Betty Duffy

Monday, October 31, 2011

What you think you want, is never really what you want

I've lost my Magnificat*, and even though there's only one more day of October, and then I get to refresh with a new issue, I feel lost without it. I don't realize until I've lost it, how much I depend on those prayers of the Church.

My husband, watching me dismantle the house in search of it, asked why I don't just say my own prayers in the morning, and the answer is because I'm terrible at praying. I know that God knows what I need before I even ask. I know that just redirecting my intentions toward God is a prayer. I know that unloading all my morning demons, and my stupid grievances, and complaining about my sore back, and all that, is prayer. But it also, all of it, is dripping with the self I'd like to leave behind, if not for eternity, then at least for ten minutes in the morning.

I wanted to turn back to a meditation that Mrs. Darwin read aloud on our drive home from New Orleans, which had something to do with the selfishness that's not satisfied with what it has, but wants what others have too. It resonated with me at the time, because I was already trying to figure out how to rearrange my life so that I could always hang out with fun people having conversations about books. Maybe I could gently uproot the family and move us all to a college campus, or blow our bank account, take out loans, and invest in a commune of Catholic artists and writers. Gently, gently…because mommy wants conversation!

It was ridiculous how quickly my mind embraced the absurd, and began to dwell on it as an alternate, and possibly beneficial, reality to being satisfied with my life.

And then there was another meditation in Magnificat last week about how pride craves "Infinitude," like the little packman eating it's way through life, each bite manifesting the next until, what? Power outage? Until Mom says turn off the video games and clean your room? Pride hates authority. It hates equality, because it sees everyone else as competition. And it looks down on it's inferiors, feeling encumbered by their needs and inferior opinions (if I could find my Magnificat, I'd reference whoever said all this).

It really is a curse to be afflicted with pride. Because your chief sin is the very obstacle to understanding how much you require God's aid. It's a blockade. If my own opinion and way of viewing the world is always correct, if my own personal prayers are always superior to the prayers of the church, then how will I reorient myself to the reality that God is the authority of my life? I am not the authority on my life. I am not even the authority on my emotions. Could I even put into words what I'm feeling one minute to the next? Very few of the things that I will for myself are worthy of putting into words, much less a prayer. "Not my will, Thine."

Unless there is some objective voice in my life to break through the delusion, I can persist for sometime unaware of the truth about myself and how I clod around on the backs of others. The prayers of the Church are that voice for me: the liturgy of the hours, the mass, vespers.

They remind me that what I think I want is never really what I want. They remind me to thank God that I have healthy kids, still safe and innocent, a vibrant marriage-- not a perfect one, albeit, but one with two living people in it who will not give up on this endeavor of conforming our lives to each other, our children, and God's will (as revealed through the teachings of our faith). We are financially cared for. And we have this Faith itself--a faith that provides infinitude, even to the proudest soul--all the bread I can handle, and more each day, an antidote to pride.

Indeed God has poured out blessings on me while I slept. I just need someone to point it out for me. Several times a day.

* For those unfamiliar with Magnificat, it's a monthly publication, mailed to your door, that contains morning prayers, daily Mass, a meditation, and night prayers, all laid out, nice and handy, each day. So, you don't have to flip back and forth in your missal wondering if you're in year A,B, or C, etc. I'm not getting paid for promoting Magnificat.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Try this at home

I knew this boy when he was just a wee lad nursing at his mother's breast. Now he's on Anderson Cooper.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

My column at Patheos this week

Blue moods and apocalyptic might want a drink for this one.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sitting in a Chinese Restaurant in New Orleans

Saturday afternoon, once Dorian and I presented our paper at the Walker Percy Conference, and after Dittmar, our moderator, offered us up for questions, and none were asked, I started to feel what Joni Mitchell calls the "Urge for Going." I needed to retreat from the group, yes to pray, but this wasn't a look-at-me-acting-like-Jesus moment.

I did my prayers as I was able, and they amounted to a swirl of adrenaline tossed to the Lord, and then a complete crash at a Chinese restaurant Happy Hour in front of a pot of green tea and 2 for 1 glasses of Chardonnay. I needed to return to the conference by six, and so had a bit of trouble discerning how I should spend these hours, which I settled by eating Sushi and staring at the TV. The show was not so much a football game as a series of light fluctuations that were very effective in keeping me awake.

I'd call this malaise, the empty restaurant, the lonely drinks, the vacant stare, but I was enjoying it too much. I can't be too disheartened by malaise in general because it means that I have time.

