Love and diversity

The best teachers I know have always been interested not only in what they have to say, but in what their students have to say. Why? Because they were open to loving their students, and they were also in love with the truth, hungry for more truth, delighting in uncovering new facets of truth that they had not seen before.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

***
Photo of diatoms by Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University (corp2365, NOAA Corps Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

 

Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers

Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.

Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.

Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:

Never go to bed angry.

For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.

But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.

But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.

Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.

Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.

Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.

For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it.  Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.

It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.

But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?

Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.

Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.

Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.

Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.

In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.

But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.

Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)

In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.

Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.

And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.

***

Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.

What would you add to my list?

***

Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

Guest post: I was the perfect Catholic wife. It didn’t fix my abusive marriage.

[ADMIN: Today’s post is by a friend who wants to remain anonymous. I am grateful to her and to so many survivors of abuse who want to help protect others who are suffering and who feel so alone.]

“The first affairs were only about sex,” he said. “It was the last one, where he thought he was in love, that really caused him trouble.”
.
The man who said these words to me had been a confidant of my late husband. I had reached out to a number of his friends after my husband’s death to better understand what had happened to us, but I was stonewalled, and on this day I didn’t expect to learn what I did. I knew there was one affair, although I was still reeling from finding the hotel receipts as I tended his affairs (pardon the pun). He had admitted that his relationship with a coworker was “too close,” but denied, for years, repeatedly, that any sex had happened.
.
Things I found in my house indicated otherwise. This man I married in a Catholic Church 25 years earlier, who told me early in our marriage that he simply could not tolerate it if I ever broke our vows, who went to Mass and presented himself publicly as a good Catholic husband and father, was a serial adulterer.
.
An online support group for victims of adultery proposes that all adultery is abuse, because it requires lies, diversion of time, energy, funds, and devotion, and it exposes innocent spouses to potentially deadly diseases without their knowledge. In reading the shared stories, I saw wide patterns of abuse – ones that were more familiar to me than I had previously been brave enough to admit to myself.
.

