, because without this You everything would be nothing, everything would be a step toward an ever darker tragedy.”

I think that quote sums up nicely how a book like Freedom can touch on all the topics of the day over an expanse of about twenty years and say very little. No God, no guilt, no critical tension equals a literary tragedy as well as an eternal one.

The moral--because Franzen intends for this book to teach us something--is please, people of God and goodwill, start writing literary novels.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"I did my work, time went by..."

(--Edwin O'Connor)

I organized my husband’s sock drawer yesterday. It had to be done, all those mismatched and threadbare tube socks emerging from the drawer making it impossible to close. I also went through his undershirts and put the dingy off-white ones in the washer with bleach. I might have made a bleachy paste to remove the underarm stains, if I knew how to do that. I could have looked on the internet for a bleachy paste recipe, but it seemed more prudent to stick to the task at hand until I saw it completed, and that would not happen if I allowed myself to drift off into internet never-land.

I’ve been following Bearing’s posts on The Devout Life by Francis de Sales, and I’ve been inspired by Bearing’s (and Saint Francis’s) methodical approach to effecting change, whether in weight loss, reading, or improving one’s soul. I’ve decided it’s time that I, too, embark on the devout life, or at least on reading the book with her. Actually improving my soul is such a scary prospect.

Saint Theresa of Avila wrote, “I cannot understand what it is that makes people afraid of setting out on the road of perfection.” Well, Dear Saint, I think I might know. That way leads to eschewing fun on the internet for organizing the sock drawer. Isn’t it exactly as I feared, that if I kept beating on that glass ceiling of my mediocrity, I’d one day burst through into the realm of holiness where all the holy people scrub the corners of their houses with toothbrushes and listen to classical music, and read only books written before 1945 with an imprimatur?

Isn’t what’s kept me from pursuing a more devout life, the mistaken (and arrogant) assumption that I must actually be terribly close to perfection, and that reaching that final benchmark, that cap where there’s no where else to grow, means spending the rest of my life in a grim martyrdom of boring quotidian tasks offered for all those people still stuck on the other side of the glass in mediocre-land, wasting their time browsing the web, flirting, reading fun books and listening to pop music?

Except deciding to organize my husband’s sock drawer wasn’t like that at all. One could argue that the impetus for the task was fifteen years in the making, as so many of those socks were older than our relationship, and even the most placid temperament must someday say, “Enough is enough. It’s time to close that drawer.” But it wasn’t that either.

Inch by inch, reading the book, doing about a meditation a week, saying the Rosary, showing up at Mass during the week—practicing devotion—the decision to organize the sock drawer was somehow a manifestation of a new freedom—freedom from my chronic “No.”

How many times have I passed that sock drawer, considered doing something about it, and argued with myself that it’s not even my drawer; those are not my socks; if I do it once, he’ll want me to match his socks all the time; and I barely even fold my own laundry. I might unwittingly become a slave to him. Well, I’m too smart for that, I say. I’m not going to organize his drawer; I’m just going to live with the chaos—Ha!

And as a consequence, I maintain an oppressive status quo—the slavery to my “No.”

The “road to perfection” sounds so binding and final. I get hung up on that word, “perfection” and overlook the fact that that’s just the name of the road. Hence, taking that road is actually an unbinding—the freedom to go a different way, not the habitual way—and it goes on for a really long time.

I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t have other evidence of a personal unbinding, most of which are manifest in acts of huswifery because the house is my battle ground. At the same time, all of this is probably imperceptible to anyone but me.

We are at a time in our lives when it’s necessary to spend a lot of time sitting out in the yard doing nothing. The baby likes to be out there wandering around, and it’s good for him to do so. He has acres on which to wander, but there’s always a small chance that he’s going to go to that one place where he’s not allowed to play. It’s human nature after all, so I have to be on guard. I can’t read, because I’ll become too absorbed. I can’t laptop because my battery doesn’t work for long.

