Zinnias



That’s all. I brought in the zinnias before the storm smushed them, and thought I’d share. 🙂 I’ve been trying to do nice things like this on the mantel lately.

(House)work, Part II

Part of the problem I have with writing a long, philosophical post like The Theology of (House)work is that it’s hard for me to get through it without a meandering digression every sentence or two.

This post is to take care of all those side-notes…so my apologies for the variety of topics and directions!

Kids are work!

First of all, the (House)work post oversimplified the situation in order to make a (good, I hope) point: it’s important for us, particularly as mothers, to be reminded that the people around us are more important than the housework. This seems to assume that there are two choices, kids or (house)work, and that they are different things.

We all know, of course, that it is also true that the kids are our work. Sometimes putting your children first means laying in the grass with them and looking for cloud animals…but sometimes it means changing diapers, and the pants that covered the diapers, and the carseat cover the pants were sitting on. So I don’t want to suggest that caring for our children is always as restful as a monk’s time in prayer. (Here comes the parenthetical statement, within the parenthetical post! The monks might point out that standing up and chanting for long periods of time can also be exhausting…but I digress.) Caring for our kids is both our work and our opportunity to praise and rest in God.

The Value of Labor

Then there’s a whole other issue here: the value of a woman’s work. Let’s imagine a couple. The husband has a high-paying job, which provides well for his family, and he prides himself on this. He ties his self-worth to his ability to provide for his family – to make money. His wife is blessed to be able to stay home and raise her children. On the other hand, she feels restless. She went to college to prepare for a good job; maybe she also worked for a while before staying home with the kids. Though she works hard every day, in an occupation she knows is deeply important and worthwhile, she makes no money doing it. It bothers her that she isn’t contributing to monetarily to the family.

The truth is, our society values people by productivity, and productivity is judged by how much money the person makes. By this logic, a homemaker’s work is worthless.

Obviously this is not true, but it’s incredibly difficult to tune out society’s messages completely. So whether it’s the cleaning or the cooking or the raising of children, women’s work is dreadfully undervalued, even by those of us who do it. (Sorry, stay-at-home dads, I know you’re out there, too.)

We can’t be reminded often enough that the job of raising children and creating a holy, beautiful place for our families to live and grow is a great and valuable work indeed.

It’s just not one that you can order on Amazon. Thank goodness.

Prayer vs. Progeny

There was also another false dichotomy lurking in the last post, again in the interest of simplicity. It seemed to imply that we had to choose: prayer (like the monks) or kids (like we have). While it’s true that we can’t spend the hours a day praying in a chapel like a monk or sister would, that doesn’t mean we have to neglect our prayer life. A few minutes when the kids are in bed (early or late) can make a huge difference.

There are also ways we can incorporate our kids into prayer, so that we not only refresh our own spirits, but teach our little ones to pray as well. I know several moms who will stop (with their very young kids) for just a few minutes in a local adoration chapel whenever they are passing (and not already running late!) And prayer that works well for kids is good for grown-ups too: use sea shells, a candle, icons, or other beautiful objects to help little ones focus. My mom used to teach RCIA for kids, and her classes always included both the parents and the children who were preparing for the sacraments. Her prayer table was rich with things to catch the children’s attention, and it worked for parents, too. Thinking like a child can open up a whole new dimension of our relationship with God, who after all, calls us to be like little children.

Finally, I was surprised, a couple of days after I uploaded the last post, to go to our Well-Read Mom meeting (we were discussing Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain) and hear Marcie Stokman on the audio introduction saying basically what I had said in the post, only much more eloquently. She suggests that for each of us, our home is our monastery, the very place where we can best meet God. In fact, she calls all the little interruptions of our days – snotty noses, kids fighting, late night talks with teenagers – the very bells calling us to greater sacrifice and deeper relationship with our families and with God.

Whew. It never ceases to amaze me how many side discussions one seemingly simple idea raises. I hope you find some food for thought in there somewhere!

Cultural Literacy?

My pop-culture illiterate daughter trying to explain to friends which songs she is playing for her next concert:

Lucy: I don’t remember the name of it, but it’s something about rocking somebody…

Morgan: “We Will Rock You”?

Phil: No way. [Because it’s a symphony, after all. It has to be more classy than that!]

Lucy: Yes! That’s it!

Origin of Species? Check.

Jane Austen? Check.

Queen? Not so much. 😀

Book Review: Marcelo in the Real World

I am totally smitten with this book.

