Betty Duffy

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas Quick Takes

Christmas at the Duffy house was a success by a most standards. I did all the Christmas shopping within comfortable limits of both time and money, and felt satisfied with the potential Christmas morning outcome. Typically, my husband saw things a little differently, a philosophical difference, you might say about what Christmas gifts are supposed to accomplish.

I think of Christmas as a time to buy expensive things that we need, but otherwise might not be able to afford, a time to splurge on things like bedding for the boys who've been in sleeping bags on top of their sheets for a couple years now, so that their room resembles a European youth hostel. I bought them matching comforters, so that we can put those dirty bags through the laundry and box them up for camping--also so that they might start making their beds. To fill in between the bedding, each kid would get their own box of sugar coated cereal, beef jerky, and a giant jar of pickles. Kids fed and to bed, all in one fell swoop.

My husband thought that bedding was sure to disappoint kids, who, while none of them still believe in Santa, are still young enough to maintain a sense of wonder at the possibility of getting exactly what they want on Christmas morning. I have to admit, I have difficulty remembering such a Christmas morning, as my mom had thrifty impulses similar to my own, and almost every article of clothing we received bore Mom's favorite label, "Irregular," stamped over the tag. And perhaps subconsciously, we all recreate the Christmas we experienced in childhood. If disappointment was your most common emotion in the Christmas mornings of your youth, you might think disappointment is good for your kids, and even strive for it. Pickles! All around!

Nevertheless, my husband went shopping the day before Christmas and solved the disappointment problem, so that Christmas morning, in between opening BB guns, sling-shots, and e-readers, I pointed to the comforters that hadn't been touched and said, "Did you see those comforters, Boys? Don't they look cozy and warm?" They had not seen the comforters, and didn't see them until much later in the day when we asked them to take their loot up to their rooms to put away.

Next year, I think I'll bow out of Christmas shopping all together. It occurs to me that I'm not saving money with my shopping.

The kids participated in a Christmas Pageant at Church, which was very exciting. On the cast list, one of my boys was listed as a sheep who keeps wandering away, which seemed like a pretty good match for his personality. At the rehearsal, however, the match seemed a little too good, as he was doing some full-on method acting, crawling around on all fours, eating dirty kleenexes out of the trash cans. And his older brother, as a shepherd, was also method acting, and using a large stick to direct his little brother's errant ways.

The DRE, who was directing, said, "I know he's your brother and all, but could you please be a bit more gentle with the stick?"

Gentleness was very difficult for him. It was also difficult for their sister, who, as the Virgin Mary, was the only one NOT in character. An overheard conversation:

Four-year-old: "Are you ever going to be nice to those boys, Janie?"

My daughter: "No, I'm never going to be nice to those boys because they're my brothers!"

For Christmas, my husband gave me a membership to the Y, which, of course, was exactly what I wanted, and made me feel bad for getting him luggage, which was exactly what he needed, but didn't particularly want. So I went to check out my new gym the other day and exercised for two hours, and felt really fit and exhilarated with the possibilities of good health.

I recalled a time many years ago, when my sister-in-law had a boyfriend who was not a very good match, and he made a dinner for us one night which was salmon over a bed of greens or something like that. We ate it, and gave our compliments to the chef, even though salmon was not on our list of favorite foods.

He answered, "You guys better be careful or you might break out in healthy!"

A sampling from any of the Duffy siblings' cabinets in those days would have turned up some Diet Coke, Mountain Dew, cigarettes, salami and peanuts. Perhaps, also a case of beer, though those never stuck around for long. There was no chance that anyone in that crowd would "break out in healthy," by eating salmon for dinner one night.

But after a week's feasting this Christmas, during which time, my gums were raw from eating too much sugar, and every night, I went to bed feeling a little bit sick at what all this eating might do to my rear end, "breaking out in healthy" was exactly the sensation that came to mind as I chugged away the calories on the treadmill.

Been reading Wendell Berry again, or actually, about him, from "The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry," and am faced, again, with the conflicting interests around which we are making our way in the world. If we desire to build a community of multi-generational families, with strong ties to place, is it a good idea to send kids away to college, knowing they may find jobs and spouses that take them to different regions of the country?