I was a Catholic wife, you see – a good one, one with steely determination to stay married no matter what. I never missed Mass, prayed for my husband every day . . . I was pleasant, cooperative and loving to him, supportive of his career and never demanding or critical. I started buying “How to have a good Christian marriage” books before the ink was dry on our wedding license. If there was a “How to be a good wife” article, I had read it and tried to followed it. We had been through terrible times including him moving away for an extended time, but I thought we had weathered the storm. It wasn’t until I admitted to myself – in the surreal safety of new circumstances – that I had suffered abuse for years.
.
I am safe because I am writing anonymously and because my abusive marriage is unequivocally over, but I remember what life was like before. I was never physically beaten, although he said I deserved it. He told me that he (who was trained in hand to hand combat) could snap my neck in a second. The fact that he was holding my head in a wrestling lock at the time, and I saw nothing odd in that interaction, is eerily telling of how accustomed to abuse I was. There was rage and verbal abuse, rage driving, manipulation, and threats to abandon or divorce me. When I learned of the serial adultery, I had to reprocess twenty-five years of memories, realizing I was being lied to and betrayed the whole time.
.
Why write about this? Because I believe that Catholic culture creates a dangerously optimistic expectation for marriage, encouraging people to strive and not give up, as if their effort can make any marriage thrive. For many many people, that is the best advice; but some of us live (or lived) in situations where covert abuse masked the hidden truth that one of the spouses in the marriage is too disordered (by sin, mental illness, addiction or other issues) to function in a Sacramental Union. Very often the faithful spouse suffers in isolation, feeling compelled to endure more abuse to be faithful to their marriage, family, Church.
.
They need to hear that they aren’t alone, that they are loved and that they need to make hard decisions based on the situation they are actually living, not based on who they hope their spouse might turn into.
.
Do you have to leave, once you recognize that your partner is incapable of being in a Sacramental marriage? I don’t think so, but I believe you are in for the discernment task of your life. There were many reasons why I never left – some of them reasonable and some of them (namely my hope and optimism) were horribly misguided and not reality based. I go from being really proud of myself for doing exactly what I vowed to do (literally until death did us part) to being very angry with myself for not being brave enough to see what was right in front of me.
.
In some ways my now adult children benefitted from an intact family, but in other ways, my late husband’s negative influence on their adult personalities is much worse than I feared it might be.
.
What can the Church do to help people in this situation?
.
–Priests and deacons need to look for signs of adultery, abuse, mental illness and addictions when people come for counseling. A number of them missed huge red flags in our case.
.
–Folks with long, loving marriages could be humbly thankful, rather than prideful, almost shaming other people who you assume “give up so easily.” You might be surprised how much it hurts the widowed and abandoned to hear bragging about how long you have been married.
.
–Create safe places where your friends can share confidences about adultery. There is a lot of victim-blaming. Although forgiveness is a good goal, pressuring people to offer it up immediately allows adulterers to avoid the natural immediate consequences of their sin, and it doesn’t help real healing; and it burdens the victim more than it heals the situation.
.
–If you have any influence at all in media, Catholic or otherwise, please (and I beg you from the deepest depths of my broken heart) never ever again publish anything akin to “How to Affair-Proof your Marriage.” In reality, even the very best most faithful and loving person cannot remove from their spouse the free will that God gave them. You cannot control if your spouse breaks their vows. Only they control that. Articles like these imply that we have control that we simply don’t have. I know that is frightening, and I’m sorry for that, but it’s true.
.
–When people show you repeatedly who they are, believe them. The biggest long term mistake I made was believing if he fully understood how much he hurt me, then he would stop. We often think if people have the right data, they will make the right decisions. I wrote him letter after letter after letter, begging him to treat me with a baseline level of decency that he would not violate, and he simply refused.
.
So I gave my whole heart to a man who abused me, lied, cheated and manipulated me, and then he died and left me to finish raising our children.
.
Did I despair? Am I mad at God and resent the years I gave? No. God walked with me and guided me and helped me heal, and I have chosen to live the best life I can. In the depths, I felt great reassurance that God would bless my faithfulness. I remember saying “I wonder if God will restore my marriage or I will live as a contented single or if I will find love again.” Oddly enough, I actually received all three things (with the caveat that my “restored” marriage was lived without all the details I later learned, so it was not properly informed).
.
How could I ever trust again? I decided that a willingness to trust was not something I would let my abusive husband take from me.
.
For the suffering, please know that God hasn’t abandoned you, but ask Him His will and try to not be afraid of His answer. He might tell you to flee.
.
Protect yourself. Protect your children. I know the horror of realizing the one you trusted the very most is your greatest danger. Be strong even when you live awful moments when people blame you. Know that what you lived scares them, because they want to feel immune from it, and distancing themselves from you helps that process. Know your Father in Heaven treasures you and you can still be a good Catholic despite life not turning out as you had hoped.

****

ADMIN NOTE: Here are some resources that might be helpful to you if you think you may be in an abusive marriage.  Not all abuse is physical. Please do not assume it’s “not really abuse” if it’s not physical.
When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response To Domestic Violence Against Women. An overview from the USCCB on the Church’s teaching about abuse within marriage, with some resources for what to do next.

What is domestic violence?

Catholic role models who escaped abusive marriages: Rose Hawthorne, founder of the hospice movement; Catherine Doherty, founder of Madonna House; St. Margaret of Cortona.

“Has he really changed?” (source unknown)

Image at top by Crosa via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

How to date your wife

Cream of tartar!  Semiconductors!  Onomatopoeia!  Gerbil bedding!  Notary public!  Joint compound!  Abstract expressionism!  Borscht!

That was me, trying to think of something, anything, to write about other than Valentine’s Day.  What do I know about Valentine’s Day, anyway?  It’s taken me most of my married life to admit that there’s not really anything wrong with women who like flowers, and it’s taken me another full year to admit that I’m actually one of them.

And yet here we are.

Well, from my meager mental resources, by which I mean that I just made 84 cupcakes, each with its own Froot By the Foot rosebud and I’m kind of tired and possibly a little bit drunk on icing, I can offer you this:

FIVE TIPS ON HOW TO DATE YOUR WIFE

1.  Practice your pick-up lines.

But I’m already married!  Why in the name of Cryil and Methodius do I have to worry about pick-up lines? you may ask yourself.  And then you may make some stupid joke about how you won’t be picking up your wife any time soon because your insurance doesn’t cover hernia surgery, and so on.  This is the wrong route to take.

What your wife wants to hear is something that shows that you don’t take her for granted—something that invites her to look at you with new eyes, rather than assuming she might as well have a paper bag over her head, as long as all the rest of the parts are in the right place.

