Keep It Light, Stand Your Ground, Salt the Earth, or Waldorf

So here is a Thanksgiving essay I wrote for an Australian audience, knowing it would be published after American Thanksgiving. Australians do not, of course, celebrate Thanksgiving, and even if they did, this piece is so intrinsically stupid, it would be stupid anywhere on the globe, at any time of the year. I thought I’d share it today, on Giving Tuesday, as a gift to you. You can read it and think happily to yourself, “At least I never wrote anything this stupid.”

You’re welcome

***
Image via Flickr from page 221 of “Pompeii, its history, buildings, and antiquities : an account of the destruction of the city with a full description of the remains, and of the recent excavations, and also an itinerary for visitors” (1867)

 

8 ways to be generous without spending a dime

Being a Catholic means hearing constant appeals for donations; but sometimes, we truly don’t have a lot to give. If we’re barely getting by ourselves, then as much as we’d like to write a cheque and solve everyone’s problems, we just can’t. The best we can do is to give the little we can, and make a promise to do more if our situation improve later.

The same is true for non-financial giving: Sometimes we’re tapped out, emotionally and psychologically. We’re barely keeping our heads above water, and it takes all our effort to get through the day without murdering anyone or falling apart completely. Sometimes there truly is no room for extra effort, nothing non-essential to give.

I lived that way for a long time, off and on. Raising 10 kids, being very poor, homeschooling, and managing health problems can take just about all the mental and emotional energy you have to give. But now my kids are older, my finances are more stable, my health is under control, and I find that I don’t have to live in survival mode anymore. I’m trying to shake myself out of survival habits, and remember that now that I have some extra to give, I really should try!

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo: Thekiwimaster [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

No more jerks for Jesus

St. Paul got knocked off his horse, and then he stopped persecuting Christians. Pretty dramatic. From that day forward, he stopped being the guy that helped kill Christians, and started being the guy who saved them.

Some people do experience a conversion so dramatic and easy to pinpoint, you could paint a picture of the exact moment it happened — and many people have, with St. Paul. And by all accounts, his behavior was dramatically different after he got up from the ground, and it remained different until he died.

But it’s far more common for Christians to undergo a conversion that drags on, un-picturesquely, for decades and decades, in fits and starts, with long spells of no progress, with several incidences of backsliding, and with such incremental progress that you can’t discern it at all unless your eyesight has been sharpened by the Beatific Vision.

The fits and starts and barely discernible progress? That’s me — specifically, regarding the one sin that I’m having the hardest time overcoming, which is uncharitable words and thoughts against other people. I’ve been trying to change. I’ve been trying to change for about 20 years now.

So far, no one has made any fine art depicting my conversion. Instead, countless people have gently or firmly objected to the uncharitable things I’ve said in public and in private; and countless people have showed me a more Christlike approach that looks so attractive, I feel the faint stirrings of wanting to imitate it. It’s hard, because it’s just so much easier to be mean.

I get rewarded for being mean far more than I get criticized for it. And I enjoy being mean. I’m really good at it.

But I still can’t completely ignore the words and witness of the people around me who have done a better job of conquering this sin.

Because of them, I have made . . . a little progress. I still lose my temper routinely. And even worse, I still lose my temper, recover it, and then deliberately and coolly choose to be uncharitable anyway, because it feels good, or because I came up with a really funny zinger, or because I tell myself it’s just a little thing and doesn’t matter much. Even though I have read and heard the words, over and over and over again, that it does matter. That if I have not love, I have nothing.

Charity toward others is not a little thing. It’s the biggest thing. But still I struggle, one step forward, ten steps back. It is discouraging. I would rather be knocked off my horse, but who knows? Maybe I would pick myself up, brush myself off, and go right back to being an unfettered jerk. It could happen.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Book of Hours, Walters Manuscript via Flickr (Public Domain

You can always come back

One Sunday afternoon, I posted on Facebook:

“Reasons the Fishers left their pew this morning:
Had to go to the bathroom.
Also had to go to the bathroom.
Had to check ketones and bolus.
Had to go to the bathroom after all.
Had to take migraine meds.
Had to get to work.
Had to leave the building entirely because, while the four-year-old could behave herself, her puppy Crystal could not.
BUT WE ALL CAME BACK EVENTUALLY.”

I’m not sure how the other parishioners feel, but I have no problem with this level of traffic during Mass. We’d rather keep a lighter grip on the reins, and let the kids do what they need to do, as long as they always come back. And we do always come back.

