Monday, February 28, 2011
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Marilynne Robinson's novel, Gilead, follows the lives of three generations of preachers. One of the scenes that most struck me was of the old man, the grandfather preacher, rooting through the pantry and pots of flour to find where his daughter-in-law kept the grocery money. When found, he promptly gave it away to the poor, even though his own family was by no means wealthy or overfed. And his daughter-in-law kept finding more creative ways to hide the money.
It's a famous literary cliche for the man of God to be fat, for the monk to have change clinking in his pocket. Writers love to point out the hypocrisy of Christians, and greediness or miserliness is an easy target, perhaps because they are prevalent flaws for a Christian to have. But Robinson's characters were good to the bone. They were fine Christians. They were poor.
The narrator of the story, also a preacher, apologizes to his son for not leaving much of an inheritance. He had given most of his money away as he earned it. I would have called his authenticity into question had he said, "I always invested 15% of my income in a Roth IRA, and now I'm leaving you a hearty nest-egg."
The preachers had to exhibit radical generosity in order to be believable to me. Whether it's a fictional contrivance or not, for me to believe in their holiness, they could not just sit in the office writing sermons and letters, all the while swilling wine and chomping on leg O lamb. They had to be poor, yet generous, and Robinson delivered.
I demand so much of literary Christians. I wonder why I'm so easy on myself.
In some ways, whether we identify as Christian or not, we've all had to buy into a system that promotes greediness. In America, you're not likely to own a home without a mortgage. You're not likely to get a mortgage without good credit. You're not likely to have good credit unless you've been a regular and predictable consumer. Nevertheless, you are likely to find yourself homeless someday regardless if you haven't put away some money for retirement. Robinson's world is terribly idealistic, a relic from another time.
So how does one live poverty in a country whose poor live better than two-thirds of the rest of the world? How does a Christian care for the poor, when our concept of caring most often takes the shape of dropping a check in a collection basket?
My first pass when considering this topic, is to go through my stuff to find things I can get rid of. On one hand, I struggle, probably like everyone struggles with a heartfelt desire to give, while battling a self-preserving voice that says, "But you might need that one day. You've got your own chicks to feed." On the other hand, we have a lot of stuff with which, truly, I am willing to part, so it feels cheap just giving away our cast-offs. It's not difficult enough, but I do it.
Something tells me, though, it's not about what to do with my stuff. There's a deep-seated mentality that needs kicking. I see it already becoming manifest in my kids, that almost every entertainment and celebration, even the religious ones, revolve around the purchase of something--whether it's birthday gifts, movie tickets, Friday night pizza, paper products or Saint medals. There are millions of reasons to go to the store and buy stuff, not least of which is boredom, and I think that possibly a first step for me is recognizing that there is NOTHING that I need.
What would happen if I ceased to be the consumer that the "system" keeps asking me to be? With a family of seven, I can always think of a reason to go to the store. We are always out of something. And when I go to the store, I almost always come home with more than I intended to buy. What if I didn't allow the glowing sale ticket to catch my eye? What if I didn't go to the store in the first place? We could live without milk for a time. Millions of people have done so before me. Why is my first recourse to even the hint of a need a purchase?
True poverty of spirit would mean that at least some of the time, if not all, I made do without my first pick of everything. And I'm not talking about my first pick of designer clothes--I'm talking about to have or not to have the ground mustard. Can the bean soup do without it?
In addition to recognizing that there is nothing that I need, I should seek new ways to give my children the gift of what we have. This requires work, about which I often wax poetic, but when it comes down to getting out the fine china (literally & figuratively) for my immediate family, I couldn't be more of a grinch. A table cloth for these ruffians? Hell no. Game night? It always ends in a fight. But these are traditions and efforts worth fighting for, because it fills the kids with wonder to see a table laid out for them, even if there's only tepid water in their goblets.
My dad recently gave me another book to put on the must-read list: Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics by Archbishop Charles Chaput. Books in the spiritual reading category don't usually keep me up at night, but this one did, particularly in its references to how Catholics should live in relation to the poor--the common practice being that we should clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, etc… unless it's really inconvenient for us.
Well, aside from clothing and feeding my own kids, getting out of the house to attend the poor outside our family is not very convenient for us. It will never be convenient for us. Unfortunately, the Gospel doesn't include that caveat. Christ expected us to overcome our discomfort with meeting the needs of others, and it's something I want to do. I am, however, unsure about how to go about it.