First, I have to tell the story of how I came to read it. The book and its author, Francisco X. Stork, were in no way on my radar, until someone suggested I read Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words, which is a how-to on writing middle grade and young adult novels. (It is infuriatingly detailed – if there is a problem in your text, there is probably a solution in The Magic Words. It’s very helpful, and completely exhausting.)

Anyway, Cheryl edited Marcelo, and uses it repeatedly in the examples in her book. I enjoyed the excerpts, learned from her description of its revision process, and was generally interested in reading the book.

Two years later, I finally did. And I am so glad I did.

First, the disclaimer: this is a YA novel. As in many YA novels these days (though this one is already 10 years old), there is foul language, and some pretty crude descriptions of various male-female interactions. Consider yourself warned.

Marcelo in the Real World is about a young man entering his last summer of high school. He is on the Autism Spectrum, though he doesn’t fit into any of the more specific diagnoses, and he hears “internal music” in his mind. He has always gone to a special school, and plans to spend his summer helping train some of the horses that the school uses for therapy. His father, however, has other plans.

Marcelo’s father is a powerful lawyer, and wants his son to be able to function in the “real world,” not just the protected world his school creates for its students. He offers Marcelo a deal: if Marcelo can work in the “real world” – at his father’s law firm – for the summer, he can go back to his beloved school. If not, he will transfer to the local public high school for his senior year. Marcelo gives up his summer plans and takes the deal.

At the law firm, Marcelo encounters a whole new realm of challenges. He works in the mail room, and his supervisor, Jasmine, has to find ways to help him do his job as well as he is able. Marcelo is faced with questions he has never faced before – how does he know who is his friend? How can he choose one friend over another? One good over another? How can he know what is the right thing to do?

Marcelo finds a picture of a girl whose face has been scarred by a shattering windshield – a windshield made by a company represented by his father – and this raises the most desperate questions of all.

As Marcelo puts it, “How do we go about living when there is so much suffering?”

Will Marcelo try to find a way to help the girl in the picture, even if it means hurting his own family?

No spoilers here. You’ll have to read it and find out.

Now, as to why I loved this book. It’s the first one in a very long time that I’ve stayed up at night to finish. There really is a lot to love.

First, Marcelo is wonderful. His voice is totally unique. It’s a little jarring at first, because his speech, and even his thoughts, are so formal. But I found I got over the awkwardness very quickly, and was delighted to hear his frank descriptions of life. For example,

“You said that if I follow the rules of the real world this summer, I will get to decide where I go next year. Who will decide whether I followed the rules? I am not aware of all the rules of the real world. They are innumerable, as far as I have been able to determine.”

I feel that way all the time. Marcelo offers a different perspective on the “real world,” and I am grateful for it.

Second, there are some wonderful supporting characters. The scene where Marcelo meets Jasmine’s dad in his barn would be laugh-out-loud funny, if not for the fact that it is Alzheimer’s which makes her dad so ornery and foul-mouthed. With that knowledge, it comes off as bittersweet. Marcelo’s friend and confidant Rabbi Heschel is also larger-than-life. I’d want to sit and discuss the great questions of the universe with her, too.

Finally, the thing I liked best about this book was that it attacks heavy questions head-on. Marcelo’s “special interest” is in religion. His family background is Catholic, and he talks about praying the Rosary with his grandmother and the picture of the Sacred Heart that hung in her room. He is interested in other religions as well. His dog is named Namu, after the beginning of a Buddhist prayer. He often visits Rabbi Heschel for long talks about God and about life.

These talks are some of the gems of the text. In one, Marcelo tries to understand a co-worker’s desire to go to bed with Jasmine. The rabbi’s explanation, going back to the Garden of Eden, encompassing how everything, including sex, was created good, and how the Fall disrupted the goodness, is thoughtful, insightful, and beautiful.

Marcelo cares deeply about good and evil. His time in the “real world” forces him to decide how much he is willing to sacrifice for what is right. In a bookscape (is that a word?) where 90% of protagonists show no sign of faith or religion whatsoever,* a book that discusses faith, goodness, and conscience so eloquently is a treat indeed.

My inclination is to add this book to my list of “Great Catholic Novels.” Despite the fact that the author may or may not be Catholic (he doesn’t mention his own religion anywhere that I could find), and despite the fact that Marcelo himself has a crisis of faith by the end of the novel, and seems to subscribe to bits of various religions all along…the spirit of the story fits what I would want to see in a “Catholic” novel. (And we can discuss if Catholic Novels must be written by Catholics, or about Catholics, or doctrinally sound, and all the rest of it, another time.)

