Betty Duffy

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Sun Was Out This Morning

Listen my faithful children: open up your petals,
like roses planted near running waters;
send up the sweet odor of incense,
break forth in blossoms like the lily.
Send up the sweet odor of your hymn of praise;
bless the Lord for all he has done!

(Sirach 39)

January, it seems, will end. Between sickness and snow, we have barely left our house for the month--and I must confess I've been a little batty--batty in the way that inspires people to make whispered confessions of depression. The blogosphere is awash with such revelations. And the Catholic blogosphere in particular, has gone demon crazy, I can't help noticing--possibly in anticipation of the release of yet another Exorcism movie. Possibly because we are all holding our breath until the sun comes out, and when you're short on sun and oxygen, you start to hear voices saying, "This is stupid. Everything you do is stupid. The food you eat, how you spend your money, the places you go, and the things you pray for, they're all stupid."

If you convince yourself of the stupidity of your occupations, you might start to think there's no mercy for you. You might imagine that the only company you keep throughout the day is a wicked little devil whose sole delight is your despair. You might decide not to get out of bed one day, not to get dressed--and you'll hate yourself for it. And before you know it a month has passed without a benediction from you. What a life….What a life. Right?

And then one morning, all of that is behind you, for reasons that are totally beyond your comprehension. The chemical alarm has sounded--Wake up, Stupid One! Today, you are going to fall in love! And you put on your shoes, thinking, "I am going for a walk." It's a small step.

It's morning. The sun is out for just a minute. Normally, you miss it. But this morning, the way the early rays illuminate the mist of evaporating snow makes you want to praise God. What's this? Praise? I don't know how to praise. My specialty is groveling. Mine is the psalm of lamentation. But sure enough, a prayer is taking shape--and it's not of my fashioning. It's a hymn.

It occurs to you that a life of solitude and contemplation has been the battlefield of Saints throughout history--that the spoils of war are often delicate and invisible victories. And God calls truce. Only God.

If one feels trapped by the burdens of consumerism, drawn into the cycles of a ridiculous culture, if one feels superfluous because of the ease of modern life, and still overwhelmed by the magnitude of life's stakes--it's ok to to believe that existence is not yet stupid. You might wish to plug your ears and tra-la-la your way to death like the pagans, but something tells you that your life, your children's lives are still important enough to shepherd differently--and this is the particular conflict that God has designed for you. There is nothing stupid about it.

Praise God! Praise Him for the revelation of mission. Praise Him for the blessing of even transient beauties. Praise Him for the lifting of oppression. Praise God for the Communion of Saints, for the prayers of the Church--and for the the gift of praise itself.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I'll Have What She's Having?

The following is a real life conversation I had today:

A friend of mine walks into the room looking gorgeous, hair curled, eyes shining, and I say, "A, you're glowing."

"I've had a great morning," she says. "I've had sex. I've worked out. I've showered. I've had adoration and spiritual direction. I've said my Rosary, and it's only noon!"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


My computer crashed this weekend. It's dead as a doornail, and I knew it was going to happen. I could feel it coming on--the slowness in its occupations, the weird start-ups. The low battery life. All of it pointed to imminent demise. Nevertheless, I did not back up my data. I lost everything of course. Lots and lots of words. And music. And pictures.

I feel free.

All those words were starting to nag me. "When are you going to come back and DO SOMETHING with us?" And the pictures--covering roughly two years of our lives. Now I have an excuse when my fifth child looks through the photo albums and wonders why there are so few pictures of him. I won't have to say, "Because we already had four "first haircut" pictures." I can just explain that "The world went digital right around the time you were born, and all things digital eventually succumb to the abyss. Make sure you don't go and do likewise."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Explaining Abortion to Kids

Sally has a great post up on what she told her children when they asked for an explanation of "Abortion Rights."

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Last Shall be First

It’s been a long and tiring week.

