Betty Duffy

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Having it All"

Are you tired of talking about Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent article in The Atlantic on Why Women Still Can't Have it All? We can talk about it more, if you want, in my column today at Patheos. And about whether or not Choice is an illusion.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How to Feel Better

Wanna hear about the rest of my vacation? 

I quit keeping a journal about the minute I stepped off the plane. Sort of a disappointing thing for me that writing has not been going well for several months. I wanted to write thirty minutes a day while I was away, and I thought that leaving the computer behind would eliminate some of the distraction I find at home. But alas, my mind is a wasteland of placental forgetfulness, so if I've had an opinion on anything other than how I feel in the last month or two, I surely cannot remember what it was. 

California also has it's own way of distracting people, and for me, primarily, that way is with food. I picture the state of California as a giant coastal buffet. My most poignant thoughts over the weekend had to do with planning my next meal.

I was just reading in Magnificat the other day that unless you mortify the flesh, even in it's licit desires, you cannot be a truly spiritual person, and that goes a long way in explaining the way I approach the West coast, and why I somehow always leave still hungry. 

My husband kept asking me what I wanted to do this weekend. Should we go somewhere fun? We could drive to Tahoe or Yosemite for the Saturday and Sunday he's not working. We could spent a couple nights in downtown San Francisco. Last year we went down to Big Sur and stayed in a yurt. But the best I could come up with was revisiting a Tai Restaurant in a strip mall down the street from the hotel he stays in when he's there. And the Jamba Juice across the street-- I wanted to go there too.

I didn't really have energy for the hills of San Fran, so when my husband was in class, I went to Berkeley in search of a good lamb curry. Here I found myself at a bit of a loss for not having my computer. My husband had to take his phone with him to work, and his local eats app along with it, so I found myself feeling my way through the town a little blindly, passing hundreds of Indian restaurants without the slightest idea which one would be the best. Quite a bind.

I ended up at the House of Curries in an old white motel, straight out of a Joni Mitchell song. Order, get your tea and water out of the fridge, pick a table, wait for service, eat very spicy lamb curry, clear your plate. 

You know, it was fine. A little too much spice, not as much flavor, but it satisfied the Indian portion of my food quest.

I still had the Tai bug to feed, and a sushi bug--the cooked kind, maybe a spider roll? And other kinds of seafood --Cioppino with sourdough bread, some fried calamari. There was no way to fit them all in in just two days of eating, and indeed, the sushi had to wait. But we did get to the Fish market, and Chula Tai, and an Italian place for calamari. None of them hit the spot quite like I thought it might, which I also attribute to placental forgetfulness, because about three bites into any meal I started to feel bloated and belch-y, and I'd think, I know that eating calamari seemed very important to me just a few minutes ago--I wonder why that was.

So, I got my hair cut at a sport clips. I bought a ring from a sidewalk vendor in Berkeley, then got a 75 dollar ticket driving back over the Bay Bridge since I'd spent all my cash on a ring and had no money to pay the toll. I took a few naps. 

I read Quo Vadis--a fictional depiction of the persecution of Roman Christians under Nero in the century following the death of Christ. I enjoyed it, possibly because the author exercised much greater enthusiasm in his descriptions of Roman orgies than he did in his descriptions of Christian austerity and virtue--and yet still--Rome fell on its sword, and Christianity triumphed in the quiet, oxymoronic fashion it always does. Good job, Underdog!

Over the weekend, we drove to Lake Tahoe, and rented a tiny cabin for two nights. We hiked towards the Flume trail on the first day. I made it about a mile up the mountain and had to turn around for my nap. My husband kept going for another 18 miles on the Rim Trail. Then I picked him up, stiff and dehydrated, and we hobbled out to dinner. Did the same thing the next day, only I made it three whole miles on a flat trail to Emerald Bay, while he doubled back to get the car and pick me up (making his hike six miles to my three). I slept in the car all the way back to San Francisco. I'm not usually this lethargic, really. But we had fun. I won't go into detail.

I had one more day on my own before heading home. Went to San Mateo for Mass at St Matthew's and coming in off the streets, from window-shopping and desiring, walking alongside so many other wayward pilgrims doing the same thing, I felt a distinct impression that these little old ladies, these bent pillars you find in Catholic daily Masses in every little town in the world, are somehow holding up civilization. I always forget that this is where I want to be.

