Something to say to God

“I like praying the Liturgy of the Hours,” says Leah Libresco

because, at a bare minimum, it gives me something to say to God.  Not just the words of the prayers but, basically, “I’m really grateful for prayer traditions because I’d pretty much suck at having to make all this up on my own.”  Instead of just being grateful for language period, it’s kind of like being grateful for slang — the shared set of references that characterize a relationship or a community.

Jennifer Fulwiler addresses a related phenomenon when she speaks of praying the Liturgy of the Hours:  She realizes that, when the words don’t apply to her life, that’s a good thing, because she is praying as part of the Body of Christ.  She says,

I found myself saying “we” and “our” more often than “I” and “mine.”

We all need the discipline of praying about things that are not immediately relevant to our needs.  She says,

 It all finally clicked. For the first time, I think I really understood the power of the Liturgy of the Hours as the universal prayer of the Church …

As my heart swelled to think of the great drama playing out all over the world that morning of which I was only a small part, I thought back to my words at the beginning of the office — “But this Psalm doesn’t have anything to do with me!” — and realized that I had learned something critically important about prayer: It’s not all about me.”

This is not to say that we can never pray about things that do concern us.  But in my experience, the formal, selfless, ritualized prayer comes first, before there can be any depth of sincerity in individual prayer.

We can, for instance, try to flog our hearts into a sensation of awe during the consecration, but we probably won’t get anywhere.  But if we simply humbly accept what is being offered, and obediently participate in the ritual of thanksgiving, that is what lays the groundwork for heartfelt awe and wonder.

So both kinds of prayer are necessary for us and pleasing to God — both the formal, “ready-made” prayers that we participate in as an act of will, and the personal, immediate outpourings of our own soul.

Praying only in own language is limiting and inadequate — but so, I believe, is only ever praying in the formalized language of the Church, because it’s all too easy to keep it formulaic, and to forget that prayer is conversation, and conversation implies a relationship.

We ought to pray, at least some of the time, in our “native tongue.”  Leah has already discovered this:

When I think of immaterial things, I tend to think of Morality, which might not be that bad as a focus of prayer, even if I need to expand it out a little.  The trouble is I also think of Math, and since it’s much easier to think about clearly and distinctly, I was running into a problem.  I certainly wasn’t intending to pray to the Pythagorean theorem (which would make me a very strange sort of pagan), but I was drifting away from trying to talk to a Person and over to just thinking about immaterial ideas.

And kudos to her for noticing the problem!

So, basically, instead of fighting these thoughts, I kept thinking about whatever math concepts popped into my mind.  I thought about when I’d learned them, how exciting they were, and the way I got to share that joy with my friends.  Then I basically reminded myself, “God is Truth, so he totally shares your delight in these things.  In fact, he delights in your delight and would love to draw you further up and further in to contemplate and be changed by higher truths in math and in everything else.”

And that meant I was basically thinking about a person and a relationship again.  In my own weird little way.

Brilliant.  Leah is drawn to truth; it’s her native tongue. For others, it’s goodness; for me, it’s beauty.  Pythagoras doesn’t do much for me, but corn on the cob bubbling away in my blue enamel pot as the steam sifts through a shaft of evening light? This is something I invariably hold up to God, so we can delight in it together.

The saints all found different ways of praising God according to who they are, according to the native language He gave to them.  And so we have St. Francis in his tattered robe, and also Josemaria Escriva with his precisely groomed hair; King David with his wild dancing, and Mother Theresa washing wounds.  All of them related to God with some combination of formal language inherited from the Church, and spontaneous outpourings of their particular kinds of heart. These individual orientations are not something to struggle against; they are languages which God gives us so we can sing love songs to Him.

Do you speak to God in your native tongue?  Or do you hide your personality from Him?  Do you compartmentalize your spiritual life from your daily experience?  Or can you remember that everything that is good comes from God?

This is the main thing to remember when we pray, and when we live our daily lives:  “He the source, the Ending He.”  Both root of idea and flower of expression.  Here’s Hopkins:

the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This is how we become more like Christ:  by allowing God to refine who we already are. We become more like Him by speaking to Him in our native tongue. If, like Leah Libresco, we are looking for “something to say to God,” we could hardly do better than, “Here is what I am, Lord. Make me more like You.”

***

This post originally ran in a slightly different form in the National Catholic Register in 2012.

