Betty Duffy

Sunday, May 29, 2011


I'm guest-blogging today at the Korrektiv Press Blog on the subject of Walker Percy's novel "The Moviegoer." Subject: "The Moviegoer" in the Internet Age. Percy fans will also find at the Korrektiv blog guest posts on Percy by people who are infinitely smarter and more qualified to comment on the book than I am.

What's all the fuss about "The Moviegoer?" It's the fiftieth anniversary of the book's publication, which won The National Book Award in 1962. Aside from all that, it is one of only three novels ever published that I have read not once, not twice, but three times. It's that rich and worth my time ("Anna Karenina" and "Pride and Prejudice" are the other two).

The book is about a suburban stock-broker, Binx Bolling, who embarks on "the search" for a way to get out of the everydayness and malaise of his life. Binx is a selfish person, who loves watching movies, making money and flirting with pretty women. Yet, his identity is divided between his father's family, which is wealthy, cultured, and non-religious, and his mother's family, which is working-class and devoutly Catholic.

Here's a snippet from a scene near the end of the book when Binx sees a man exiting a Church on Ash Wednesday. I think it exemplifies the fruits of the search, and nearly every endeavor that's worth taking on:

"When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something in the seat beside him....I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus?

It is impossible to say."

Friday, May 27, 2011

On spiritual mottos

Once upon a time in spiritual direction, I struggled to come up with a motto for my life--a catchy slogan like "So easy, a caveman can do it," or "A little dab will do ya"--not so much to sell me on the essence of my vocation, but to remind me in five words or less what my vocation actually is, when, for instance, I'm overwhelmed because I can't control my husband, my kids, my dog, my house, the weather, my moods, or anything really, and I'd rather go to France and do the can-can.

I found it difficult to be a cheerful giver. So my spiritual director, who was always inclined to go easy on me, suggested, "Service with a smile." I thought that might actually work out, and I imagined a twinkle on my incisor as I placed a bowl of Shredded Wheat on the table in front of one of my kids.

But kids don't really care that much if you're smiling when you feed them. They want sugar on their Shredded Wheat. They want a different bowl. They want a spoon. They want as much as their brother has. They want more milk, or less milk, or they've decided they're full after two bites, and they're wasting perfectly good food, and they're not taking their bowl to the sink, they're spilling it on the floor, and screaming, because now they actually want their cereal. At least that's how it goes at my house--multiplied by five.

So I went back to my spiritual director and told her it wasn't going well.

So we took another step back. She said I needed to regard myself as I regard my kids--like a child--maybe my expectations were too high--as though just knowing that I lacked joy would bring it, that if I concentrated hard enough all my woes would be gone.

We decided to change my motto to "Service because it's my duty." I thought this might work, as it addressed a certain lack of humility present in my first motto, the suggestion that my vocation really is so easy a caveman can do it, and only a heathen would do it without a smile. Well, not so. I don't really think a caveman could do what I do. Plus, many good women have gone before me, unsmilingly to their grave as the mother of relatively functional children.

So I went back home to do my duty, cleaned my house and it got messy again. Then my husband came home and thought I hadn't cleaned it. I made dinner, and no one liked it. There were other difficulties as well, like I was tired, and I felt like my energies were too precious to waste on things that would be undone in a matter of seconds. I was also grouchy about stuff, and that made me a bore to be around.

And…that's pretty much where things stand.

I have one more slogan in my life that I've heard so many times it no longer has meaning. It grows tiresome, formulating new systems and salves for my broken nature, and then berating myself when the desired effect never comes.

I read in an old journal recently, some notes from a retreat attended many years ago:

"Treat others as the image of God whether or not they have treated us that way. There is self-centeredness in our service:

If they didn't do it for us…

We serve others especially if they didn't do it for us, because that is what Christ does."

And at first it troubles me, because Christ and his ways are not always on the tip of my tongue. Jazzy slogans are easily recalled and easily dismissed, but Christ, and his ways, are a challenge to recall, but impossible for me to dismiss.

At the same time, with a little reflection, I can see that, yes, years have passed, and I have been doing the service, because it's my duty, for people who don't really return the favor. And I have done it, at times well, at times poorly, for one reason alone: because I love Jesus. I really do.

If I didn't, I would be lifting my skirts to France.

There is a bigger picture that only reveals itself over years. On a day to day basis, it's easy to believe that I have failed in my vocation, because I yelled at my kids and went to bed grouchy, even as my heart has yearned for God.