In my “no” phase, I might have been annoyed with the situation, because there’s a crapload of work to be done inside, and if I’m doing nothing, I at least want to do nothing on the internet. But the freedom to do nothing--nothing but feeling the breeze, roasting in the sun, watching the leaves and the putterings of a little boy who doesn’t need to be convinced that doing nothing is really wonderful--is really wonderful.

But from the outside, I imagine this profound internal shift just looks to others like a woman sitting around doing nothing, which is, of course, exactly what it is. The great relief and surprise about the devout life, is that it looks similar to the not so devout life I was living last week, except that I smile more, because I am free. I’ve said it before; It’s not that I’m unhappy with my life, it’s that I’ve been divided--divided by concepts that I have created.

I just finished reading “The Edge of Sadness” by Edwin O’Connor. It’s the best novel I’ve read in a long time, about a priest who’s been through a period of spiritual aridity and finds at the end of it, the freedom to embrace the life he’s been living as opposed to the life he always thought he wanted. When Father Kennedy finally acknowledges that what he wants is not the warmth and regard of other people, but love and truer devotion to God, his conversion works out like this:

“The mighty changes, of course, did not take place—or if they did they remained invisible to me. Which was natural enough…since a slight increase in the zeal of one man produces no miracles—unless the one man is himself one of the extraordinary few who can and do change history. But nothing like that was involved here. I did my work, time went by…”

And so it does.

Monday, October 18, 2010

She Comes Across Some Old Things That Recall Other Days

(a rerun)

“I had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere… people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying… Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them…that I’d been meant to be one of them all along…and they’d know it too.” (--April Wheeler, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates)

At my parents’ house the other day, my mom and I went through old pictures. In my childhood, I was a towhead, a ham, always posing, vain from day one. I told the orthodontist that I needed braces in seventh grade to support my future career as an actress. I always intended to make it into the world of the marvelous golden people. I had to get ready for my close-up.

It’s interesting to look back at those pictures now, having arrived, most likely, at the pinnacle of what my life holds for me: marriage, kids, a little house. I could continue to hold on to the hope of a more "fabulous" life throughout my twenties, but some imperceptible switch flipped in my brain once I hit my thirties, and now, somehow, it seems appropriate to quit yearning for the future and perform a retrospective. If I can’t have the mythical future, I might as well set about mythologizing my past.

The evidence is all there, it’s in the photographs, that while I spent my youth pining for the future, I was in the thick of a marvelous and golden present and I didn’t know it. I had good friends, a good family, good health, and good legs. Any suffering in my life, I’ve had to fabricate. I want to shake that girl awake and tell her how good her life is. I remember so well how nothing was ever good enough.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful though, if instead of looking back on my past, regretting my lost youth, and the squandering of my golden years, I could somehow mine the gold from my present life and savor it? As soon as I envision for myself some other, better reality, past or future, my peace flies out the window.

In Revolutionary Road, April’s better hypothetical life was in Paris. If she and her family could move to Paris and avoid the trappings of a conventional suburban life, she thought she could be happy. Anything that got in the way of her dream was the enemy, including her husband’s success at his job and the conception of another child. When we set our hopes on unrealities, God’s blessings begin to look like a curse.

I could pick my poison on any given day of the week. One day it’s “I’ll be happy when my kids are better behaved in public.” Another day it’s, “I’ll be happy when I have someone else to clean my house.” When I can get through a Mass without taking the baby out, when I have time to read, when I publish a book, when someone notices how hard I’m working, when life is easy and I’m golden, happiness will ensue.

My confessor has said it to me so many times when I come in expressing yet another dissatisfaction or ingratitude: “You are exactly where you need to be. You chose correctly. There is nothing better than what God has given you: your family, your kids, your home. There is NOTHING better. Your life is Eden, and the Devil loves to make you think there is something more. That’s how he tempted Eve, and how Eve lost paradise.”