I was just thinking the other day how interesting it will be when my kids are marriageable, and I'll have this virtual rolodex of families I've met online who have children of similar ages and outlooks, with whom to put my kids in touch. If my mom had had such a rolodex when I was younger, I would have been quite thrilled, as good men were sort of hard to find in those days, and I'm lucky to have found the one I did, when I did. I had to date a few toads first, and there was a short time when I didn't believe that anything other than toads existed.

Maybe good men will be even more scarce in the upcoming decades, and I'll have no choice but to send my kids off, away, into the universal membership where they'll make their own support networks and communities that don't include my husband and I except once or twice a year when we travel to see them or vice versa. I'm such a homebody, I can't fathom the concept of my children making a life for themselves anywhere other than Indiana. But it most likely will happen.

And yet the internet has made the Catholic Church in America, at least, seem like a very small world. There's the UD Community, and the Steubenville Community, and the TAC Community, etc. and nearly everyone has a crossover between siblings or spouses that connect those communities in peripheral ways. In short, everybody knows everybody in a way that they did not even just a decade ago. I need to reconcile with the possibility that the future might not be terrible.

My youngest has sort of been using the potty, which means he's been running around the house in nothing but his skivvies for several days. Their bottoms always look so cute the first time you get them into underpants.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Talking about Catholic Education

...and those wonderful Nashville Dominican nuns this week at Patheos:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Finding...Being Found

Our hotel in Rockville, Maryland was on Research Boulevard accessed by Corporate Drive on the East, and on the West, by Shady Grove. Every time I left the hotel, I got lost on the wide boulevards that wound through blocks of glass office buildings. Research and Corporate looked the same to me, and also, I refused to use the GPS. My husband says the GPS works very well if you let it warm up for forty-five minutes or so. I say, I have not time to drive around in circles for forty five minutes waiting for a machine to tell me what to do, especially when I can call and ask my husband where I am.

He was in a lab at Johns Hopkins, and keeping his customers happy meant he was just a tiny bit short with me on the phone, and I decided that instead, I would ask strangers for directions.

Many people are uncomfortable when a stranger slows down and approaches in their car. I've had it happen to me a couple times, out running on a country road, and if I'd had a can of mace, I'd have put my finger on the trigger--at least until I knew the person was a friendly element. I stopped a woman in a cul-de-sac into which I'd pulled to turn around. She was in a black SUV, and I was in a black mini-van-- two black cars, on a dead-end road, two wary women, rolling down their windows. She looked at me with razor eyes, until I asked her, "Can you tell me how to get to Hillendale Shopping Center?"

Hillendale is the sight of what --I think-- might be our nation's best thrift store, Unique/ Value Village, and this woman in the cul-de-sac, hearing my desired destination, brightened, smiled, and proceeded to do me, a pilgrim shopper from Indiana, the charity of being my light and guide to her local gem. We had forged one of the quickest bonds two passing strangers in America can share; we were both the same kind of consumers. She seemed to take pleasure at being sought for knowledge, at being asked for something she could actually give.

I listened to her. I repeated the directions back to her: right, left, right. There were street names to memorize, and corresponding directions to associate with each. My brain perked up at the challenge. I took stock of my bearings and proceeded forth towards Unique. Nevertheless, I very soon was uncertain, once again, of my direction. This time, I cornered a man in a parking lot, getting into his car. Again, he seemed glad to help. He leaned in my car window and opened up the GPS application on his I-phone. "I don't know what I'd do without this thing. I just moved here from Miami." Then he showed me how it worked and I was very impressed.

Over the course of the next four days, I would ask seven more people for directions, and each of them seemed pleased to be asked, pleased they had answers to my questions. And I, of course, was pleased to be found.

All my children needed shoes. My husband needed pants for work--all of which I found, hardly worn, at Unique, for very low prices. I also found a purty dress to wear for Christmas that has a waistline, rather than one of those empire waists that make you look pregnant at all times. A dress with a waistline is surprisingly difficult to find. I managed to eat chocolate for breakfast every morning this week, and had dinner out with my husband every night; I could potentially turn up pregnant in a couple weeks--so in the near future, I may have no waist to speak of, and I'll be glad I didn't pay much for the dress.