Everything that I had done and failed to do for my body over the weekend had caught up to me, the late nights, long sitting in car and conference, the failure to feed on green foods, and the supplication to coffee as a means of filling in where fatigue dropped me.

I couldn't tell if my leaving the conference in the afternoon to be alone was a symptom of extreme posturing or extreme need--to have at least one Binxian moment in New Orleans--to experience the city unfettered by anyone else's desires or plans. I'm far from an introvert--I don't need time alone to regain social stamina. I'm also far from selfless, so it probably stemmed more from my fallen inclination to seize the hours and make them my own. There were so few of them.

Only half joking the night before, I'd asked Dorian to be my accountability partner; let me know if my underwear's showing, if I have boogers coming out my nose, if I'm talking too loud, or drinking too much, flirting, or making double entendres. Who's looking out for me? It took only half a minute away from home to note that it sure as heck wasn't me.

I'm a parent to my children, but with parenting mode in temporary hibernation, could I trust myself to go to bed at a reasonable hour, to eat my green veggies? I wouldn't even stop to use the potty if a good time was going on. Steal time from school (the conference), not from recess, which happened late at night in the courtyard of the hotel, song singing, merriment, drawing out the writing, drawing out the personalities.

Who are you people? It was a pursuit on which I didn't want to miss out: Mrs. Darwin's swanlike neck extended as she sang the Ave Maria at Walker Percy's grave and Darwin's sharp wit; The Lickonas as life of the party and wife the party, together a solid bulwark on which all singletons and stragglers sought refuge; Dorian's smart and solemn hilarity, Potter's monk-like mischief, Jobe's friendliest of faces, even as we put him on the rack about his novel, and Webb's grandfatherly presence in the corner.

Bring together people with shared preferences for God, song, and literature; it's a thousand times better than college, more than academia or a salon. In fact, when Potter called us all to join hands at the end of the night to sing the Doxology, it crossed my mind that this gathering was very like Church. "Praise God from whom all blessings flow."

I've been on enough retreats in my lifetime to know that at some point you've got to descend from the mountaintop. No one REALLY wants to hear about all that you've learned, how things will never be the same again. In truth, they will be the same again, probably within an hour of your return.

I could feel a zit looming on the edge of my lower lip as I drove the thirteen hours home, and sure enough, it was the first thing my husband noticed on my return, my kids too. I saw my parents the next day, and they too leaned in with squinting eyes to get a closer look at it. "Are you under stress? Are you over tired? Is that the kissing virus on your mouth?" I am parent and parented, brought back into the fold of my domestic Church, looking out, and looked after.

Let's say one church is not in conflict with the other, but that they are different parts of the same whole, that time is never really mine to steal (though I attempt it everywhere I go), and Mother Church is the safe harbor for anyone who will have her.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


A weekend is a fair amount of time to spend with people, enough time to exhaust the finer points of conversation, have a grand old time, and then depart before everybody is sick of my sh*t.

One person on this trip was prematurely sick of me, however, and I write about him, because this trip log would be terribly boring if not a single villain made an appearance.

On a sunny Friday morning, Dorian and I sat in the courtyard of the Prytania Park hotel researching the finer points of Ashton and Demi's demise because, for some reason, we decided it was applicable to the rest of our talk. I wouldn't say we were speaking too loudly, and yet, from behind the door nearest our table, a man in a leg brace came out and gave us a dirty look.

It was unclear exactly what his look meant. Did it mean, "Darn it, it's morning?" Did it mean, "Tell me again why I have this ace bandage wrapped around my knee?" We couldn't be sure. So we kept doing what we were doing.

Time passed, and the man emerged again, this time rather huffily to say, "Gals…can you keep it down, please? People are sleeping."

Gals? Gals?

I said, "Hello, it's noon…in Indiana." Though truly, it was not quite noon in New Orleans. And the man went back into his room. Dorian and I had no choice but to choose a different table. Gals? I can't remember for certain if he threw in a passive aggressive please, but the whole bit was a politeness power play. Much like this:

I'm telling you, it's crazy the way some people behave in New Orleans.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A very long drive

The alarm rang and I awoke--or maybe I was already awake. Such is the way of things when one wants to be somewhere on time, and the entire night is a fog of semi-consciousness, and listening…listening to the inner narrative of items packed, things to grab dans le matin, and the alarm that is sure to ring any minute.

Unfortunately, something weird happened when my husband and I were setting the alarm the night before, and in the flurry of pressing buttons, a wrong button was pushed so that the alarm went off an hour early. I was up, dressed, had eaten, and wondered why the Darwins were not joining me (they had arrived the night before for our early departure), when I saw the clock read 4 a.m. And that was deflating.