When I was a teenager, I also didn’t sit in the pew. I did come to Mass with my parents, because they expected it, but I never made it as far as the pew. I would lurk sulkily in the back of the church, glowering at the little red votive candles as they flickered in their cups. Sometimes I would sit on the steps to the choir loft, my head between my knees, hating every moment of it. I never prayed, I never went to confession. I chose the path of misery for years, rather than sit in the pew.

And you know, I eventually came back. Look at me now! I’m so Catholic, the Jehovah’s Witnesses barely even try. I’m sure my parents were worried when I started to stray as a teenager, but they knew they were playing the long game. They kept a pretty loose grip on the reins, and I think that’s a good principle.

Almost as if to illustrate this principle: During that same Mass I described above, where my family spent most of the hour coming and going and to-ing and fro-ing, the pastor made an announcement: An elderly couple in the parish would have their marriage convalidated. They’d been in a civil marriage for many years but had recently come back to the Church . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Public Domain

What are you looking forward to?

“What do you look forward to every day?”

Someone asked this on Facebook the other day. At first it seemed like one of those untaxing “get to know ya” questions. But when I went to reach for the easy answer, I discovered to my horror that I couldn’t think of anything.

It was absurd that I couldn’t. My life is full of pleasant and joyful things. I have 10 lovable, fascinating children and a remarkably good husband. I like my job; I like my house and garden. I have friends and family I enjoy being with. I have leisure time every day. My life is studded with pleasures large and small.

But what do I look forward to? What do I spend time longing for every day? I can clearly remember being a child, and always looking forward to something: For the end of math class, for the beginning of summer, for my turn on the swing, for my birthday, for Lent to end so I could eat the cherry sours I unwisely bought ahead of time. My mother used to sing (rather flippantly, I thought, in the face of my anguish): “Enjoy yourself! Enjoy yourself! It’s later than you think.” Her point was that it’s foolish to set all our store in some potential future bliss. All we really have is the present, and if we waste it with various yearnings and worries, we’ll soon be out of time.

So, yes, I used to look forward to things when I was young, but not in a way I want to replicate now. That kind of longing — the kind that robs the present of its charms — is no way to spend a life. I recall the story of the man who was given a spool of string, and every time he tugged on the end, he could skip past some unpleasant part of his life. He kept tugging and tugging, giving himself permission to skip over more and more, until oops! he was dead. He skipped it all. If all we ever do is look forward to some better time in the future, then we’ll miss every joy the present can offer.

But it’s also possible to be so caught up in reacting to the present that we never fully receive it. This is the trap I’ve fallen into.

I think mostly about how I’m going to get through the unpleasant and unavoidable things that plague my day: How will I get myself to wake up enough to do the morning drive? How can I get dinner prepped in time so we won’t eat too late? How can I express the news that it’s time to leave the playground so my four-year-old won’t flip out? I think a lot about how I’m going to manage difficult things, but hardly at all about how I’m going to enjoy the good — even though there is plenty of good. And so the pleasures flit through my arms and are gone again, and off I hustle, arranging myself to deal with the next trial, tugging on that string to get through my day, my year, my life.

Well, that’s no good.

So, determined to realign my life, I set myself to look forward to things I can reasonably expect to enjoy.

And I didn’t have much luck.

I tried to tell myself I can look forward to putting dinner on the table each night, because it’s the culmination of hard work, and I should be glad and grateful to be able to offer hot, nourishing food to my children.

That didn’t go well. I blame the kids, who are terrible.

Then I thought I could look forward to the day itself. Normally, I hear my alarm and groan with dread at the thought of emerging from my cozy cocoon. Instead, I proposed to myself, I could reframe the morning as something to look forward to, and maybe it would help propel me joyfully out into the cold morning air.

That didn’t go well, either. Because I’m not a psychopath.

But then I hit on something else . . . 

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Image by Darrel Birkett via Flickr (Creative Commons)

50 poems to print and hang on the wall

Every so often, I get a bee in my bonnet about poetry. When we homeschooled, we read and sometimes memorized poems. We’ve since moved on to other kinds of schooling, and it’s been a good choice, overall. But to my everlasting chagrin, so many teachers teach my kids that poetry is a kind of catch basin for emotion.

Prose, they learn, is for when you have orderly thoughts to express with precision; but poetry is the place to open the floodgates and wallow, and nobody can possibly say you’re doing it wrong, because there are no rules.

And this is true, as long as the poetry is utter garbage. 

This utter garbage approach to poetry accounts for why so many young people love to write but hate to read poetry. Wallowing feels great when you’re in the middle of it (when you’re in the mood), but no healthy person likes to watch someone else flail around aimlessly in the muck.