I entered the store at noon, and I left it after dark, feeling like a worm reaching the surface of the earth for the first time in months. Just as I was leaving, I found tucked up on the highest overhead shelf, a cello, possibly handcrafted in the 1700s by a notable Austrian Luthier (currently researching). I'd been looking for a good student cello on which to teach my kids, and I could see that this cello had indeed been under the stewardship of a student in the not so recent past. There was tape on the fingerboard, marking the notes, and it was pretty dinged up. I'm sure I don't need to tell you, I bought it for a scandalously low price, and ran out of the store before anyone could realize what I'd done. I'll need to have it appraised, because it does have some wounds, but violins sold at auction by the same craftsman were priced about 300% higher than I paid. And the sound quality is outstanding.

We spent a lot of time with family. I had a long, hilarious lunch with one of my favorite cousins in Virginia, and the next day, a long, hilarious lunch with one of my other favorite cousins who is a Dominican Nun in Baltimore.

Almost every night we got together with my husband's brother and his wife, who are both young and hip, and know how to live the nightlife. The first night I was there, we went to a little pool hall next door to the restaurant where we ate dinner. The bar was well-lit, and mostly empty, except for a few older drinkers at the bar. There was one pool table, a couple pin-ball machines, and an I-tunes jukebox in the corner.

The last time I was in my anti-technology mood, I had a combox conversation with Pentimento about music and radio and the different methods people use to personalize and stream the kind of musical experiences they want to have, and how music, which once brought people together at live venues for a common experience, now often caters to our self-imposed isolation. She mentioned that she nearly always listens to classical music stations on the radio because she enjoys knowing that there is a communion going on between herself and the other listeners in nearby localities.

My brother-in-law discovered that he could create a musical communion in the bar from his I-phone, by sending a virtual request to the I-tunes jukebox to play any song he chose, without ever getting up from the booth. No one would know who requested the song. He selected Andrea Bocelli singing Ave Maria.

From the very first notes, the other patrons of the bar were alarmed. The bartender went to the jukebox to see what was playing. Another patron went with him, and together they tried to override the song. But it couldn't be done. The bartender tried to comfort his customer saying, "Well, it's sort of a pretty song."

To which the patron replied, "I'm going to throw up."

This is one of those very rare cases where technology thrills me: you could potentially request an I-jukebox song from your I-phone, without ever even entering the bar. If you want the pool-hall patrons to spend the evening listening to Gregorian Chant, sit in your car, and request (for a small fee) all the songs you desire, from your phone.

The next night, we went to a bar in Baltimore called 8x10 to hear singer/songwriter Kevin Heider play in a battle of the bands. Kevin happens to be my brother-in-law's brother-in-law. But we would have cheered very loudly for him regardless. He's exceptionally talented. Sadly, he faced off against a showy quintet doing the Mumford thing with a banjo and phishy lyrics in shouted harmonies. It's sort of funny to picture Bob Dylan in a battle of the bands against Mumford and Sons. They are really not in the same genre at all--but you know who would win.


My favorite thing I ate this week: chicken livers, wrapped in bacon, skewered over a bed of wilted spinach, drizzled with horseradish and balsamic reduction.

For reasons unknown, I've been craving liver lately. I don't even like liver. My parents used to push braunschweiger sandwiches on us when we were kids, served on Wonder Bread with Mayonnaise. I hated it. But in my old age, my palate can override years of negative experience with a particular food and nonsensically demand things I know I dislike.

And now, I like liver.

Conversely, I've always loved seafood. It was one thing I definitely wanted to eat in Baltimore, and one night, I had the Bouillabaisse. I knew, objectively, it was a very good stew. But the palate wasn't having it.

I'm not sure what this is about.

We spent the first two nights in Rockville, the next two in Baltimore.