Looking back over years, I can see that my yearning for God is the only thing that may have saved me, that has indeed been my one success. I am still serving others, people who may never return the favor, because I yearn for the one who did it for me. He did it perfectly. I do it poorly--that's a gap that may never be bridged, even with the most poignantly sassy soundbite on instant recall. But it's also a start that has maintained me for eleven years. And I'm going to go with it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Between fatigue and falling down: Rapture!

One thing my sister won't tell you on her blog is that she is a very good runner, has been for many years, placed top ten in state cross country meets, still holds records at our high school and at Notre Dame U. After six children, she's still swizzle stick thin and a daily runner. In an excellent proof of forming a woman to form civilization, it seems her children might follow in her footsteps, as they've taken to entering these charity runs for leukemia and whatnot as a family, and sweeping the top places in every age group from five to forty.

Recently, behind his Mom and Dad (who is also very fit), their six-year-old finished in the top ten over all at one of these events, which, if you know this kid, is rather hilarious, but not surprising. He's not only an endearing little boy, but also some hybrid of tank and steam engine, and it's no stretch to imagine him, head down, face red, plowing full speed ahead to the finish--sort of like his mom.

When we were growing up, my sister was so head and shoulders above other runners in the county, it never seemed like she was working very hard to win, but when she moved into more competitive fields I began to see just how much work went into running how she did. I saw for the first time, in my sister, and in her competitors, running to exhaustion.

I remember going to watch my sister at one of the state meets, where the girl who was favored to win, I think her name was Jenny, ran the first two miles well ahead of the pack, then not one hundred feet from the finish line, clenched up. Her jaw went tight, her legs stiffened. You could see her force a few steps before she fell down. There was nothing to do for her but cry, and sometimes I still do when I think about her. People passed her, my sister among them, and the gal finally finished the race on all fours.

It seems like I was just getting into competitive running at about that time, and I never was very competitive, because I was very precious to myself and concerned about the onset of pain. Sometimes, when running, I'd start to get a little tight, and think about Jenny and pull back--because her crawling across the finish line seemed like one of the greatest tragedies that could befall anyone. And of course it's not, I now know, but back then I only knew one kind of glory--and that was staying comfortable. Also…winning, if the two could be combined.

It wasn't until I had kids that I received my first hint of what my sister gleaned from her endurance--that there's a point between fatigue and falling down that's quite lovely, an out-of-body experience. Close your eyes, keep going, and the body just does what it needs to do with the tacit prompt of mind. I've felt it in childbirth during transition, and every so often, when I think I have no energy left for putting kids to bed and whatnot, somehow it just gets done.

This weekend we put in the garden. I've abandoned a large garden way out back that's so far away from the house that I forget about it, so my husband made frames for three raised beds right outside the kitchen. In the course of the weekend, we turned over a lot of dirt, loaded and unloaded long boards, several old railroad ties that are heavy as hell, and forty pound bags of topsoil. I've felt a little beat up, with scratches on my ankles and forearms from hard to handle boards, sore back, and restless leg syndrome at night. And none of this is complaint, but rather exultation. I got tired, but I kept working--like people who have babies, run long distance, write novels, or become saints.

Back in the days when I tried to write poetry, I wrote down a phrase in my little notebook, "I want to give glory to God without fear." I kept thinking something would occur to me to follow that line, but over the years as I've looked at it here and again, I can't think of anything with which to chase it. It's still a concern of mine, but it's more of a singular concern rather than one impression among many. I want to give glory to God without fear.

In so many of my endeavors (having babies, running, writing, trying to become a saint), I still hold myself very dear.

I keep the stethoscope on my heart for the first murmur of discord, yearning, or unease. I hunt for obstacles and seize on retractions, just in case I need them when my jaw starts clenching, and I stop often just short of that beautiful, out-of-body moment in prayer, in work, and in love. That's fear: self-preservation.

Yet, I've never been left for dead. No one has abandoned me. Should I fall down so close to the finish, I could crawl too, couldn't I? And failing the ability to crawl, my guess is some official there on the sideline would pick me up, give me some gatorade, and take care of the body that succumbed to the pavement. It's only a self, after all. It has a habit of regeneration.

It's not an original thought, but to give glory to God without fear, I do picture the unselfconsciousness of a child in work, my nephew, head down, face red, sparing nothing but the thought of taking the next step towards the finish line. The unselfconsciousness of a child in prayer, putting aside "distraction from the wonder." * The unselfconsciousness of a child in love, to "let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God."**

It's tempting to think of successful people, people who pray often, work hard, or live virtuous lives, as self-serving and smug, but I think, more often than not, the opposite is true. They don't regard themselves too dearly to feel pain.