Image: The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Free on Craiglist” and other words of doom

Can we get some credit for how many stupid ideas we don’t act on?

We have a trampoline, but not an in-ground trampoline.
We have zero life-sized, purple hippopotamuses rescued from defunct mini golf places, despite a clear opportunity.
We have many broken chairs and couches, but none of them has been packed with topsoil, covered with chicken wire, and planted with grass seed to make living lawn furniture.

We have a washing machine drum flower planter for our statue of Mary

but we do not have a permanent porch fixture made from the industrial-sized colander that wouldn’t fit through the door, much less in my sink.

And we still don’t have any damn ducks. Not a single khaki campbell duck, noted for its high egg production, paddling happily in an in-ground (free on Craigslist!) hot tub in harmony with a booming population of meat turtles.

We do have a beloved canoe

($100 on Craigslist! Billed as “The world’s ugliest canoe,” and so it is). But we do not have a large, ungainly, unrealistic project boat sitting stupidly in our yard as a testament to our inability to turn a thing down just because it’s free on Craigslist.

UNTIL NOW.

This fine vessel was free on Craigslist

and we’re fixing to drag it down to the stream, chain it to some trees on either side, and sit back while our kids enjoy the greatest childhood known to mankind since that kid got stuck on that island with that horse.

There are a few issues. One is that the boat is gutted

We are about 73% sure this happened because someone started renovating and then realized it was too much work, and not because it is a murderboat. (I’m sure that head-sized compartment I can’t bring myself to open is just full of maps and sunblock. I’m sure of it.)

So we need a floor. Gonna lay some slats across it, then fit a board over that, screw everything down, and voilà . It just needs to be sturdy and safe,

not seaworthy or lovely.

The second issue is that the boat is in the yard, but the stream is in the back back back backyard, over the grass, around the firepit, through some thorns, across the Dead Marshes, and on the other side of a sturdy bank of trees and rocks and maybe some barbed wire I’ve been meaning to take care of.

But the boat has already more than paid for itself, in two distinct ways.

One is that my husband and I both learned how to use a trailer hitch.

 

The Craigslist ad said “Dont want to answer questions just want it gone,” so no one (sober) was available to help us mount the boat trailer (free on Craigslist!) to the vehicle.

It seemed simple enough, though: You stand there shouting at your husband, “Back-back-back-back-back-back-back, keep going, keep going, a little this way, this way, this way, back-back-back-back-back, keep goNO STOP!!!!!” until the ball part is perfectly situated under the trailer thingy.

Then you shove it with your foot a little, wind the crank until it’s all lined up, clamp the clamp thingy, hook up the chains, remove the wheel blocks, and . . . you are good to go? I guess?

So off we crept, and O YE GODS AND O YE LITTLE FISHES, what a horrible noise it made. It was a noise to freeze the marrow in your bones, a grinding, scraping, clattering, screeching squeal that proclaimed to all ears within fifty miles, “Here indeed are people who should not have a boat!”

We just kept going. I asked my husband if he wanted me to look up the hand signals for right and left; but for some reason, traffic was doing a very good job of avoiding us all by itself.

We made the perilous turn off the dirt road onto the highway. Only another mile or two until we reached home. At this point (and this is the second benefit of boat ownership we’ve already enjoyed) we had each lost about fourteen pounds of weight through the sheer isometric exercise of clenching every muscle in our bodies in abject fear.

My husband fixated mainly on the boat breaking loose, roaring freely down the highway, and crushing an unsuspecting mailman flat. I, though, couldn’t stop thinking about how it would feel when we hit a downhill slope, the hitch snapped, and the boat came charging through the rear window to devour us like an avenging whale.

What happened instead was that the horrible sound got even more horrible, until we couldn’t stand it anymore. My husband pulled over to a shoulder, and gathered his courage to softly asked that fatal question: “Is it supposed to be making that noise, do you think?”

I muttered through aching teeth, “Well . . . I think that little wheel in the front . . . is not making contact with the ground the whole time . . . and the noise we’re hearing . . . is when it is making contact. So maybe if we turn the crank, we can make it move . . . .”

I was going to say “down,” so that the wheel would be on the ground the whole time we were driving.