However you might decide to label it, to my ears, Marcelo in the Real World sounds all the right notes.

*A necessary footnote: Angie Thomas’ best-selling The Hate You Give falls in the other 10%. Starr’s family is Christian, and they pray together at the beginning of the day. It’s simple and real, and was one of my favorite parts of that wonderful book.
In Middle Grade, The Inquisitor’s Tale also takes kids and their faith seriously, and is highly recommended.

Towards a Theology of (House)Work

So I’m a little behind in my reading, but this week I finally got to the February 8 issue of Commonweal.  There is an illuminating article in there by Jonathan Malesic which contrasts the American work ethic with the dignity of the human person, and specifically, the way work is treated in Benedictine Monasteries.  (You can read it here.)

The article is beautiful and challenging.  Malesic seriously calls into question whether it is possible to respect the health and dignity of a person in our achievement-driven society.  “No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints.  Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.”

I think Malesic has hit on an important topic, but his musings led me in another direction. 

There has been a convergence (the first word that came to mind was conflagration, and I think it is also appropriate) of ideas in my life lately, centered on what John Paul II called the “feminine genius.”  It’s not that I’m seeking this out, exactly.  I’ve been bombarded from podcasts sent by Well-Read Mom and friends, Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God, and a Day of Reflection at our parish, all circling this same topic.

Full disclosure: I haven’t done the background reading on this yet (the recommended reading usually includes Mulieris Dignitatem and JP II’s Letter to Women, among others).  So my understanding of the term is basically this: women have unique gifts to share with the world, specifically gifts which make it a kinder, gentler place.  Women, in general, are gifted at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.

This is a drasticly short summary, but I think it will do to explain the jump I made when I read Malesic’s piece on work and the Benedictines.

The monks Malesic visited in the New Mexico desert fight the desire to make work the center of their lives by means of prayer and their rule of life.  

I’d like to argue that we mothers have a similar tool built into our vocation to help us fight this tendency to overwork.

Rumba?  Alexa? Wal-mart curbside pickup?

Nope.  Our kids.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Actually, my kids create nine-tenths of the work I do…so how exactly are they helping me to keep work from taking over my life?”

Think of a nursing baby.  He’ll spend some time laying on the floor, playing happily with his toes (hopefully!), during which time his mother frantically folds laundry, washes dishes, sweeps the floor…you get the idea.  But when that baby gets hungry, what happens? The work stops. Mom sits down, puts her feet up, and nourishes a little life. If there isn’t a cell phone or TV on, maybe she even nourishes her own spiritual life for a few minutes with some reading or just soaking in the silence.

True, this assumes there aren’t also a two-year-old and four-year-old pulling on her arm the whole time asking for snacks.  Or chasing each other around the house waving sticks. (Why are the sticks in the house!?) It’s almost never as easy at I make it sound, I know.

However, what if we took all these interruptions in this light?  Not “drat, now I’ll never get the bathtub scrubbed,” but, “Ah, yes!  Little child of God, how can I love and serve you right now?” Houselander would take it a step further, and say, “Yes, Jesus!  How can I serve YOU in this little person?”

Of course cleaning the bathtub is also serving…but that’s an essay for another day.

The monks Malesic visited have scheduled hours for work, and whether they finish the project or not, when the bell rings for prayer, they stop and go pray.  It takes practice, but they learn to accept that they must let their work go until the next work period. As Malesic puts it, “They get over work so they can get on with something much more important to them.”  That “something”? Prayer, and their relationship with God.

I don’t know any mother who can keep a monastery schedule day in and day out.  Still, we have the opportunity to put work in its place. Is a clean floor good?  Yes. Is it more important than reading to my children? Probably not. Is it more important than praying with my children?  No.

The Benedictines’ vocation is to pray.  That comes first, and everything else is secondary.  A mother’s vocation is to care for her children. That comes first, even if it means we have to drop other work (or play) to do it.  (Which I write as I tell my kids to leave me alone so I can finish writing this…yikes.)

It is in the discipline of walking away from our work, our productivity, our sense that we are accomplishing something earthly, to spend ourselves in caring for another human being, that we put work in its place.  Work is good. Human beings need work, and we are called to join God in the work of bringing order to creation. Yet we are also called to “get over” our work when our children need our help or attention.

Yes, it takes effort – mental, physical, and spiritual – to care for these little people.  It is work.  But it is work that, if we keep our hearts open, turns us towards God in a way that scrubbing and dusting and grocery shopping might not.  Dropping our menial labor to look into the face of a child is stopping to contemplate the divine, if only we can look with God’s eyes instead of our own.