* "It is distracting, and not for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder."--(Walker Percy, "The Moviegoer" p.42)

** "Let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God. Pierce that cloud with the keen shaft of your love, spurn the thought of anything less than God, and do not give up this work for anything. For the contemplative work of love by itself will eventually heal you of all the roots of sin."-- (The Cloud of Unknowing p.64)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Moment on Moments

Years ago, when I was but a young lass traveling toute seule in Florence, I stood in Piazza Michelangelo looking at a map, when I heard someone speaking to me.

"Mademoiselle!" a voice called several times before I realized that it addressed me, and when I turned, I saw a young man, Italian looking, Fabio hair and Johnny Dep complexion who proceeded, in French, to ask me for directions.

I answered in French, though it was clear that I was blonde and not Italian myself nor very French looking. I blithely assumed, however, that I had so assimilated the European way of being (standing, as I was, with a map in the middle of one of the most touristy destinations in Italy) that I very well might pass for a French woman. Though the question of why an Italian would ask a foreigner for directions never occurred to me, and I let him look at my map, all the while making clear that French was not my native language and that I was really much, much further from understanding a word that he said than I had made known.

Having checked on my map all that he would feign to check, he handed it back, and began in rather halting English to chat me up with more gusto. And I, yes, all alone, if only temporarily before I caught back up with my housemates, loved every minute of it and agreed to sit in a little cafe and have a drink with him.

It was only then that I began to suspect that I was a mere lamb in the clutches of a professional hunter--that he knew a few lines in English very well, and he presented them to me with grandeur and expectation only to lapse just after into complete silence. And by the time I reached the bottom of my wine glass, I knew with certainty that I was ready to get the flip out of there.

So I told him I had people to meet and began to stand up to make my exit, but he held my wrist at the table and asked, "You reject me?"

"I'm sorry," I started to say, but he held his hand up to silence me, and closed his eyes to stop all communication. The stage was cleared for him to make his declaration of supreme disappointment at having been rejected by an American tourist:


I let him have it, his moment that is, and then I took off for real, never again to fall for the bait of an Italian pick-up artist. But I have thought often about his moment, his poignant silence all done up in caps-lock, punctuated by an ellipsis and an exclamation point, and sometimes feel that that moment--or at least his demand that I observe it--is one of the best presents anyone has ever given me.

Because it has inspired me to declare my own moments of supreme disappointment and conversely, supreme triumph, with equal gusto.

I have been reading Muriel Spark's, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," about a teacher in a girls' school who never marries, but spends a large portion of class time telling her pupils about her past romances, all the while encouraging them to recognize the signs of being in one's prime. It's important to recognize and appreciate it while one's in it. Otherwise, you might miss it and spend the rest of your life chasing it.

But I'm realizing that "primes" come in many varieties at various points in one's life, and that there are indeed, a number of worthy occasions on which a lady might tell the world to hush so she can shake her fist at the moon and declare, "THIS…IS MY MOMENT!" I've oft done it of late, in sorrow, in happiness, in frustration and delight.

The key that I never seem to remember, is that one's prime, or one's moment, or one's time, however you term it, should be recognized with gratitude rather than yearning for more, that being someone, even someone alone and unknown, is far superior to idealizing a "has been" or a "would be," and that these moments are no less poignant for having gone unwitnessed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On Choice

When we were kids, my parents, and pretty much all the parents we knew enrolled their kids in public school without a second thought. As my mom has said before, she knew there were hoods, and there were good kids, and assumed there wasn't much intermingling between the two.

Intermingling, no. But by the time I was in high school there was some behavioral cross-over. It was possible for a hood to get good grades (old news). It was also possible, actually, almost guaranteed that the good kids were drinking and having sex.

So my generation of publicly schooled adults approaches our children's schooling decisions from this perspective: if it was that bad when I was in school, it's probably worse now, with cameras everywhere to record bad behavior and broadcast it to the universe.

Damn. What am I going to do now that I have kids and can't afford private school, and don't feel called to home school?

If I had the answer I'd tell you.

It's this whole business of choice that bothers me--that I am prohibited from being as blissfully confident in my decisions as my parents were allowed to be. Because it's not that I don't trust my kids, or that I don't trust God to guide their life experiences through the more difficult stages of adolescence.

The problem is that I don't trust myself not to be a lousy parent. I don't trust myself to give them everything they need at home, and I also don't trust the world to prepare them well for Heaven. It feels like everything is going to have huge, life and soul-threatening consequences--that there's nothing I can do to minimize or protect them from the suffering of bad choices.