And then it hit me: That little wheel is not supposed to be touching the ground. It’s just there to hold the trailer stable while you load your boat up, and then you’re supposed to crank it up out of the way. Our only clue that this was so: This wheel is about five inches across, and about as sturdy as your average rollerblade wheel, and is very clearly not intended for highway travel. I’m sorry, did you not get the word? We are people who should not have a boat.

So we skipped out of the car and cranked that sucker up as high as it would go, got back in, and cruised home as silently and smoothly as if the boat were already in water. Which it will be, as soon as we figure out how to get it across the yard.

 

Hey, we didn’t bring home any ducks. That has to count for something.

 

 

 

Protected: Podcast #24: A little offball

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Is Vatican II to blame for the sex abuse scandal?

The Catholic Herald UK reports

Mgr Peter Smith, former chancellor of Glasgow archdiocese, said the Church accepted conventional wisdom of the 1970s that it was “better to repair the [abuser], to fix them or to redeem them”, than punish them. In that era priests accused of abuse could be sent for therapy rather than face criminal charges.

The paper is reporting Mgr Smith’s words with the strong insinuation that Vatican II is to blame for the scandal. I’m not sure if that’s what he really meant, or if his comments might be taken out of context. But I have most certainly heard other Catholics say outright that we can pin the sex abuse scandal on the laxness, the sloppiness, and the psychological sentimentality of the 70’s and Vatican II’s implementation. Vatican II, at least the way it played out in many places, was all about letting go of mean old rules and regulations, and doing what felt good, they argue. Of course we had abusers.

But they are forgetting one thing: Almost 70% of the abusive priests were ordained before 1970. They weren’t formed in feel-good Vatican II seminaries. These were old school guys. They are the ones who were molesting kids, and their world was the world that allowed it to happen.

The sex abuse scandal has three components:

1. Priests abusing kids;
2. The Church knowing about it, and letting it continue; and
3. Various people either not believing kids or parents who reported abuse, or being too in awe of priests to do anything about it, or blaming the kids for the abuse.

This third one has absolutely zero to do with any touchy-feely spirit of Vatican II, and everything to do with what Vatican II set out to change in the Church, because it needed changing.

Priests did not suddenly begin to abuse kids in the early 70’s (although the reports of alleged abuse peaked then; which is not to say that there was necessarily more abuse, but only that more people reported it). Many of the victims who came forward to report childhood abuse, after the Boston Globe‘s work started to gather steam, were children in the 1950’s. At that time, it was unthinkable to criticize a priest, unthinkable to believe that Father could do wrong, unthinkable to go over a priest’s head. There simply wasn’t any precedent for doing such a thing, other than, like, Martin Luther.

Sex abuse by clergy wasn’t a problem of loosey-goosey, post-sexual-revolutionary perverts infiltrating an institution that had heretofore been utterly chaste and holy. This was a problem of a horrible marriage between two deadly trends in the Church and in the country as a whole: the nascent sexual perversions that pervaded 1950’s American culture, and the institutional perverted understanding of authority and respect.

Where do you suppose the sexual revolution came from? Out of nowhere? It never could have happened if things weren’t already rotten underground; and it was just as true in the Church as it was everywhere else in the country. It’s a lie that things were wholesome and pure in the 50’s. But that grotesque artifice of happy, shiny exteriors worked exceedingly well together with the “Father knows best,” mentality. If Doris Day had to smile and have perfect hair no matter what, good Catholic families had to be respectful and obedient to their pastor no matter what. There was no room for going off script, even when lives were at stake.

Children who were molested were too afraid to speak up, because it was Father.
Parents who knew their kids were being molested were too afraid to speak up, because it was Father.
Parents who reported abuse were not believed, because it was Father.
Kids were rightly afraid that no one would believe them. Parents were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. Parishes were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. Bishops were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. And so this horrible carapace of silence was formed to cover up and cover up and cover up, shift the blame, shift the responsibility, and never look at the person at the heart of the problem.

And yes, the errors of the 70’s perpetuated the problem. It is very true that in the 70’s, the 80’s, and beyond, the Church and the rest of the country believed that one could simply see a therapist, attend a few classes, and not be a real danger to kids anymore. That was horrible. But it was no worse than the attitude it replaced, which was that Such Things Never Happened, and if they did, we Simply Don’t Talk About Them.

