Betty Duffy

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Brain Game

In early high school, my girlfriends began to pair off with upper-class boys, and I was still trying to convince people to spend Friday nights pigging out on fruit-flan at the local grocery store, or to go sledding, or some other slightly immature pastime. It soon became clear that the only kids still interested in such pursuits were the boys on the brain game team, the ones who sat in the corner during gifted and talented classes composing very odd stories about robots and black holes. They did role playing games. They smelled funny. One of them acquired the nickname "Crest" for his apparent lack of knowledge that such a product existed.

On the brain game team, there was a science boy (who's now a surgeon), physics boy (who's a programmer), a keeper of excessive trivia on all subjects but mostly history (a music producer), and I was lit girl. Though I should note--they answered most of the questions.

And yet, they weren't straight A students. They tended to underperform academically, even though they were clearly some of the smartest students in school. The valedictorian and salutatorian positions went to a couple of type A kids who were bright and organized, but not necessarily superior minds.

I'm thinking about those boys a lot lately because one of my own boys got in trouble at school recently for scribing "Death to Kickball" on the blacktop in chalk. All the in-crowd kids play kickball, and my boys really don't. One teacher described my boys and their friends as "the fantasy group," because they're always in la-la land, drawing tiny detailed pictures, talking about alternate universes, and using words that are too big for their bodies.

Last year there was a lot of conversation about popularity, and whether or not my boys desired to be popular. There was a moment when they realized (actually, I had to tell them) that one doesn't exactly choose to be popular, one has to be chosen. And if the crowd does not bestow it's affection on you, the best you can hope for is to steal their attention by acquiring notoriety. Not the same thing. Still, notoriety sometimes comes involuntarily when you're a nose-picker with a high IQ and questionable social skills.

So I tried to boost the perks of not being in the in-crowd. No pressures to be something you're not, freedom to be weird, etc. Plus, all those boys who were geeky in school eventually found ethereal girls from far away to marry, and have done quite well for themselves--either because it was always their destiny to succeed, or they were motivated to do well in order to prove that they never really were the underdogs, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Neither my husband nor I resided exclusively in the in-crowd in grade school, nor were we nerds. A friend once called me a bridge personality. I could go both ways. And that still feels like the most comfortable place for me to be. Not quite here nor there. And I think the same is true for my husband (assuming we still had a social life or crowds with whom to run).

So trying to figure out my kids is a puzzle, and I find myself wishing that I'd paid more attention to the mothers of those boys on the brain game team back when I was wandering around in their houses and eating their (often bran-flaked) food. Having reconnected with some of those boys in adulthood, I know that one of their moms gave up her loose career in leather stamping and mandolin playing to go back to school for a PhD. She's now a professor. One was and is an apparently happy housewife to a dentist. A third was always kind of a shadowy figure, possibly due to antisocial characteristics of her own.

In any case, I want to see that process, of allowing your children to be whoever they're going to be--finding strengths to emphasize, supporting through the failures, and helping the kids to be ok with their placement in the group--wherever that place happens to be. Though I believe that process tends to be a hidden one for mothers everywhere, because it's a very humbling experience to discover all the myriad ways that your children are not you.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Greetings from another world

Thomas Frank, oh, Thomas Frank. Why do I read thee?

Frank writes the Easy Chair column in Harper's Magazine. This month he turns his cynical eye towards an anti-abortion rally in Germantown, Maryland that took place in late July.

He writes:

"…stock markets have been seesawing wildly, U.S. Treasury notes have been downgraded, unemployment is soaring, and the entire government was recently held hostage. But for some people, that particular end-times scenario isn't satisfying enough: for them, the real crisis is still the massacre of the unborn and the horror of stem-cell research, and they regard the economic disasters of recent years as an annoying distraction. You and I may fret over the Dow, but they are out there still, fighting tooth and nail against the "culture of death."

He chronicles a poorly attended pro-life press conference (he was the only member of the press there), and the following day, hundreds of parishioners from a nearby Catholic Church who prayed near an office complex where abortions were performed.

Frank goes out to the rally (which is a very strong word for this particular gathering) hoping to see arrests, stupidity, rifle toting crazies, the fomenting of a grass roots movement-- but he's thoroughly disappointed to find only a few Catholics praying. And to make his story even more of a let down--they're rational people, well-spoken. He describes various players as "stylish," "ebullient, charismatic," even, "far-removed from the damnation-slinging, fetus-waiving protesters of twenty years ago." He quotes Pat Mahoney, an activist who orchestrated the event saying, "We're not coming with clenched fist demanding our own way, asserting our own position…We're coming in brokenness and humility before the Lord."

But Frank remains unimpressed, and somehow, boggled that anyone could pray for an end to abortion when there is an economic crisis going on.