Laid back down for thirty minutes or so, got back up walked around the house checking, and re-checking my stuff. It certainly was all ready to go. And at last our actual wake-up time arrived. We burned a couple pieces of toast for the Darwins to eat, and hopped in the van, threw it into reverse and drove about ten feet.

"What the hell is that?"

We had a flat tire, which was a confusing piece of information, as my husband had had the car serviced the day before, tires rotated, yadda yadda. It made no sense to have a flat tire, but there was no mistaking it, and my husband and Mr. Darwin set about finding the necessary components to apply the spare.

In hindsight, setting out for the thirteen hour drive to New Orleans with a flat tire, was not a good choice--but when you wait so long for an event, stopping for anything becomes the non-possibility. So once the spare was applied, I kissed my husband goodbye, and my companions and I set out in the dark of the morn, with a vague notion that somewhere, we would be stopping, mid-trip for car maintenance.

The flat tire turned out to be happy fall, rather than the first stop on a road trip from hell, as we made it safely to Nashville without blowing out the spare, and were able to drop in on the lovely "Curmudgeonry" authoress, Jordana Adams, while I had the flat tire fixed.

The few times I've met People of the Internet, I've done a lot of primping, set up the circumstances just so, and had very polite times--until we all get to know each other, at least--as the Darwins and I undoubtedly have--and now we can even sit together in a car for thirteen hours without farting or fighting (though in my opinion, going the whole day without a fart is a much bigger accomplishment than avoiding a fight).

It was rather fun to meet more serendipitously, to drop in on Jordana and see her kids there, milling and schooling, and Jordana doing all that too in the midst of pleasant conversation.

I always know in theory that there are real people behind these blogs, but there's still something sort of miraculous about it when the words and the people match up so beautifully. At some point I have to stop expressing surprise about this fact that people really are who they say they are.

In any case, I fell in love with Jordana, her kids, her house, and the faith that gives all these strangers I've met online our underpinnings… and the internet too.

As Dorian and I were working on our paper, which concerned social networking and the existential problems presented in Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer" almost all of our research pointed to the conclusion that the internet really is what Dorian coined, "Malaise on a stick"--which we conceptualized as looking something like this:

(Artichoke ball on a Marlboro)

But we couldn't let our thesis end there, because, after all, we met online. We were there at that conference because of connections we made online. How could something so bad be so good? You tell me.

When I finally called the shop to see if my tire had been repaired, the mechanic said there had been no hole in the tire to begin with, another confusing piece of information. But one doesn't complain when their problems turn out not to exist. We were back on the road, listening to Adele, and reading aloud excerpts from Postmodern Pooh.

We arrived in New Orleans at ten.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Home Sweet Home

I returned from New Orleans late last night, having presented a paper at the Walker Percy Conference at Loyola, with my academic-conference-crashing colleague (I love that word) and accountability partner, Ms. Dorian Speed. I am still collecting the brain waves that I scattered east and west of the meridian of North America yesterday, making the drive from South to North with my pleasant companions, The Darwins, but I hope to recount a log of that trip soon. Having drunk with the best of them, and Mrs. Lickona too, today I'm in my bathrobe fending off post-party malaise.

So please, read Otepoti's very powerful account of a different type of homecoming over at the Reading for Believers Blog. And welcome another pilgrim into the fold.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My New Column

Starting today, I'll be writing a twice-monthly column at Patheos.

The first one is here.

The Anchoress has been very busy getting so many good writers into one place. I'm not sure I match their spunk, but I'm thrilled to be a part of the exciting things happening at Patheos!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Story of My Life

For a couple of upcoming projects, I've had to write out my vita, or a few words about myself, my education and my qualifications for writing, to make myself appear worthy of my readers' esteem and time. I've got a handful of publication credits, for which I'm grateful. Otherwise, I've had to dig deep, back to college.

I've been tempted to fudge. Should I include the word "speaker" on my bio, when what I really mean is "Catechist?" "Speaker" implies that people pay you for the opportunity to enlighten them with your words and insights. To my credit, I have been begged to perform my speaking duties, by a desperate DRE.

Even the word, "speaker," implies that I'm some sort of mouthpiece, a wooden box, through which some other agent communicates, which seems the only likely explanation for why one or two people (my husband and children not among them) have actually even thanked me for speaking.

The reality is, I'm just some lady. And somehow, by some freak of nature, probably because no one else wants it, I am occasionally granted this teaching position.