Yesterday, I turned on the TV to check the weather reports and had a hard time turning it off again, so by 9 am, I had watched “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” apparently munched through an entire box of Golden Grahams, and was well into the second pot of coffee. The only thing that could make the day more junky is blogging about it all—so here I am.

I’ve never watched The Real Housewives before, and it’s just weird. Very weird. I take it we’re supposed to laugh, and laugh we do, when women with faces obliterated by plastic surgery try to express distress at their troubled marriages, or a self-congratulating happiness at their daughter’s graduation—when they go to buy presents for someone else, and end up purchasing diamonds for themselves.

There’s loads of hypocrisy, insincerity, and drama--haystack hair, placid foreheads, overly alert eyes, and plasticine lips. It got me thinking about looks, about women who won’t surrender to age, about how our culture grasps at absurd concepts of physical beauty, and neglects the really gorgeous things in the world. These are not original thoughts, I know, especially from someone who was absolutely bewitched by the spectacle of rich, skinny women going shopping (again).

Anyway, last year I went on a very restrictive diet and lost a bunch of weight. For a minute, I was skinny and I felt this enticing urge to put myself on display. The nagging thought in the back of my mind was that it wouldn’t last—I couldn’t eat so little forever; I wouldn’t be young forever; in fact this might be the last time I looked this good. I was aching for mass appreciation of what I had accomplished. Because it WAS an accomplishment. It took loads of self-discipline and narrow focus to reach my target weight—though I had no idea why or for whom I was targeting that particular number.

It was a dangerous time to have a blog. I’m already sort of a vain person, and having body confidence didn’t do much to help me grow in virtue. It took every ounce of restraint I had not to post a sun-glazed picture of myself as I looked feelingly into the distance. But it also helped that at my own arm’s length, my camera didn’t do much for my complexion.

The scary thing about the whole episode, now that some of the weight has crept back on and I’ve crawled back into my mole-hole, is how worthy I felt to be a minor celebrity based solely on my weight and a few steely-eyed glances at myself in the mirror. Also, how easy it would have been to take the self-promoting steps towards public appreciation. I’m not saying my looks were good enough to razzle dazzle anyone who saw me—just that, with few exceptions, I could have presented myself however and wherever I wanted.

Yesterday, when the threat of a snow-storm became apparent, I went to Wal-mart along with everyone else in my town to buy some milk and cereal. The check-out lines were long, so I had to abdicate a position in the check-out line of my favorite cashier. There’s no delicate way to describe the appearance of my favorite cashier: she’s morbidly obese and a substantial amount of her pink scalp peeks through her tightly greased-back pony-tail. But she smiles, very sincerely, with her eyes. She’s also clever and chatty.

For a minute I imagined the pilot episode of a “Real Check-out Girls of Walmart, Po-dunk, Indiana.” I’m sure there would be plenty of drama, back-stabbing and hypocrisy. If you visit the grocery store as often as I do, you see some of it yourself. One cashier mumbles about so and so who is still on break. One tells you too much about her own family tree when she notices all your children. You’re pretty sure the stock boy is doing drugs in the break room and then walking around the toilet paper aisle in a state of chemical hypnosis.

There would be no breast implants, no evening gowns, no meticulously colored hair (actually, the stock boy has done a decent job on his). There would be one or two cheerful people who you can’t help feeling sorry for because they’re in such poor health, and glued to that check-out stool with a lifetime supply of inertia.

The show would not go on. Not only because the viewers might not be there—but there’s also some quality about my check-out girl that I believe would prevent her from holding the camera at arm’s length to snap a gajillion pictures of herself for public consumption. Of course I could be dead wrong about that.

I can’t watch The Real Housewives without thinking either, (a) “Thank God I am not like them,” or (b) “The horror! I am too much like them.” I don’t want to be a real housewife of Beverly Hills; I don’t wish to be a checkout girl at Wal-mart either—but at least no one is suggesting the wish on TV.