I also am boggled, and not by people who think abortion is a bigger deal than a recession. I don't understand how literary agnostic types can write as much as they do, observing humanity in its various political, economic and religious systems, while remaining so willfully disengaged with metaphor. Frank and I don't speak the same language.

The missing key in a hypothetical dialog between Thomas Frank and any Christian, is the understanding of an individual's relationship to time and eternity. Death is life. Metaphor 101.

"For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

And yet, it's not just Christians that Frank seems incapable of understanding, but even people on the other side of his own field of writing--poets and novelists. Once you start contemplating the place of the individual in its relationship to time and eternity--even without a religious leaning--you flip to a genre that can handle metaphors. You don't need a metaphor to understand the economy, I suppose. But people require a metaphor.

One day it dawns on you that no one loves your home as much as you do, no one loves your house, your town, your dog, your cat, your kids, the words you write, or you even, as much as you do. And truth be told, there are days when even you don't like them all that much either. Nothing and no one can be made right.

It's a modern problem that arises in modern literature occasionally, in books like "Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen (unfavorably reviewed here), and if the author is godless, there's no hope, no light. Reading a book like that is like living in a pressurized container, knowing you will run out of breath if you stay there.

Where are you going to draw breath? The Christian draws breath in prayer, and there is life in the breath. It goes beyond metaphor--it's not just a nice little symbol, but a life-giving breath. It's the love you wish that you and everyone else really possessed, just handed to you by a Benevolent Creator. It draws you out of self-pity and fear, and helps you see the world in light of eternal realities.

"He who has experienced the shock of love, returns to the world with altered face." (Japanese Haiku)

I've met people who seem shallow, or uneducated, rich people and poor, who are transformed and made wise by living within the metaphor and framing their lives in response to eternal questions. Yes, this understanding often causes people to downgrade their interest in accumulating wealth in favor of helping the helpless, but it does not automatically assume a downgrade in quantitative intelligence. Rather it supports the acquisition of a poetic intelligence.

I went to a poetry reading last night, Robert Hass, whose books are some of the very few books of poetry to which I've returned again and again. Trying to get Pedge to go with me I explained that a lot of poetry will not affect you, but a few poets will speak a language that feels like your own. Hass is one who speaks mine--only he speaks it better, more fluently, in ways that surprise me.

After his reading, someone asked him about his translations of Japanese Haiku. And he discussed how haiku finds a way to speak the simplest truths in the most apt way. Often, the only way to speak the truth is to find the right metaphor, searching through nature, finding correlations, discovering the ways truth manifests in june bugs and mosquitoes, in landscapes. And when you begin looking for metaphors, suddenly you find them everywhere, and life takes on a deeper, more reflective tenor. "Once you start living in the metaphor, it's thrilling," he said.

If Frank could put himself in this frame of mind for just one minute, it might go a long way in demystifying the way believers approach politics, the economy, and the culture of life.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace."--Mother Theresa

Friday, September 16, 2011

Oh, Friends...

Can I tell you how excited I am that Patheos is running my post on Confession?


As a special bonus for clicking over there, you get to see my big cheesy head shot.

Not to mention, there is some truly great material at Patheos for people seeking information on just about any major religion.

Combing out the Cobwebs

My friend Pedge groans through each pregnancy threatening to have her tubes tied after delivery, but she never does, and after each baby's born she says, "What would our family ever have done without this baby?"

Still, pregnancies are challenging, and the other day she said, "If I am going to make peace with God's plan for me not to mutilate my body, it's going to be with the help of the Blessed Mother." So she invited me to join her in the forty days' discernment for Total Consecration to Jesus through the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I felt a little pang of dread at her invitation. No, no, no. I know some of those Totally Consecrated people, and they don't own a hairbrush. The last thing I need is a big smug dose of Marian piety just as I'm getting ready to step out of the house.

Four of my five kids are in school this year, so I've been devoting a bit more time to writing, writing for hire, writing music, fun writing projects I've looked forward to doing for a long time. I didn't want to study up on remaining hidden and silent--it's what I've been for the last ten years.

But I wanted to support Pedge, so I agreed to read the meditations along with her. The first twelve days of discernment concern the "Spirit of the World." The opening prayer goes, "Come Holy Spirit, please awaken us to all you have in mind during these days of renewal and help us to let go of all sin, of the "spirit of the world," and of all else that leads to sin so that we can truly live this Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary in union with St. Joseph."

I kept waiting for the book to throw down the gauntlet on reading fashion magazines, or listening to my ipod. But what the meditations did was sharpen my awareness of what the "spirit of the world" actually consists.

