Category: Deep Thoughts

Fireproof

We use fire as a metaphor for life experience all the time. Garth Brooks sings about “standing outside the fire.” At Mass we sing of God strengthening us “like gold that’s tested in fire.” Only a little while I ago I was writing about the flames of experience, referencing William Blake.
Not surprisingly, I think about fire a lot.   I’ve experienced its power, which is amazing and frightening.  I think about all the things we had–a houseful of furniture, keepsakes, clothes, household goods–and I say to John, “Where did it all GO?”  Because it’s not just there, damaged–it’s GONE, all of it, unrecognizable for the most part.
So when we use fire as a metaphor, I wonder if we really know what we are saying.  See, here’s the thing about fire–it doesn’t just destroy, it CONSUMES.  Sure, fire is transformative, and it may “temper” some things, but most things it transforms into ashes.
Some of us may be made stronger and better through the trials we undergo in this life, but I think we need to be more understanding of those who are consumed and destroyed by them.
FIRE consumes

Those Conversations You Don't Want to Have with Your Kids

William (age 10) hit me with a couple of difficult topics right in a row the other night.  This post is part one.
Many parents struggle with how to talk to their children about where babies come from.  When I was growing up, I had many friends whose parents completely ignored this essential topic, leaving them to be instructed God only knows by who, how, or when.  Lucky for them they got to go to Girl Scout camp with me.  No joke, I drew a diagram and labelled female body parts–they had never even been taught the proper names.
I was raised to call things by their right names.  And when I was four, and my little sister was on the way, my mother showed me pictures of birth, which fascinated me.  I remember getting in trouble for telling a friend how babies got out of stomachs.  Her mother had told her they were all cut out (much less rare nowadays, sadly, but not in the early seventies) and she was upset with me for telling her the truth.  I remember being puzzled as to why this mother, who was by profession a nurse, would lie about this.
When I was seven, my mother took the occasion of my aunt expecting to read me a book entitled Where Do Babies Come From?  It was a simple book with artistic illustrations in soft colors (I hate the cartoony sex ed books that are popular these days).  I remember being extremely skeptical and asking her to show me exactly where it really said the part about how babies are made!
I admired my mother’s approach and saw no reason to deviate from it in the raising of my own kids.  I wanted them to be informed, and I also wanted them to be comfortable asking us anything.  So when Emily was little, I picked up my very own copy of the previously mentioned book at the used bookstore.  Then I waited.  I had always heard that you shouldn’t give kids more information than they were ready for, and to follow their cues.  With two brothers arriving in quick succession, Emily knew plenty about pregnancy at a young age.  Finally, when she was seven, she asked me what the daddy had to do with it.  Voila, I pulled out the book and read it to her.  Then I let her read it again herself.
The hysterical sequel to this was when her Daddy came home, and she was so excited that the first thing she did was to share this information with him, and then demanded that he read her the book as well.  He was horrified but hid it well.  Then she asked us. “Did YOU do that?”
I don’t have as clear a memory of talking to Jake and Teddy–Jake says that Emily actually told him surreptitiously at some point–but I know I read them that same book, and taught them the right words, and answered all their questions.  I recall Jake saying something like, “Well, you must have done it three times, since you have three children.”
This approach was a success with my three big kids.  True, occasionally someone would holler, “Penis!” while standing in line at the grocery store.  And I have been amazed at some of the questions they asked me, without any embarrassment.  But today, they are not shy about saying anything in front of me, which can be disconcerting but is better than the alternative.
So now we come to William.  He’s ten–will be eleven in March–so you would think we would have had this talk by now, right?  I kept waiting for him to ask me the questions that would start us down the path to the conversation.  But here’s the thing about William–besides being extremely innocent for his age (he’s homeschooled and doesn’t have close contact with any other little boys except his cousin) he also doesn’t pick things up unless they concern the topics he is vitally interested in–at the moment, xenomorphs, transformers, Godzilla, and animals.  He knows just about everything there is to know about those subjects.  I have frequently heard him refer to animals mating, and I wondered what he thought that entailed.  I assumed he probably knew a lot–how could he not, in a houseful of teenagers with their computers and movies and uncensored conversations–even though we had never had an official talk.
Because William is so oblivious we often carry on discussions right in front of him and assume he is not paying attention.  So the other night John and I were working and I asked a question that involved the very young mother of a client, who was married to a boy who was not the father of our client.  William wasn’t even in the office but he heard me and started asking questions.  “How could her husband not be her baby’s father?” he asked me.  I said, “Well, she was married, but she had a boyfriend at the same time.”  He mulled this over for a moment and then said, “People don’t mate like animals, do they?  I mean, you just have a baby with someone if you spend a lot of time with them, right?”
I could just feel John cringing at his desk and knew I wasn’t going to have any help in this conversation!  I said, “Actually, people do mate.”  “How?” said William.  Buying time, I asked him, “How do you think animals mate?” “I don’t really know,” he responded. “I know they have to be near each other, and bugs have to actually be touching each other.”
So here’s where I should have been able to reach for my trusty book, right?  Oh wait.
Right.  The book was in the house.  The house that BURNED DOWN.  Damn it.
Flying solo, I started with the part about each parent having a seed that will make the baby and that the seeds have to get together.  “How?” was the natural next question.  So trying to sound completely at ease, I briefly described the process.  “Really?”  he said.  “That sounds disgusting.”
“It sounds strange,” I said.  “I didn’t believe it myself when I first heard it.  But it’s really not disgusting, it’s nice.  It’s something people want to do when they love each other.”
“I still think it sounds disgusting,” he said.  Then he turned to John to continue his discussion of the Cloverfield monster.