Try something with equal parts romance and danger, such as, “Hey, baby, I’m feeling very . . . open to life tonight.”  It’s possible that she will pick up the first heavy object available and try to bash your head in with it, but at least you aroused some kind of reaction, which means you’re halfway there.

2.  Compliment her looks.

If a woman is home with a bunch of kids all day long, she knows that if she steps out of the house, all the men on the street are going to see one thing:  a mess.  A saggy-bellied, baggy-eyed, slump-shouldered, spit up-caked, used-up, milk-smelling, mom-haired mess.

What you need to do to win her heart and put a spring back into her step is to let her know that you don’t see her that way.  You know her heart, and you see the grace and loveliness that will always be there.  So you can try something like, “Have I told you how nice your abdominal muscles look, all separated like that?”  or “I think women with one shoulder that’s lower than the other one are the sexiest ones in the world, don’t you?”

3.  Spend lavishly.

Show her you think she’s worth it.  Take my word for it, she’ll know she’s dealing with a prince among men when she sees you lay that money down.  “Darlin’,” you can say with youthful impetuousness, “let’s go ahead and pay the electric bill on time this month—how’d that be?  Sky’s the limit, or up until 40 kilowatt hours, whichever comes first”  Swoon!

4.  Ply her with cocktails.

Okay, you may actually have to slow her down on this one.  It could be cute to offer little jests such as, “Slow down, little girl—that’s no shirley temple!”  Then you can have a good laugh, as long as it doesn’t interfere with you getting Mama some more ice.

5.  Heat things up with an intimate shower.

And by intimate, I mean just her.  She hasn’t washed her hair in, like, five weeks, and she doesn’t even get to check on how her mustache is coming along without answering a lot of stupid questions.  Stand in front of the door with a rifle, if necessary, but DO NOT LET ANYONE ELSE IN THE BATHROOM.  Remember:  40 kilowatt hours.  You promised.

Gentlemen, you can thank me later.  Right after you go get Mama some more ice.

***

A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2012.

8 Toddler Tips for a Very Special Valentine’s Day

The tired old trope says that kids ruin a couple’s romantic life. Well, I’m a tired old trope myself, and I’m here to tell you that nothing could be wronger. Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share with you a few special ideas that come straight from the little cherubs themselves. Every single one unmistakably spells out L-O-V-E.

 

1. COME HITHER

How about a playful little game of suspense to build up the anticipation? Rose petals are so passé. Try leaving an enticing trail of rice krispies leading from the front door to the bedroom, as if to say, “Follow my lead, and we’ll see what happens under the covers!” And then when you get to the bed, you pull back the covers to find the rest of the bowl of cereal, with milk. Talk about snap, crackle, pop!

2. OR LEAVE A KISS WITHIN THE CUP

Everyone thinks of wine for romance, but did you know that just about anything will ferment if you leave it in a sippy cup under some stuffed animals for long enough? Vintage is important for special moments. You want to decant it at just the right moment, after it’s already started collecting fruit flies, but before it solidifies into a chunk. That way, it can still leak a little bit. Rrrrowr!

 

3. GO SKIN DEEP

Ready for something to get your heart moving? Nothing beats temporary tattoos, to transform that same old, familiar old skin into something exotic and unexpected. Try this technique: Find your sister’s grape-scented marker and scribble all over your knees and belly. Then up the ante with a permanent marker, and decide you want to make di’saur teef on you face. Then eat the marker and poop grape for the next three days. Bow chicka wow wowww.

 

4. SWEET NOTHINGS

Assorted chocolates? Pardon me while I die yawning. Nothing says “spontaneity” like presenting your loved one with a gallon of milk that, despite the “homogenous” label, actually contains a surprising array of assorted buttons, pens, and semi-dissolvable snacks that someone has shoved in there. Imagine the look on her face when she just wants to have a cup of coffee with milk, but instead, a sludgy fig newton slides into her mug and splashes coffee into her face. Ha cha cha!  