Of course, dreadful to say, the abuse scandal almost certainly goes back further than the 1950’s — centuries further — but those victims aren’t alive to give their testimony. But at very least, we can put to rest the idea that this hideous stain on our history came about by means of the Vatican II-style “Church of Nice.”

It’s always tempting, when we see gross behavior, to blame it on those who speak of mercy, of forgiveness, of healing. It’s tempting to think, “If we just clamped down and got tough, like we did back in the old days when everyone wore hats, then we’d have none of this nonsense!”

But the real lesson here isn’t that mercy is an error. The real lesson is that mercy and forgiveness can be abused just like innocence can be abused, and that evil is endlessly adaptable. It will grab hold of whatever weakness, foolishness, and wickedness is popular in any age, and it will put it in the service of sin.

Hell is overjoyed when we learn all the wrong lessons from suffering. Violation of innocents was horrible enough. Let’s not compound the outrage by trying to root true mercy, true forgiveness, and true compassion out of the heart of our Church.

***
Photo by Milliped (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Frog and Toad are their own right size

I come before you today with the unpleasant task of making the case against Frog, of Frog and Toad. In Arnold Lobel’s immortal series, the two friends play and work, suffer and triumph together; but Frog is the superior friend in every way. He is responsible and sensible, a hard worker, patient, and willing to try new things and enjoy every season. Toad is none of these things. Toad takes, and Frog gives.

OR DOES HE?

Consider:

He manipulates Toad into believing his head has grown overnight, rather than just offering to shrink his hat. (“The Hat” from Days with Frog and Toad.

He tricks Toad into thinking it’s Spring and that he’s slept for several  months

 

so Frog will be able to have company. (“Spring” from Frog and Toad Are Friends)

He forces Toad into winter clothes, coming into Toad’s house against his protests. “I have brought you some things to wear,” he said. Frog pushed a coat down over the top of Toad. Frog pulled snow pants up over the bottom of Toad. He put a hat and scarf on Toad’s head.

“Help!” cried Toad. “My best friend is trying to kill me!” (“Down the Hill” from Frog and Toad All Year)

He shames Toad for his housekeeping habits. Dusty chairs? Well, Frog, maybe if you came all the way in and visited Toad where he was, instead of sticking your head in and making him feel bad

the chairs would be free of dust. (“Tomorrow” from Days with Frog and Toad)

Worst of all — and I find this one really unforgivable — he holds the ball of string and makes Toad do a running try, a running and waving try, a running, waving, and jumping try, and a running, waving, jumping, and shouting try, and Toad’s legs are much shorter than Frog’s.

Why can’t Frog take a turn running? (“The Kite” from Days with Frog and Toad)

Listen, they are good friends. I can see that. Frog loves Toad. He tells him stories, he makes him tea, he teaches him how to do new things, and he prompts him to enjoy life more. He is endlessly patient while Toad has tantrums over buttons, and he does his best to chase away the curious creatures who want to see Toad in his bathing suit.

They spend Christmas together, they are brave together, and they enjoy the shivers together. In a forever-unrevealed Gift of the Magi scenario, they rake each other’s leaves.

And Toad needs Frog, certainly. Frog wants the best for Toad. Most of his excesses come from wanting Toad to learn a good lesson about life. He doesn’t just want Toad to be happy; he wants to improve him.

But this is not a clear-cut case of the good friend and the bad friend, the giver and the needy one, the shining star and the dead weight. Frog is the kind of person who mistakes inborn temperament for virtue, and I very much admire Toad for sometimes digging in his heels and spending the day the way he likes: In bed.

This is, of course, what makes their friendship all the more delightful and real. Toad is lazy, pessimistic, easily discouraged, and an occasional berserker; but he is also intensely loyal, and generous, if heavy-handed.(“Alone? Frog has me for a friend! Why would he want to be alone?”) He’s sincerely penitent when he’s self-centered. But it’s not just a one-sided relationship. They are deeply entwined with each other, and each provides something that the other needs, whether Frog knows it or not.

Toad’s love for Frog is revealed in the deep panic he feels on Christmas Eve, as he runs out barefoot into the storm, armed with a pan and a rope, imagining that Frog has simultaneously lost, being chased by an animal with sharp teeth, and in the bottom of a deep hole.