And bad choices are what I made, and what my husband made, and what we still occasionally make, and what our kids, fruit of our loins, stock of Adam and Eve, are also probably going to encounter.

Facing the odds, it's easy to wish for a reprieve from our free-will. Save me from this propensity for bad choices Lord! Save my children!

And we long for a simpler time and place where bad choices are not so easy to make, where procuring our daily bread occupies so much of our waking consciousness that we have no time or energy for sin.

I was talking to my cousin last week, about how sometimes we wish our husbands would come home from work and say, "That's it. We're moving to Haiti to become medical missionaries." We're going to the third world to suffer the sin out of our souls, to scourge away our desire for every stumbling block to Heaven. Because on our worst days, we're not sure we're going to make it.

But maybe lack of confidence and the over-abundance of choice are the particular suffering of the modern Catholic.

I haven't read it, but my cousin told me about a book I need to read called "Consoling the Heart of Jesus." In today's cultural climate, one of the only bright spots is that Christ has declared now a time of Divine Mercy. Perhaps now, more than ever, because of those challenges mentioned above, Heaven is closer than it once seemed.

Perhaps these choices we have to make are not a trial so much as an opportunity to unite our divided hearts to Christ's merciful heart.

One of the supposedly comforting responses I heard to a miscarriage is, "You have succeeded as parents. You have a child in Heaven." But that was not my success. It had nothing to do with my wishes. If it did, the child would be here.

I am not comforted by any hope for my "success" as a parent, but only by the hope that I can say with confidence, "Jesus, I trust in you…" to be where I cannot be, to forgive what I cannot forgive, to comfort sorrow.

When my son was about five years old, he was very curious about Heaven and Hell. I told him that our choices either lead us closer to Heaven or away from Heaven, and our goal is to be as close to Jesus as possible at the end of our lives whenever that may come.

He asked me, "So what if someone's life is a good/ bad pattern that ends on bad?" And I told him, with every confidence, "Then we trust in the mercy of Jesus to save those who can't save themselves." So do I believe that? I have to.

He has only sinners to work with.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Movie Recommendation (offered with reservations)

"Blue Valentine" starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Currently on DVD.

The quick take: This movie is not for people wishing to guard their senses against salty imagery. This movie might, however, be a discussion springboard for married couples dealing with the darker issues that can befall a marriage in a fallen world.

Every so often, you get a glimpse into the secret life of another married couple that you feel a little weird about having seen. Maybe alcohol's involved at the card party and a couple's passive aggressive behavior towards each other starts to seep out. Perhaps there is some minor crisis or conflict that becomes the catalyst for pent up wounds from ages past to fart into the atmosphere with escalating intensity to a point of seeming no return: "blah blah Blah Blah BLAH BLAH and I HATE YOU!"

There's a moment of awkward silence, as all of the onlookers say a silent prayer, "God help those poor people."

I had a similar response to the movie, "Blue Valentine," a rich, heartbreaking portrait of a marriage on the brink, that nevertheless gives viewers the sensation of being a fly on the wall in a room where they should not be.

When the family dog goes missing, and turns up dead on the side of the road, Cindy and Dean send their five-year-old daughter to Grandpa's house, so they can bury the dog, and perhaps, protect their daughter from death. But in the course of the next twenty-four hours, old demons in Cindy and Dean's marriage will rise to the surface and put them at a point of even greater crisis.

Filmed in slow, gritty sequences, cutting back and forth between the past and present, the movie provides much to ponder for the Catholic soul, not least of which are the stains of sexual sin and how one's past can reverberate throughout the years, influencing the perceived self-worth of both oneself, and one's spouse.

In the earlier sequences, we learn what heroic leaps of faith brought these two into a marriage that finds them, not a decade later, stumbling over disappointment and negative habits of being towards each other that seem impossible to overcome.

At the same time, viewers can see plainly that these two are deeply in love with one another, and that their happiness and healing are yet within reach.

The movie doesn't give viewers the satisfaction of a tidy ending however. The ambiguous ending is what left me pondering how these two might be able to work things out. Three days after watching the movie, I'm still rooting for them, in the same way I root for Kristin Lavransdatter and Erlend after reading their marriage three times and knowing full well that their peace only comes with death. Good grief, People. Receive God's healing! Why are you withholding from yourselves and from each other the benefits of forgiveness?