Hence, here’s a thought exercise for this morning:
1. What is the one thing, the one fantasy that prevents me from loving my life today?

2. What do I consider the obstacle to my achieving that dream?

3. Is it possible that what I consider an obstacle is actually a blessing?

This is Eden. My life is Eden. Ten or twenty years from now, I can look back on the pictures I’ve taken of my family recently. Possibly I’ll have experienced real suffering by then. Maybe for some reason, I will have lost paradise, and I’ll see myself smiling, surrounded by these five little faces, a husband who loves me, every grace and blessing, and I’ll wish that I had recognized what a charming life I had.
(Mom and Dad with my big brother)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Hot Night on the Town

This post is rated PG-13 for salty language.

For my birthday, I wore a red dress, and red shoes, “like whores and children do,” as my grandfather used to say about crimson footwear. There’s such a thing as a good red and a bad red, and a good red can pass muster with the mother-in-law when we drop off the kids for the night. It can take a body skimming shift to the Symphony and look quite classy. But any red seems to be va-va-voom enough that my husband—a man who still loves to slow dance to the song “The Lady in Red”—would feel compelled to make a basket down the front of my dress with wads of rolled up straw paper over dinner. Not much has changed since 1986.

We were going to hear violinist, Midori, play the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the symphony being a fabulous place to people watch (and listen to music as well). Making our entrance in the lobby of the Hilbert Circle theater, I was surprised to see that someone I knew very well had already made an entrance and was sitting in a comfortable chair by the bar.

“What are YOU doing here?” I said to my Grandmother, who never goes out at night, but who was here at an eight o’clock show on Saturday night in a sparkling silver blouse with a gentleman friend named Roland.

“You remember Roland,” she said, “Merileen usually uses his other ticket, but she was sick tonight, so he asked me if I’d like to come, and I said I would.” She said this in a blasé way, making very clear that she was NOT on a date. And indeed I did remember Roland from the group of couples that used to go on vacations to the Elder Hostels together before my Grandpa died several years ago.

“I called your mom to let her know I was going out tonight so she wouldn’t worry in case someone tried to call me.” (See, I’m really not on a date—I told your mother about it—nothing secret). “Now I’m worried I left the garage door open. I’d better call your Uncle and let him know that the security company might call him,” and she whipped open her cell phone and began to dial my uncle—making clear once and for all, she was not on a date—she wasn’t even going to talk to Roland if she didn’t have to. “Well, we’d better get our seats,” she said once her call was made, and she rose from her chair, took Roland’s arm, and headed to the elevator.

There was still a good twenty minutes before the show would begin, and I understood that Grandma wanted to get comfortable before too many people filled up her row. But as for my husband and I, we had time for a couple of six dollar cocktails.

The Circle Theater has a second floor balcony that opens to the first, where people can stand around and look down at all the new arrivals. While my husband got the drinks, I couldn’t help noticing that from this perspective, he could have racked up some impressive stats on shooting paper wads into the ladies’ cleavage. (Note, when attending the symphony in Indianapolis, check view from front, back, and above before leaving home.) One matronly woman directly below me had such a billowy bosom heaving out of her Regency style neckline, I couldn’t help noting that should the place catch fire requiring me to make a leap from the second floor, she was a good one to land on.

My husband returned from the bar and the lights dimmed letting us know we had five minutes to get our seats. Bottoms up, six dollar drinks.

We didn’t have the best seats in the house, acoustically, but for this performance, I was glad to be close, because Midori plays so energetically, she’s almost more fun to watch than to hear—almost. She wore a white silk georgette dress with flutter hem, and a sailor collar that skimmed over her shoulders. She looked comfortable, but appropriately glamorous.

The last time I went to the symphony, the violinist at the Cincinnati Conservatory wore a hot pink evening gown with a triangle halter top (My grandfather, should you care to know, would have called the hue of her gown, "dog-peter-pink."). It had about as much coverage as a string bikini top, and the audience watched the performance with baited breath, in much the same way you drive down a road where children are playing with baited breath, because you never know if one of the kids is going to jump out in front of your car without warning. Naturally, the violinist didn’t move much with her performance.