There's a large mural of the face of Christ over the altar in this Church--sort of an art deco icon, if I had to describe it--and it was so mesmerizing, illuminated by spotlights in the dark, modern interior of this church. There You are--I found myself thinking, after a weekend of trying to figure out exactly what I needed next in order to feel better; it had seemed like such a puzzle--The right combination of flavors? Rest? Something pretty to perk up my self image? To be in one of the most beautiful environments in the world? 

Thank God He knows what I need before I even ask. It makes things so much simpler--not to mention less expensive. 

I've been home now for a couple weeks. Had a happy reunion with the kids--as absence does make the heart grow fonder. I hugged. I kissed. It wasn't an effort.

Our plans for the rest of the summer are pretty simple. A splash pad has opened up at the park across the street from us--one of those playgrounds that shoot water out all over the place--fountains squirting up from below, showers from above, tunnels that spray water all over, and giant squirt guns that you can aim at people. On any given day for the next three months you will find us there, the boys giving themselves water enemas by sitting on the fountains, my daughter manning the guns, and me, sitting in the shade of a newly planted birch tree, with an unopened book, a sunhat, and my teeth gritted into a smile that looks more like a frown.

I'm beginning to feel better.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Discussion: My Peace I Give You by Dawn Eden

First of all, whether you have been a victim of sexual abuse or not, this book is fascinating. 

Eden, herself having been victimized as a child, sought an advocate in Heaven as a part of her own healing process. When she couldn't find a particular patron saint for victims of sexual abuse, she dug a little deeper into the lives of some Saints revered for their chastity, and found that she had plenty of advocates in unlikely places. In each chapter, Eden highlights a particular saint and shows how their lives can be a guide to conversion and healing. 

Hands down, this is the best book I've read on the lives of the saints. While she focuses mainly on each highlighted saint's quest for spiritual and physical purity and the times in their lives when they were most challenged in that area, she gives them all three dimensional lives and characteristics, makes their struggles so realistic, that they seem less like the cardboard prayer cards we're accustomed to seeing and more like flesh and blood friends in Heaven.

For me, this was the greatest strength of the book, understanding that sainthood has less to do with one's physical intactness, and more to do with the disposition of the soul. I learned about many saints of whom I had little or no knowledge: St. Josephine Bakhita, Blessed Laura Vicuna, Blessed Margaret of Castello, and St Bernard of Clairvaux, among others. And Eden's inclusion of Dorothy Day provided another perspective of hope for people who may not have suffered sexual abuse, but who nevertheless have sexual wounds that may have been self-inflicted during times in their lives when they lived away from God.

One quibble: I don't always agree with Eden's interpretation of certain events in the lives of the saints from which she extracts meaning for the purpose of healing sexual abuse. For instance, she describes Dorothy Day's parents as being cold and even neglectful because they discouraged signs of affection, and didn't allow the children much of a social life. 

Earlier in the book, Eden describes her own childhood as being sexually porous, in that the adults in her life didn't protect her from inappropriate situations or materials, and how that caused her to adopt a false self that acted out sexually in order to gain confidence. In this case, she suggests that Day's starvation from affection caused her to also adopt a false self and act out in a sexually inappropriate way. I'm not sure Day's parents are accurately described as neglectful (Is it possible they were trying to protect their children from inappropriate behavior?)--and I'm also not convinced that they are the reason for her earlier immoral lifestyle.

I guess this is a touch point for me, because most of the inappropriate sexual behavior/ contact I encountered as a child came from other children. As a parent, I probably therefore discourage situations and interactions in which children, who are naturally curious about bodies, push the limits of appropriate behavior. This takes the shape of discouraging certain friendships, and generally promoting hands and mouth-free interaction with each other, whether it be positive or negative. Parents and other adults are not always the bad guy. Kids are capable of coming up with some bad ideas on their own.

I also don't see anything wrong with parents giving their kids a rather austere kiss goodnight, which Eden interpreted as "OK I kissed you, now go away." I'm not sure what the alternative to that would be. Back rubs? A longer kiss? (No thanks.)