Though there's one scene in which characters in Blue Valentine say grace before a meal, there's no indication that Cindy and Dean have a sacramental life. And yet, the basic premises of Christian marriage are perhaps what have kept them together thus far. In some of the more poignant lines of the movie, Dean pleads with Cindy, "You said you'd stay with me for better or for worse. This is my worst." Dean is, it would seem, a functional alcoholic, or at the least, a problem drinker.

And though it would seem that Cindy's darkest moments in the relationship took place before the wedding, her pursed lips and perturbed forehead say a lot about what she's added to the relationship since then.

In short, I know marriages that look like this one. And my guess is that most married couples will see themselves in some small part of the way Dean and Cindy relate to one another. Watching this movie with my husband, I think, made us both grateful for the recourse we have to sacrament and forgiveness. Love hurts. Marriage is messy. But God save it--it's worth working out.

A word of warning: As with most movies produced these days, the gritty realism and awkward exposure extends to the bedroom scenes. While the sex lives of these characters contributes heavily to the plot--ahem--I didn't need to see that.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Manic Quick Takes

My husband tells me that I don't have to post something on here just because it's been a few days--that's it's better to remain silent if it's not going to be good. I agree for the most part, but I've got some housecleaning to do.

Complete thoughts are scheduled to return next week sometime, I believe. For now, I offer manic thoughts, thoughts that I need to clear out of the house, sort of like the bags of clothes I've been going through--the floodwater pants my boys have been wearing, too many holes to hang onto for the little ones. Sometimes I horde incomplete thoughts in case I'll need them later for something else--but I really just want to kick out some crap.

"Crap," by the way--as I spend five minutes in each room, putting things straight--is the most accurate description for ninety percent of the stuff in our house.

It's also a word I don't especially like or enjoy using--but what can you do?

I worked a fundraiser at the kids' school last week whereby, we collected crap from people's homes to resell to their children as gifts for Mother's and Father's day. Think you're getting rid of that snow globe, that teddy bear figurine, that half finished needle point project? Think again. I just sold it to your kindergartner for a dollar, wrapped it in a paper grocery bag, and now, it is once again, yours to display in a place of prominence in your home.

This weekend I'm working the skee ball booth at the Parish Festival since my kids' school requires twenty hours of service from every family, and I have from now until the end of May to do all of them.

After the blood letting and emotional upheaval of Holy Week at our house, I began doing a few pseudo-strength-building exercises to boost my energy, things like driving our pick-up truck, weed whacking, and playing with my cosmetics in order to achieve a "lit from within" appearance. My efforts paid off, and now, my mind and body are abuzz--so close to par, I even went for a run this week.

But I can't sleep. I used to have a prescription for Ambien, which would help me out in times like these when I won't turn off, but it expired, and I don't have a legitimate reason to ask a doc for a refill--so I'm stuck disciplining myself in the dark from unnecessary trips to the bathroom because I have been plagued since childhood by an irrational fear that eventually--and probably right before I fall asleep--I'm going to have to pee.

If I were a baby, I'd say, put that girl down on her tummy. Turn her back on the world. But thoughts don't cease even with my face planted in the mattress. So I write them down.

I hate to put my neurosis out there, but some people write because they grew up in a dysfunctional family; some people write their way out of crises; some write to change the world. The very bottom line of my writing life has always been an unexplained and deep-rooted fear of wetting my pants.

I've successfully avoided any adventures in self-diagnosis on the internet, though I'm not sure what's behind all this interest in things. Usually, I don't give a rip, which is a better place from which to write than giving a rip about too many things.

See here, the corner of my computer screen indicates that these manic quick takes are one of many open windows to things I want to write. Files labeled, "Evil," "The secret life of the Catholic Mom," "Walker Percy," and "Parish Council Minutes," among others. Also, a loopy Medieval fairy tale with a heroine named Vicky that I regret having agreed to edit for someone.

There are, however, certain weary-making projects I never seem to find time for:

1. Putting the 500 pictures I recently printed into a photo album.
2. Moving clothes in and out of the attic: maternity clothes, winter clothes, summer clothes. Unfortunately, I have no idea which end is up on this one. Last week, I had to scrape ice off my windshield. This week it's 80 degrees. I can't stand to see my kids in fleece sweatsuits when it's 80 degrees--but that's where things stand.
3. Apple tree maintenance. I'd like to be organic on principal with the apple trees, but I'm only organic by default--which really means, we're not going to have any apples.

One thing I have accomplished is checking on the bees. After their attack last fall, I've been a little gun-shy about them--letting my dad do most of the dirty work. They all survived the winter, and in spite of the weird weather we've had, they're a little manic themselves on the first sunny day of the year. They have divided and swarmed three times this Spring. My dad recaptured them, but they need feeding, and they need more space in their hives, and all of this requires getting close to them. I don't relish it.