Midori, on the other hand, turned herself inside out. She leaned forward. She arched her back. She struck power lunges like Geraldo standing his ground while giving a report from the front of a hurricane. And she never—missed—a—note, so many notes up on the finger board in the highest registers that were crystal clear and strong. It’s always surprising when such incredible sound comes out of tiny people—because she is small, looks like a child prodigy, though she’s roughly the same age as my husband (pretty darn old). “She sounded like a full orchestra all by herself,” my husband said quite accurately.

I looked for my Grandma as we filed out of the theater, but if I know her at all, I could rest in the certainty that she would be one of the last to leave. She’d much rather sit out the crowd, not have to wait for the elevator, and give Roland a chance to pull up the car. So my husband and I went on out to the city, which was hopping.

The Indianapolis Circle is the city’s premier cruising destination. Cars with jacked up chasses and glistening hubcaps, rounded the monument, bass blasting. My husband and I stopped into the chocolatier for a malt, and when we came back out to the street a noisy group of bachelors in a stretch Hummer yelled in our direction (and I apologize in advance for the vulgarity, but it does seem go along with the emerging theme of the evening), “BIG TITTY CITY!” And with that, we called it a night.

I was anxious to call my Grandmother in the morning to see how her evening went, but she beat me to it, ringing in before Mass to say, “I just wanted to let you know that I was not on a date, and if I ever were to date Roland, the first thing I’d do is make him trim his nose hairs.” Amen.

*Thanks to Kate, my sister-in-law, for the Geraldo simile. I stole it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Botox(?) for my Birthday

My Dad and I have kept bees for several years. We’ve lost several hives in that time to harsh winters and inexperience, but this year, the bees have done well. So well, they divided early in the summer, swarmed, and we managed to recapture them to start a second hive, which has thrived.

Lately, there’s been a sweet smell emanating from the hive, and I suspected a honey flow, so my Dad and I decided to open them up today and see what was going on.

”Don’t you want your gloves?” my Dad asked me. But I was feeling pretty cocky today because it’s my birthday for one, and also because I’ve never been stung by one of our bees. I’d begun to think of myself as the bee-whisperer, since long ago, I'd dispensed with the white clothing and the bands around my pantlegs and sleeves, and never have the bees seemed unfriendly to me. I put the net over my head, just to make my Dad feel better, and opened up the hive with my bare hands.

I was loosening a frame from the topmost super when I felt a sting on my stomach, right where I was leaning over the box. I backed up, and removed the netting from my face, so I could see to remove the stinger from my stomach. Then I heard a buzzing in my ear. Another bee flew around and stung me, right on the nose. One flew into my hair. I was under attack.

“They don’t want us here,” I said. “I’m leaving.” And I RAN inside to get some ice on my nose before it could swell. Dad closed up the hive, though it’s notable that no one was attacking him.

So what was it, I wonder? My red shirt, mistaken for a flower? My black pants, mistaken for a bear? My new jar of Oil of O(ld) Lay(dy)*, perfumed and freshly spread over my face? And why the hell couldn’t the bee have stung my lips instead of my nose?

*Thanks, Sarah, for calling it Oil of Old Lady--I've been cracking up ever since.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

When the womb is empty...

I went to Mass this morning, and stuck around afterwards for the Rosary. There’s a group of old ladies who pray it together, and they add about a thousand additional prayers onto the end of each decade which takes forever, so I decided to say it on my own on the other side of the Sanctuary. The last time I did say it with the ladies, however, I was pregnant, and one of the ladies, who had just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, brought some Nard to Mass and offered to anoint anyone who might have reason for anointing.