On Losing Everything Part Two

On the loss of all we owned, someone commented to me, “You unburdened yourselves.”
True, although not on purpose.  A lot of stuff we lost is better off as ashes, probably.  I wouldn’t have chosen this method of decluttering/downsizing, but it worked.  I don’t have to read that two foot high stack of magazines.  We don’t have to sort through those three boxes of old financial information in the office.  John doesn’t have to make files for that stack of stuff on his desk that he never knew what to do with.  We don’t have to clean out and organize the garage.  We don’t have to clean the house from top to bottom.  I won’t have to stress out over where to put out all the Christmas decorations and it won’t take any time at all to take them down and put them away on Epiphany.
This forced unburdening gives us an opportunity to reflect on our relationship to stuff and how we want it to change or not going forward.  And it’s confusing.  John and I talk about it a lot.  Are we supposed to be learning some kind of lesson from this?  Is it wrong to like having things and to be attached to them?  Should we buy as little as possible?  We are both feeling reluctant right now to get attached to anything.  Should we replace things–books, for example, or collectibles?  Or should we get all new things?  If the book isn’t the book I always had from my childhood, or the one that belonged to my grandmother, would it even be the same?  I have spent so many hours sorting through the clothes that we saved over the years–culling the best garments, sorting them by gender and size.  Since in retrospect all that time was wasted, does that mean I shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place?
So far, I find myself trying hard not to care about the new possessions we are acquiring.  I let other people arrange my furniture.  I told my sister to decide what pictures looked good where.  I let a friend organize my entire kitchen.  I look around this nice house filled with unfamiliar items and feel more like a lucky guest at a great hotel than someone in her own home.  I feel afraid of committing myself to buying things that I might actually come to care about.
Is this a healthy detachment from material goods, or is it a symptom of trauma?
[Six years later, albeit in a considerable more cluttered house, I am still wondering.]

The Lord Will Provide

My husband was the second reader at Mass today.  Of course I always expect to find meaning in the readings or the homily, but hearing John read the following this morning hit eerily close to home:
Brothers and sisters:
I know how to live in humble circumstances;
I know also how to live with abundance.
In every circumstance and in all things
I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry,
of living in abundance and of being in need.
I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.
My God will fully supply whatever you need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.
Was it no more than a coincidence that this would be today’s reading and that John would be the one to read it, almost exactly one month after our house burned down?  I don’t think so.

An Unanswerable Question

Today my six-year-old was crying for her cat, missing since the fire.  And she asked me, “Why did God let this happen?”
All I could say was the truth:  “I don’t know.  That’s one of the things that we won’t understand until we die.”
The other day, someone said to me, “I know God has a plan.  But I think this time He made a mistake!”  I said perhaps this was the devil’s plan.  But really I was only joking.
I believe God has an ultimate plan.  I believe that all things work together for good.  I know that many people believe that everything that happens–bad or good– is part of God’s plan and is therefore willed by Him. But  I DON’T believe for one second that God planned for my house to burn down.  I don’t blame Him, nor do I think it was His will.  It was a random, awful accident, like a whole lot of the bad things that happen to people.
I do believe that God–if we let Him–can take all the tragedies in our lives and incorporate them into His plan.  He enables us to rise from the ashes and to learn and grow and even profit from the trials we go through.  I’m sure that we will look back one day and realize that this terrible time made many things possible, good things that could not have happened otherwise.
I’m not there yet, though.  But the only way out is through, right?