My daughter has a knack for putting me in the hot seat--pushing my boundaries, in public, in order to accomplish social connections that I'm never quite ready for her to make. I don't let my kids go on overnights. I like to know the parents of their friends really well. I like to approve my children's plans before they make them. But there she is inviting herself to a girlfriend's house in the pick up line after school, making plans and then putting me on the spot once I catch up to the conversation. All of my precautions are to protect her from the spirit of the world, but she keeps chiseling them away.

It does no good to build a wall around my family, however, if the spirit of the world is right here at home, somehow, deeply entrenched in me. And it is not necessarily my reading material or my music.

It's a coldness, a lack of empathy. "Better keep up kid, or you're getting left behind." The spirit of the world doesn't tolerate kids much at all, especially when they're needy or errant. It would rather the children go to sleep so that the adults can get on with their own childish pursuits--laziness, chicanery, sniping.

The spirit of the world prefers self-mutilation to self control.

It looks for new ways to feel full without effort--new clothes, better food, more satisfying relationships with people who demand nothing but witticism and cuteness. The spirit of the world wants there to be something where there is nothing--in the inbox, on TV, at the store. It is the hungry ghost, arms outstretched, hands grasping, unreceptive to the hunger and thirst of others, because its own need always speaks louder.

In the Litany of Divine Mercy, we pray, "Divine mercy, in the conversion of hardened sinners, I trust in you." I have always imagined that the hardened sinner is the criminal, or the drug addict--the spiritual lost cause. But last night, it struck me that, no, it's me. I am the hardened sinner.

There are sins I can say with some confidence that I will never commit again because of the fundamental option I made for Christ years ago, but that doesn't mean I won't penny-pinch and hustle my way past thousands of offered graces. Just as a woman can say "I do" to her husband with her whole heart and soul and then spend the next fifty years turning away from him in barely noticeable increments. I am a hardened sinner.

As blind as I've been to the hungry ghost in me, as needy as it is, fighting it will require the conversion frequency of a rapid fire machine gun--convert! convert again! convert convert convert! And I will need the Blessed Mother to keep showing me where it's hiding. So far she's proven worthy of the task.

I don't know yet, and I'll probably keep it to myself, whether or not I go through with the act of Consecration at the end of this forty days. I still struggle with the idea of making such a commitment to someone I hardly know.

Who is Mary? St Louis de Montfort writes, "Mary lived in obscurity during most of her life. Her humility was so great that she desired to hide, not only from all other creatures, but even from herself, so that only God should know her…Her own parents did not know her. And the angels asked, "Who is she?""

During the time that I have taken up this meditation, I have felt myself wrapped in some sort of mystery, a maternal wisdom that guides my reflections and reveals to me my deepest strongholds, nurturing me to grow. No one but a mother could do this, in all charity and gentleness, turn her child towards the mirror and say, "Sweetie, you might want to take a look at yourself before you step out of the house."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Examination of Conscience

I had a booger of a sin to confess. After hem-hawing around about whether or not to go to my home parish or some other far away parish, I toyed with the idea that my sin might not be a sin at all, and maybe I was just being scrupulous. But I couldn't kick the guilty sensation it caused, and finally, this morning, enough was enough. I had to humble up, confess the dumb sin and get it over with.

So I drove the forty-five minutes downtown where there's Confession before Mass every day, as long as you get there early enough. I arrived on target to take my place as the tenth person in a very slow-moving line.

The baby was a little querulous, didn't want to be held and such, but struggled with his limitations on the floor just as much. Everyone's tensions rose progressively with the passing of the hour, and the realization that the line seemed not to diminish. The man behind me sighed between Hail Marys.

At last it was my turn. The man before me came out of the confessional, and the priest followed right behind him explaining that he had to prepare for Mass, but if the rest of us could stick around, he could finish hearing Confessions after Mass.

The line behind me was equally as long as the line before me had been, and looking back, I could see the collective disappointment as people made their decision--would they stay or would they go? Personally, I wanted to puke. Long drive, long wait, loud baby, and no Confession--unless I could wait until after Mass--which would be a long shot. The kid was not going to be quiet.

I slunk to a nearby pew, quietly raging at all the people who went before me in line. Do they think Confession is therapy or something? And the priest--didn't he see how much effort I had put into even being there? What if I really couldn't stick around until after Mass? He could have heard just one more--as long as it was mine.

I set the baby down, letting him wander all over the pew, touching people nearby. That's the price you pay for making me wait--the attack of my baby.

Did I mention that Adoration was going on all this time? That I was in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament throughout my harrowing wait?

Only when the bells rang for Benediction, did a little alarm sound in my brain that perhaps before I bend the priest's ear with my oh-so-humble Confession, I should address the air of entitlement I have acquired towards the Sacrament itself--towards all the Sacraments.