The vain and grasping people of the world command more of our cultural consciousness—but rarely do they command our admiration or affection—possibly because they’re stingy about bestowing admiration, affection, or even a smile on others.

‘Tis better to be fat and happy, right? Or if not fat, at least humble. Lord help me.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ever look at something so often you don't see it anymore?

And then one day it catches your eye, as though for the first time, and you think, "What the hell is that?"

For me, growing up, it was the jar of Metamucil on the windowsill. There was one at my Grandparents' house, one at my Aunt's, one at my parents'; It was just a given.

But Lo, one day the jar of Metamucil speaks, and it says, "This family has a multigenerational preoccupation with regularity."

Or maybe not. Maybe nobody drinks it, and it's just a fear of irregularity that provides place of prominence to the Metamucil.

My kitchen windowsill caught my eye today. I think it's trying to say something to me, but I can't think what.

Fish food? We haven't had fish in a year. And that weird little IU guy. No one in our family has gone to IU. Who put him there? The Shellac, oddly enough, makes sense. It's my husband's--but he doesn't drink it--so there's no reason for it to be in the kitchen.

I don't know. I think the kitchen window might be saying, "Clean me."

Monday, January 17, 2011

On the Brevity of Life with Small Children

My husband’s out of town. When he’s gone, sometimes I want to clean the house and try to maintain the relative order of having one less person in the house moving things around and dropping them willy-nilly. Sometimes I want to drop things willy-nilly and leave them there indefinitely, and enjoy complete chaos without the worry that he’ll be home at five, see our disorder and want to return to the hinterlands from which he came.

I want to beg off all my duties, beginning with answering the alarm clock to get my school children off to school. I knew my oldest would be home sick today and I almost let my daughter play hooky too, but at the latest possible minute, I roused everyone, and we accompanied her to school in our pajamas

Chaos reigned until around noon, and then the coin landed on order, and I took a shower, dressed, did some dishes, and muscled through the Math lessons and dictations and handwriting exercises that comprise our Must Do home-schooling activities for my kid who home-schools. These late starts initially sound like a good idea, but you never regain the precedence of school in the order of the day, once it’s lost. The day was a bust. How many days like this can we endure before we call the whole project a bust?

My cousin told me about a woman who passed away recently, the mother of a friend of hers. The woman had a few short, happy years with her husband, long enough to bring eight children into the world, and then her husband died young, and she continued to raise the children on her own. She smoked heavily because what else is a widowed mother of eight going to do for a good time? And every night when her children came home, she called them into her room, one by one, to give them a kiss goodnight.

“She was smelling our breath to see if we’d been drinking,” say the children--her only line of defense in the battle against the world for her children. The Judas kiss goodnight always betrays you. But up until her last day, said a priest friend, “All she ever wanted to talk about was her children. They were the center of her life.”

“It’s such a short time,” said my cousin, “that we’re given on this earth with our spouses, and with our kids.” Such a short time to leave our effects on one another, and it’s so tempting to think that there’s a way to get it right—or right enough that no one will ever go astray.

When my husband is gone, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to do this alone all the time. So much slips through the cracks, and I think, to heck with it—let’s put all the kids in school and let the world do with them what it wants. I know from sending half my chicks out, and keeping half of them home, that lifetimes are lived in those morning hours when my kids are gone. And the evening hours pass too quickly. My influence wanes, as they all by now prefer their friends and each other to me.

I flipped through the channels last night to see the ball gowns on the Golden Globe awards, and on some real-life channel, Marky Mark documented the descent of several South Boston teens into a life of drug abuse. One boy was the youngest of five children, and encountered OxyContin on the streets outside his home at the age of eleven.

It seems like the only thing a parent can do for our kids’ well-being is postpone their debuts in the world by whatever means possible. Protect, protect, protect—no one else is going to protect our children for us. But gosh it’s exhausting. You can never look away for a minute.