But Frog needs Toad just as much. He seems to rarely knows how to spend his time unless it’s with Toad, and when Toad has a problem or is sad, his day is consumed with searching for an answer. He sits all day with Toad, waiting for the snail to deliver his letter with the sole message that Frog is glad for Toad’s friendship. And when Toad is paralyzed over his lost to-do list, Frog buys into the idea that he can’t act without it, and works up a sweat trying to catch it. Frog is just as needy as Toad, in his own way. He needs Toad to need him.

Toad is painfully aware that Frog is more accomplished than he is, and it eats away at him, at least subconsciously. In his dream (which should be required reading for every adolescent and adult), he finally triumphs over Frog so entirely that Frog disappears altogether, and Toad realizes that being second-best is not nearly as bad as being alone. He wants Frog to be “his own right size,” even if that’s bigger than Toad.

I challenge you to find a truer and more beautiful portrayal of friendship anywhere, even in books with many more syllables per page.

What’s for supper? Vol. 86: ¿Qué pasa, kielbasa?

I’m having a flashback to a former life: Everyone’s schedule is all screwey for end-of-year stuff, so we spent the morning at the park trying not to throw ourselves into the waterfall, and then we got a blister so we had to cool our feet at the library. There are pregnant women chasing toddlers everywhere, and every cell in my body is shrieking out silent thanksgiving that I’m not one of ’em.

Here’s what we had this week:

SATURDAY
Pizza, birthday cake, ice cream

Birthday party! We had no end of pizza, and birthday cake in the shape of – what else? – Devil’s Tower.

It was a Close Encounters of the Third Kind party, what else? It turns out the birthday girl was kidding about wanting me to mash some potatoes so she could have a mountain-sculpting contest with her friends. Humph.

***

SUNDAY
Chicken shawarma; Cheesecake with strawberries and chocolate ganache

Birthday girl requested shawarma. I treated myself to skinned, boned chicken and set it to marinate the night before. It turned out to be breast meat, not thigh, which was a little disappointing; but it’s still always a fabulous meal. We use this recipe for oven-roasted shawarma from the NYT.

We had it with tomatoes, cucumbers, three kind of olives, feta cheese, pita bread, hummus, and yogurt sauce. I added pepper, lemon juice, and a bunch of minced garlic to plain yogurt and then basically wallowed around in it for the rest of the evening. Garlic yogurt speaks to me on a cellular level. A microcellular level. A nano-micro-weensy-cellular level. Just keep zooming in, and it’s garlic and yogurt, all the way down.

I briefly considered making the cheesecake in the Instant Pot, but then remembered that I am disgusting and don’t really clean it too good, so it’s kind of meaty in there. If there are people in the world who prefer their cheesecake meaty, I don’t want to know about it. I used this simple recipe (no sour cream) with a graham cracker crust, and used a silicone pan instead of springform. Unlike the photo, it turned out swell.

I crushed up a bunch of fresh strawberries with sugar and rum vanilla. We wanted a chocolate ganache, but I remembered in the nick of time that Aldi chocolate chips don’t really melt. So I made this hot fudge sauce with cocoa powder, butter, and condensed milk. Veddy nice.

***

MONDAY
Hot dogs, corn on the cob, salad

It was horrendously hot, so I thought we might avoid filling the kitchen with corn steam if I cooked the corn on the cob in the Instant Pot instead of in a big pot of water. I guess it worked? But you do have to release the steam at the end anyway, so we kind of got it all at once. I think it helped a bit overall. It’s definitely cooler than stovetop cooking while it’s cooking.

I tried This Old Gal’s recipe for IP corn on the cob, which includes sugar, milk, and butter. It was certainly easy, and the corn was, well, sweet, creamy, and buttery. Kinda gilding the lily, though, and not really worth the extra calories. I’ll probably use the IP for just cooking plain unflavored corn on the cob in the future, though, just because it was easier than wrestling with a giant stock pot sloshing with boiling water. I always scald my abdomen.

I have the eight-quart Instant Pot (affiliate link), which fits twelve whole ears of corn comfortably, see?

***

TUESDAY
Pulled pork sandwiches, chips, salad

Just so you know I’m no Instant Pot cultist

I will here discuss an IP semi-failure: I put the pork into the IP with salt, pepper, and a can of Coke, and set it to “slow cook.” This took four hours, and then it automatically went to “keep warm” mode for the rest of the day. It came out dry and tough, and we had to pull pretty hard, which nobody wanted to do. I’m not sure if that means it was too low heat, or too high heat, or what, but it just wasn’t the same as the regular old slow cooker. Maybe if I pressed “slow cook” again after four hours, I dunno.