I continue to meditate on this topic, and on how to live a more austere life that honors beauty, the gifts we've been given, and the nourishment, both physical and spiritual, of my own brood, while making room to look beyond the walls of our own home to the needs of others.
I'm interested in how others practice poverty, especially if they're not technically poor. And also curious as to how mothers with more than a few kids involve their children (even the young ones) in caring for those who are materially poor.
I don't want to be too quick to congratulate myself on my generosity. As Nayhee wrote in a recent post:
"My husband is an American doctor... and this makes him one of the wealthiest and most educated people on our planet right now. It means that our family might never be in (material) need again.... Instead of making me feel "privileged," I feel more than a little terrified because if it's really impossible for the rich to enter into the Kingdom, then we are going to need a miracle."
Friday, February 18, 2011
Thursday, February 17, 2011
I’ve always been the type to take charge in a vacuum. When no one else can do the job, I’ll do it, and do it well. Several years ago, my husband was out of town when two feet of snow fell. We had just sold our tractor, and everyone I knew who had a plow on their truck was cashing in on the weather to bail out the acres of Wal-mart parking lot. I had four kids at the time, and no choice but to imprison the baby in his crib, put a movie on for the kids, and go outside and dig.
I fancied myself Vigdis the Viking Lady from Sigrid Undset’s “Gunnar’s Daughter.” She skied across the Nordic countryside and mountains for three days with a baby on her back, fleeing from her enemies. I think she even cut off her own finger when she suffered frostbite. Me woman. Me strong.
I had a post up earlier on the male sexual overperception bias (misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest), but I took it down (temporarily), because I think I missed the point. I’m not really as concerned about how my friendliness will be perceived as I am about how my particularly female strength should be used.
I was remembering a female drug rep who used to come into the OB’s office while I waited, pregnant, for my appointments. She wore power suits and high heels, and rolled her wares in a briefcase on wheels. With her narrow hips and sharp elbows, I thought, “I bet she always makes her sale.” I had an envy of her strength and confidence that was all wrapped up with her status as a “working woman,” and as such, I presupposed her embrace of feminism and her own sexual prowess. But I don’t think it’s so cut and dry (strong woman=sexy-power-suited feminist).
As I reject so many tenets of modern feminism, I’ve made the mistake of falling into a sort of feminine wimpiness that does not have roots in Christianity. What it amounts to is a sense of helplessness when my husband is around. Changing a diaper is never just changing a diaper when he’s in the room—suddenly it’s an event, requiring assistance: “Can you just hold the baby’s hands out of the way? Can you toss me the wipes?” I can’t bring in the groceries by myself. I can’t pack up the car. I can’t put the kids to bed. I can’t do anything by myself. Why? Because that wouldn’t be fair.
And then something happens, and he can’t help, and I’m suddenly just as strong as I used to be. Or some third party threatens me or my family, and I feel emboldened to take down my adversary “judo style,” as my sister-in-law put it. I have these instincts, and I have this strength because God gave them to me. Mewling around the house like a helpless twit is not a valid expression of my “non-feminism,” it doesn’t honor my “feminine genius,” and it annoys my husband.
My mother-in-law likes to say that marriage is never a fifty-fifty prospect. To be happy in marriage, both spouses must give a hundred percent and expect nothing in return. I find it a bit ironic that when I occasionally adopt the fifty-fifty mentality, a concept that seems relative to the women’s movement, I actually end up feeling and acting weaker. I maybe even “play weak” to inspire the action and assistance of others.
I went back to the Sacred Spain exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art today, and I’m glad I did, because I saw so many things I didn’t see the first time. One painting in particular caught my eye today: a portrait of Madre Jeronima de la Fuente by Diego Velazquez. She’s shown staring confidently into the eyes of her observers. A Poor Clare, she was the foundress of the first Catholic monastery of Manila. The intense gaze of her portrait, the caption said, “communicates her status as a ‘virile woman.’” She exhibited exceptional strength in her “deeds undertaken with a courageous and virile heart.”
Madre Jeronima wasn’t pretty, but I bet she always made her sale. And she did it in a man’s world, with a Crucifix in her hand. Her expression puts me in a mind to rise to the occasion of my vocation, taking out the trash and all.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
A woman at Mass this morning had a portion of her skull missing. She's one of the old guard at the daily, and I've known her as long as we've lived here, without knowing her name (which is fodder for another post). But we have smiled at one another, shared anecdotes about her five grown children and my five young ones, and enjoyed general goodwill at nearly every meeting.