I've been touched, encouraged even (beware), by reading Father Robert Barron's new book, "Catholicism," an intimate and approachable tour through the art, architecture, theology and philosophy of the Catholic Faith. In the opening pages, Barron describes the person of Jesus.

He writes:

"As far as we can determine, Jesus was not formally trained in a rabbinic school, nor was he educated to be a temple priest or a scribe, nor was he a devotee of the Pharisees, the Saducees, or the Essenes--all recognized religious parties with particular convictions, practices, and doctrinal proclivities. He was, if I can use a somewhat anachronistic term, a layman."

I'm not sure why this point has never occurred to me before--probably because Jesus's divinity is one of the first things a Sunday School pupil ever learns, and once you believe that Jesus is God, it's really difficult to grasp the concept that his peers had no such certainty. He didn't wear a "HELLO, My name is God" name tag. He didn't carry around his vita, enumerating the miracles he had performed or the talks he'd given. For people living in the time of Christ, it would have been more reasonable to believe that Christ was crazy.

Once Jesus affirms his divine credentials by dying and rising again, we see that everyone who played a part in the Gospel of Jesus was more or less a layman. They were just a humble group of people whose faith and receptivity to the Holy Spirit were conduits for the Incarnation: Mary's yes to God, each of the apostles answering the call. The Holy Spirit descends upon believers and the Church is born.

Barron's book brought to light that the Incarnation of our entire faith, it's churches, art and literature, is a Mass consent to allow the Spirit to speak and to act throughout the body of Christ. And the Spirit speaks beauty--the elevation of mind provided by sacred architecture and art, the Sacramentals that individuals use as they go about their days, making the ordinary extraordinary.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a Rosary made of semi-precious stone. I keep it in my pocket, and even when I'm not actively praying it, occasionally I reach into my pocket to feel the cold little beads. What other reason could I possibly have to carry around a pocket full of lapis lazuli than the Incarnation of my faith? God became man, and the gold-flecked stone reminds me of God's indwelling in his creations.

In a cultural moment when everyone is a celebrity, from the book-writing, talk-giving Catholic apologist, to the stay-at-home-mother/blogger, it can be hugely comforting to realize that I don't have to be anything, or anyone except for a lover of Christ, a layman, overcome with the beauty of the Incarnation, filled with the spirit.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Weiner Dogs et al.

When I arrived at my friend May's house, a little wiener dog, in a bright orange sweater rounded the corner to the front door. A wiener dog in a sweater? I thought I must have come to the wrong address, driving in the dark.

May rounded the corner behind her pet, smiling and waving. "Only forty five minutes late," she said. "That's almost on time for you," which was completely true. I am always late, and always hungry.

I was anxious to address the cheese and crackers on the table, but it had been a long drive and I needed to visit the loo before I could get comfortable. In the bathroom, I noted a wiener dog calendar hanging over the john. Weiner dogs in tutus, sunlit from behind, frolicking in flowers. People really do love their dogs.

Drying my hands on my pants, I returned to the kitchen and asked May, "So, when did you get into wiener dogs?"

"Oh, I don't know. A long time ago." We looked at the dog, sitting on the couch, returning our gaze. "He knows we're talking about him." The dog really did seem to know we were talking about him. He looked sheepish if that's possible, with a hint of defiance.

"Can I pet him? Will he come to me?" I asked. May brought the dog to my lap, and I started to pat his back. "I don't know if I'm petting the wiener dog, or his sweater."

"He doesn't care either way. He'll probably just lay there and go to sleep on your lap. That's what he likes to do." And so it was, an evening with friends, cheese and crackers, and the wiener dog sleeping on my lap, radiating heat like a hot little potato. It confirmed a thought I've had lately, that Fall is just as good a time for furry animals as it is for things like roasted apples and decorative gourds. I don't even mind if our own big, stinky dog touches me if it's cool outside.

At the end of the summer, a kitten followed me home from a run. I've never been a cat person. Much like I never was a dog person until a couple years ago. The kitten was mewling in a ditch, and after calling the neighbors to make sure it wasn't theirs, I set about trying to find the cat a home. Needless to say, everyone became attached to the cat, most surprisingly, me. So now we have two furry animals, and sometimes they cuddle up together in our entry way; the lion lays down with the lamb.

Until recently, pet people thoroughly confused me. My kids and I took my dad's puppy on a walk one time, and almost everyone we passed stopped to comment on the dog. But not a soul commented on my kids, who in my opinion, were much cuter than the dog. I felt indignant. And I wondered how anyone could invest effort in saving the animals, when there were people who needed saving, starving people.