A good poem works in the opposite way: The writer does all the work, and the reader — well, the reader has to do some work, too, but if he’s willing, he’ll be rewarded with something of great and lasting value. Have you seen an uncut, unpolished diamond? It doesn’t look like much. Most of its beauty is in its potential, and it’s not until it’s carefully, skillfully cut and polished that it sparkles and reflects the light.

The same is true with the ideas and passions that animate poetry. In a formless stream-of-consciousness poem that’s allowed to spill itself thoughtlessly onto the page, the ideas and passions that animate it may be present, but they won’t do much for the reader until they’re brought out by skillful, time-consuming wordsmithing and ruthless editing.

Of course, you can make perhaps the opposite mistake, and approach a well-crafted poem the way a dealer approaches a precious jewel, and think only of what it can deliver. This is what Billy Collins protested against in his poem, Introduction to Poetry. He pleads with his students to listen to, to live with a poem; to encounter it on its own terms, to experience it. To hear the sounds it makes and be open to the various things they might suggest.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope 
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose 
to find out what it really means.

People who teach poetry this way should be sent to work in the salt mines. They can meet up with the wallowers once a week and think about what they’ve done wrong.

Anyway, as I mentioned, every once in a while I get a bee in my bonnet and start printing out poetry and tacking it up on the walls of my house. I pin up a new batch every year or so, and once they become tattered enough, I tell myself they’ve probably been read by somebody. I’m far too tired and busy to lead any seminars, but at least it’s something.

The theory is that it’s possible to ruin a wonderful poem by torturing a message or moral out of it, and it’s possible to miss out on the power and import of a good poem by skimming over the surface of it and not stopping to consider why it’s made the way it is; but at least with the second error, you’ve had a moment of pleasure. And if the thing is hanging around long enough and the poem is good enough, you’re bound to let it inside your head, where it may colonize.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

photo credit: emileechristine Bejeweled via photopin (license)

On meteors and managed expectations

Not long ago, our hemisphere passed through the Perseid meteor shower. When I was young, my family was heavily into astronomy. We owned more than one telescope, and we would sometimes all pile into the van after dark and drive out to the countryside, where there were no streetlights or house lights, but only the velvety darkness and the sound and smell of sleeping cows.

On this road, you could look up and see the Milky Way spread out across the top of the sky like a shining river. The planets gleamed like jewels, red and yellow and blue. More than once I actually heard a meteor sizzle past like a drop of water on hot soapstone.

Having had these almost mystical experiences throughout my childhood, I feel very strongly — perhaps too strongly — that astronomy ought to be part of every childhood. But in this, I have largely failed with my own kids. We’re just too busy. We’ve prioritized other things, and the thought of dragging ourselves outside in the dark for one last outing at the end of an exhausting day is unbearable.

So my kids know a few constellations. We’ve dabbled in homemade sundials, and they understand the seasons and eclipses and why astrology is nonsense. But a love of astronomy is not part of our family identity, the way it was for my family of origin.

I know this, and I know that knowing it sometimes cause me disproportionate distress. And this is why, when I prepared to take my kids out for the annual Perseid meter shower, I gave myself more than one stern lecture . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The difficult balance between honesty and complacency

Look, it’s a model wearing size 24 jeans! And look, a shaving ad that doesn’t airbrush cellulite away, and a weight-loss ad that shows a woman smoothing her sweater over her stomach — a stomach that is clearly far smaller than it used to be, but is still striated with permanent stretch marks.

I absolutely love it. Welcome to the 21st century, when lumpy, imperfect people are starting to populate the media almost as much as they populate the actual country. As a fat person, I’m intensely grateful for ads that make it clear I can be both large and human, even both large and beautiful.

Representation is about so much more than just a happy jolt of recognition. It’s about feeling real, feeling fully a member of the human race. 

There’s a similar movement going on in what I’ll call, for want of a less cringey phrase, the spiritual media. Less than 10 years ago, I pitched some book proposals to Catholic publishers. I strove to paint a picture showing how it really feels to be a Catholic wife and mother, with all the actual joys and sorrows, and without any of the literary airbrushing that was de rigeur in books aimed at Catholic women.

To a one, the publishers responded that my work was unsuitable for Catholic readers. It was too dark, too negative, too harsh, not uplifting and joyful enough. In short, too honest.

Things have changed. In 2019, it’s commonplace to be both Catholic and honest in public. It’s no longer shocking or unacceptable, in most communities, for Catholics to speak openly about the messy, unresolved, unedifying aspects of their lives — depressionalcoholismporn addictionburnout, weirdness in general, or even sincerity itself — and for readers to respond with gratitude and recognition, rather than shock and condemnation.