Songs of Innocence and of Experience


When I was in college, I opted to pursue an Honors degree in English.  Part of the requirement for this was to write a sort of mini-thesis that incorporated some concept that one could trace through several different works and then defend before two professors and a peer.
In the Liberal Arts Seminar that consumed most of my freshman year, I had been introduced to the pre-Romantic poet William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, books of poetry that he illustrated with his own woodcuts.  The idea that we all start out life innocent (think Adam and Eve in Paradise) but then inevitably have to pass through the fires of experience seemed to keep turning up over and over in the books I read throughout college.  Blake’s vision wasn’t entirely bleak, thankfully, since he implied that if one learned from the experience, “organized innocence” –wisdom–would result.
So in my paper I talked about innocence, experience, and wisdom in Blake’s poetry, in William Wordsworth’s Prelude, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.  I defended it successfully, and I got that Honors degree.  Did I understand what I was writing about?  Probably not.
But most people who have made it to (ahem!) middle age would understand, and they wouldn’t need an Honors degree to do it, either.  Because by now all of us have passed through the inescapable fires of experience, and we hope that we are at least a little wiser.
Last night I attended a production of  The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical EVER, put on by the KCHS Theatre Department.  My son Jake played El Gallo.  Twenty-seven years ago, my husband played Amos Babcock Bellamy.  He admits that he and his friends didn’t really understand the play then, and Jake admits that he and his friends don’t really understand it now.  Our younger kids attended with us last night, and they enjoyed it, but they didn’t comprehend it.
How could they, when it is an extended metaphor about innocence, experience, and wisdom, and when you are in high school you don’t know or believe any of that.  Who doesn’t want to believe that first love will last forever?  Who wants to think that being buffeted and scarred by the world not only confers benefits but is actually necessary to growth?  Who wouldn’t rather stay in the garden forever, with no need for eventual redemption?
I started crying last night as soon as Jake appeared onstage singing  Try to Remember at the opening of the play.  Part of that had to do with parental pride and my feelings about my son, but part of it sprang from the sadness of knowing (as the song says) that “without a hurt the heart is hollow.”  The play has a happy ending of sorts, but still I saw my husband wiping his eyes at the end.  Because even though we both know that innocence comes to an end, that experience is unavoidable, that the wisdom we’ve gained since we were in high school is valuable, irreplaceable–we wish it didn’t have to be that way.


Thank you to Palo for the beautiful featured image.

What Makes a Writer?

I was a “writer” long before I could put pen to paper to form legible words.  I remember dictating stories to my mother when I was about four, and illustrating them afterwards.  “The Girl with the Hat” was my first composition; I believe my mother has it tucked away in my baby book.  I seem to recall it was about a poor girl who wore a big hat everywhere, even keeping it after her fortunes changed and she became a queen.  I also remember that everyone lived for many years, Bible style, and that they were buried at the end in caves.  Happily ever after didn’t cover enough territory, I guess.
What kind of writer I am is hard to put into words.  I wrote prize-winning poems in grade school, but I’m no poet.   Before I graduated from high school I had written–in longhand–two books, which brought great delight to my classmates and my sister but had no hope of being fit for publication.  I wrote some really good X-Files fanfiction, but I don’t have the desire–nor, I think, the ability–to create my own characters and breathe life into them.   In college I could crank out two grade A papers in about three hours, but there’s not much use for that skill in post-academic life.   I edited my high school paper, was a correspondent for the Catholic press for years, and of course wrote a column on life issues, but I don’t really burn with a desire to seek truth, journalist fashion.
Certain “great writer” requirements are missing from my make up, I fear.  I did not have a tragic childhood and I am not living a terrible life (yes, it’s difficult some times, but I’ve come to know that it is in the nature of life to be difficult!).  And I just don’t have that drive that makes some people (like my daughter Emily, whom I think of as a “real” writer) write constantly, filling up notebooks with stories and quotations and story ideas and possible character names.
I always feel a little sheepish when people praise my writing, because there is no virtue in it, no hard work.  I write as naturally as I breathe.  I never had to go back and polish my college papers after writing them (which drove my roommate, who spent hours coming up with just the right words, crazy)  but I no more deserve acclaim for that than for having blue eyes.  And maybe that’s the issue–essentially I am too lazy to be a “real” writer, who spends hours writing every day, honing her craft, whether she has any writing “assignment” or not.
All I know is that I am comfortable with a pen in hand (or with fingers on keyboard); that to write a gooddecent grammatical sentence is effortless; that I love writing and editing anything, even grant proposals or letters to clients.  And perhaps most important, that when I am upset about something, writing about it is a natural instinct–even if I never actually write down the words, I narrate them in my head as though I were writing them.  Many times when I sit down to write something I am really just “recording” what I have already composed internally.
All of the foregoing probably explains why blogging is a perfect medium for me–I can write about what I want, in whatever form I want, whenever I want, and I even get occasional feedback, which I love.  Thanks for indulging me.

What is Fair?