***

WEDNESDAY
Oven roasted kielbasa, red potatoes, and cabbage with mustard vinaigrette

From Budget Bytes, a new dish for us, and a hit! It’s very easy to make: Cut up the things, put the things on a pan, make the things hot. Add yummy dressing.

I used three 14-ounce packages of kielbasa, about four pounds of red potatoes, and one large cabbage, and tripled the recipe for dressing. It’s hearty and summery, and I liked the looks of it, too.

The only sad thing was that I finally had to admit it was time to get rid of the two giant “disposable” catering pans we got from the Chinese restaurant at Christmas. They have developed leaks, so I’m getting some Real Pans. Yet another thing I finally have enough money to buy, now that the kids are leaving home and we don’t need it as badly anymore. Oh well.

***

THURSDAY
Chicken muggets, frozen corn

We had the option to add an extra hour and a half of driving at the end of the school day in order to get to two campuses for portfolio night, or we could get ice cream.

Then we came home and had chicken nuggets. Corrie was mad because she only got to eat her ice cream and Dora’s ice cream,

and then when she dropped Dora’s ice cream, we wouldn’t get her another one. So when it was supper time, she threw herself on the floor and howled, “NO NO NO TSITSIN MUGGETS!” It’s a shame we never do anything nice for her.

***

FRIDAY

Child #2 graduates from high school this year (with honors in math!!!), so Damien and I will be in attendance this evening while the kids at home struggle along with a case of boxaroni. Cheers!

Protected: Podcast 23: Look at that s car go!

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Well-behaved characters rarely make books (but here are some that do)

You know that irritating bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, poo. First, it’s not everyone’s job to make history. The world functions better for everyone when most people go to work, act decently, are thoughtful of others, and save the rebellion for emergencies.

Second, and more importantly, it depends what you mean by “well-behaved.” If you mean “The only possible way to change the world is to take your top off and scream at people,” then I’d have to demur (and so would the Virgin Mary).

It’s true, though, that well-behaved characters rarely carry books, and it’s hard to write a book full of people who are kind — by which I mean disposed toward helping and being generous toward others, preferably gently and good-naturedly. It’s possible to write such a book, but it’s rare.

Authors of children’s books, especially, tend to want to give their characters authenticity and appeal by making them sassy, prickly, bratty, rebellious, morose, or dysfunctional — or good at heart, but with a tremendous flaw to overcome. Kindness is often portrayed as weakness or naïveté, and not desirable as a dominant virtue.

Here are a few of my favorite characters who are not only basically virtuous, but who always, or almost always, show kindness to other people in the story.

First I’ll get the two wild cards out of the way: Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking. You can argue with me if you like!

Dido just barely qualifies, because she learns kindness gradually — but it’s a trait that anchors her character. I’m rereading Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds On Nantucket and am just in love with Dido, who wants so badly to get back to London, but realizes that drippy old motherless Dutiful Penitence is more than just her ticket home.

Dido gradually takes responsibility for patiently teaching Pen to enjoy life, to become less fearful, to stand up for herself, and to practice loyalty. Dido and Pen’s characters both develop, and they ultimately escape their predicament, as Dido deliberately cultivates kindness and gentleness toward the fragile Pen.

(Joan Aiken is great at portraying kind but interesting, well-realized characters: see cheerful Nate in the stories with Dido, and also the resourceful and protective Simon (in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts In Battersea). To a lesser extent, Arabel of the Arabel and Mortimer series is also a kind and responsible kid, although she’s also just naturally mellow.)

Pippi Longstocking is outrageously kind, a trait is just as much a part of her character as her outrageous recklessness.

She spends her time alone cooking and packing picnics for her friends, hiding treasures, and organizing all sorts of surprises and adventures. She’s enraged only by bullies who prey on the weak; and she uses her own incredible strength only for good (and some showing off). When her teasing and storytelling confuse or upset someone, she is usually contrite. Without her kindness, her outsized personality and habits would be monstrous.

