Betty Duffy

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Frying Big Fish

I watched the movie, "Secretariat," this weekend. Films of man or beast running in slow motion always move me unaccountably, and the show delivered on that point--otherwise, I wouldn't call it a great movie. Woman knows her horse is a winner, she sacrifices all to prove it, and foments the most famous racehorse in history.

There wouldn't be a movie if the main character didn't want something so badly she'd sacrifice anything (including a substantial hunk of her children's lives) in order to get it, but I'm always in awe of women who have such singularity of vision, a concrete goal, the confidence to devote years of their lives to its advancement--and sha-ZAM--a win.

Then the children arrive to tell their mother how proud they are that she followed her dream, rather than staying home to make them puddings and attend their school plays. All of her sacrifices and absences were worth it, because… Mom's on TV holding a trophy.

I've been thinking lately about how I spend my time as the primary caregiver to my children. My continuous presence is required at home--but that does not necessarily entail my continuous occupation. A lot of my necessary work is cut out for me and made easier by technology, hence, I have free time. Throw a load of laundry in, wait for it to be done. Assign reading to my homeschooler, wait for it to be done. Start dinner, wait for it to cook.

I make a gazillion short term goals a day--and sha-Zam! I reach them. Yet there are limitations to "higher" levels of achievement because I am not free to come and go. I have to maintain a standard of interruptibility and readiness for service that isn't always required of me.

So, I've written this blog for two years, a little here, a little there. I flipped through the archives recently, and discovered that there are roughly four-hundred posts on this node, which is, of course, a book--or it would be a book, if I'd had some unifying theme and were working diligently during those years towards a long-term goal, rather than piecemeal reflections. But it always seemed better to keep flexing my muscles in whatever capacity I could rather than risk not writing at all.

I've been reading a book lately by Gail Godwin called "Unfinished Desires," about wealthy girls at a prestigious Catholic High School in the fifties, run by an exuberant nun. It's not a book that requires a highlighter, but this excerpt jumped out at me:

"It's the whole life of school. I feel like I've been held back to repeat what I already know how to do. It's like you've learned to swim really well, and now you're ready to cross a huge body of water and see what's on the other side, and then someone tells you, No, no dear, you have to stay in this pool and tread water until--until I don't know what. Whatever comes next. I wish I could get to it!"

This feeling arises almost cyclically, with the question of whether or not another baby will enter our lives. Will we go back into infant mode? Or will we keep plugging along towards whatever's next--and if so--what's that going to be like? Sometimes I'm worried that I will have to singularize my vision a little more--set a bigger goal, quit treading water and develop some ambition. I look forward to it, and I also fear it.

And sometimes I think, "If only I had singularized my vision years ago, I could be frying bigger fish right now," which is, of course, a lie. I have never had it in me to cut off my availability to my kids for the deep, long-term, dedication and concentration novel writing requires. I can do it for hours--even for a few consecutive days--but not for years.

This morning, at a play group, a friend of mine who is pregnant with her sixth child, poignantly noted that "nothing releases you from yourself like motherhood." She had relayed a story about how four members of her family approached her to ask for help with things, and not one of them registered that she was currently bent over the toilet with morning sickness. It takes serious self transcendence to care for others in the midst of such literal and figurative self-emptying.

To be released from self is what all of us want deep down. It is likely also the motivation for women who take-on big-ticket goals like the Triple Crown--to transcend self and one's perceived limitations.

But nothing releases you like motherhood, which is why, if my singular long-range goal is to go to Heaven, staying home with these babies has been the best path for me. I could put all my resources towards achieving one big dream or I could be expunged of a thousand little dreams each day and be emptied and ready, even if it feels like I'm treading water and waiting for whatever comes next.

It's such a beautiful and rare thing to approach someone you love, and find them ready and waiting for you.

"By waiting and by calm you shall be saved,/ in quiet and in trust your strength lies. (Is 30:15b)


Peter and Nancy said...

I love this post. Our pastor this weekend said, "If you want to find out exactly how selfish you are, then get married. Then if you need a further reminder, have children." My selfishness with "my" time was glaringly exposed after we had kids. I cringe at makeover shows when, inevitably, someone says, "It's finally time to do something just for me." I seem to be plenty good at thinking of things to do for me . . . none of them involving a race horse, however.

Julia said...

One of the biggest (and most surprising) changes for me upon becoming a mother was the shift in my prayer life. It took a long while to realize I wasn't being deprived: four hundred 2-second prayers brought me closer to God than the two 30-minute slots of silence I'd had before.

That experience shed light for me on other 'big' things. I daresay that most of us aren't given one gigantic mission in life, just as most of us don't have road-to-Damascus experiences. We're given many little missions, many little conversions, day after day.