(On a side note – this topic requires a part II, with some of the caveats which threatened to make this post a short book, and which I’ll get to soon.  I hope. It’s dangerous to make such promises in my state of life!)

Brothers and Sisters!

Clare: Why don’t people want to go to Mass?

Lucy: They probably think it’s boring.

Clare: I love the readings.  Except the ones that start “brothers and sisters”, they’re usually pretty boring.

Me: raucous laughter

Sorry, St. Paul.  I guess you can’t please everyone.

Children’s Novels in Which the Pen (or Love) is Mightier than the Sword

A friend recently asked me for recommendations of children’s novels where the day is saved…but not by lots of violence.  He has a ten-year-old son who loves Narnia and Middle Earth, but he doesn’t want his son to count on Glamdring to solve all his problems.  (I am aware that it is Aslan’s sacrifice, as well as Frodo and Sam’s sacrifices, that make things right.  But there are soooo many swords in the meantime!)  Anyway, here is my humble attempt at a list, with a few comments.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

I loved this one.  It’s an animal story – cats, dogs, snakes – but be warned – it is not for the faint of heart.  There are some heart-wrenching scenes, and a broodingly evil character who gives the White Witch a run for her money.  But the payoff at the end is worth it, and it’s beautifully written.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Time travel?  Yes.  School bullies?  Yes.  $20,000 Pyramid?  Yes!  And finally all the pieces come together in this middle-school mystery story.  Let’s just say, someone goes to incredible lengths to give up his life for a friend.  

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  Lyrical, very magical, it sweeps you off your feet.  A magic little girl and her grandmother, the mother who went mad when she lost her, a young man trying to protect his family from an evil witch…plus a dragon, a swamp monster, and a volcano.  There is violence, and attempted violence, but it is love and forgiveness that win the day.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

A modern-day fairy tale.  Again, this one is heart-wrenching, delving into the depression can bring into a family.  Hazel knows it is up to her to save her best friend Jack from the grip of an evil witch.

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Another story about forgiveness.  An orphan boy wonders if his sister is still alive.  A magician accidentally conjures an elephant – right into a woman’s lap.  And the snow just won’t stop… This one is a quick read, and it’s hard to beat Kate DiCamillo’s unique use of language.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door by Madeline L’Engle

These two are classics, but in both it is self-sacrifice, not violence, that wins the day.  Madeline L’Engle was my introduction to science fiction, though neither of these is too science-y to appeal to those who don’t care for the genre.  Actually, I thought it was amazing to read about a heroine, and physics, and a Christian worldview all in one book.

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly

This is an amazing historical novel for its detail describing the Middle Ages – I highly recommend it for that alone.  The language is what you’d expect from a book from 1928: the vocabulary and syntax are both more challenging that what you find in most modern children’s literature.  But the characters are wonderful, and the story is gripping, and, of course, good triumphs over evil in the end.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

This was another one of my favorite books growing up.  Annemarie must use all her wits and bravery if she wants to save her best friend and her family – who are Jewish – from the Nazis.  Beautifully told, and edge-of-your-seat exciting, yet still appropriate for younger novel readers.

The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son by Lois Lowry

I read The Giver in second grade, and I don’t think I ever recovered.  It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, that I realized there were three more books in the series!  That was a joyous day.  Each is wonderful on its own, but I recommend doing the whole set, because Son brings it all together so beautifully. 

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

This book blew me away, simply because I’ve found very few children’s novels which take faith seriously, and fewer that take a child’s faith seriously.  Three misfit children and a miraculous dog race to save Jewish books from being burned by a crusading prince.  With all the fun of the middle ages plus secret identities, The Inquisitor’s Tale is a thrilling ride.  (Violence-wise, there is one pretty harrowing scene early on, with William and some bandits, if you’re looking to avoid such things, but it’s not Williams’ strength that wins the day in the end.)

Whew.  So really this is also a short list of some of my favorite books ever.  Enjoy!  I’d love to discuss them if anyone is interested!

St. Benedict on Mercy

Just a tidbit from Luke Timothy Johnson’s recent piece in Commonweal entitled “How a Monk Learns Mercy: Thomas Merton and the Rule of St. Benedict.”