Another alternative: don’t surrender my duties too willingly. It’s such a brief amount of time we have to affect one another. So brief. One of these days, they’re going to go, regardless of how I feel about it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Happiness

I saw The King’s Speech Thursday night with Pedge. A fun movie, it was agreed, as we left the theater. We stood at our cars for a minute in the parking lot and said a few things we liked about it—and since there was nothing controversial to hash out, we both thought we’d just head on home. “Tomorrow’s a school day, and I’ve got a drive…so…”

“I’ll call you later.” And we both went home to our families.

There have been times in my life when I was so starving for conversation, the thought of heading home early from a night out with grown-ups would have appalled me. But really, I couldn’t quibble with the movie, I’m not dealing with any controversies at home, and if I needed a topic of conversation, I might have invented controversy just to keep the talk coming.

I didn’t want to invent controversy, because for the time being, I’m pleased to report that I find myself very content. Long time readers of this blog know that contentedness is not my strongsuit—not because I deal with any great misfortunes in life, but because…I’m moody, I guess. Anyway, I wasn’t sure if talking about feeling content and happy might ruin it somehow. Where could that conversation even go?

“I’m really happy.”


“Yeah, great.”

Nietzsche said, “That which we can find words for is something already dead in our hearts; there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” I don’t think Nietzsche’s words are law, but there’s a grain of truth in every aphorism. When I’m writing, for instance, and my husband asks me what I’m working on, I can’t answer until I’ve finished. Verbalizing my thoughts prematurely could condemn them.

If I think I might be stumbling on some sense of stable satisfaction with the state of things, I don’t want to ruin it by trying to put it into words. I want to be quiet and nurture it, because anything I try to say about it will sound cheap and untrue. And yet, here I am trying to put it into words.

I’ll just say this: In the past I’ve entertained fears on the subject of happiness--such as the idea that the absence of conflict is just absence, emptiness, boredom and dullness. I could not have been more mistaken. Corrected by Confession, prayer, Rosary, many restarts and willful good thoughts, the absence of conflict is rather Presence--in every sense of the word.

And it’s too precious to give away for anything.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Bit of Conjecture About The End of the World

Shortly after Jesus receives the Cross on which he will be crucified, he meets the Holy Women of Jerusalem.

“A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’” (Luke 23:27-29)

Yesterday, I stopped in at a Parish, not my own, for Confession. It was an hour before the Saturday night Vigil Mass would begin, and the Sanctuary, the vestibules, and the line for Confession were all swarming with women. One woman counted out the hosts and prepared the gifts for Consecration. One organized missals. One put new bulletins in stacks by the exits. Two waited in line for Confession ahead of me, quietly thumbing their Rosaries. And one took a very…long…time…inside the Confessional.

You have seen these women before (you may be one). Their children have flown from the nest. They are the Holy Women, congregating wherever Jesus is to be found, giving succor to His wounds, and offering up their tears for the souls of their children.

Sometimes I want to laugh when I see them, because their presence at any act of Devotion is so predictable. Sometimes, I want to cry when I see them, because as commenter, Eaucoin, said, regarding the prayers that many tack on to the end of each decade of the Rosary:

I'm 52, and those prayers get longer in direct proportion to how little control I have in my children's lives. … Most of the older ladies I have met through church have suffered difficulties that one would not imagine by looking at them and no doubt there are some saints there already.

Mothers suffer over their children so much, sometimes it seems like motherhood is more a preparation for death than it is a bringing forth of new life. There is always a risk of losing our children-- to sin, to some kind of accident. It occurs to me occasionally that it would be better to never have had kids than to have to watch them suffer.

My kids are young still, not yet teenagers, and I know that our problems are currently very small. Still, I’m not above weeping for them, and the difficulties they have already experienced—not to mention those I imagine could be in their futures.