 

5. LET YOURSELF GO

Valentine’s Day is, above all, a day of passion. Instead of regular old predictable passion, try throwing yourself down with abandon, writhing around, and doing that howling gargle thing for no reason at all. It’s a special day, so why not ratchet up the excitement by whacking the side of your head against the table leg and then vomiting in rage? Everyone will think it’s a concussion, so you can finish off the rest of the evening in the romantic low lights of an emergency room getaway, where you can laze away the hours far from your responsibilities, hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour, waiting for the certain special someone to call your name, pronounce it wrong, and charge you $475 to shine a penlight in your eyeballs and say you’re fine. ¡Ay, mamita!

 

6. IT IS ALWAYS OURSELVES THAT WE FIND AT THE SEA

Speaking of getaways, how overdone is the “romance on the beach” thing? Basically all it is is something gritty underfoot, and the sound of water sloshing around. You got this.

 

7. SOUTHERN EXPOSURE

Don’t forget photography, you know, CANDID photography, snap snap, grin grin, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. Load up your beloved’s phone memory with 532 pictures of your nostrils, your thumb, and part of the couch leg, and also some brief videos of you shrieking, “NO, YOU’RE A POOP HEAD.” Stand back and watch the sparks fly. Homina homina homina. 

And finally

8. TURN UP THE HEAT

by turning up the heat. Seriously, they still haven’t figured out a way to lock down the thermostat. Twiddle away! How you doin’?

***

 

 

Image of box of chocolates by Stewart Butterfield (Flickr: Valentines Chocolates) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like it was part of his name

naples_-_old_couple_1890s

My husband and I both work at our computers off and on throughout the day, and we email back and forth a lot.  Every once in a while, I get what looks like an empty message from him — just a series of dots in a box.  This makes me  laugh every time, because I know what happened:  It’s just Gmail being too smart for its own good again.  When you end every email the same way, Gmail thinks it’s your signature, and thinks it doesn’t have to include it in every email, especially if it’s a response to a response to a response to a response to a response.  The recipient must know who it’s from by now.  So smart, right?

And so, when I get an empty email from my husband, I know it’s because he wrote “I love you.”  He says it so often, at the end of so many emails, Gmail thinks it’s part of his name.  Gmail thinks that’s who he is.

I used to be skeptical of people who dashed off a hasty “I love you” all the time.  “Don’t forget to pick up some ketchup and laundry detergent!” — “‘Kay, love you!” Way to cheapen the sentiment, I thought to myself.  Why not save it for when you can say it from the bottom of your heart?  That way, you both know it really means something.

I don’t know if I’ve grown softer or what (mentally, I mean.  Physically, there’s no question), but I’ll tell you what:  I need it now.  I need to hear him tell me he loves me, over and over again, especially when we’re talking about ketchup and laundry detergent and dentist appointments and parent-teacher conferences and taxes and who needs more fiber in their diet.  I need the reminder that he knows who I am, even on the days when, according to our accomplishments, we could easily be replaced by some unskilled laborers and an adding machine.

And I need to hear it when I know he’s mad at me.  He writes it then, too.  He always writes it, and he always means it, because that’s who he is.  It’s almost like it’s part of his name.

Husbands and wives, do this for each other.  Say “I love you.”  You don’t have to do it all the time, but do it!  Don’t let it go unsaid.  We all need to say it, we all need to hear it.  And, if we want to stay married, we have to act like we mean it.

***

[This post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2013.]

Image: Anonymous (Old postcard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

May I help you lug that bundle of shame?

“Well, I did change the lightbulb,” my husband, gathering up the last bits of my underwear out of the milkweed.

“That’s awesome,” I said. “I’m sorry I crushed the picnic table.”

“No problem,” he says. “At least we made it to the swamp first.”

So what happened, see, was my husband asked me if there was anything he could do for me. He is a wonderful man, and asks me this question often. The catch is, I find it so deliriously romantic that this big, tall, handsome man with smoldering eyes and a cleft chin wants to do things for me that my answer tends to be, “Ohhh, no-o-o-, I’m fine!” and then later, when I get out of his beautiful eye tractor beam, I remember, “Dammit, I should have said shovel dog poop! Or at least do something about all those bean cans full of meat grease on the stove!”

But this time I was ready, and I said, “YES, can you change the lightbulbs in our room?” Our room is pretty small, and you have to stand on the bed to reach the light fixture, and I have such a poor sense of balance that the torquing motion involved in unscrewing the little knob tends to make me fall over, and then I’m sprawled out on the bed and the whole “Mr. Brown Eyes” thing comes into play again; and the problem is that you can unscrew a little knob, but you can’t unscrew . . . well, anyway, now we have ten kids.