For one thing, after an entire day with five children, I do sort of want them to go away. If it's neglect to feel as much, lock me up. Secondly, I don't go kissy-face on my kids much, except when they're babies--it just doesn't come naturally to me, or them, for that matter. I try not to brush off hugs, or hand-holding, or the occasional perch on my lap. But I do sort of guard my personal space, because it's mine. Mothers of many children share their bodies in ways unimaginable to a single person. I empathize with parents who don't necessarily want to continue that level of physical connection beyond two or three years from the womb.

I realize I spent half of this post talking about my quibble with one chapter--mainly because that's where I'm at right now. But really, Eden's book is a worthy read for anyone, not just victims of sexual abuse. And I sincerely hope that Eden has plans in the works for another book highlighting the lives of the Saints--perhaps a book for teens struggling with purity. I'd love for the saints to come alive for my kids in the way they did for me in this book.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Travel Diary

On airplane to San Francisco. Left my computer at home, and I'm feeling terribly self-righteous about it because everywhere you look people are scrolling through their Ipods. What did we do before them? How did we pass the time? Looking at people? Being bored? Feeling bad? It's the grannies, the kids, the businessmen, the hipsters. No one is immune. Poor people. Poor enslaved people. You could be bored like me! 

At take off, everyone has to power down, and the noxious whiff of mortality descends on the passengers. A woman makes a clandestine sign of the Cross. People close their eyes. The man next to me, shifts in his seat and lets out an almost indiscernible fart, and then we all stick to our seats like in those Gravitron rides at the festival. There's a slight dip before we are aloft, and we look down at our town below. We could fall out of the sky. We could land in that swimming pool. There's the racetrack. It looks like a matchbox set, and that's when we know we've made it through take off. I take out my book.

This should have been a sign to the guy next to me that I don't want to talk, but he's on his way home from a conference, at which he had a good time, he says. "Three days in Indianapolis and I never left the hotel." Sounds great. What do I do? Uh, nothing. "I'm just heading to California to see my husband for the weekend. He's working there." A good gig, I've got. Yes, it is. A bit of a booty call, you might say. A thousand miles on frequent flier points, free hotels, expense accounts--I don't mind it at all when I'm doing the traveling. When he's gone, and I'm home, though--it's hell. There are a few kids at home with my mother. How many? I'm going to lie and say three. Yes, and one more on the way, which is why your farts are really unbearable. Fortunately, there's medication now for these things or I'd have barfed on you. But yes, I'm quite sure to have my hands full.

He shifts in his seat, he scratches his chin. Good Lord! He's done it again! Never try to get away with a fart in an enclosed space. It does not work.

Layover in Detroit, which smells relatively good, like Chinese food and diesel exhaust. 

Detroit. Detroit. I was here last in college--at this very airport, where you have to walk through an underground tunnel with freaky lights and twilight zone music to get from one terminal to the next. "Why do they have to make it so weird?" I ask the lady being shunted along beside me on a parallel people mover. "They want us to be entertained, I suppose." But it's weird--not entertaining. We are standing on a moving floor while lights flash and weird music plays. Why, Detroit? Why is your airport so weird?

Anyway, I've been weird before too. In college, I flew here and arrived in the middle of the night to meet my future sister in law in order to carpool to a retreat in Rhode Island. She was was driving a bunch of girls out, a back seat full of Albanian teenagers sleeping on each other's shoulders, and she needed another driver. I didn't quite realize I was also being recruited to Regnum Christi--but I was such an easy kill. Fly by the seat of my pants? In the middle of the night? From Detroit? Ok. 

I was into androgynous dressing in those days, and I remember wearing a green velvet blazer, with button fly levis and converse sneakers--hair lobbed off at the chin, smoking cigarettes, sitting on my bag outside the the airport, waiting for her to pick me up. We passed the night drinking mug a lugs, eating instant oatmeal, and listening to a song over and over again that went: "Guilt stricken, sobbing, with our heads on the floor…" I'd call it a bonding experience except that later she would report to my husband (to be): "I don't know if she's your type. She might be a little bit…hard."
See here:
(One of these lads was me.)

I've softened since then, maybe.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Quick takes from a chronic mood swinger on a serotonin low

Happy June!

Sometimes I think that hell is closer than it used to be. Not because people are so much worse than they were a hundred years ago, or because the economy is in bad shape, or because some guy ate another man's face in Florida, but because darkness no longer feels like something that's "out there" when I pray, "Lord, do not let me be led into darkness." 