But having had a dog that I actually like for a few years, I've come to appreciate the comfort and companionship of having a good pet, and the little doors of communication they open between perfect strangers.

At the low cost vaccination clinic every year, people line up for hours and share tidbits with other people in line about their animals. The older woman in front of me opened up her jacket to reveal a quivering mini-poodle named Girt who is so old, she doesn't have a tooth left in her head. Girt's lips curled around her would-be teeth, as she looked to her mistress for reassurance. It occurred to me how much these two old folks needed each other.

One man arrived to the clinic in a big pick-up, out of which he pulled a shitzu. In line I overheard him tell the story of how he inherited the little dog from his grandmother when she died, and that he really didn't want another dog, since he has a couple big dogs at home, but he and the dog mourned the loss of his grandmother together, and now he could never part with it.

My sister, being unable to take her dog, Bosco, on a recent move to Guam, left him at my parents' house until her return. Pedge borrowed Bosco for a couple days in an attempt to quell her kids' frequent requests for a dog. When she brought him back, she had all kinds of insight into what kind of a life Bosco had with my sister's family. "Does your sister go running in the morning?" Every morning, he woke up, anxious for his leash and a walk. He was friendly and tolerant with the kids, but he looked to Pedge to be my sister for him.

Not only do pets occasionally reflect their owners' physical appearance, but also their lifestyles and dispositions. Maybe this is why we either love pets or hate them.

It's great to have a dog reflect your active lifestyle, which is probably why I like my dog these days. However, we had a dog when my kids were all babies, and I was barely cutting it as a human being, much less a mother, still less as a pet owner. No one needs another reminder of all the ways they're failing. We had to give that dog away.

It's a vale of tears here on Earth, and there are many ways for people to starve. Having loved a dog, I can no longer begrudge anyone their toothless poodle, their grandmother's shitzu, or their be-sweatered wiener dog, if it provides a little comfort and companionship to my fellow pilgrims.

Also, if you're wondering whether or not your pet is overweight, this video might be instructive in letting you know it's time to cut the pet-food budget and donate the savings to Catholic Charities.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Back to the well

I went shopping with my girlfriends at the real stores up on the North Side, the Mall with all the trendy stores. People get dressed when they go out on the North Side. My friend Pedge noted that people there were dressed up for an event, and that event was Shopping!

I thought, yes, of course, shopping is an event. Though, when I really considered the concept, it was ever-so-slightly depressing. Shopping is an event, often, the very event for which people are shopping, finding the right thing to wear for the next time one has occasion to participate in the hunt. Indeed, I had taken great care in putting together my own outfit to see and be seen by the fashionistas.

Shopping before I had kids was a relatively peaceful way to spend an afternoon. I could fool myself into thinking it was free entertainment, that I was just browsing, just out for a little recreation.

Clothing and feeding a family of seven makes shopping a bit more of a chore. But it's still a reason to leave the house besides school and doctors' appointments. I can always identify a need for myself or the family, and set out on a quest to fulfill it. I know that having met this "need," another will rise to fill it. The quest can go on forever.

A greater feat is convincing myself that I lack nothing.

Pedge said of herself the other day, "I'm like Dory (the forgetful blue fish from "Finding Nemo"), I wake up every morning feeling like there's something I'm supposed to remember, something I'm supposed to do. Why aren't I satisfied?

Every day I forget my vocation until I return to my prayer and recall, O God, it is You for whom I long.

And even still, I'm totally capable of walking out of the Adoration Chapel and right into TJ Maxx."

Will there ever be a day that I don't depend on God for my everything, even the most basic understanding of my purpose? It can be daunting to think that every day I'll have to keep coming back, not just once, but many times a day, back to the well. So much work to reign in my errant longings.

And yet, it's much less effort, and with none of the disappointment of perpetually questing after that which will never satisfy.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

NPR Morning Edition: How Declining Birth Rates Hurt Global Economies

"NEARY: So, what is the solution? Certainly it's not just go back to have large families, is it?

LONGMAN: Right. Well, we find in much of the developing world people who say they wish they could have children but they can't find a way because it's seen as too expensive. So in some ways this is almost a human rights problem. In other places, you know, we still, to be clear, are looking at very rapid population growth that creates pressures of its own. But what's new is that most of the remaining population growth, for the globe as a whole, is coming from people who've already been born. So obviously that's a great challenge. And if you're a developing country that is not yet rich and now you're growing old before you get rich, this is a particular challenge."

So the answer to Neary's question is "yes" then?

Full Transcript of this interview is here.