So this time, I wanted him to change the lightbulb.

Which he did, while I worked on my shopping list in the next room. And I heard a popping sound, followed by a tinkling sound, and then some cussing. With some reluctance, I strolled in to investigate, and found him standing on the bed looking sadly at his feet, which were generously dusted with bits of light bulb. “You should be able to toss a light bulb onto a soft bed!” he said, and I agreed. But I guess if it lands just right — for instance, if you toss it right onto the glass light fixture you just removed — then it will cetainly explode.

The part that was my fault was that I am a huge slob, and I leave my dirty clothes all over the bed and floor. And also one pair of pants that isn’t dirty, because I’ve never actually worn them out of the bedroom. Every few weeks, I like to put them on, feel sad about how fat I of course still am, and then pull them off and drop them on the floor. All, all were covered with little bits of broken glass.

We picked out all the big, easy bits of glass and then gathered up the bedsheets like a giant bag, bundling in blankets and towels and a week’s worth of laundry, and my husband lugged it out the front door (we couldn’t go out the back door because it was full of dog). I held my breath, waiting for some unfortunate child to say something about how Daddy looks like Santa, but for once they all shut up, so no one had to die. Then we lugged the bundle into the back yard and my husband said to put it on the picnic table, so we could carry it more easily.

It wasn’t a bad idea, but it was a bad table. I got it from the side of the road, and it makes my kids unhappy because (1) it reminds them of the time I embarrassed them by picking up rotten old tables, and one kid had to ride in the back of the Blazer with the door open so the table didn’t fall out, which was scary; and (2) when you touch it, the legs fall off. But it was free!

We did make it to the swamp, set the table down, and started picking out various sheets and pants and bras and shaking them vigorously into the “Dead Marshes” part of the yard, where we throw things we don’t want to deal with (rotten jack-o’-lanterns; dog poop; meat grease in bean cans; bedding from dead pets; dead pets).

I thought we were doing pretty well, and working our way through the heap pretty briskly. I didn’t start laughing until I heard my husband go, “Shit. shit. shit. oh, shit.” It wasn’t even a big deal. He was just trying to pick my striped sweater off a small blackberry bush that it had gotten heavily involved with, and I suddenly realized that the neighbors , with their bird’s eye view of our back yard, must be wondering for the millionth time, “What in the hell are those people doing?”

It brought to mind the time we were renting a house that was in rather poor repair, and one day the toilet just started angrily spouting stenchy water, which rushed downhill from the bathroom, down the stairs and out the door in an endless river of things that reminded me of why I didn’t want to live in that town anymore. I couldn’t figure out how to turn the water off, and while I was waiting for someone competent to come help, I decided, with the crystalline clarity so typical of these moments, that it would be best to gather up all the towels and blankets in the house and try to sop up the river before it warped the floors.

Then, crystalline, I would gather up the bundle — and why didn’t anyone warn me that such a large part of adult life would include gathering up bundles of things you are ashamed of? — and drag them out to the curb, wring them into the sewer, and bring them back inside for more sopping. And sobbing.

On my fourth trip out to the sewer, I realized that a little girl and her mother were sitting on the opposite curb, watching my frantic and wretched efforts with wide eyes. The little girl said softly to her mother, “Mommy, what is that lady doing?” And the woman answered just as softly, “Sweetie, I don’t know.”

The memory of this made me laugh so hard that I fell onto the picnic table, crunching it completely flat into the ground. But, my husband wisely pointed out, at least we were pretty much done shaking the glass out of stuff.

But he did change the light bulb! And what’s what we were doing, neighbors. It’s our love language, okay?

Not everything is fixable (God have mercy on us all)

black-and-white-forest-trees-branches

A caller once asked radio host Dr. Laura for advice about an impossible situation. I forget the details — something about lots of children and lots of fathers, various addictions, various betrayals, and a family tree that was twisted and ingrown and diseased. Dr. Laura could not offer much hope to the caller, other than to point out that her story shows why it’s so important not to have kids out of wedlock.

“But–” the caller protested.  “What if I can get my boyfriend to go to therapy?” Dr. Laura laughed – cruelly, I thought.
“Therapy?” she said incredulously. “Therapy isn’t magic. It can’t fix everything. Honey, not everything can be fixed.”