The Pippi Longstocking books aren’t about character development, anyway — partly because they’re episodic, and partly because they’re sort of mythical, with Pippi as a preternatural figure whose inexplicable strength, cleverness, generosity, and radical independence are entirely self-sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Pippi growing into adulthood or marrying, because she is already a complete person. She’s not depthless, though. She does weep, briefly, over a dead bird; and once, Tommy and Annika see her alone in her kitchen at night and it occurs to them, for the first time, that it’s possible for someone so strong and cheerful to be lonely. These glimpses into her private life make her kindness more believable.

Which other books portray characters who are thoroughly kind, without reducing them to dull foils for naughty kids with more spirit?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett plays fairly close to the line, as Sara Crewe is almost overwhelmingly virtuous in every way.

But the scene where she struggles mightily with herself to turn her long-coveted bun over to an even hungrier child is very moving, and the book is saved from absolute melodrama by the strength and suspense of the plot and by the writing itself.

Burnett’s The Secret Garden, published six years after A Little Princess, is the better book and has more complex character development. The main character and her foil are both selfish, immature, and self-pitying early on, and their conversion and development are gradual and believable. But Dickon, the outdoorsman, is gloriously kind and open-hearted, as is his whole family.

Most people would include Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web in a list of kind protagonists, but I have always struggled with this book. It includes too many hard truths and not enough comfort for my tastes; and I always thought Charlotte was much too hard on little Wilbur emotionally, even though her actions saved him in practice. Of E.B. White’s books, my very favorite is The Trumpet of the Swan,

which includes the watchful, helpful, and loyal Sam Beaver.

She’s not in a chapter book, but I can’t neglect the lovely Nyasha, the good daughter in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe.

The unforgettable illustrations go a long way to filling out her character, but her words and actions also demonstrate unflagging kindness, patience, and civility toward every single creature she meets, from her nasty, scheming sister, to the apparently needy folks she meets in the woods, even to the snake she encounters on the throne at the end.

(In the category of fairy tales, the 2015 live action movie of Cinderella explicitly praises kindness as a virtue to be pursued. Recommended!)

Mrs. Trotter of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Peterson?

Oh, my heart. Her kindness is a little complex. She acknowledges that poor William Ernest Teague’s education need a harder edge than she can provide, and so her kindness perhaps shades into weakness; but in a throwaway line, she stands by her basic character, acknowledging dryly to the social worker that she’s well aware the world doesn’t consider her a real mother. Oh, Trotter. The truest portrayal of a good Christian I’ve ever seen in literature, period, for kids or for adults.

Strangely enough, the wild, anti-authority, sometimes brutal Roald Dahl books often have central characters who are very kind. Some of them are kind to most, but vengeful toward their parents and enemies, and this response is portrayed as delightful and just; but some wish even their enemies well, and are willing to risk their own safety for their friends. Charlie of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is like this, and so is James of James and the Giant Peach;

and the vengeance is wrought by fate, rather than the protagonist. I haven’t read The BFG in many years, but I recall that the BFG’s main trait was kindness. In Danny the Champion of the World, the father is meant to be a kind man, but the reader of conscience can’t ignore than he is a criminal and a vengeful man.

Honorable mention goes to the very helpful Elmer Elevator of My Father’s Dragon,

who takes everyone he meets at face value, never uses more force than necessary, and even remembers to bring a birthday present home for his father.

Likewise Freddy the Pig throughout Walter R. Brooks’ extensive series of books,

who sometimes gets irritated or falls into self-pity, but is ultimately the friend everyone needs to have. The trio of cows, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurtzburger are also kind sorts, and tremendously appealing.

Finally, a recommendation from Rebecca Salazar: John Carter from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I haven’t read this series, but I trust Rebecca (although she warns that the series is 100 years old, and contains references to “red men” and savage Apaches and the like, and that the first three are the best).
She says: It is a cheesy pulp novel, but one of the overarching differences between John Carter and the martians is that he treats subordinates and defeated enemies with kindness, and he doesn’t just automatically kill someone because they’re an enemy.

One example of kindness in it is that the green Martian tribe Carter becomes a chieftain in have horse analogue animals that they basically subdue through force, and this they’re dangerous to their riders, but Carter treats his with kindness and tames them and the rest of the warriors are shocked by how superior his mounts are because of this.
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As you can see, my reading list needs some updating! I stand by all my recommendations, and hope that my kids will love these characters as much as I do; but I’d be happy to add to the list, especially to include newer books.
Who else in children’s literature is predominantly kind without being dull, two-dimensional, or drippy?