I'm not a big fish person; I can fathom feeding the old lady who lives on the floor below me, and go cross-eyed when I wrestle with the concept of addressing world hunger. So I focus on the small fry -- including my own -- and do what I can. In the long run it may turn out that I fry more fish that way than if I were a big-fish person. Maybe not. But they're the fish I see, and that's okay.

Sue said...

Spot on! Thanks for the food for thought.

Kate Wicker @ Momopoly said...

I love this.

In fact, my Google Reader is quickly becoming "Look what else the brilliant Betty Duffy wrote."

Sarah Miller said...

Love love love. and Amen! :)

Anonymous said...

What I see in Gail Godwin's work is how seriously she takes sacrificial love, marriage, religion, and the common calling to live dedicated lives. And I love her for all that. (And how many contemporary novelists, especially one who isn't Catholic, write about nuns?!) Whatever she is, fluffy isn't the word that comes to mind :)

BettyDuffy said...

Anon, You're right. Fluffy isn't the right word. But I've just come off "Gilead" which is so meditative that a plot driven book like "Unfinished Desires" feels something different entirely. Maybe fun is the word I'm looking for.

Francesca said...

Very nice, Betty Duffy. Another reminder of the fact that where we are is where we are supposed to be. These souls are infinitely more valuable than any goal, aspiration or creation I could ever come up with.

and @ Julia - I love your comment. Well said.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response, Betty, and the reminder of how good "Gilead" is. You might enjoy Godwin's "Father Melancholy's Daughter" and its sequel "Evensong." Those two and "The Good Husband" are Godwin's best. This question of how to live a dedicated life, with lasting love and interesting work is central to Godwin's vision. A few years ago, I wrote my dissertation on marriage in Godwin's novels, one of the dearest and happiest years of my life, challenging though it was to write at home with three little children, who found my "other work" both distracting and amusing. My husband helped, Godwin made it a joy, and I found my muse in Kate Chopin, the 19th-century novelist, a widow who wrote at home surrounded by her six children. I am not sure I could repeat that year now, even though my children are older and more independent, but there was a grace there and a sure sense this was part of God's plan.

BettyDuffy said...

Anon, I read Evensong several years ago, and I have to say I'm liking Unfinished Desires even better. I see what you're saying about her theme of living a dedicated life, as U.D. features a nun providing a retrospective of her life as headmistress of this high school--and then there is the unfolding mystery of a scandalous event that occurred in the fifties, during the prime of her life. Parts of it remind me of "In This House of Brede" as Godwin describes the lifelong relationships Sister Suzanne has had with the other sisters, and she does a beautiful job of fleshing out their characters.

I'll have to look into The Good Husband.

Congratulations on your dissertation. "There was a grace there and a sure sense this was part of God's plan." Amen. Sometimes, I know, it really is good to work through the noise and carry on with other occupations even while the children are at your knee.

BettyDuffy said...

Julia, I just want to concur with Francesca, your comment is an article of it's own.

Karly said...

Two quick thoughts: another blessing of 21st century living is that we can reasonably expect to live into old age with our minds and energy somewhat intact. Life is long; in other words, there may be time for that novel yet....I find myself looking forward to what life might bring in the post-menopause years, for a number of reasons.

Secondly, who's to say that a novel is more important or focused or valuable writing than personal essays and a blog? A novel might have the benefit of being more marketable in our current publishing models, but if you don't have to make a living from your writing at the moment and enjoy it, there doesn't seem to be a downside, at least to me.

And I too loved what Julia said about the many little missions and 2 second prays....

Trish said...

Betty, the other day (after reading some of your blogs) the thought occurred to me: Betty could write books. She writes way better than so many published authors!

I do understand how your day becomes divvied up into little piecemeal chunks when you have kids (I'm in infant mode, first child)... but I think you can move from the swimming pool (in this case, blogs) to the ocean (a larger project).

Writing a novel will not necessarily take you away from your children. Maybe accomplished novelists and authors also write in small blocks of time, not necessarily 5-hour stretches of uninterrupted silent time. J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer were moms when they wrote their bestsellers. I wonder if it would be possible to have an idea percolating on the back burner all day while you go about your 1,000 household tasks, and just keep coming back to it every chance you get to develop it further. Maybe working in small stretches would actually be enriching somehow, since it would give you time to let the idea grow between writing sessions.

I don't think you should relinquish the restlessness and the dream of a bigger project. I think you can and should go for it, putting your family first and swimming the ocean in small stretches one day at a time.

You have such a talent and such a voice, and those 400 blogs have given you so much time to refine it. Now it's time to take the next step. Be not afraid!