She'd gone absent for awhile, apparently having that part of her skull removed, and I thought maybe she had died. It's happened before. That name in the death announcement after Mass belongs to a person I've smiled at and offered the sign of peace every morning for two years--and I didn't even know they were ill.
This morning, everyone welcomed her back. It was her first day at Mass in a long time--long enough to have a piece of her skull removed, and then have the skin over it heal, and the hair over it grow, and for her to be well enough to say, "They want to put a plate in it, but I don't want any more surgery. I guess I'm just going to have a big dent in my head."
She looked embarrassed. She had given away how she spent the morning combing her hair over the dent, and how she thought she was too old for vanity, and lucky to be alive anyway. She had just had a piece of her skull removed, for Heaven's sake--and do I now go back under the knife to improve the look of my head--at my age? To hell with it, I'm going to Mass.
I wanted to say to her, yes, I'm glad you're back, though I don't know your name, but your face is like an old friend. I walked out of Mass, after a meek smile at her where she stood surrounded by people who have known her since her children were young. I am, for the most part, a stranger with no good reason to impose my gratitude on her--whether it's for her life or not.
And maybe it's not. Maybe it's for that little twinge of vanity she revealed, at her age, when she should be grateful for her life--that little inkling of humanity, still so desperate for redemption. Would it be wrong to be grateful for that? It made me feel a little less alone in that crowd of formidable women--less of an impostor among those who are so close to their reward.
I thank God for her humanity because somehow it pulls me further into the Body of Christ--it welcomes me there among fellow sinners, old and young. And it permits me to thank God for my own humanity.
Not all of us wear our imperfections like a big dent in the head, but all of us have them, the sin that keeps coming back. We can comb our hair in attempts to cover our flaw; we can hide from Confession--or we can thank God for the gift of our weakness, our need for Him--recognize exactly who we are, and go on anyway. Give up on the hair and go to Mass. Show your face where you fear it doesn't belong.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Since it's Valentine's Day, here's the first letter I ever wrote to my husband. I'd post his, which was so much more interesting...but it's not his blog.
I was thinking about holding an essay contest to figure out whom I should marry, but I guess if your sister's going to arrange things it would save a lot of time and energy. She said you’re not much of a writer, but I’m not sure I agree. You fit a lot into those few paragraphs: death (cadavers), romance (marriage and pending relationships), food, travel, intelligence (brain), and hypnosis. I laughed, cried, got a little scared. It was good.
I’m glad to hear things are going well with you. Travel is always fun, and pay raises too. I wonder if they’d think about giving me a pay raise here (that would be from negative dollars to maybe breaking even). They have allowed me to travel a little bit. Was in New York last week for missions with Cardinal O’Connor. We got to meet him and Sister Wendy, the art critic. I also learned how to play street ball in Harlem (and to think that only a year ago I didn’t know how to play basketball). Yes, life is good here.
How have the choir kids in Alexandria been holding up this year without Mr. Wilson? I heard your brother may be transferring—must be rough.
Well, dinner sounds good to me. We can pick a date for the wedding, etc. I’m only going to be home for a month so we’ll have to act fast. Then again, maybe we should just enjoy dinner and leave the particulars to your sister.
Talk to you later.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
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.
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)
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Storms are an event, a call to action, in which the rightful occupations of one's time are self-evident. There are things to do in preparation: wash everybody's hair in anticipation of days without water, go to the store for trail mix and bananas, charge the batteries, fill the tanks. I did all those things, and then, since my husband had pneumonia and longed for quiet sleep, I piled the kids in the car and went to my parents' house. My husband assured me that when and if the power went out, he would join us there. They have two fireplaces, and lots more space for stir-crazy kids.
Tuesday morning we awoke to a world encased in ice. Like opening up a geode or a jewel box, you wouldn't mind diving into the shiny stuff if you knew it wouldn't hurt, so we took the kids for a walk down in the lower field and up through the woods. The air was surprisingly mild and if I say that everything was beauty--you might accuse me of sentimentality. Our boots broke through even the ice-glazed cowpie like the sugary crust of a crème brulée.