I like Baltimore. It's walkable, residential, gritty, and alive. People are out everywhere, all night long, talking in the alleys, walking up and down sidewalks, in restaurants. It's young and old, poor and rich, all in close quarters. It makes me happy to learn that my presumptions about the world are wrong, that there are still communities and neighborhoods where people interact with one another at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes it's terribly messy, dirty, immoral. Sometimes it's heavenly. But culture is not dead yet.

My husband and I went to the Baltimore Cathedral Friday afternoon, and found ourselves just in time for about ten minutes of Adoration in the crypt before they reposed the Sacrament. I've been thinking more about this idea of clinging to the Body of Christ, of going to where I know the Body of Christ can be found. I realized, kneeling there in front of the literal Body of Christ, that I have been in the midst of it for days, for years, for my whole life. I've thought at times that when we sin, we add something to Christ's suffering--that we hurt someone outside ourselves--we hurt Him. It seems more likely that we don't add to the wounds--we are the wounds on the Body--and this sick feeling I get sometimes about how things are, and how I think they should be, is just part and parcel of the wound that came into being with the origins of humanity.

From the meditation in Magnificat on Friday:

"This is the meaning of the Incarnation. God became tangible in order to teach us to find him in all that we touch and see and feel; for we are necessarily bound to the senses in this life. Jesus did not do away with these external contacts; what he taught us is not to stop at them….We must endeavor, therefore, to cultivate this spiritual "second-sight." It is the secret of the saints, for whom this world is not an obstacle between their souls and God, but a living image, a resplendent mirror of his goodness and beauty…"
--Dom Augustin Guillerand

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The future of Catholic publishing?

Where have all the Catholic writers gone? I have a theory! My column at Patheos today is about Catholic writers, self-publishers, and Ellen Finnigan's excellent book, The Me Years.

Salvation and the Drama of Publication

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This and that


Both the spirit of blogging and of Advent are eluding me as well. I've got a house to clean before we get out a bunch of decorations, primarily a pile of laundry to fold and put away. But have you ever had one of those dreams when you're trying to diet, where people keep bringing you food, and the more you eat, the more food appears? My laundry pile is like that.

Blogging about laundry is interesting, I know. Everybody has it. Everybody struggles. I've told the kids, however, unless they can put their laundry away, without funneling clean clothes back into the dirty laundry, we will not get a Christmas tree this year. We will decorate the laundry pile.

They were actually pretty excited about the idea.

We had our family picture taken for the Parish directory recently. We've honestly never had a professional picture taken of our family, for a several reasons:

1. Cameras take pretty good pictures these days--so why pay for a pro picture with a cheesy background and everybody looking uncomfortable?
2. We live close to all the grandparents; they see us all the time. Why do they need a picture of us?
3. Money.

So this experience of sitting for a family photo was a new one for us. And it was hell.

The photographer started arranging us, and he had my husband sit on a stool with his legs apart. I was to sit on another stool with my back to him, between his legs. I couldn't help feeling a little uncomfortable with the pose, and said so. To which the photographer replied, "It's not like you've never been there before--you have five children."

Yes but, never before in front of an audience--much less a camera. Perhaps we are in a minority on this issue?

Our nine-year-old comedian was out of his mind with joy at having the opportunity to ham for thirty minutes into the lens of a camera. His efforts made no one laugh. So the photographer finally had done with us and funneled us over to the sales people to pick out our "package."

Needless to say, every picture was the essence of overly-casual awkwardness. I picked the best of the worst, and asked for four 5x7s. The sales guy tallied our cost, which came to around $90.

"Yeah, we're not paying that," said my husband and stood up to walk out the door.

"OK then," I said to my sales representative. "Sorry!"

And that was that. Never again.

I've sort of been putting off potty-training the three-year-old. He never wants to sit on the potty when I ask, and I don't like conflict, so I haven't pushed it. (Have you noticed a theme in our family life here? My husband does everything. He potty trained all the other kids, except my daughter, who potty-trained herself. It's great.)

Well, it occurred to me this morning that I've been putting the cart before the horse, by asking the kid if he wants to potty. This morning, it occurred to me that I could ply him with Big-Boy-Pants, and thus-wise encourage him to keep them clean. It's only 10:30 am, but it's worked so far. The kid has been sitting on the potty for about an hour. He gets off for a minute or so here and there to let me know he's been on the potty, then he goes back. There is nowhere else he wants to be.