I didn’t consider myself in need of anointing, and yet, due to my condition, she insisted, and made the sign of the cross on each of my hands with the Nard. We stood under the statue of Our Lady, and I couldn’t tell if it was the woman’s attentions to me, the oil on my hands, or an act of God that filled me with an exquisite warmth. This morning, as I looked over by the statue where the ladies made their slow, steady recitations, I felt some longing to be there again, “great” with child, anointed.

I’m not pregnant. The baby, who is nearly two, just voluntarily went twenty-four hours without nursing. My husband and I have determined that another pregnancy is not prudent for me right now. Nevertheless, as far as I know, I still can get pregnant, and should that happen, we, of course, would welcome it.

I have been rather shocked, during these two years in which we have used NFP to avoid pregnancy, at how much the body and soul want to be pregnant, even when reason says it’s not the greatest time for that. Avoiding pregnancy, even naturally, sets the body and soul against its natural currents, and I have felt, deep down, always, this undercurrent of conflict.

NFP is a gift. It’s tempting to think that the future will be a big woo-hoo of freedom if I can abstain from another pregnancy. But every true gift comes with a Cross, and practicing NFP is its own peculiar kind of suffering.

Maintaining a referendum not to procreate, in the midst of the perennial optimism and propensity for recklessness that attend the fertile period, requires drawing on thought reinforcements—thoughts that have been framed around the architecture of the word “No.” Not tonight. We can’t. I’m sorry.

Each month, revisiting this negative vocabulary can make it difficult to maintain a hospitable environment in the soul for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Every mother knows that there is a point when saying no becomes the default setting. “Can I have a popsicle?”—no. “Can I go to the neighbor’s?”—no. “Can I watch TV?”—no. Pretty soon we stop listening to what we’re being asked, saying no to perfectly reasonable inquiries. Jesus could ask me to dinner, and I might say no because that’s just what I say.

Consequently, I haven’t been to the daily Mass much lately—part of having an almost two year old, and now a homeschooler, and a four-year-old who goes to preschool right in the middle of the eight o’clock celebration. It’s just not possible, right? (negative vocabulary, default setting).

Except when it is possible, and my husband doesn’t have to leave home until 8:30, and I’m tempted to use his presence as an opportunity to sleep in rather than to get up, shower early, and be with Jesus. Going to Mass is the only way to overcome the interior emptiness.

Pregnancy is often an irritable and uncomfortable experience for me, but it’s also a time when spiritually, I am at rest. I am never more at ease with my purpose, having complete confidence that THIS is what I’m supposed to be doing. As a woman, I am predisposed not just to create a home, but to BE a dwelling place. And when the womb is empty, what’s a woman to do?

This morning when I said my Rosary in front of the tabernacle, I thought, “This is great. I wish I could pray in front of the tabernacle more often. My prayers are always so much better here.” And then it struck me that having just received the Eucharist, I AM a tabernacle. Lord, I am not worthy that you should come into my house, but only say the word and I shall be healed. If he wishes, he will dwell in me. I just have to say yes.

More NFP travails...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My New "Office"

“I’ve got an idea. Let’s move your desk. It will be fun! We’ll do it together,” said my husband as he began to pull out drawers and move them into the entry way. It was the destination he'd had in mind, the catch-all room where people come in, drop their stuff, smear a little dirt and leave. It's also where the dog lives.

I was not convinced there was anything fun about uprooting four years of pack-rattery, displacing my muse, forcing months of paper sorting, and the going through of books. But he’s been talking about this for years. My desk IS the dining room. Nothing else is there but my desk (and my other desk), and he’s been mentioning that it might be time to move the desk and replace it with a table, since we’re a family, who eats three times a day, and might one day like to sit around a table in that room, possibly using the fancy dishes.

I have strong feelings about the placement of furniture. And I have had good feelings over the years about having my desk in the dining room, since it’s in the middle of the house where I can see everything. But, there are seasons, I am told, for everything. And the season of having my desk in the dining room has come to a close. De-tach-ment…

I have to admit, however, that cleaning up the entry way was a good idea. Here’s my new office:

As you might guess, it smells a little doggy.