Birds have been falling out of the sky, fish dying in the sea. Conspiracy theorists are hard at work, and multiple people whom I consider reasonably sane have dropped the term “end times” in varied conversations. It’s difficult to ignore.

It’s crossed my mind that I should have some sort of plan in mind for gathering my chicks should the worst happen, but any kind of apocalyptic planning is sort of like having seatbelts on airplanes—you can buckle or not, either way, you’re dead when the plane hits the ground. And thank God. I can’t think of anything worse than having to survive an apocalyptic event.

“Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days, for a terrible calamity will come upon the earth and a wrathful judgment upon this people.” (Luke 21:23) I don’t like to follow this train of thought for too long, not only because there’s no telling when it’s coming, but also, because there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it except be vigilant in prayer and my vocation, as I should be regardless.

I keep thinking of Hans Keilson’s assertion that man’s will to live is rooted in his will to suffer. The will to suffer is something I have always attributed to Saints, but the rest of us have designed our lives to avoid suffering of all kinds, because we don’t like it.

And yet, teenagers take razor blades to their skin in order to “feel something.” The suicide rate is at an all time high. People express disdain for the comfort and complacence of the upper classes. And these weird unprovoked shootings are still occurring.

We don’t want to suffer? Or maybe we need suffering, in order to recover our will to live and our respect for the lives of others.

The Holy Women at Mass have a will to live and to suffer on behalf of their children, their husbands, and likely all of humanity. I suspect that their greatest conceivable disappointment would be to have one of their children die in rejection of God.

Should the world end tomorrow while my children are young and somewhat incapable of knowing or choosing a life outside of the Light, I would have no choice but to consider it a tremendous mercy and privilege that as a family we could “Stand erect and raise (our) heads, because (our) redemption is at hand” (Luke 22:28).

Friday, January 7, 2011

"Hans Keilson is a Genius"

I have just finished reading The Death of the Adversary and so reading for the rest of the evening is ruined. I’m not ready to shake off its beauty or profundity by picking up any of the other offerings on my bedside table. The narrator mentions reading the ancient Greeks as a young man and finding the writings, “delightful food for important thoughts” –and that is precisely how I feel about this book, though the use of the word ‘delightful’ is suspicious in discussing a novel that is largely about death. The delight of reading this book comes not from the subject matter, which is very grim indeed, but from the overwhelming epiphanies that occur to the reader whenever he takes up the book.

“Written while Hans Keilson was in hiding during World War II, The Death of the Adversary is the self-portrait of a young man helplessly fascinated by an unnamed 'adversary.'" The book jacket doesn’t do this tale justice. The author is more than fascinated by his adversary; he has come to depend on him, and even in some way, to love him.

The narrator never defines himself as a Jew, nor does he name his adversary as Hitler. When he writes, “So I became more intimately acquainted with him through the insults and injuries of those who called themselves his friends,” it allows the reader to bring his own experience to the story, to substitute for "the adversary" any leader of a philosophy that inspires anger and fanaticism. And if the reader feels anger and fanaticism that is not in keeping with his professed leader's philosophy, it provides him the opportunity to examine how well he represents "his Friend."

The author describes first hearing his adversary speak publicly:

It was into a soundless tension that his first words dropped. They did not destroy the silence; no, they were so much part of it that it seemed as though they arose out of it….The initial monotony lasted for quite some time. Its purpose was to hold down something else, to hide it and at the same time to prepare the way for it…

…Slowly his voice freed itself from its restraints; it rose higher and exhibited greater range…

With firm conviction he proclaimed a few home truths—truths of such generality that everyone was forced to agree with him, whether they wanted to or not….He pronounced a few further, more daring truths. These were the kind of truths which one had to think over for a while, since they did not really make sense at first sight. But no doubt they contained a grain of truth. They were daring truths… and of an inflammatory nature….He gave the appearance of carrying on an argument with…nobody. He raised him to the rank of his adversary and began a duel with him before the eyes of everyone in the hall….And then he invented everything the adversary—his own creation—was saying….