I’ve since stopped listening to Dr. Laura. She has some good ideas, but she has a lot of bad ones, too, and she has very little concept of mercy. But boy, she was right about this thing: not everything can be fixed.

Oh, in the long run it can, of course. Despite the anguished mental contortions of Ivan Karamazov, the second coming of Christ will bring about a thorough reconciliation of all things, unimaginable to our limited consciences. But in this world, there are some situations which have become so twisted and ingrown and diseased that they cannot be fixed.

These situations are what we’re seeing as we work through various solutions to “irregular marital situations.” Darwin Catholic points out that some people are speaking as if there are only two ways of describing marriage: either adulterous, and therefore bad, or loving, and therefore good.  He says:

The fact is, there are a lot of people in our current society who are living in relationships which are not what the Church would view as valid marriages (they were married before and their prior marriage has not been ruled invalid, they are living together without having gone through a marriage ceremony, they are Catholics who got married in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation, etc.) and yet who seem to all appearances to care about each other, to be raising children together, to be happy because of the relationship which the Church labels as sinful.

He uses the example of Johnny Cash and June Carter, who began their relationship in adultery — and yet they stayed together for decades, clearly loving and supporting and cherishing each other. Darwin says:

Was that an adulterous relationship or a loving relationship? Who’s to say it wasn’t both?

When we live in sin, with sin, around sin, it becomes entangled with a lot of the good in our lives. That’s one of the reasons we should try so hard not to get into these situations in the first place, because after going far down that path there will be good as well as evil that will be disrupted if we try to end our sin.

Very true. We want to see the world as black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, love vs. H8, so that it’s easy to choose sides — and once you make our stand, we can relax.

Well, we can’t relax. Every day is a struggle to discern the right thing to do in individual situations, which may have changed drastically since yesterday. But also,  every day is a struggle to discern how to treat people who are in a bad situation that they can’t get out of — that they can’t therapize away. How to be loving toward people who are in situations that can’t be fixed?

The other day, I suggested that the best we can do, in some unfixable marital situations, is to treat these couples as part of a larger family — to be welcoming of people living in sin if only for the sake of their children and all the other people their lives affect. This welcome doesn’t really help the couple involved, of course, unless their rightfully-married spouse dies, or unless they receive the grace to muster the heroic resolve to make their adulterous (albeit loving) relationship into a chaste one. One can make a spiritual act of communion and worship God no matter what, but remaining in a state of mortal sin is not a long term plan anyone should be comfortable with.

It would also be a wonderful thing to offer beefed-up  marriage preparation and support after marriage, so that fewer couples find themselves in invalid or impossibly difficult marriages.

I wish, though, that we could move past just repeating, “Not everything can be fixed.”  Okay, not everything can be fixed . . . but this is not a free pass to treat unfixable people like rotten meat, good for nothing, unsalvageable, useful only as a horrible example for the next generation.

I’m so tired, like Darwin, of hearing from people who should know better that the world is black and white. It’s not.

Some Catholics would like to say, “Lower the boom! The Eucharist isn’t for people in mortal sin, and adultery is a mortal sin. Jesus doesn’t care about your stupid feeeeeelings, so hit the road, adulterers, and take your bastard kids with you, if you even bothered to have any, ptui.” And others would like to say, “We’re all sinners, and God is love, so why are we even bothering to talk about  – ptui – sin? Let’s be on the side of love. Here’s a Host for you, and a Host for you, and a Host for you . . . . ”

But that’s not how things really work. Not all couples living in marital sin are honest, virtuous, loving sorts who simply got dealt a bad spousal hand, and now the mean old Church just won’t let them have Jesus because of spite; but neither are all couples living in sin just squalid hedonists who followed their genitals into mortal sin and disastrous home lives. Not all couples in valid marriages are upright, devout cornerstones of society who are holding the Church together with the sheer awesomeness of their sacramental devotion; but neither are all couples in valid marriages are just lucky ducks who happened to stumble across a ready-made, shiny, happy, stable homelife.

Some of us worked hard and still lost; some of us got lucky and skated into something great. Most of us are some combination of lucky and unlucky, hard-working and stupid. What do we all have in common? We all need mercy — from God, and from each other.