I had just been given an hour in the Presence of the Lord, to be followed by Mass, to be followed, if God wills, with the gift of mercy and forgiveness. How much more can a person ask for? That it all happen on my schedule? Can the priest, and all the people waiting in the pews for Mass just hold for a sec, while I get my drive thru-Confession? I promise it won't take long. And then you can all rejoice that a lamb that was lost has been found! See, I'm here!

It's a gift, God's mercy. A gift you can unwittingly reject all the way up to the door of the Confessional, and even on the way out.

Showing up for Confession is not a favor I'm granting the Church. Having a priest available to provide an outward sign of God's mercy is a favor the Church offers to me. And lucky me, I live in a country where priests are not murdered for performing the Mass, where they don't have to travel incognito to secret enclaves of Christians. In times of heavy persecution, people wait years to receive the Sacraments. In Medieval times I would have made a very public, months long pilgrimage to Confession rather than an anonymous forty minute drive on any day of my choosing.

It has never been easier for people to obtain the gifts of the Church. It's the malady of the rich--those who are given too much too easily lose sight of its value.

During Mass, I uncovered about twenty other notable sins hiding behind that big distracting one that brought me out. It made the difference between partial contrition and complete cleansing with tears of compunction and gratitude. Another gift.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"I don't have much to say, but I am well-placed to say it"

...says my brother-in-law, standing in front of the campfire, cigarette in hand, giving the audience his best vacuous Brad Pitt glare. The kids were set to go to bed, but one last story was promised, and somebody gave him the stage. Or maybe he just took the stage; I can't remember.

"Nice theatrical presentation," says my oldest son, "Not much of a plot." So somebody told a fart joke, and the kids went in to sleep.

Anyway, the line keeps coming back to me, as I sit here with my blog, not writing anything very interesting, but feeling nonetheless, the need to say something. So imagine me glaring at you right now. I am well-placed to say...something...if I could just think of what's important enough to say.

Last week sometime, I was doing the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Crucifixion in the last decade came as this wonderful catharsis. Oh yeah, we get to die at the end of all this. Leave it to other people to unravel the mysteries of living in the modern world. I was having a bad day.

Not a week later, same mysteries, same decade, same Crucifixion, I'm in a good mood, and just can't get into it. I don't want to think about suffering right now. I'm happy. Jesus...You're sort of bringing me down.

Just shows how little I actually bring to my prayers. I wish I had more to offer God sometimes, more concentration, more depth, more fervor, a nice juicy plot.

I've had too much output of late, not enough quality input, which equals spiritual and intellectual lethargy. And the cool gray days don't produce much in the way of vim and vigor.

So I think I'll shut up for awhile and do the laundry.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Death In San Ramon (updated)

My sitemeter indicates that people are searching for information on a certain Betty Duffy who died recently in a bike accident in San Ramon, California. I am very sorry for your loss.

Further information is here:

A bicyclist was struck and killed by a vehicle on Sept. 3 while riding near the Iron Horse Trail.

San Ramon resident Elizabeth Duffy, 53, was bicycling on the sidewalk at the intersection of the trail and Crow Canyon Road when she fell onto the roadway, said Police Lt. Mike Boehrer. Duffy was struck by an oncoming vehicle at approximately 7:40 p.m. and was transported to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek where she died from her injuries.

Boehrer said the driver of the vehicle is not being charged in the incident.

If anyone else has links to other articles, I'd be glad to post them here. It's frustrating to get referred to a blog when you're looking for information on the loss of a loved one. Ms. Duffy is on the hearts and minds of many, many people. I will continue to keep her and her family in my prayers.

May the souls of all the faithfully departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The soft maternal glow of a denim jumper

Awhile ago, on facebook, Mrs. Darwin posted the poignant question:

Getting tired of the stereotype: does anyone really REALLY know any homeschoolers who wear denim jumpers? Really?

And it occurred to me, that for some ungodly reason, yes, denim jumpers have always been a part of my fashion lexicon.

Junior year of college, I spent seven months walking around England in a denim jumper paired with a cardigan and/or a tweed blazer, with...long underwear underneath. And Doc Martens. It was the nineties--no one knew what was going on fashion-wise then.

But even still, I've had a denim jumper hanging around for awhile--afraid to wear it--because I was homeschooling last year and worried about the stereotype. No need to confirm our eccentricities.

Anyway, I've been thinking about it, and I've decided that, NO, I am not going to bury my denim jumper under a bushel. It is comfortable. It is, at least in my estimation, cute. It hides a multitude of flaws. And I found this effect on Picasa where you can give your denim jumper a glowing halo.

I say go jumper. I'm going to wear it out of the house.