He became more intense, and when he saw that his spell was working, he quite suddenly--only a tension in his voice prepared one for it—began to scream. In the middle of a sentence, in the middle of the debate with his adversary, he began to scream and rave. A lunatic!

He attacked, he accused, he ridiculed, tore down, hit out wildly left and right, refuted arguments nobody had put forward, and upset himself terribly. The other one had no one any more to speak for him. He, who had never existed, had been killed by the voice, and since he was silent, everyone assumed that he was dead.

Helplessly, I sat in the lounge. I was the nobody in the hall, I was listening to my own extermination.”
(pp 96-98)

A friend encourages the narrator to take sides against his adversary, forming a community with his fellow sufferers in order to kill their enemy. But the narrator refuses to meet acts of barbarism with his own acts of barbarism.

“It has always been the same,” I said, “one kills one’s enemy because there is apparently not enough room in the world for two who are engaged in a struggle. One must be eliminated. Then the other one is victorious and life goes on.” (116)

He entertains the idea that his adversary has been sent to him as a scourge of God. He draws a comparison with the book of Job and wonders if it is possible to love a scourge and the hand that wields it. Can he love a God that allows a scourge, or only a God that gives him candy sticks?

“And he loved the scourge he did not understand,” (118) the narrator notes of Job.

“He made me suffer and I suffered devotedly. Every alteration of this state of affairs would have left me in a vacuum, would have robbed me of that powerful will to live that is rooted in the will to suffer. Where could I have turned to? He was everything to me.” (108)

And so the reader is always questioning the object of his own devotion. Does devotion inspire anger and fanaticism, or mercy and love?

“The enemy, too, receives his share of mercy, I cannot forget it. All too long it prevented me from willing his destruction.” (201)

So many different readings of this book are possible, I intend to continue in my willful ignorance of the book’s due date at the library and read it again. It is a book for gourmands, to be enjoyed slowly, as “delightful food for important thoughts,” and if one can afford it, it should be enjoyed again.

A review from Francine Prose.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Only Everything Will Do

In high school and college, each year was so important it had its own name. For 365 days, I was a Sophomore and did sophomoric things like eating marshmallows in Lit class, spreading the white powdery sugar all over my lips, and turning around to whomever was sitting behind me to ask, “Is there something on my lip?”

Junior year was about having a boyfriend. Senior year was about making decisions. Each year had a different flavor, felt like a lifetime, and seemed so exceptionally important.

Having married in the year 2000, it makes it easier to see the indistinct lines between my youth and adult life. My childhood was in another century. And my adult life has gone on now for a decade, each day and each year looking very much like the one before. I take care of children. I do a little cleaning and cooking. I go through cycles of dissatisfaction and supreme happiness, often within the framework of a single day. And so ten years have passed.

Heather King wrote a beautiful reflection recently about going for a walk, wondering if there was more to life, wanting to give herself completely, but being unsure how to go about it.

In the year leading up to the turn of the millennium, that’s where I was. I wanted to give myself completely. I’d given a dozen plus years to my education, a couple of years to a deadbeat boyfriend, my entire life to daydream and self delusion. I wanted to give something to God, but it had to be all or nothing.

I checked out a convent. It wasn’t for me. I got married. I embarked on the most important decade of my life, during which I gave birth to five new souls, and still sometimes it’s unclear for whom I’m living.

I want to give myself completely. No I don’t. Yes I do. Tomorrow. No, now. My completely has not always been complete. It has had reservations like:

-As long as I can see a positive outcome.
-As long as it’s not exhausting and boring.
-As long as I can stay thin and dress well.
-As long as someone remembers to thank me.
-As long as I get a break at 3 p.m to read and eat popcorn.
-As long as I have the right number of kids—not too many, nor too few.