(I say this because it's my dream too-- but I think I'd better start doing some laps in a swimming pool first!)


BettyDuffy said...

Karly, and Trish, thank you both for the encouragement.

Karly, I visited my Grandma this morning, who had a book on her coffee table about aging, and i flipped through it--her highlighter marks directed me to a segment on recognizing that there are no glory ages in a life span--all of them are good, and teach you what you're meant to learn about them--or something like that. But it did occur to me, that I am going to have most of my life left to live probably after the kids are gone. God willing, there will still be plenty of time.

There's always talk about choosing a "word" for the year that would become a kind of mantra--and I have to admit, I wasn't planning to do that. But I was fighting my regular battle about whether or not to get online in the a.m., or try to get some of my life underway first, and I was wondering what is it about me that's always wondering about my status in the virtual world. Why do people's reactions to my writing mean so much to me? Anyway--the word HUMILITy sort of leaped out of my subconscious.

And it occurred to me how much humility is required to take on a larger project. I always assumed big ticket wins were the product of hubris. But if I aim small, my failures are small--and so life goes easy on my ego. If I aim big, I stand to lose big. The humble man fears nothing--and I definitely have fears.

Trish, you're right. I read an interview with Zadie Smith whom I admire--and she said that she writes two hours a day--and she has kids. I think that's totally doable.

I'm not saying I'm resigning my dreams, or taking on a bigger project--but I could stand to work on the virtue of humility and see where that takes me.

mrsdarwin said...

Betty, this post is so true.

And Julia, thank you for the prayer life encouragement, which has put a few things in perspective for me.

Maria said...

Anonymous - thank you for mentioning Chopin. I'm just starting the process of editing my dissertation proposal, and happen to be 3 months away from having another baby. I am hoping for a bit of that grace you're talking about. Actually, it's silly to hope for that grace when I know it's by that grace that I'm able to teach and study full time. Well, that and having a husband who watches our daughter at home a couple of days a week.

Julia, your comment was also really helpful for me, too. I'm not very organized, and I've been always struggling with having prayer time set aside - wrapping life around prayer instead of the other way around. I know I keep pushing for it, but it doesn't always happen. But, "four hundred 2-second prayers" -- that I can likely do, and have absolutely done when things get absolutely crazy.

Betty, I've always known you *could* write books. Your posts here prove it. But I really like what you're saying about the big work of humility. No matter what God's recipe for frying that fish happens to be, Humility is one big ole fish.

Elizabeth said...

I love it. You have so clearly written how I have felt the last 7 years about choosing the dream of family and motherhood instead of the dream of career or worldly accomplishment. You always write beautifully!

Bears2Cross said...

I do hope you write a book someday, Betty, but for now 400 disjointed blog posts is more my speed for reading! :) They always ring true and get me to thinking (something I otherwise might not do nearly enough of in the typical day at home). So thanks for exercising your gift as you are able instead of leaving it on the shelf until you have time for "bigger" things! Keep up the good work.

nora said...

You've expressed it beautifully and it all comes together.

You're open to the gift of children, God gives them to you, they become your life's work. Meanwhile, he also gave you the gift of a bright intellect, the desire to express that in words. You're open to His will in that area, too and voila! Readers who love you and who are turned toward God when they read your words.

Pretty awesome. I guess as long as you're open to His will, the opportunities will come along. I, for one, am so glad that in this brief, busy stage of your life you jumped in, when and how you could. We're the richer.

JMB said...

I think having children takes away from the creative act, in the sense that it is the ultimate creative act to have children.

How can I say this nicely? If you are not there for your children, someone or something else will fill in the void. It doesn't get any easier when they get older. You may have to be there so your 16 year old daughter's boyfriend isn't in your house alone with her. You may or may not be able to write a novel. I'd rather throw my fate with my family than leave it up to chance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Betty. This hit me at the perfect stage in my life and it is really helpful.

Owen said...

Betty, your writing, your spirit, are why I continue to read your blog when I have dumped the feeds of so many typical Catholic blogs. You're a person not a pontificator.

This line, the one from your friend, which you didn't say yourself but which you exemplify (certainly by the stories you tell us of you & your family), this line "nothing releases you from yourself like motherhood." is the bomb (I that's what they say) and... caused me to pause and think about this in relation the total, make that Total, self giving of the spiritual Mother of all Christians. There's something to ponder.

And, selfishly, I wish my drawn blog could be like this, like what you do with words. If I can find that sort of internal place again, from which the fount of gentle wisdom flows, I will return to drawing & posting there.

Thanks for being a good mom to your kids. How many lives will be touched for eternity through them?

BettyDuffy said...

Owen, best comment ever. Thank you!