“The most destructive forms of speech in community, Benedict understood, are those that involve judgments against the other.  Benedict calls this form of speech ‘murmuring,’ included [sic] all forms of griping, gossiping, and nagging.  He forbids it absolutely.  When I was a monk, I thought that the rule of silence was mainly in service of contemplation.  Now, after many years of suffering poisoned discourse in the halls of academe, I have come to understand that silence was mainly about charity.  As we learn every day in our new world of constant chatter, savage judgment, and long-distance shaming via (anti)social media, when speech is totally without restraint, mercilessness is an almost inevitable consequence.”

There are a number of other useful insights in the article, but whether it is at work, church, or in the home, I can relate to Johnson’s experience here.  So much of the talk is negative, tearing down either the hearers or others who aren’t in the room.  It makes me think, maybe my house needs more silence…

On the other hand, how do you convince kids to fold their laundry without nagging?  I am open to suggestions.

And then, how do you convince them not to nag and judge each other?  Besides by example, which, clearly, I’m not good enough at to count on.

Still, this passage in particular was a reminder for me to be careful with my speech.  Especially around my kids, who are forming their own patterns on mine.  Yikes.

Johnson closes with this thought, summing up the rest of the article.  It sounds like marching orders to me:

“But if Christians are to cogently and consistently represent the face of mercy – which is the face of Christ – in this valley of tears, then in some fashion, I think, they must find ways to gather together for prayer, to sing the psalms and canticles, to practice silence in the name of charity, to readily confess their faults to each other, and to receive strangers as Christ.”

Lay Hold of Goodness

A year ago – or maybe closer to two – I was at a friend’s house.  She had a little hand-written note on her refrigerator, on red construction paper, which said,

“Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.  -St. Isaac the Syrian”

I commented that maybe I needed one of those for my fridge.  We could use that sentiment in my house.  So, being the woman she is, my friend moved the magnet and handed the note to me to take home.  It was on our fridge until we moved; it seems to have disappeared in that (ongoing) process.  But the impact hasn’t left us.

The girls were preparing for a All Saints’ Day party.  (How cool are our friends?  One hosted a party for 40+ children and their moms, and the kids prepared saint themed games, and everyone dressed up as saints and told the group about the saint they were dressed as.)

Anyway, Isaac needed a saint to impersonate.  Of course, Issac the Syrian (aka Isaac of Nineveh) was his choice because, well, his name was also Isaac.  And I knew the quote from the fridge…so we looked up the rest of the quote so Isaac would have something to say about Isaac the Syrian at the party.

Phew.  This is going somewhere, I promise.  Here is some more of the quote, from OrthodoxWiki:

“Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.”

Ouch.  Of course, I had to share that one with Craig when he got home from work.  And he looked up the rest of the homily, and took to it like a Cajun to gumbo, and has been working out its implications in our daily lives ever since.

And I even found myself using it a day or two ago.  (It only took a year – or maybe two – for the idea to be imbeded in my brain enough that I thought to use it!)

It was a little like this:

“Daughter A, can you please wipe the table?”  (Of course I was at least this polite.)

“No, it’s not my turn, and Daughter B skipped wiping it after breakfast, so she should do it.”

“Well, Daughter B is already laying down for quiet time, so could you please do it this time, just to help me out?”  (I was carrying a tired baby, who also desired nap time, and trying to do something else…who knows what…but it wasn’t very compatible with wiping tables.)

“No!  She should do it.”

[Lightbulb appears over my head]  “Daughter, remember how we have been talking about laying hold of goodness, instead of justice?  It would be just for me to drag your sister out of bed and make her wipe the table, but here is a chance for you to lay hold of goodness by doing it even though it’s not your job.”

“No!”

The table had to wait quite a while before it was finally wiped.

I suppose we can’t all live up to the standards of the desert fathers all the time.  

Despite such minor setbacks, I’m not giving up on this one.  I would guess that roughly three-quarters of the fights in our house have to do with someone thinking a situation isn’t just – who gets the last cookie, who has to do the extra chore, etc.  And this includes myself, with thoughts like, “I cooked, and did the dishes, can’t someone else at least take out the trash?”

Which would probably be just – but my whining about it doesn’t help any of us grow in holiness.

So I’m not prepared to take on all the dirty work, just to be good.  I don’t dare to hope that my kids will decide to follow my example and suddenly want to fold all the laundry and clean the chicken coop.  But I can start thinking a little differently about these situations, and start trying a little harder to do what’s good, rather than what is simply just.  I can try to point my kids in this direction, too.  Maybe if we can ask ourselves “what would be good for me to do” instead of “what would be just to me” we would make some progress.

After all, it’s God’s goodness, God’s merciful justice, that I’m counting on for forgiveness for all those times I’ve fallen short of goodness, or even simple justice.