But this new “warts and all” honesty is a double-edged sword. It’s undeniably healthy to be sincere, to courageously acknowledge the flaws we perceive as unusual and shameful. It can be immensely liberating and encouraging for others to see they’re not alone in their imperfections. We must correct the notion that, to deserve respect, we must be (or appear to be) flawless. We need to know that we’re not somehow less human just because we struggle.

But there’s such a short jump between “I am imperfect, but I still deserve respect” and “I am imperfect, and there’s no reason to change.”

I must reluctantly admit that, when I see fat models looking lovely, sometimes it’s good for me, and makes me feel more human; but sometimes it just gives me an excuse to skip exercising for two weeks and slap extra sour cream on my taco. It’s vital to know I deserve to be treated with dignity no matter what size I am. But it’s also vital that I keep my arteries from exploding. When my Facebook feed is populated by lush, queenly, opulent models even bigger than me, I could go either way. Sometimes honest representation is good for me; sometimes, not so much.

The same is true in our moral lives. When we surround ourselves with “warts and all” examples, we may feel encouraged and comforted, seeing clearly that it’s human to struggle, and not a cause for despair. If we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, we may truly need a reminder that haven’t lost our right to dignity simply because we sin.

But there’s also a true risk of normalizing sin.  It’s one thing to know that it’s normal to struggle with chastity; it’s quite another when no one you know takes chastity seriously, or has any intention of changing their lives to pursue this virtue. It’s one thing to know that many decent people enjoy a cocktail on the regular; it’s quite another to accept that getting trashed every night is just how mommies cope.

It’s one thing to understand that everyone struggles; it’s quite another to conclude that struggle is therefore unnecessary . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Martin Taylor via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Why do you need a crucifix on your wall?

An exorcist cleansed a local house of oppressive spirits, some time ago. A friend of the priest who exorcised it told me that he had remarked that there were no crucifixes hung anywhere on the walls, even though the family was Catholic.

No crosses, no icons, no devotional pictures, no holy cards, no tin Sacred Hearts, no dried-up palm branches stuffed behind a family photo. No Bible, decorative or otherwise. But especially, no crucifix.

I only heard his comment second-hand, so I’m not sure if there was any follow-up, or how much importance he attached to it. Still, he thought it was worth remarking on, and so it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Why should we hang crucifixes in our house, if not to ward off demons?

Well, warding off demons isn’t actually a bad motivation. The cross, and specifically the crucifix, does have a certain amount of power just because of what it is, and (just purely speculating as a layman). I can imagine an unclean spirit at very least feeling uncomfortable around it, and less willing to settle in.

But of course, the crucifix isn’t a magic charm or a lucky horseshoe. What I can more easily imagine is an unclean spirit feeling uncomfortable in a house where a crucifix is not only hung, but noticed and revered.

But let’s say you hung up a crucifix, and that was the end of it. You did it because you always had one growing up, or because you wanted to make your grandmother happy, or because it just looks pretty. You don’t especially revere it or even notice it after a while. Is it still worthwhile?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Have you heard the Maasai Creed?

The truth is, no matter how much we believe what we recite at Mass, it’s rare that the old, familiar words stand out as fresh and powerful.

It’s all too easy to let habit and familiarity take over, and to stop hearing what they have to say. We don’t even realize we’ve stopped listening; our brains just say, “Oh, this old thing again” and check out.

Sometimes the best way to deal with this is to deliberately, firmly take your attention in hand and direct it toward the old, familiar thing.

Whatever else you can say about Catholics, you can’t accuse us of despising something just because it’s old! The words of the Mass are very rich, and if we’re open to it, we can often perceive something brand new, or newly exciting, springing up from that ancient soil.

But it’s also legitimate to strive to hear that same old, ancient thing in a slightly new way, to remind you how confounding it really is. This is what happened to me the other day, when I stumbled across the Maasai Creed.

As the name suggests, it was written by and for the African Maasai people, with a group known as the Congregation of the Holy Spirit in 1960. It is essentially the same as the one that we recite every week . . . and yet just different enough that it knocked me flat.

I believe I’m going to print it out and hang it in my house, so the kids can see it, too, because even in their tender youth, they’re probably already allowing repetition to dull their ears when we say the creed.

Our relationship with God shouldn’t require constant thrills and novelties. He values fidelity through the dull valleys of our faith.

But when He does put something fresh and interesting in our paths, it behooves us to stop and enjoy it!

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Nicola Stockton from Pixabay