Each day, a new obstacle to complete self-gift crops up, positing itself as a right of being. And when I give into these flights of fancy, my self-giving turns to self-preservation. I have a choice to make during these times: will I turn towards God, the one to whom I gave myself completely? Or will I hoard my rights to myself, trying to stay under the radar, living a quietly average life, none too bad, not too good, obviously Christian, but God and I both know that I’m not doing what I could.

Also, if my goal is to immitate Jesus, it might be worthy of my consideration that Jesus didn't hop off the Cross at three p.m. for a popcorn break.

I’ve been reading through some old journals lately about the time leading up to my reversion of faith. There were pages of preparation, and then I turn a single page, the page on which I had decided to love Jesus, and everything was different. I made a few necessary amends in my life, and all those pages of preparation and suffering were over. One day I didn’t love, the next day I did.

I was new born, but still very much myself. I was in love, and my generosity was overwhelming and complete. I didn’t care what I lost along the way. Of course I had no idea what my trials might be.

This year, no less than six of my friends and acquaintances have ended their marriages. These are people who started their married lives and had their children alongside me. They say they are no longer in love, or that they now love someone else. But for whatever reason, they have retracted their whole, unconditional, gift of self. Maybe they never meant to give themselves completely or maybe little by little over the years they turned away rather than towards the one to whom they gave themselves.

What this tells me, is that when God furthers his process of wringing me out, picking at my reservations and the areas that I have, perhaps unwittingly, withheld—I have to stick it out. This is what I wanted when I was first in love. I have to ask for a renewal of that first love, and renewal of my complete self-gift. Otherwise, I might find myself at a complete loss.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Best of 2010!

I always want to write some sort of “best of” list at the end of the year, but I’m not feeling creative enough to come up with my own observations. So I give you…

The Best Sentences I’ve Read This Year

These are sentences I came across in books etc. that I actually took the measure of writing down, because they were beautiful, funny, true somehow, worthy of emulation, or just interesting—even if I didn’t agree necessarily with the content.

In no particular order:

“Change everything just a little so as to keep everything exactly the same.”
--Lampedusa: “The Leopard”

“She had not given a damn back then, sort of like now, only then it had been a style, a way of being, not a diagnosis or demise.”-- Lorrie Moore, “Willing”

“Was it a prophecy of that generation to come who would be so drilled in evasiveness that they would be denied forever the splendors of a passionate confrontation?”-- John Cheever, “The Jewels of the Cabots”

Steven King: “On Writing”

“In my character, a kind of wildness and a deep conservatism are wound together like hair in a braid.”


“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Michael Greenberg: “Beg, Borrow, Steal”

“I’ve given up any hope of writing, but must I relinquish freedom of thought as well? Apparently so. Brendan (the author’s four-year-old son) is in the grip of a mania to turn every notion into words, and those words into action—a three step process that takes place with molecular speed.”

Franz Wright: “Imago”—I read this last night and found it hair-raising, funny and profound. It’s the first few lines of a poem, so brace yourself.

From my cell I was staring at a cloud, a dog decaying in the woods, etc., as I took up the long-awaited sequel to my Confessions. By this time my hand was so far away that it looked like a small hairless spider whose progress I could hardly help but follow, from the corner of one eye, as it went on filling page after page in a notebook the size of a stamp with words too small for anyone to read. I looked up and noticed my bars had turned to gold. And before I forget, I’d like to be the first to congratulate everyone who has not committed suicide up until now. Camouflaged and lightless congregation, the world will never know your names, never know of its debt to you, or what you suffered; with what uncomplaining anguish you sacrificed the one thing all hold most dear, most have in common, the sense of being completely different from anybody else—it just vanished at some point, having attained its sexually mature and winged stage. You had a great vision about it, but told no one. We have misnamed death life and life death.

Hans Keilson: “Death of the Adversary”—Took me several reads to make sense of this sentence, but I love it anyway. For context, the story is about a Jewish child growing up in the shadow of his enemy (whom he doesn’t name, but we assume to be Hitler).