My husband, fever averted and by afternoon, sufficiently bored with our quiet house, drove on out to my parents' and we toasted the remainder of the day with hot chocolate, books, and chicken noodle soup. It was one of the better February afternoons in recent memory. And the icing on the cake: after we cleared the table, but before the washing up, the power went out--the moment for which we'd been waiting. We gleefully lit the oil lamps and nearly every candle in the house, and sat down on the couch, listening to the wind. Now what?
It was time for pioneer stuff.
Sometimes my husband and I play Euchre with my parents, but the old-timey movies and Little House on the Prairie episodes really deceive viewers about the amount of light a few oil lamps and candles provide. One lamp might provide light for one reader--but it doesn't illuminate a room, so my mom read some Cautionary Tales to the children, we said the Rosary, and then we went to bed, not much after eight o'clock.
My husband and I slept on the pull out couch by the wood stove--children nearby under heavy comforters. Every two hours, someone had to put a log on the fire to keep the house warm--and I passed a large portion of the night reading Gilead by lamplight.
On the following day, there was less sun. We heated water on top of the stove for instant coffee, which I must admit was terrible. Throughout the morning, people carried buckets from the bathtub to the upstairs toilets where gravity did the flushing. We washed our faces with baby wipes. My dad brought in more wood. And getting fidgety, the kids started to fight with one another.
I have always harbored fantasies about moving off the grid, becoming self-sufficient, embracing a more difficult way of life. It's one of those fantasies that floats in an evanescent halo of unreality, in which I always appreciate life's beauties and bounties because they have been hard-won by the toil of my own hands. See the wisp of hair fall out of her bun as she churns the butter. See the children assist their father with the milking. See the family gather around the fire in the evening with a banjo to sing songs about dewy meadows and broken hearts.
As my father said, living without power is fun for about twenty-four hours. But after jigsaw puzzle and book, after roasting hotdogs in the living room for lunch, after half-dozen arguments with the kids about keeping out of one another's space--there's not much more to do than wait. For a moment, I recognized the fulfillment of a dream of simpler living and forced togetherness, and I felt just as superfluous as I do in my ordinary life.
The other night in the car, NPR broadcast a talk show called "Humankind." I'm not one to change the dial when soothing disembodied voices talking about religious experience come roiling out of the ether. It was an encore broadcast of an interview with a long-dead Taoist from Kansas. He talked about the symbol of the yin yang and how being is a flow of opposites, light/dark, rest/work, etc.
I think this is a concept that the Church and Christianity decidedly "gets," considering liturgical cycles of fasting and feasting, and the elevation of suffering in the work of redemption. I know it's the conclusion I'm supposed to reach after being forced to live without--that modernity has its perks and I'm as dependent on them as the next person, that systematic and voluntary deprivation, abstinence, in short, makes the heart grow fonder. I already knew all that.
Midway through my life's journey--I'm faced with a question I didn't know I'd be asking at this stage in the game, because it's a question to which I thought I knew the answer. After addressing relatively early in life Whom I would worship and what parameters would apply to my life because of that decision, I still at times find myself wondering exactly how I should live. Certain decisions I've placed in the hands of God, like "How many kids will we have?" and "How will we sustain them?" Those central questions have been answered, for today.
Now it's the relative trivialities of life that baffle me, like "Is how I'm spending my time worthy use of a finite life?" Is it enough to spend my free time reading books and writing a blog? Should I spend another afternoon baking cookies for my precious babies when other mothers have been forced to sell their children into slavery in order to survive?
I've been told that one should never ask for suffering because life supplies plenty of suffering without our asking for it--but that has not been my experience. My life is easy; and my suffering, if truly I have any, is typically the result of my gluttony. Sure I have the responsibility of rearing these five children, but I'm not the first woman to have children in a difficult culture with discouraging spiritual odds. My greatest challenge in a day's work is to find ways to move against the current of an otherwise blissed-out life. I often do so with arbitrary conflict and self-seeking.
I could shut off the power in our house; I could get a goat and milk it; I could play Parcheesi in the dark every night with my kids; I could find a million ways to add more work to my life without adding intrinsic meaning. Mine is a life marked by abundance and blessing--with or without electricity--and I feel convicted, for the time being, that I need not ask for suffering so much as I should freely do penance in efforts to add a little more yang to my life. Systematic and voluntary deprivation, not only make the heart grow fonder, but they are a balm for the burden of having been so blessed that deprivation is a little fiction I create for myself.