The stakes seem higher for my soul, here, sequestered in a family, than they ever were when I was a teenager, surrounded by external temptations of the flesh. When I was younger, hell was the difference between jumping off a cliff and not jumping.--"do this and live vs. do that and die." Dying seemed to take such effort, a concentrated force of will.  Hell was on the other side of a great leap.

Now, "do that and die," is something as simple as allowing myself to think spiritually destructive thoughts, imagining unrealistic outcomes for my life, thinking I'm special or worthy of temporal reward.

Darkness is a disposition of the soul, and it's only a flicker of a thought away. I am more likely to succumb to subtle temptations that strike internally on a lazy afternoon, than outrageous ones that require leaving home and encountering strange people. Darkness is right here, right on the other side of a good intention, or in the discouragement I feel when I've settled on a bad one.


I hope this feeling comes from developing greater delicacy of conscience. When I was younger, I knew mortal sins were killers, but I didn't realize that venial sin was also destructive and brought on a slower more agonized death--the frog boiling in water it doesn't realize is hot. 

I also think women sometimes go a little bit nutty in their thirties--probably it's just me. On the whole and objectively speaking, my thirties have been pretty good to me. Good kids, good marriage, good home, good faith. But on a smaller scale, they have also been fraught with doubts about whether or not I've made meaningful use of my time. 

I know having children and being a mother is meaningful and redemptive, so I'm not lying awake at night asking myself "is this all there is?"  I like my life, and while I remember what it was like to feel overworked and resentful about staying home with small children--that's not how I feel anymore.

The trouble is, I know this is not all there is, and at times, I've used the kids as an excuse to sit around at home examining my navel. The truth is, there are poor people to feed, books to write, friends to invite to dinner, and many, many people on the Church prayer line, among other things.

There's nothing more inspiring than ineffective people complaining about how ineffective they are, is there? That's why I'm glad the Darwins posted the Novena for ordering a life wisely. I'm doing it.

Another weird thing about the late thirties is that hormones get nutty, fluctuating between the realms of teenager and old woman with no middle ground. I'm not just talking about zits and wrinkles, but about moods and dispositions--like this is my particular form of manic depression, whereby I'm either old lady or child rather than manic or depressed. 

Is my life before me or behind me? I don't know. Am I mature or immature? Likely both. I really hope I'm a late bloomer, spiritually, personally, socially, artistically, etc. I hope I'm a better mother when I'm older, a better writer, a better Christian, so that my best days may be yet to come. 

If they're behind me, I'm sort of sad. If all that's left is redemptive suffering, well then, I'm sort of ambivalent about death. It could happen for me any time and I'd be fine. As Hans Keilson said, "My death is not my business," insofar as external elements are its cause.

A couple months ago, my husband and I saw the movie, Melancholia, which is a strangely beautiful movie about the end of the world. In the first part of the movie, the apocalypse is far off--a rogue planet moves towards the earth--and a young woman, on the night of her wedding, succumbs to the internal darkness, destroys her fledgeling marriage and falls into a deep depression. As the planet moves closer to the earth, and the apocalypse is imminent, this same woman is surprisingly calm and peaceful in the face of her coming death, while her sister struggles to make preparations and find somewhere to hide.

The movie has stuck with me, especially as I've noticed handfuls of acquaintances making preparations for the "last days" or "hard times," or what have you, storing up canned goods, getting cash out of the bank, investing in gold. Affliction must be right around the corner and God has put it on their hearts to be prepared.

Maybe hard times are coming, and maybe they're not, but one thing that I think the movie Melancholia gets right, is that it's hard to be troubled by the end of the world when the apocalypse has existed inside you.

Personally, I can't think of anything worse than being the last man standing. I'd rather stockpile appetite suppressants than rice and beans--make a quiet exit early in the famine rather than fretting about where my future meals will come from when the stockpiles run out and people turn savage. I'd rather volunteer to take the first stand at the firing squad than spend a life on the run. I'd rather look the smart missile in the eye than build a bomb shelter. I'd rather die in the city, toasting at a nice restaurant, than hiding in my basement or running for my life.

I'm having people over for dinner. Cheers!