Your recourse if you have been raped

My friend R. was raped many years ago. It was not a story with any gray areas. She was walking home from work when a large man grabbed her, beat and choked her, tied her up with duct tape, locked her up, and raped her dozens of times over the course of days. She eventually escaped and reported what happened as soon as she was able. The man was caught, convicted, and sent to prison.

She kept it a secret when it happened. She didn’t say anything until the day her story came up much later in the news, and she heard some women discussing  . . . her.

Not the rapist. Not the rape. They were discussing her — what she had been wearing, what her sexual history was, what she had been wearing, why she had been in that neighborhood, what she had been wearing, whether she had fought hard enough to get away, and why she hadn’t gone to the police sooner. Why had it happened in the first place? What should she have done differently? What had she been wearing?

And how do we know she’s even telling the truth?

I knew this woman. A gentle, generous, self-effacing human being, a lover of babies and kittens, honest to a fault. The women who wanted to talk about her skirt length didn’t know any this, because they didn’t know her. All they knew was that she had been raped.

And that in itself was a reason not to believe that she had been really raped. It must be her fault somehow. How do we know? Well, she says she was raped, and we know what kind of woman says a thing like that.

Bill Cosby’s attorney knows full well this is how people think, and he’s banking his entire defense argument on it.

Cosby is accused of drugging and sexually violating Andrea Constand. Constand is the only alleged victim in this case, but she is one of over sixty women who have publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault. As the accusations have filtered in over the course of decades, literally every circumstance surrounding the accusation is used against the alleged victim.

Last time Cosby was in the news in 2014, I compiled a list of arguments I heard over and over again — arguments that made me wonder if there was anything a raped woman could say, any way she could respond, any action she could take, that would make people believe her, or even give her the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s what I learned:

  • If you tell the police you’ve been raped, it’s because you’re looking for attention. You should file a civil suit, instead.
  • If you file a civil suit, it’s because you’re looking for money, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, that shows you don’t have a case, and are not telling the truth.
  • If you tell someone right away, that shows suspicious presence of mind, and proves that you engineered the whole thing to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, that shows a suspicious lack of urgency, and proves that you are making up the story for no reason other than to embarrass the alleged perpetrator.
  • If you don’t file a civil suit, it shows that you don’t need the money and are just doing it for attention, because people love the kind of fabulous attention they get when they accuse someone of rape, especially if that person is popular or powerful.
  • If you do file a civil suit, it shows that you want the money so badly that you don’t mind getting all the horrible attention that no victim in her right mind would want to get, especially if the alleged perpetrator is popular or powerful.
  • If you’re the only one who accuses someone of rape, it shows that your story is unbelievable.
  • If lots of other people make similar accusations, that is suspiciously orchestrated, and shows that your story is unbelieveable.
  • If you were in the same room with the person who raped you, that shows that you are just as guilty as he is, because you’re in the same room with a rapist, and who would do that?
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, or powerful, then that shows that you’re just looking for attention, and it never happened.
  • If the person you’re accusing of rape is rich, famous, and powerful, that shows that you should have known he is a rapist, and you wanted it to happen.
  • If you tell someone right away, they will assume you’re lying.
  • If you don’t tell anyone right away, they will assume you’re lying, because you didn’t tell anyone right away.

If you tell, that’s a count against you. If you don’t tell, that’s a count against you. If you speak alone, that’s a count against you. If you speak as one of a crowd, that’s a count against you. If you sue, that’s a count against you. If you don’t sue, that’s a count against you.

If you tell someone that you’ve been raped, it probably didn’t actually happen the way you said, and even if it did, it was your fault in some way, and you should have realized that it would happen, and there is no particular reason anyone should believe you, and if you think the rape itself was painful and humiliating, just wait till you see what you’ve got coming next, when you try to tell someone.

So why didn’t you tell someone sooner?

Clearly, because it didn’t happen. There can be no other explanation.

What I’ve learned is that if you’ve been raped, your only real recourse is not to have been raped. Because anything and everything you do from that moment forward is evidence against you. The deck is stacked against you as a victim because you are a victim. They very moment you even breathe the word “rape,” that’s evidence in the minds of many that no such thing happened, and anyway it was your fault.

Your only real recourse is not to have been raped.

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Photo by dilettant:nikki via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A portion of this post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2014. 

Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.