"No lie, however noble, can extinguish the conflagration death lets loose in truly festive minds when the moment of truth has arrived. A rushing in the sky, as when a strong, ancient tree is cut down, an arrow, shot into the glittering blue of winter: my mind is in a festive mood, my enemy is entering the white land of his death."


"One can sooner bear any quantity of frozen feelings with which one has settled oneself than recognize the spark of danger that calls one to battle."

Jonathan Potter: “Parable” from House of Words-- loved the imagery in this poem.

I am strapped, buckled, wrapped up in it,
Houdini in a straightjacket, snake in snakeskin,
Wriggling out if it word by word
Until it falls to the ground.

Edwin O’Connor: “The Edge of Sadness”

"It was the same talk with which I had grown up, the talk that belonged, really, to another era, and that now must have been close to disappearing, the talk of old men and old women for whom the simple business of talking had always been the one great recreation."

My husband:
“You smell like a French movie with subtitles.”
(So this one obviously wasn’t in a book, but it should be.)

So there you have it. My top ten of 2010 list. Hope you enjoyed it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Keeping Track of the Lasagna

Yes, it's another oldie, but if I were going to write anything right now, it would be this:

The other day, as is often the case, my husband and I were both doing several things at once. Among those things, I had the job of putting a ready-made lasagna into a preheated oven for dinner. I preheated the oven and went about my work, only to come back an hour later to find the lasagna still sitting uncooked on top of the stove. It does no good to preheat the oven if you fail to insert the food, so I inserted the food and went back to work. An hour later, I remembered the food, which by now was overcooked.

You might ask in unison with my husband, “How hard is it to keep track of the lasagna?”

And the answer is that right now, I find keeping track of the lasagna next to impossible. I’ve had a busy week, which is unusual for me because I make a habit of keeping my calendar very clear. I’m a commitment-phobe and a last minute person, but apparently, a couple weeks ago I got crazy and did a bunch of long range planning that left me with about two meetings a day all week long. Unfortunately, thinking requires a modicum of leisure, which is a luxury I haven’t had lately…and so goes the lasagna, along with quite a few other things, like writing.

I’ve sat down several nights this week after the kids were in bed to write and found that I’ve had absolutely nothing to say besides, “I’m busy.” As things begin to slow down, it becomes clear that not only am I busy, I have entered a fallow period. Nothing’s happening in my brain, no seeds germinating, no ideas to hash out. The scales have tipped in the direction of action rather than thought.

But as they say, writers write, so I continue to go through the motions of sitting down to put pen to paper. The good thing about times like these is that I can look back on older pieces that never hit the mark and see them objectively, with the eyes of a critic or editor, rather than with the passionate conviction that inspired the first words on paper.

I feel liberated from my words. I’m free to rewrite them if necessary, or ignore them all together and read someone else’s words for a change.

When I’m in a creative period, or one in which I have a lot to say, I find editing a chore. And hence, my writing is hurried, overly emotional, and often lacking in qualities that make good writing, good writing. Oscar Wilde said that "all bad poetry is sincere," and so it helps to take a step back, and arrive at a point at which I can laugh at myself.

I took a fiction writing class a couple years ago at a nearby university, and while I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not a fiction writer, I learned a few lessons in that class that are invaluable for any kind of writing. Editing is not just a verbal cleansing or a punctuation checkpoint. If I have the opportunity in my writing to use humor, metaphor, or anecdote, why would I not avail myself of those resources? And if something’s not working, no matter how attached I am to the turn of phrase, the joke, or metaphor, it must go.

It takes a clear head to make those decisions: joke needed here, but not that joke, metaphor, yes, but not one that has no bearing on the main idea. Which brings me back to the lasagna: apparently my head is clear, but not clear enough to cut the lasagna, so it’s staying in this post whether it works or not.