When we first started with the bees, I read about them constantly, thought about them in my sleeping and waking, sat out in the bee yard and watched them for a good time. But all enthusiasms eventually turn into a labor, if not of love, then of duty--especially when the hobby in question has a life that depends on you.

So I buttoned up this time, put on the mask and the gloves, was annoyed with myself for wearing shorts, since with my blue shirt, I could be mistaken for a flower with a tasty (albeit pasty white) stem.

I carried the smoker, the spatula, and the sugar water to the hives on a tray like cocktail waitress, and lo, they were happy to see me. Even when the smoker wouldn't light, everyone remained calm--and now I'm feeling cocky again.

All of this stuff going on in my life suggests that sooner or later, perhaps tomorrow or next week, I'm going to tank. You can't go without sleep for this long, you can't stay this busy without reprieve, projects will need completing--if not for anyone else's sake, than for my clarity of mind, and I'm probably going to freak out about it. And I haven't done any strength building exercises, pseudo or otherwise, on my spiritual life, unless crossing your fingers counts. Here's to praying for the desire to pray.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Weighty Issue (And a Linkfest!)

I'm sure you'll enjoy Kimberlie's story on beauty and body image. I've known her through comments for quite awhile, and now I'm loving her blog.

And Mrs. Darwin talks about beauty, body image and breastfeeding.

Heck, while I'm at it, I might as well make this a big link party about all sorts of things.

Here's Mighty Maggie talking about husbands who travel, a topic near and dear to my heart. For any woman struggling with "keeping score" about all the supposedly fun things our husbands do to develop their careers while we stay home, this will let you know you're not alone. Good for traveling husbands to read too (hint).

Here's Amy Welborn's new travel blog that's going to take us all over the world from the luxury of our own laptops.

Here's Julia, at Lotsa Laundry, who writes "upon too many topics, in time she doesn't have, for no known reason."

My kind of writer, and if you find her in a combox, she always has some unique and wise perspective.

Here's Magsmuse: a thoughtful, poetic, searching writer from over the pond.

And the talented Trish Bailey, at Jalapeno Peppers. This post cracked me up. Must admit, I know Trish in real life. She's gorgeous, funny and incredibly smart.

And finally, Sachiko Says: she's Mormon, a mother of six, and thinks about things a lot like I do.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

So Sayeth the Birds

My dad kept homing pigeons when we were kids. On Saturdays, he entered his best birds in races with the local pigeon club. The president of the pigeon club, as I now see things, must have been a Renaissance man. His children were named Dante and Leah. But when I was younger, everything related to my Dad's pigeon operation was a sea of lameness.

"Good morning pigeons!" my dad would sing in a halting tenor beginning around 6:30 a.m. His intention, obviously, was to rouse us from our beds for school, though our waking was always presented as a side-effect of his pigeon love song, which made the song all the more irritating. It seemed as though we might have been able to continue sleeping if it weren't for his bird enthusiasms, so the pigeons were a source of resentment.

When my dad entered birds into a race, he asked me to fill in for him if he had to step out for one of my brothers' ball games. Saturdays would often find me sitting on the back porch waiting for the birds to come in. My friends would call to see if I could come out on my bike and tool around the neighborhood, and I would have to decline because of the possibility that a pigeon might arrive the moment I left my station.

When a bird came in, I had to go out to the coop, scoop up the bird, which I wasn't fond of doing, and remove the band from its leg. The band went into a small capsule, which we deposited into a clock that stamped the time of the bird's arrival on a paper receipt. The pigeon club met to compare times for their earliest birds, and the winner would receive a small purse.

In hindsight I can see how sitting on the porch waiting for birds to fly home was a dreamy way for a sullen pre-teen to spend the weekends. My parents were always trying to instill in me a greater appreciation for nature. But I liked my trails well-paved in those days.

I could appreciate birds in theory. One of the first books I personally owned was "Birds of the World," a beautifully bound and illustrated gift from my grandfather. I never read the text, but the illustrations made bird life look ok. Bird life on paper, that is, enjoyed from the comfort of my air-conditioned, bug-free home.

As an adult, I've had to make peace with dirt, heat, ticks, and worms, as well as the trails, and suddenly, bird theories once again pique my interest.

For mother's day, my mom and I heard the president of the Indiana Audubon Society give a presentation on Indiana birds. Each of the birds presented had some lovely truth to offer about the nature of things.