A close-up:
As you can see there are roses in my desk, offered in appreciation of my flexibility. Good husband. (Notably, these arrived on the feast of Saint Therese.)

We recently received this hand-me-down couch which cleans up the other side of the room nicely. I want someone to come lie down on it and tell me their feelings (while I take notes at my desk).

This little jewel currently hangs over the door. Will hatch soon.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Young Mom is Musing Again...

And asking some tough questions. I can't wait to see how the conversation takes off.

Turn Your Frown Upside Down

On our way home from Big South Fork we stopped at Smokey’s Bar-B-Q for lunch. It was noon on Sunday in Tennessee, and everyone in the restaurant had on their church clothes. Most of the women were in long skirts with long hair and no make-up—Pentecostal Country.

Everyone was dressed up save the Duffys, with their five Catholic kids in the clothes in which they slept, hair sticking up in a thousand different directions. We couldn’t find a Catholic Church anywhere near our campground, so we planned to catch a ‘booze and snooze’ Mass when we got back to Indiana.

Before we left camp, I’d gone to the trouble of laying out a loaf of bread and spreading each slice with what was left of the peanut butter and jelly. But my husband felt that our trip called for Bar-B-Q, being as we were in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, and Smokey’s Bar-B-Q being as it was, on our route home.

So after we ate a bunch of macaroni and cheese, stewed apples, and sticky sweet ribs (not my favorite pork, but it will do) I took the kids to the bathroom, where I encountered yet another woman dressed in her Sunday best. She looked good, with her hair blown out straight to her shoulder blades, an a-line dress with a cute cropped shrug. She washed her hands and looked at me in the mirror where I stood against the wall waiting for one of the kids to let me know they were “done.”

I was wearing some unfortunate yoga pants, and the woman smiled at me, the kind of smile that is actually a frown with dimples.

I say, I’ve been guilty of the frown-smile before. I used to lector at my Church in high school, when I was a very good and pious teenager compared to my heathen friends. The old people would come up to me after Church and tell me what a good job I had done, that they could hear every word, and that I had such good enunciation.

After all my post-Mass congratulations one day as we shuffled out of our pews, my little brother whispered in my ear, “You look especially smug today.” And he was right. I went home and tried out my frown-smile in the mirror, and it said so clearly: “I am trying really hard to be humble, but please, tell me something I don’t already know.”

I was tempted to think that the frown-smile now aimed at me in the mirror reflected an assumption that we were a family of heathens, who could not be bothered to get dressed on a Sunday morning, much less go to church. And even if it didn’t, there was nothing else to do but offer a frown smile back, because regardless of how one is dressed, smiling in the bathroom is difficult business.

ADDENDUM: To this post, Marie writes the following comment which is too good to miss:

I was walking my toddler around the bathroom at church a few years ago (we retreat even farther than the cry room when squiggling gets fierce) and in walked two teens, not together. One wore a long skirt and a scarf on her head. She came with a family that regularly attended daily Mass and all the women covered their heads. The other was punked out. The one with the scarf looked very, very shy and awkward. She left first. The punk kid turned to me and said something to the effect of, "That's a lot of nerve of her, judging me for the way I look." I think she really meant it. I was amazed. There's not a chance anyone at that church was judging black fingernails as harshly as a head covering, and the scarf girl never looked at anything but her hands and feet the whole time she was in the room.

Not suggesting you were wrong about the smug smile, I'm sure you weren't [Actually, I'm pretty sure I was], but you just reminded me about bathrooms and self-image. Maybe it's all the mirrors. Definitely something different about looking at someone with your reflection than looking at her straight on.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I'm So Alone!

If this past summer was my season of sloth, Fall is the season when necessity drags me around like a thumb-sucker’s dirty, worn-out blanket. I plan things for the Fall. I count on Fall. Fall is the time to do things because the climate levels out, and one is doing things (like school) already, so one might as well do more things, like go camping, and have company.