Before I go whole-hog on poop and laundry blogging, I should mention that I'm really excited about my column at Patheos tomorrow, because I'm writing about a book that I loved.

The Me Years is a memoir about navigating corporate America and romance with an atheist, while grappling with a Catholic faith that has been only a peripheral concern for most of one's life.

Upon graduation, I set out to write the book I wish I could have read in my twenties…for young adults like myself, who find that they can't completely turn away from the religion in which they were raised, and yet find that they are largely a product of, and remain mired in postmodern, secular, mainstream American culture.

I'm in my thirties, married with kids, a practicing Catholic, and I still find myself mired in postmodern, secular, mainstream American culture. Except, perhaps, for a minority of believers, who grew up in the homeschool movement and married young, I think Ellen's story is the central drama for Gen-X Catholics. How do you piece together a functioning faith out of a religion whose traditions no longer speak louder than the world around it?

Ellen Finnigan is an incredibly talented writer. Struggling to answer her boyfriend of two weeks about her reluctance to have sex, she stumbles internally through her own concept of love and the sexual ethics shared by her peers:

My first, instinctive answer ("sex is about love") just felt a little bit too childish and immature for even me to be able to say aloud with any real conviction.

Yet on the other hand, my first, instinctive answer also seemed too serious and, for lack of a better word, adult. It was an idea most people I knew never seemed to ultimately dismiss or eventually grow out of so much as temporarily table (Who doesn't want to believe in love?), but like a fine wine everyone seemed to be saving the real deal with a capital "L" for a time when they would, presumably, be more mature and would meet the right, certain kind of person with whom they would be ready and willing to take on permanent responsibilities and commitments, at which time the bottle (having of course only gotten better with age, or so the story went) would be opened in full ceremony, embraced, indulged and enjoyed. But it seemed like it was understood and implicitly agreed to that, until then, everyone was getting by on the boxed stuff, living modestly within their means, respecting the limitations of others and kindly requesting that other people respect theirs, not asking too much, not expecting too much. Looking at it this way, the idea was not childish so much as uncouth, if not irresponsible: It is unwise to splurge!

The Me Years is a love story. You'll be drawn in because of Finnigan's romance with a man, but the real story is about how one woman's faith shifts from a peripheral and vague notion of love as Eros to a central and profound understanding of love as Agape, and in this way she grows into the Catholic faith with which her parents gifted her at birth.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Who is thy neighbor?

My daughter had a fever over Thanksgiving, high fevers, through which she talked in her sleep as though someone was antagonizing her. I'd go to her when she shouted, and try to wake her up, just so she could escape whatever hell was going on in her mind. But being awake was no comfort to her. "Let me sleep!" she said pushing a glass away when I tried to get her to drink.

For the better part of three days, a smell took over the house, sweet and bitter, and it was her breath. At the doctor's office for the second time, he said, "That's how we know she's not getting enough to drink."

"She won't take anything," I said.

"I know this is difficult stuff. But if she doesn't get enough fluid, she'll end up in the hospital."

Difficult stuff. Give the patient water. It'
s basic sick care. I pictured Mother Theresa's nuns administering hospice to the dying. When care can only be palliative, water is still not optional. "When did we see you thirsty and give you drink?"

But for some reason it was difficult. She wouldn't stay awake long enough to finish a glass of water. She said it hurt to drink. I didn't want to hurt her.

When I explained the predicament to my husband, he said, "I'll get her to drink." And he did. He lifted her head, holding the glass, giving her no other option but to drink--which suddenly, I realized, made more sense than my gentle cajoling. Love may be gentle and kind, but it is not stupid; it doesn't stand by in matters of life and death for fear of causing discomfort. We worked out a situation, where he would get her to drink during the day, and I'd take care of her at night.

The fever would break on and off over the course of six days, for an hour at a time, then spike back up. Sunday morning when she woke without fever I had no confidence it would stay away. But it did, and the tired, thirsty girl regained her strength.