The male red winged black-bird returns to the Midwest in February, a first sign that Spring is on its way. He builds several nests in anticipation of his bride's subsequent return several weeks later, and when she finally does arrive, she chooses the best of his offerings in which to lay her eggs, but not before she completely remakes the nest to her specifications.

And the male cardinal, the Indiana State bird, proves to his potential mate that he's worthy of her affections by feeding her, beak to beak.

Of course there are black sheep in the bird world, both male and female.

Hummingbirds are gorgeous to watch, a pleasure to have in the garden, but the male, while being fiercely territorial, tends to fly off after mating. Leave it to the ruby-throated gilded bloke to make his departures in the wake of love.

And the brown-headed cowbird--what a piece of work. The female lays her eggs in a foster mother's nest, then departs to pastures new, certain that, say, a warbler female will sit on her eggs and feed her chicks once they hatch, even to the detriment of the warbler's own chicks. A smart girl, that cowbird, but it is a species that bird authorities very frankly label a parasite.

People love to site nature as the authority for all kinds of behaviors. Mostly, we hear the animal kingdom referenced to condone the worst in mankind. What can you do about the cowbird? She's worrisome, and yet God apparently designed her without much of a maternal instinct.

What's amazing to me is that the cowbird instinctively knows which foster mother will be unable to reject her foreign eggs. God created other birds instinctively unable to turn down a hungry babe, no matter whose it it. Life sorts itself out.

There are so many different types of mothers, avian and human. It's the homing pigeon with which I most identify these days: domestic, dependent, non-migratory, year after year, returning from my short departures to the same places and people I love. Sort of ironic how lowly I once regarded that particular bird.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Talking about bodies

So, the lovely Betty Beguiles has been talking about image, and vanity--about looking nice and being healthy to maintain the respect of spouse and society as we go about mothering our children.

And (the likewise, lovely) Bearing has responded to the post:

Yes, yes, we're all supposed to pay lip service to "health" as the reason to become physically fit and lose weight and all that sort of thing. I've done it myself. But admit it people.

You (yes, you) want to have a hot body.

Bearing has certainly called my bluff. Speaking as someone whose body is currently twenty kinds of weird from pregnancy-related weight gain, in addition to the onslaught of aging, where I used to get a little junk in the trunk in a heavy phase, now everything is migrating to my stomach and that area underneath my upper arms.

A diagram:

I hate it. I know gluttony is at the root of my problems, and now I'm going to rely on my vanity to fix it. And as far as twisting myself in knots over my intentions goes, I just don't have the energy.

Any time I'm able to "get in the zone" where weight loss is concerned, it's because I just can't stand it anymore, not because I have positive "get healthy" vanity-free motives for my body. Hopefully, God can make some good of my wicked ways.

I cannot imagine a way to dress in American culture that would totally absolve someone from vanity and body consciousness. Fifties style glamour relies on delicious curves and a narrow waist. 90's style glamour relies on bodacious booties and taut arms. Millennial fashion relies on excessive thinness. Even jumping back a hundred years is going to have me boosting up my bosom with a corset.

With the possible exception of the full burka, dressing has always been about making oneself pleasing to the eye, the male eye, the female eye, any eye. Good proportions are pleasing to the eye. The golden ratio applies to the human body, the ideal head, the ideal man or woman. Fat messes with the ratio and makes us appear off kilter, so it's not necessarily cruelty that makes someone say, "She would be such a beautiful girl, if only she could lose a little weight." It's an inherently true statement. Grace and proportion are restored with the loss of twenty pounds, or whatever. So maybe it's not so much that I want to have a "hot body" but that I want to have ideal proportions, to appear graceful.

And whatever outfit you put an ideal body into, no matter how well it adheres to anyone's concept of chaste dressing, it's going to be attractive, and likely even appetizing to the opposite sex. We know this, and feel bothered by it, I think, because no one really wants to say out loud that they are aspiring to the kind of figure that is inherently sexually appetizing.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Practice is perfect

My husband made this bed for our daughter, which was supposed to be a practice run turning larger pieces on the lathe before he makes a bed for us. Turned out quite well, I think:

It dresses up pretty too:

Some may have noticed that we painted the walls in my daughter's room. For a glimpse of how it used to look, see here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Learning to pray for others

This post, I wrote weeks ago and never posted, because it felt sort of whiny. I put it away to finish later, and then I forgot about it. I remembered it when reading Pentimento's post about her visit to the Chinese Consulate in New York--which is a far better post and should be read by all.