Over the past two weekends, our family has communed with nature, leaving me absolutely positive that in spite of my Amish mood lately, civilization works for me. I love camping, and we went with my husband’s brothers, who are a blast—we even stayed in a cabin instead of a tent. But I always underestimate the work quotient of such things.

It’s the packing, the planning, the labor of constant movement, rigorous hikes and lugging of toddlers that leaves me by weekend’s close, feeling a bit like a raisin. There’s not enough water, not enough sleep, too much smoke and moonshine. And it was worth it, of course, coming home constipated, dehydrated, and exhausted.

I spent the school week recovering—which was no recovery at all—stepping over sleeping bags and pillows, the cooler still full of soda and melted ice, and when another weekend rolled around, I was glad I had not bothered to unpack anything because we were heading out again, this time staying at my parents’ house while they’re away, taking care of the livestock, and having friends in for the weekend.

Sunday evening, when my husband took the kids home, and I stuck around to clean up, I had the realization that I had not spent a moment alone in over three weeks. While we were camping, my husband and I heard a tree fall down in the woods, raising the obvious allusion, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it—did it really fall?”

Sunday evening, I put out a bale of hay and the cows and horses approached to eat it, and I stood there among their shaggy coats and dripping chins feeling like the tree in the woods. Is this really happening? Am I really the only human being in the vicinity? The cows looked at me dumbly, acknowledging my presence, at least. And now I’m writing it down as a memorandum: I accomplished being alone at 4 pm on October 3, 2010, and I enjoyed it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I am hesitant to post this...

I recently had dinner with my girlfriends from grade school, which involves meeting up at the local Olive Garden restaurant (where we are certain not to see a soul that we know) and cracking up over ancient inside jokes until the management tells us to tone it down. Coming off a particular laughing jag, everyone breathed a sigh that said to one another, “I’m so glad you all are Republicans.”

You see, when we are not spending time together at the Olive Garden, we are more likely to spend time hanging out together on Facebook, where, because we grew up together, we share a number of common friends. And among those common friends, is an annoying old flame of mine who sends out inflammatory status updates berating Republicans.

Personally, I’m not friends with the guy on Facebook, because it is my rule and my law not to friend old flames. Also, the last time I checked in with him, some fifteen years ago, he was taking pictures of himself in a dress and calling it art, but every now and then, my friends like to fill me in on what he’s doing these days to shock and annoy people, and like a great number of talent poor performance artists from the early nineties, he’s primarily doing status updates. But I have plenty of friends of my own who disliked Bush, disliked Palin, disliked Proposition 8 and now are happy it’s been overturned.

I can’t help noticing that my Republican friends do not send out political status updates of their own (and if they do, it's with the caveat, "I'm actually more of a Libertarian these days..."). I wonder sometimes why this is. Are we afraid?


My own profile information notes that my political persuasion is “move to the country, plant a big garden, and have babies.” To me this says very clearly, “Leave me alone, Government,” implied subtext: I am a Republican. But the average Republican on Facebook is more likely to omit a political orientation than they are to admit it.

From its inception, Facebook has been the political arena of the young, the tech savvy, the hip. Old (relatively) Righties like me leeched on to it because our friends were there, or our kids were there, and we needed to know what it was about. But it’s not really our place. In fact every virtual visit I make there seems to fling another pie in my face from left field. It’s not very pleasant.

I find myself avoiding Facebook more and more as time passes, keeping my contacts as a virtual address book and people map to my past. Circumstantially, the majority of the friends I see in real life are Republicans, but it’s an aspect of our being we rarely actually discuss, because we are classy. It’s just this sigh of commonality, a peaceful revel of belief that undergirds our discussion. No cream pie in the face conflicts to diffuse, no nickelodeon-style buckets of political goo dropped over our heads. At our most sectarian moments, we are simply glad to be around fellow Republicans, and then, please, pass the Alfredo before the breadsticks get cold.