So the other day a friend posted this link on Facebook and I thought it was really interesting.  It was a talk about some of the differences between liberals and conservatives, and one of the differences was what value each group places on fairness.
I was telling John about the video in the car on the way to Teddy’s football game and we got into a discussion about fairness.  We concluded that fairness is a particularly difficult standard to apply because it is frequently  subjective.   Any two people can both claim to prize fairness highly and yet disagree completely on a course of action.  I offered this example:  one person may argue that the very rich have no obligation to support the very poor through charity or taxes. He might assert that people who work hard for their money have a right to keep all they earn.  If others don’t work hard enough, it is only fair that they don’t have as much.  Another person might argue that it is only fair, with such abundance available, that those who have should contribute to the welfare of those who have not; it is just that everyone should at least have enough to eat and a place to live.
Both positions claim to be fair.  Both sides have good arguments.  So what do you do with that?
Kids are notoriously consumed with a desire for fairness.  Nothing makes them angrier than to be told, “Life’s not fair.”  That’s one of John’s favorite things to say, and I always counter with, “But WE have to try to be.”  What happens when what I think is fair is not what my kids think is fair?  Already they have very different concepts of fairness.  Given the above example at the dinner table last night, Jake (16) assumed the liberal argument and Teddy (15) the conservative one.  Neither would even admit there was any validity to the other’s position.  “He’s just wrong,” they both said.
Perhaps fairness isn’t the best guide to decision making.   We are all lucky, aren’t we, that God doesn’t base His decisions on fairness!  It wasn’t fair that the latecomers to the vineyard got a full day’s pay, was it?  It wasn’t fair that the Prodigal Son got a robe and a ring and a calf and a party–at least his brother didn’t think so!
Maybe we should be concerned less about what is fair than about what is right.  We’ve heard it so often that it’s just words, and trite words at that, but asking what Jesus would do in a given situation isn’t a bad way to approach decision making, if you are serious about really following Him.

The Secret to a Happy Life

The following is a reprint of a column that appeared in The East Tennessee Catholic in 2002.
When I was pregnant with my third child, friends, family, and strangers in the mall all seemed desperate to know: “Was it planned?”
law-school-graduation-edited
At first I answered, “I’d have to be crazy to plan this.”  (I had a three-year-old and a three-month-old at the time, and my husband had just graduated from law school and didn’t have a job.) Later I came up with a truer and better answer: “God planned it.”
A few years ago I was flipping through The Daily Beacon, the University of Tennessee student newspaper, when I came across a local abortion clinic’s ad with the catchy slogan THE SECRET TO A HAPPY LIFE IS PLANNING.  The bold words grabbed my attention even before I realized what kind of planning was being promoted.  No! I thought.  That’s not true at all!
If I were to attempt to define the secret to a happy life, I’d take the opposite position:  The secret to a happy life is flexibility.
Life is full of twists and turns that not even the best planners can predict.  Plans go awry every day–when you are late instead of early for work because a train stopped on the tracks in front of you, when you walk to the Weigel’s with your kids only to find that the Icee machine is out of order, when Attack of the Clones is sold out when you arrive at the front of the ticket line.
No matter how complete your plans or how carefully you follow them, you can’t plan happiness.  And some of the happiest moments in life are the ones you can’t plan: an unexpected rainbow seen while you’re caught in a traffic jam, a spontaneous cup of coffee with a long-lost friend, a song from your youth playing on the radio, feeling your unborn baby kicking for the first time.
Attempting to map out every aspect of our lives is saying, “I’m the master of my destiny.  I know what’s best for me.” There’s no room in this philosophy for serendipity, for chance, for the hand of God.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus counsels us to accept the fact that we don’t control our own destinies and to relinquish ourselves to God, secure in the knowledge that HE has control:  “Do not worry about your life . . . or about tour body . . . Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life span? . . . Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself” (6:25-34).
If we think happiness lies in planning, if we’re unable to trust in God, we’ll feel angry and cheated when our plans fail.  An unplanned pregnancy is viewed as an unwelcome interruption to the plan.  We forget that God’s plan might be different from our own.
scan0011
Abortion is all about control.  We can’t control our fertility, we don’t want to control ourselves sexually, our children are little individuals whom we quickly learn we can’t control.  Jobs come and go, people must eat, and rent must be paid, no matter the size of the paycheck.  So much of life is uncertain and doesn’t go the way we plan or hope.  But an aborting woman takes control.  She eliminates her pregnancy—this flaw in her plans–and prevents a whole new set of complicating and uncomtrollable factors from entering her life.
At the time they occurred, I wouldn’t have chosen or planned many of the events in my life–but what joy I would have missed.  Without the cloudy days for contrast, the sunny ones would have little meaning.  Most of the blessings in my life today are the result of unplanned events.
For an abortion clinic to proclaim that “the secret to a happy life is planning” as a way of advertising its services is irresponsible and deceptive.  This philopsophy ultimately leads to a closed attitude toward life–and to more abortions.
double-rainbow
Considering everything that’s happened in the eight years since I wrote this, I’m grateful that I have learned to appreciate flexibility over planning!  So what do you think?  Do you know any secrets to a happy life?  Should the goal of life be happiness in the first place?  Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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