When I went to California several weeks ago with my husband, there were a couple of days when he had to work, so I drove into downtown San Francisco and piddled around. I'd hate to say these days were my favorite part of the trip, but I forget what a luxury it is to have a day with no demands. I don't have to be anywhere, or home by anytime. I don't have to push or pull anyone around with me. I can eat when I'm hungry, sit when I'm tired, pray in silence, browse at will, and call it a day at the perfect time.

Downtown, people ate in restaurants, shopped, strolled, talked on street corners (on their cell-phones mostly). It occurred to me that most people live this way all the time, just taking care of their person--feeding it, putting it to bed, walking it around without all the hangers on. I parked at the Japan center, and walked around the corner to the Cathedral for the noon Mass, and it was almost entirely working people on lunch break standing solitarily and scattered around the enormous sanctuary. There are a couple parishes at home as well, that always draw a large lunch crowd--downtown workers, dropping in.

It's funny to think about what cues envy on any particular day. What minuscule trigger is going to sour the perfect gift of a day? One day I might be in a fit of green about other women being able to get dressed in Anne Taylor suits every day to go to work. Another day, this day, it was that other people's lives seem not as complicated as mine. Other people don't have to notify an army and shunt small bodies off to other caregivers in order to leave the house. They drop in. They take off. They just run out to get something.

Browsing the thrift stores on Fillmore, I saw a small family on their way to work and school. A mother, father, two dogs, and one child walking together to their prospective days. The woman wore a fashionably hand-knit stocking cap, vintage looking military trench coat, and dynamite boots. The dogs were small and groomed, likewise the child and the man. I wondered what it would be like to be a family in San Francisco, as cross-country transfers are always possible (though not probable), within my husband's company. It seems like a good city in which to get dressed, though dressing alone, much less dressing well, is not my family's forte. It looks like a good city in which to drive a small car, or be a pedestrian, which, with five kids is mostly out of the question. Other people's lives are not as complicated as mine.

And so this day of complete freedom and independence brought only awareness that other people seem to have more of it.

There are hidden costs to every fine style of living--this is my first line of reasoning to combat envy. There's a hidden cost in addition to the multi-million dollars invested in the house on Russian Hill, hidden costs for the tidily groomed, petite family. I may have a complicated life--but these people, surely these people are living quiet lives of even more desperate desperation. Ha HA! I chose Indiana! I chose children, lots and lots of children! And grandparents nearby to watch them, so I can go to San Francisco and look down my nose at Californians! Ha HA! I am not like them--with their two dogs and one child!

Ingratitude is the beginning of sin. Give into it and soon you're mired in envy. Soon you've made the object of envy your enemy. Soon you walk around sneering at strangers and twirling your phylacteries, being glad (though not quite thanking God) that you're not like them. There is always a devil outside the door of the sanctuary. Don't thank God for the gift of a perfect day--be glad you're smarter, and more self-sacrificing, and more…whatever else it takes to put you back on top.

After Mass at the Cathedral I walked past the Consulate for the People's Republic of China. A line had formed around the corner: people requesting visas, etc. In front, on the sidewalk, three women stood praying, faces to the sun, eyes closed, legs apart, and hands crossed in front of them, still as could be. I had seen them on my way to the Cathedral, not taking too much notice, since they sat, at the time, in Lotus position facing the street. Nice to see people praying, I thought. Attend the church of your choice. That's what I'm on my way to do. But I saw now, that they were praying in front of a banner, documenting with graphic pictures, the injustices of the Chinese government--restrictions on religious freedom, torture of its own people.

The women had been sitting there for hours in complete silence, begging for freedom to worship God in their homeland, while I performed cost benefit analysis on other people's wealth, and other people's responsibilities. Sometimes I don't want to be edified, and other people's good behavior increases my insolence. But the only acceptable response to these three women was to open up a line of prayer and unite my intention to theirs. Only the rich practice fasting. The poor fast every day. Here is a poverty and deprivation I have never known, sitting silently on the sidewalk, praying, begging for freedom to worship God.

I drove by Mission Delores on the way home, one of the old Spanish missions (the one in the movie, Vertigo), and kneeling in front of the old wood-carved statues, I wanted to offer again all the prayers said at that altar over the centuries. We have sinned, Father. Hear again the prayers of the old ones. Unite my prayers to others' since all my needs have been met, and I tend to squander even the call to gratitude. Hear the prayers of needier people than me. Begin with the women in front of the Consulate, and include all of those suffering hidden costs in their lives.

I can add to this now that I am grateful for your prayers over the past couple weeks, and have felt, very concretely, what it is to be supported by others in faith. I also pray for you!