Meanwhile, I was losing mine. Monday, I did not get out of bed. I spent all day sleeping and reading, while the three year-old drove a toy tractor up and down the length of my blanketed leg.

The following day I awoke to the sound of my husband plunging the toilet in the bathroom. The shower was running and emitting a cloud of steam while it waited, empty, for a body to wash. I could feel my eyes, swollen with sleep, and a heart full of dread at the thought of another heavy day. I was awake, however, awake and feeling as though I might actually get out of bed.

The kids were getting dressed for school and one or two of them had already arrived at the breakfast table. I made sandwiches for their lunches. The children ate quietly, which almost never happens. My husband arrived at the breakfast table, plumbed, showered, and dressed for work, and sat holding one of the baseball bats he'd turned on the lathe the night before, showing it off for the boys.

The five-year-old asked, "Which do you think Daddy likes better, me or his baseball bat?"

The older boys raced to get out the words, "His bat!"

"No! He likes me better! He told me!" he looked to his father for affirmation, which my husband gave him by lifting his brows and nodding agreement. And then the five-year-old scrolled through all the kids asking which one Daddy liked better between the child and the baseball bat.

I felt a sinking feeling--failure again--at the thought the boy could even have the question. Why are the simplest things the most difficult for our family?

I could recognize the question as the absurd wonderings of a five-year-old mind, as well as the beginnings of a test, the same one I put my own parents through as a child and young adult. What do you love better than me? Would you still love me if I said I hated you? Would you love me if I was a sinner?

Once I had ascertained that there was nothing I could do that would cause them to stop loving me, I began to take their love for granted. Then I was free to keep myself together for my own sake. There was no reason to do anything for the sake of pleasing or displeasing them, but because I loved them back.

It was the feast of Saint Andrew, and we read about the apostles putting out a drag net, pulling in everything they can catch from the bottom of the sea to be sorted out later. I think of this time, while the kids are little as the drag net. Gather them in. And when they mature, God will sort them.

I never let myself be despondent for more than three days in a row, which is either heroic, on my part, or terribly self-indulgent. There's a leaden feeling, and a failure feeling, all of a piece with the fight against the latent virus.

Nevertheless, on the third day, I rose from the bed. I dressed and left the house.

It was Wednesday night, religious ed. at Church, which begins with dinner at 6, followed by class, then Benediction. We were late as usual, which meant that every seat was taken except for a couple near the Smith family, which was no cause for alarm, except that one of my boys is afraid of Grandma Smith, because she's nearly seven feet tall and gray-haired, and there really is no one I've ever seen before who looks like her. Being tall and elderly, she also has a lot of joint and health problems, and that is what one talks about with Grandma Smith.

I thought it might be good to sit next to Grandma Smith because nodding with concern was about all the conversation I was good for that night. One of her grandsons was with her, and she asked him to scoot his chair over and make room for us. He didn't want to scoot over, because he and one of my boys frequently engage in minor competition over who made the best lego spinner of the week. He doesn't usually win.

"And who is your neighbor?" Grandma Smith said to her grandson. The boy looked at her blankly, so she turned to me and said, "I tell them to love their neighbor, and then I say that their neighbor is whoever crosses their path--not just the ones they want to love, and not just when they feel like it." She asked the boy again who his neighbor might be, and finally it sunk in, that we were his neighbors, and we were there to crowd him out of his seat. He complied, though he continued to hover around for conversation.

Grandma Smith told me about a trip she planned to take to Florida that had to be canceled for health reasons. And I nodded with concern.

Then her grandson related a youtube video he saw in which a train raced a tornado and the tornado won. So Grandma took the opportunity to tell me about her computer habits and policies. She told me about her technological confusions. I nodded with concern.

When the bell rang we went to class. I've often thought that there is nothing worse than sitting in a conference room listening to apologetics lectures, but watching videos of people sitting in a conference room listening to apologetics lectures is definitely worse--a point I look forward to writing to our DRE in the anonymous end-of-class surveys.

I welcomed Benediction that night; no voices aimed in my direction, no response required on my part--incense, silence, song. Could it all be so lovely? Could my neighbor always be mute Christ in a Golden Monstrance?

Good grief, He's everywhere.