Unfixable. Some situations are unfixable. We can work on prevention and we can work on damage control, but not everything can be fixed. But that doesn’t mean that we have a free pass to treat unfixable people like rotten meat, good for nothing, unsalvageable, useful only as a horrible example for the next generation. We can’t say, “Not everything is fixable, so get away from me.” We should say, “Not everything is fixable. I’m so sorry. God have mercy on us all.”

***

Up from Unity Candles

My marriage is now an adult! It’s eighteen years old as of yesterday.

wedding pic

Oct. 25, 1997 and Oct. 25, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote back in 2011, wherein I recount some of the ridiculous things that happened during our wedding ceremony, and how little they mattered.

***

Here is a nice little explanation of what a Catholic wedding looks like, compared to what you might see on TV. No one “gives the bride away,” for instance, because a valid marriage requires that the bride and groom freely give themselves. Likewise, the priest does not pronounce the couple man and wife, because his function is as a witness: The ministers of the sacrament are the man and woman themselves. (For another perspective on what the typical Catholic wedding actually looks like, you might check out this post by Reverend Know-it-all.)

My own wedding, a bunch of years ago, was somewhere in between the one described in the first article and the circuses in the second. Everyone had the best intentions, but it was perhaps not the most meticulously-planned ceremony known to Christendom. The priest, for instance, referred to me as “Simminy” throughout the ceremony. (To my husband: I checked, and it’s still all valid. So put that suitcase down.)

For another thing, I had to give my little brother strict instructions not to squeeze the ring-bearer’s pillow too hard as he carried it up the aisle. This is because I had forgotten until the night before that we’d be needing a ring-bearer’s pillow, and although the one I hastily made looked lovely, it was held together with packing tape. Crackle crackle!

During the sermon, the priest wanted me to list the priorities of a married woman. At one point I nervously blurted “Parents?” Which was silly enough, but everyone thought I said “pets.” Seriously, who quizzes the bride? Sheesh.

But the low point of the ceremony was the Unity Candle. I know, I know—you’re not supposed to have a Unity Candle. It’s tacky and newfangled, a superfluous gesture in a sacrament that already expresses unity quite nicely. We didn’t so much plan the ceremony as get swept along by it, though—so I was as surprised as anyone else to find myself next to my new husband (who is a good foot taller than I) with a taper in my hand, trying to light the stupid thing.

The idea was that we each had a little flame, and were supposed to reach up and join our little flames together in one big flame, and then that would be Unity, like marriage is unity, plus love. Or something.

What actually happened was that my husband reached up and lit his part of the candle, no problem. I, on the other hand, was too short even in heels to even see where the wick was. So I fiddled around for a bit, then pulled my taper down to see if I had done it.

It had gone out.

So I tried to relight it from the Unity Candle, but it wouldn’t go. I whispered to my husband, “My candle went out!” At this point in the ceremony, we had been standing up there for a suspiciously long time, and people were beginning to cough and stir in their seats a bit, maybe thinking about all that delicious deli meat and pasta salad waiting uneaten in the church basement below. And so my resourceful husband whispered back to me, “JUST FAKE IT!”

And that is what I did. Giggling spastically and making the most unbridelike snorting noises through my nose, I twitched my candle around over my head until I figured it might as well be lit. And we slunk back to our seats.

As it turned out, that little gaffe was actually the best possible symbol for our marriage, inauspicious and embarrassing though it was: If it’s not working out the way you hoped, JUST FAKE IT. Every little detail isn’t important. There are plenty of other candles, so just keep the show moving. The guests were cheerful and hungry, the music played, we had some cake and then zipped away for our little honeymoon.

The next morning, we attended Sunday Mass in a little church we’d never been to before. Nobody knew our names, or that we had been husband and wife for less than 24 hours. I don’t know why, but the priest went straight over to us and asked if we’d like to bring up the gifts.

And this second sacrament in that quiet, sunny church was the simple, grace-filled moment that we had missed at our actual wedding. We brought up the bread and wine together and went back to our seats, full of joy, ready to begin our strange and wonderful journey toward unity.

New couples, listen to me: If your candle goes out, all is not lost. Unity is a long, long lesson that takes practice, patience, and most of all TIME. It doesn’t happen in a moment. Sometimes, it’s okay to fake it. A moment’s symbolism is nothing compared to what’s in your heart. You are the ministers of the sacrament—not just at the wedding, but every day of your married life.